Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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THE morning sunlight that slanted down across the austere town residence of Lewis Forman, the millionaire railroad magnate, made a striking contrast to the gloomy, half-terrified countenances of the servants who were huddled together in the sitting room.
Police were bustling within and without the palatial mansion. Several police cars sat at the curb. A uniformed officer was on guard at the door.
The broad-shouldered, dynamic man who swung from the taxicab cast a keen, quizzical look at the cars. His hawkish eyes caught the license number of the headquarters sedan immediately before the entrance. He looked up toward the officer on guard, said: "That's Inspector Burks' car, isn't it?"
The patrolman frowned. "What's it to you, mister?"
The broad-shouldered man mounted the four steps to the entrance, displayed a press card. "The name is Martin," he said. "Associated Press. Burks is a friend of mine."
The cop thumbed toward the door. "You can go up. The inspector is on the second floor—in the bedroom."
Mr. Martin of the Associated Press nodded, and entered. Down the long hall on the ground floor he caught a glimpse of the sitting room through the open door; saw the servants grouped together in a dazed huddle, with a plainclothes man standing guard. Then he proceeded upstairs.
At the top of the stairs another uniformed officer was on guard. When Martin flashed his press card, he was permitted to enter the bedroom at the end of the hall. Here he found several other newspapermen, police photographers, fingerprint men, and a precinct lieutenant. There was also Inspector Burks who nodded sourly from his position near the bed. Martin returned the nod, glanced toward the bed. The medical examiner's back barred his vision.
Martin approached, looked over the shoulder of the medical man. The body that lay there was that of Lewis Forman, the master of the house. But he was almost unrecognizable. The bed itself was a welter of blood. Forman's throat was a gaping, raw wound. Though Forman had been a physically big man in life, his body was now shrunken to a mummy-like husk. For the blood had been drained from it as though by a pump.
The skin lay against his ribs, showing the outline of every bone, as if he were a skeleton wrapped in some transparent material. His eyes were wide open, with the pupils turned upward. His cheeks were two gaunt hollows, and the skin lay in folds against his cheekbones.
Mr. Martin studied that body for a long time. He tore his eyes away from it as Burks stepped to his side, whispered bitterly: "Well, there's another story you can flash over the wire. Lewis Forman, the biggest railroad man in the country—killed by some wild beast. The same as the others that have died in the past nine days. I suppose your rags will be panning the department again."
Martin turned, studied the harassed, drawn countenance of the police inspector. "The papers know you're doing the best you can, inspector. It's just that they have to have something to write about." He jerked his head toward the bed. "No clues to who did it?"
"Who?" Burks growled. "You mean what! There must be some beasts of prey loose here in the city. And they seem to pick the biggest men in town. They come at night, make their kill, drink their victims' blood, and steal away without leaving a trace. I tell you, I almost begin to think they're supernatural!"
Martin shrugged, remained silent.
IN a moment the medical examiner arose from the body, wiping his hands upon a towel. He heaved a deep sigh, brushed the back of his hand across his forehead, wiping off the beads of sweat that had gathered there. "Whew!" he exclaimed. "That was nasty work."
Burks demanded eagerly: "When did he die, doc?"
"He's been dead at least ten hours," the doctor diagnosed. "That makes the time of his murder somewhere before midnight."
Burks nodded somberly. "I thought so. Nobody died yesterday, and we were beginning to hope that it was the end of these daily murders. But here it is on schedule again."
The other newspapermen in the room were busy making notes. But Martin of the Associated Press was not bothering with paper or pencil. His gaze rested upon a tall, cadaverous looking man in a dressing gown who was standing at the other end of the room, puffing furiously at a cigarette.
This man noted Mr. Martin's glance, and returned it with a scowl. His eyes shifted away, strayed to the corpse on the bed, and he shuddered violently.
Martin said to him: "You're Stanton?"
The tall man nodded. "That's right. How did you know?"
"In my business," Martin told him, "we always remember faces. You're Oscar Stanton, the man who cornered Peerless Locomotive three years ago. Everybody knows you. They call you 'the man who beat Wall Street.'"
Stanton seemed to like that. He was obviously flattered that a newspaper man should remember him.
Inspector Burks shifted impatiently. "Never mind that stuff now, Martin. We've got to get down to business." He swung about, beckoned to a detective sergeant who stood near the door. "Reilly, get on the phone. Tell the commissioner I want the reserves out. We're going to patrol every street in the city, and see if these wild beasts can get anybody else tomorrow!" His ordinarily florid face became suffused with an even deeper glow. "You'd think this was the African jungle instead of a big city in a civilized country. I swear to you they won't get away with another murder!"
He turned to Stanton, who was lighting a second cigarette from the butt of the first with hands that shook slightly. "You say you were sleeping in the room next to this one, Mr. Stanton?"
The Wall Street speculator finished lighting his cigarette, ground out the butt of the old one on the floor under his heel, and nodded. "I was visiting overnight with Forman. I don't understand how any sort of beast could have got into this house. I saw the butler lock up. It would take a pretty clever burglar to get in. And yet this—whatever it was—entered, killed Forman, and got away without making the slightest sound to attract anybody in the household."
Burks asked slowly: "How come you happened to be staying here overnight, Mr. Stanton, when you live in the city yourself?"
Stanton flushed, glared irately at the inspector. "Do you mean to suggest—"
Burks' bulldog jaw protruded at an obstinate angle. "I don't mean to suggest anything, Mr. Stanton. This is murder. I just want to get at the facts. Don't you want to help us corner these wild beasts? For all you know, they might claw your throat next. Suppose they had gone into your room instead of into Forman's? You've got to cooperate with me!"
"All right," Stanton yielded sullenly. "I was here on a business deal with Forman. We hadn't finished our discussion last night, and we decided to close it over the breakfast table this morning. That's why I remained overnight."
"What was the nature of this deal?" Burks demanded.
"Just a little stock transaction. We were going to pool our stock purchases."
WHILE Burks had been questioning Stanton, Mr. Martin had been kneeling beside the bed, examining a series of peculiar red marks upon the floor. Burks noticed what he was doing, suddenly desisted from questioning Stanton, and knelt beside him.
The marks which Martin was studying appeared at intervals on the floor along the bed in series of four. They were bloody marks, as if made by something that had been trailing Forman's blood along the rug.
"Have you seen these yet?" Martin asked the inspector.
Burks shook his head. "I hadn't paid any attention to them. But now—God! They look like the mark of an animal's paw!"
"They might be that," Martin said speculatively.
"Sure they are!" Burks exploded. "The damn thing ripped open Forman's throat, feasted on his blood, and then just turned and walked out of here!"
Martin said slowly, "Maybe. But it would be a funny kind of beast. You notice that these marks are all in a row along the bed here. If it was an animal that walked out, there would be two rows—unless it was a one-legged animal."
Burks got up from his knees, pushed Martin away. "Stand clear of it, Martin. I want to get clear photographs of these things." He snapped a curt demand to one of his assistants: "Get Roth back here before he leaves."
He saw Martin buttoning up his coat, asked: "Where you going? What's your hurry? Don't you want to stay while I talk to Mr. Stanton here and the servants?"
Martin shook his head. "I'd like to, but I have other business to attend to. Thanks for your courtesy, inspector. Any time I can do anything for you—"
He left the room after casting one more quizzical glance at Oscar Stanton, the stock speculator, who was watching him with a puzzled frown.
When Martin had gone, Stanton walked around the bed close to Burks, said: "That's funny—a newspaperman leaving before he gets the full story."
Burks shrugged. "I've known that guy a long time. You never can tell what he's liable to do. He's got a soft job, too—stays away for months at a time, and then shows up without any explanation." Burks sighed. "Well, let's forget about him. We got plenty on our hands."
INSPECTOR BURKS and Oscar Stanton would have been highly interested in Mr. Martin's subsequent movements. For Mr. Martin's next stop was not at any telegraph office or telephone, nor at any newspaper office. It was at a small inconspicuous looking apartment house on the upper west side.
Here he admitted himself to an apartment on the fourth floor, and stepped into a small cubby hole where a man lay upon a couch, apparently asleep.
Martin stood there, staring down at this man. The sleeper's features were familiar to thousands of people throughout the country. For they were the features of Victor Randall, the president of the Union Trust Company, and chairman of the board of dozens of financial enterprises whose assets ran into billions. Randall was not asleep. He was unconscious, under the influence of an anesthetizing drug.
Mr. Martin now proceeded to do a peculiar thing. He seated himself before a small dressing table. From a drawer in the table he took strange objects. They were jars of some sort of cream, small plates made of metal, and little vials of pigment.
Then, looking in the mirror, he raised long, graceful fingers to his face, began to manipulate them swiftly, capably. And a strange thing happened. For almost as if by magic, the features of Mr. Martin began to disappear. Now it became apparent that those features did not constitute Mr. Martin's true face. They were the product of an artistic application of plastic material, pigment, nose and face plates, in conjunction with a cunningly contrived wig. In only a few minutes, Mr. Martin was no more. For a short while there was revealed the true countenance of the man who sat before that dressing table.
It was the face of a strong willed, keenly intelligent young man, with deep-set eyes that reflected a strange sort of power. Those finely chiseled, almost eaglelike features had never been beheld by any man now living. For they constituted the true countenance of that strange man who moved in strange, inexplicable ways—Secret Agent "X."
Secret Agent "X" had interested himself in these strange murders of prominent men. And, under the very nose of Inspector Burks, he had gone to investigate this last murder—the death of Lewis Forman.
If Inspector Burks had known that the man with whom he had talked so casually a few minutes ago was Secret Agent "X", he would not have hesitated to shoot him without a moment's warning. For Inspector Burks, as well as the entire police department, considered this man of a thousand faces to be a public enemy of the first magnitude.
However, there were things which Burks and the rest of the police department did not know. For instance, they did not know that Secret Agent "X" operated on written authority from the highest power in the land to act in any way that he thought fit for the purpose of combating crime. Throughout the nation the officers of the law were pledged to shoot Secret Agent "X" on sight. Yet they did not realize that he was the most powerful ally which they had in their constant warfare against the forces of evil.
The identity of A. J. Martin, the Associated Press man, was only one of many personalities which Secret Agent "X" found expedient to assume in his battle with criminals. Now, the disguise of Martin had served its purpose, and he was assuming another disguise—one which called for even greater artistry, for consummate acting ability.
His fingers manipulated the material on the table, and slowly, in the mirror, there grew another face—a replica of the man who was lying unconscious upon the couch. After ten minutes he arose from the table, glanced down at the face of Victor Randall, then back at his own reflection in the mirror, and nodded in satisfaction. No one, looking at both men, could have told which was which.
Now the Agent took a small mask from his pocket, placed it over his face. Then he went into the next room, returned in a few moments with two hypodermic syringes. One of these he placed upon the table, the other he injected into the arm of the sleeping man. Shortly, Randall began to stir, and opened his eyes.
The Agent fastened each of Randall's wrists to a rung attached to the metal frame of the couch, so that his guest was helpless to move. When Randall's eyes opened, he shuddered at the masked face bending over him. The Agent said in a low, soothing voice: "Do not be alarmed, Mr. Randall. I mean you no harm."
RANDALL continued to stare up at him, slowly collecting his senses. Then he said hoarsely: "Who are you? How did I get here?"
"That is beside the point, Mr. Randall. Some day perhaps you will have the explanation of that. Now, there is much at stake, and very little time. You must answer my questions—quickly."
Randall's mouth set in a stubborn line. "I will answer nothing. I demand that you release me at once!"
The Agent's voice was impatient. "Mr. Randall, you are a wealthy, powerful man. But you are a fool. Your life is in danger, and I am the only man who can help you."
Randall's face paled. "How—how do you know that my life is in danger?"
"I know many things. I know that you received a call from Commissioner Foster. I know that you have been seeking protection from a detective agency."
"Who—who are you!" Randall demanded.
"X" hesitated a moment. Only his eyes, burning, intense, were visible from behind his mask. Then he said: "I am going to tell you something, Randall—something that I have hoped I would not have to disclose. I am—Secret Agent 'X'."
Randall started perceptibly, fear showed in his face. "You—"
"You must believe me," the Agent went on swiftly, "when I tell you that I have only your interests at heart in doing this. Men have died—died in cruel fashion. You are in danger, too. Are you willing to take a chance—blindly, in order to be saved?"
"But—but—if you are Secret Agent 'X'—"
The Agent laughed bitterly. "I know what you are thinking—that perhaps it is I who is behind these murders. That is what Inspector Burks thinks, and what Commissioner Foster thinks. And I shall never be able to correct them." He shrugged. "But it doesn't matter. Perhaps it is better that they should think that way… Randall, will you believe me? Will you believe that I mean you no harm—that I am working in your interests?"
Randall stammered: "B-but how do I know t-that you are Secret Agent 'X'? There's been much talk about you. Many people defend you. But even if Secret Agent 'X' is not a criminal, even if he is on the side of the law, how do I know that you are he?"
"I will prove it to you," the Agent told him. Slowly he raised his hand, removed the mask.
Randall watched him, fascinated, as the mask was drawn away. Then he uttered a hoarse cry. He was staring into his own countenance.
"My God!" He blinked his eyes, stared again. Then he said in an awed voice: "Everything they say about you must be true. They say you are a superman. And only a superman could disguise himself like that. Why—I could swear that I was looking at myself!"
THE Agent bent close, demanded tensely: "Will you trust me? Will you answer my questions?"
Randall sighed, still staring, and nodded. "Your voice—it compels me to trust you. What do you want?"
"You had a talk with Commissioner Foster today. What was it about?"
"The commissioner called me. I am to be at his office at six o'clock tonight. He said that my life is in danger; that it's about those wild-beast murders. He says he has information that I am scheduled to die!"
"I thought so," the Agent breathed. "Six o'clock, you say?"
"Yes. Six o'clock tonight. Foster told me that there were to be some others there. That's all I know."
"Is there anybody who hates you—" the Agent asked him—"who might have reason to wreak such a terrible vengeance upon you? You were quite friendly with some of the others who died. Did you know of anything in their lives that might account for their being marked for such gruesome deaths?"
Randall shook his head. "No—Wait! You've heard of Grover Wilkinson, of course?"
The Agent nodded. "The utilities man who was indicted, and escaped from the country. They brought him back, tried him, and he was convicted. But he got off with a two-year sentence. I don't recall that you had anything to do with that, Randall."
The banker said vehemently: "I did, in a way. And so did many of the others who have died. You see, just before the crash of his utilities empire, he appealed to us for funds. He wanted a loan of eighty million dollars. We turned him down. He was very bitter after that, and it's been whispered that he's mentally deranged. In fact, you know that the reason he got off with such a light sentence was that his attorneys pleaded temporary insanity. Then after his release, he disappeared. Shortly after his disappearance—two of the witnesses who helped to convict him were murdered. There's been no trace of him since."
The Agent nodded speculatively, asked more questions. He probed shrewdly into Randall's private life, touched on matters that Randall never suspected that anyone but he himself was aware of.
Finally the Agent finished. He said: "Now, Mr. Randall, you must understand that what I am doing is for your own good. I am going to keep you here until I have removed the danger which threatens you. In the meantime, I shall go out in your place. If there is any danger, it will strike me instead of you.
"For the time being you must remain here, and I shall make you as comfortable as possible. I shall put you into a comfortable sleep, and when you awake, you will have forgotten this interview. It is the only way. No one must ever know that Secret Agent 'X' has been working on this case—not even you."
Before Randall could open his mouth to utter a protest, the Agent had picked up the hypodermic from the table, and drove the plunger home into the other's arm. Almost at once Randall's head dropped back upon the couch, his eyes closed, and he began to breathe regularly, stertorously.
The Agent waited until he was sure that the drug had acted properly, then he released Randall's wrists, turned out the light, and left the apartment as quietly as he had entered.
THE newsboy's face was excited, flushed. His armful of papers was dwindling fast; he was doing a rushing business. His thin treble of a voice was raised to its highest pitch as he displayed his wares. The paper read:
MAYOR APPEALS TO SECRET AGENT "X"!
Read all about the mayor's letter. Read about Murder Number 10!
The lunch-hour crowds were buying his papers as fast as he could hand them out. And at every other spot in the city where newspapers were sold, the same thriving business was being done. The men and women who bought the papers scanned them avidly.
The little newsboy's last paper was bought by the tall man of dignified bearing who had descended from a taxicab at the corner. Anyone familiar with the features of the dominant figures of the financial district would have recognized this man of imposing mien as Victor Randall; and might have wondered that so important a figure as Randall should be traveling about the city unescorted. It would have astounded such a person even further to have learned that the true Victor Randall was a prisoner in an obscure section of the city, and that this impersonator was none other than Secret Agent "X".
"X" gave the boy a quarter, waved the change away, and spread the paper open. As thousands of others were doing at the very moment all about him, he read the blaring headlines thrown across the top of the front page:
LEWIS FORMAN MURDERED
Tenth victim in ten days
The tenth grisly murder to take place in this city within the past ten days was discovered early this morning. Lewis Forman was found by his housekeeper with the jugular vein ripped open and the blood drained from his body in the same fashion as the other victims of the inhuman monsters which are terrorizing the city.
Commissioner Foster and the entire police department are without a single clue as to the nature of this horror that has descended upon the city.
Since the day Blaine Prescott was killed in similar manner, exactly nine days ago, every available man in the police department has been patrolling the streets, searching every odd, out of the way place in the city, in an effort to locate the mysterious monsters which have been perpetrating these deeds.
Thus far, the situation has remained a bloody enigma, with all the forces of the law in a frantic scramble to break the mystery before more murders occur.
The slogan of these beasts seems to be—A murder a day!
The Agent ceased reading at that point, and his eyes swung to the column where a last-minute flash had been set in big eighteen-point type:
MAYOR STURGIS APPEALS TO SECRET AGENT "X"!
Below is a copy of an open letter to Secret Agent "X" released by Mayor Sturgis to all the newspapers in the country. The message will also be broadcast over a nationwide network at 5 P.M. tonight. The letter speaks for itself:
Our city—in fact, the entire nation, is faced by a terror ghastlier than any which could be imagined. Each day one of our prominent men is done to death in grisly fashion, his blood removed for some inhuman purpose. All efforts to discover what band of beasts is perpetrating these horrors have been futile.
You, Mr. Secret Agent "X," have always been viewed as a super criminal. Many people, however, have other opinions about you. They seem to feel that you are on the side of the law.
As a last resort I am making this appeal to you. If you are not a criminal, if you are really on the side of the law, this is your opportunity to prove it. You admittedly have qualifications and abilities which are far above the average. If you wish to clear your reputation forever of any taint of criminality, come forward now and offer your services. I have instructed the entire police department that you are to be granted immunity for a period of twenty-four hours beginning at 6 P.M. tonight, Eastern Standard Time. From 6 P.M. tonight until 6 P.M. tomorrow, you may present yourself to me personally, to Police Commissioner Foster, or to Chief Inspector Burks at any time, at any place which you may designate. You may come in any disguise which you prefer to assume, and I will guarantee to you that no effort will be made to penetrate that disguise, to discover your true identity.
If you should thus volunteer your services, taking advantage of this immunity which is offered to you, we will lay before you all the facts of the case, and entrust its solution to you. I realise that this is an unprecedented move for an official of the city to make, but the situation is so desperate that it warrants it.
This is your opportunity, Secret Agent "X," to prove that you are no criminal, that you have the interests of law and justice at heart.
Will you accept my challenge?
John F. Sturgis, Mayor.
The Agent read this letter carefully. Then he gazed down the busy street over the shoulders of the hundreds of scurrying people, many of whom were reading the amazing letter of the mayor of the city to the person known as Secret Agent "X". His eyes had detected a young woman who was hurrying toward the corner. She was slim, blonde, with a creamy youthful complexion, and a look of fresh innocence that brought a spark of momentary admiration to his eyes.
THIS girl approached the corner more or less hesitantly, glanced at the Agent, and then approached him. "Mr. Randall?" she asked diffidently.
"I was told to meet you here," she went on, "by a—a friend. He suggested there was something you can tell me which I could use for my paper. My name is Betty Dale."
"This friend," said "X", "What is his name, Miss Dale?"
She hesitated. "He—he wouldn't want me to mention it."
"Then perhaps I can name him. I see you have a newspaper."
He gently took the newspaper which she was carrying folded under her arm, spread it open. "Is he by any chance the man to whom this letter was addressed?" His long, slender finger pointed to the open letter from the mayor to Secret Agent "X".
Betty Dale gave an involuntary start of surprise. Her eyes grew wide with consternation. "Why—no—of course not!"
He smiled, and his voice took on a different inflection—somehow it deepened, softened. He said: "You needn't worry, Betty. You are not giving me away."
Betty put a slim hand to her throat, stared at him in amazement. She exclaimed huskily: "You! Disguised as Victor Randall!" Her face lit up in a happy smile. "But—but why are you disguised as Randall? What has happened to Randall?"
He took her arm, led her down the street to a quiet restaurant. When they were seated and had ordered coffee, he explained: "These murders that are being committed—there is apparently no motive, no reason for them. The newspapers hint, as you know, that more men are to be killed and there are ugly rumors going around, about a mysterious band of blood-drinking beasts."
Betty Dale shuddered. "Yes. People are afraid to go out at night. And they're afraid to stay home, too. These beasts attack anywhere. No one would believe it possible—that wild jungle beasts should be roving through our city—"
"There is more to it than that, Betty," the Agent interrupted her gently. "The police are hysterical and in their frame of mind they are ready to believe anything. If I thought that this were merely a matter of wild beasts killing at random, I would not be working on it. It would then be a matter for a concentrated hunt, and nothing else. I am afraid, though, that there is something here that is far more evil—something that will test the powers of all of us to the utmost!"
Betty looked worried. "They're talking of other things, too. They say that perhaps Grover Wilkerson has something to do with it. You know, he's really insane—a paranoiac of the worst kind."
"X" nodded. "That is why I wanted to talk to you. At the Herald you have every opportunity of picking up all the rumors that are floating about the city. I want you to make a complete report on these rumors—no matter how silly they sound. Keep track of them carefully. Try, if possible, to ascertain their source. I will call you later in the day."
Betty asked: "Are you accepting the mayor's challenge?"
"X" gazed at her somberly. "Yes, Betty," he said slowly, "I am accepting the mayor's challenge."
She put her hand impulsively on his arm. "But you mustn't. You'll be walking into a trap!"
"What makes you think so?"
"Because," she hurried on eagerly, "the mayor is exceeding his authority in granting you immunity. You have been accused of murder!" Her hands trembled on his arm. "I know, of course, that you have always helped the law. I know that you are good and fine and brave. But the others—Commissioner Foster and Inspector Burks—they'll never believe you innocent. They'll never let you get out of headquarters!" Her voice rose slightly. She was controlling herself with an effort.
"Nevertheless," the Agent said firmly, "I shall be at headquarters at six o'clock." He took her hand from his arm, pressed it gently. "I have already thought of everything that you tell me, Betty, but I must take the chance—if it will help to prevent more men from having their throats ripped open, and the blood sucked from their bodies."
Betty sighed. She knew the futility of trying to swerve this man from the path indicated by his sense of duty. "What—what disguise will you assume?"
"I shall go as I am now—as Victor Randall. Randall is safe in one of my apartments, and I shall take his place. I will be there, but the mayor will not know it. I am going to accept the invitation—in my own way."
He smiled, nodded in kindly fashion. For a moment Betty thought that she detected a glow of warmth in the depths of his usually inscrutable eyes. But it faded as quickly as it had come. It was as if he had drawn a veil across his soul. Once more he was the cold, masterful, strange man without feeling or sentiment—a superb machine devoted to the destruction of crime.
He raised his hat, bowed. Then he turned and walked swiftly away.
Betty bit her lip to keep back the tears which were welling into her eyes. She watched him until he disappeared into the throng.
THAT evening, Secret Agent "X" descended from a cab, a block from headquarters. As he walked down the short remaining distance toward the main entrance of the imposing building within which were housed all the law enforcing agencies of the city, he noted that several squad cars were drawn up along the street, but that there were no officers in sight. He glanced at his wrist watch. It was 6 P. M.
Apparently the way had been left clear in case Secret Agent "X" should choose to come. On the opposite side of the street, he noted a small, shiny black sedan at the wheel of which was seated a gorgeously beautiful woman. She was parked a little distance from the street light, but the Agent's keen eyes noted her sharp, clearly cut profile, and the black bobbed hair which was combed back behind her ears under a smart little green hat. Hers was a dark, beautiful face, and the semi-darkness in which she sat added mystery and piquancy to her appearance.
The Agent did not slow his gait, but two things registered in his mind. One was the license number of the automobile which he would be able to recall to his mind effortlessly at any time in the future. The other was the identity of that woman. His memory for faces was one of the things that had contributed to making him a nemesis of criminals.
If he should see this woman again after a lapse of ten years, that peculiar faculty of his would at once call up to him a picture of her in the car in front of headquarters. And just so did the sight of her face now bring up to him a picture of several years back, when he had been in South America, in Asuncion.
He had seen her there only for a few moments, in a night club where he had had an appointment with one of his operatives. This woman in the car had been dancing there—a paid performer on the stage. The Agent had never learned her name, had never heard anything about her. But that one flash had come back to his mind automatically as he saw her now in the car.
He filed the item away in the back of his mind. What was this beautiful Paraguayan dancer doing here in front of headquarters? Could she have any connection with the murders that had shocked the city for the last ten days?
Within the headquarters building the Agent was ushered in to Commissioner Foster's office.
Here was gathered a varied group of men. The commissioner had relinquished his chair behind the broad mahogany desk to the mayor of the city. Mayor Sturgis was a stocky, florid man with an immense capacity for work, and a highly developed sense of civic duty. His square-cut, honest countenance was now pinched in worried lines as he surveyed the gathering in the room.
"X" also inspected the other men present. He nodded to several of them, who returned his greetings solemnly. These men who were gathered here at the commissioner's invitation were among the most important men of the city.
SEATED directly opposite the mayor was Gilbert Patterson, the head of one of the largest private banking concerns in the country. Standing beside the banker was Norman Marsh, the internationally known archeologist and explorer, who had uncovered vast mines of knowledge about the early human races of the world, and had written scores of books upon ancient civilizations. In a corner behind Commissioner Foster, who was standing next to the mayor, sat a man whom "X" did not know personally, but whom he recognized from photographs he had seen recently in the papers. This man was Professor Hugo Langknecht, the well-known young German scientist and psychiatrist, who had come to this country only recently after making a name for himself throughout Europe and South America.
Then there was John Lacey, who was reputed to own more real estate in the city than any other ten men combined. Frank Larkin, the publisher of a country-wide chain of newspapers, and Oscar Stanton, the stock speculator who had cornered the market a dozen times in the past ten years, made up the rest of the group.
"X" had met Stanton only that morning at the home of the murdered Lewis Forman, but Stanton did not know it. In the suave, cultured Victor Randall whom "X" was now impersonating, Stanton did not recognize the dynamic Associated Press man who had been snooping around the murdered Forman's bedroom that morning.
Mayor Sturgis nodded to "X", said curtly: "We've been waiting for you, Randall. I have an important announcement to make, and I wanted you all together."
"X" nodded, stood with his back against the wall, surveying the room. He found himself beside Norman Marsh, the explorer, who turned to him and said under his breath: "Sturgis seems to be all wrought up about something. I wonder what we have to do with it."
"X" shrugged. "Haven't got the faintest idea, Marsh."
Gilbert Patterson who was sitting just beyond Norman Marsh, looked up at them with a worried expression. "This is an awful waste of time—"
He was interrupted by Mayor Sturgis, who said shortly: "I won't waste your time any longer, gentlemen. I've called you here to make an announcement to you. Every one of you is vitally interested in that announcement. Of course, you've all read and shuddered at the terrible things that have happened in the past ten days. Only this morning a man whom we all knew—Lewis Forman—met the same fate. The autopsy shows that he was killed last night—before midnight. Everybody is guessing at what sort of monsters these are that steal about in the night and rip open men's throats, suck their bodies dry of blood."
Gilbert Patterson stirred uneasily in his seat, and cleared his throat. From his rosy, smoothly shaven cheeks, and his almost colorless eyes, one would not have guessed that he was the head of the largest private banking outfit in the country.
"Of course, Sturgis," he said irritably, "we read all about these murders. Lewis Forman was the federal coordinator for railroads. With him dead, all the plans which he has been building up to stabilize the railroad situation are swept away at a single blow. Some of the other men who died have been equally important. If this keeps up, the very structure of our nation will be threatened. But I don't understand what we can do about it. The job is yours, and Commissioner Foster's. Why have you called us here?"
"I'll tell you why," said Sturgis. He appeared to be tense now, his fists clenched so that his knuckles showed white against the green blotter on the commissioner's desk. "You men here—" his gaze swept from one to the other of them—"are of great importance in the economic life of the country. You, Patterson, have put your finger upon the crux of the problem. We believe that a systematic attempt is being made to wipe out our prominent men."
JOHN LACEY, who had been standing next to Patterson, now exclaimed vehemently: "But why do they do it in such a horrible way—why do they rip a man's throat—why do they suck him dry of blood!" His voice trembled slightly, and he struck one fat, flabby hand into the palm of the other. "You've got to stop it, Sturgis. You've got the whole police department to do it with. We'll contribute money, anything that will help to put a stop to it!" He suddenly relaxed, patted his soft paunch. His face was gray, and his double chin shook. "God! Some of my best friends were among those ten men. I can still see them lying there, just a skinful of bones—with the blood all drained out of them!"
"Gentlemen," the mayor's voice was dry, tight. "I know just how you feel. But we have no time for talk like this. There is something I must tell you. I have called you together, not to seek any financial assistance, but to give you a piece of news. It is not fair to keep the information from you any longer."
There was a dead silence in the room as the mayor hesitated. Then he went on grimly: "Lewis Forman is not to be the last to die. There is some being in this city, a man presumably, who calls himself by the name of Doctor Blood. He is the one who has caused the deaths of your friends—of my friends—by some inhuman means that we cannot fathom. He has compiled a list—a long list—of names of prominent men. And he promises death for every one of them." Mayor Sturgis' eyes swung around the room, came to rest upon Gilbert Patterson, the rosy-cheeked private banker. He raised a hand, pointed a shaking finger. "You, Patterson—are next on Doctor Blood's list!"
The plump, well-fed, immaculately dressed private banker sat rigid, gripped tightly the arms of his chair. He exclaimed falteringly: "You mean I'm going to be killed?"
Mayor Sturgis nodded. He picked up a folder from the desk, extracted from it a sheet of paper. He handled the paper gingerly, almost with revulsion.
"X's" eyes, fixed on that sheet, were the first to note the peculiarity about it. The mayor held it low, so that they could all see. And a slow gasp of horror rose in the room. For the sprawling, boldly shaped writing was in red—and the red was unmistakably blood.
"Yes, gentlemen," the mayor said in a choked voice, "this is written in blood—probably the blood of one of those ten men who have already died!"
He held the paper before him, glanced around the room, and said: "Let me read it to you." His voice was low, almost inaudible as he read the contents of that message.
My dear Commissioner Foster:
You will doubtless be relieved to learn that the unfortunate occurrences which have been taking place during the last ten days can be stopped—at a price. I am enclosing herewith a list which contains three hundred and sixty-five names. You will find that the first ten names are those of the men who have already died. The next three hundred and fifty-five will die just as surely, one every day for the balance of the year.
However, there is one way in which those three hundred and fifty-five men may avoid having their blood drained from them. Each of them may buy immunity for the modest sum of twenty-five thousand dollars. This money must be paid in cash by each individual on the day he is scheduled to die.
In order to prove to you that I can do what I say, I will cause number eleven on the list to be killed in the same fashion as the others today. It is too bad that number eleven must die, but it is necessary that I convince you that this letter is no fraud.
Please communicate my terms to the rest of the men on the list. They will be instructed how to arrange to make their payments.
Yours for a long life,
There was a hushed silence in the room when the mayor had finished reading that remarkable letter. Even the mayor's face was drawn and haggard. He said in a sort of choked voice: "You must understand, gentlemen, that we are doing everything in our power to apprehend this criminal known as Doctor Blood. I am vitally interested—for a reason which you will soon understand."
Norman Marsh said speculatively: "This Doctor Blood of yours is certainly an ingenious man, Mr. Mayor. Say only fifty percent of the men on that list that he talks about should pay on the line—let's see, how much would that make?"
Mayor Sturgis frowned at him. "You may take this lightly, Mr. Marsh, but wait—" He took another sheet of paper from the folder on the desk. "Here is the list that Doctor Blood speaks of. You all know the names of the first ten—those who have already perished with their throats clawed open and their blood drained from them. I will now read you the list of the next seven."
HE had said the last very slowly, incisively. Suddenly a hushed silence fell over the room. Secret Agent "X" had been studying each of the men present. His eyes had especially sought the tall, lean, cadaverous figure of Oscar Stanton, the stock speculator, who sat across the room facing Gilbert Patterson. He turned his eyes now toward Mayor Sturgis. That official began slowly to read from the list. "Number eleven—Gilbert Patterson; number twelve—Norman Marsh; number thirteen—" he gulped, then said quickly—"number thirteen—John F. Sturgis."
There was a gasp from the assembled company. Gilbert Patterson's face had become a pasty white; Norman Marsh, who had been pacing up and down, had stopped suddenly at the mention of his own name. He started to speak, then stopped, clamping his jaws hard as the mayor went on.
"You see, gentlemen," the mayor said with an obvious effort to control his voice, "I am on this list with you—so you cannot question my interest in unmasking this fiendish Doctor Blood—for according to the list, Patterson here dies today. Marsh tomorrow. And I, on Thursday."
He sighed, bent his eyes to the list. "But let me finish reading. I think you all can get what follows."
Oscar Stanton, the lean, gaunt-faced stock broker, raised his head and caught "X" watching him. He lowered his eyes quickly, turned to the mayor. "Yes—it means we're all on the list. The only question is, what day are we scheduled to die. Hurry, man, read the rest of the numbers!"
Sturgis went on more speedily now. "Number fourteen—Hugo Langknecht; number fifteen—John Lacey; number sixteen—Oscar Stanton; number seventeen—Frank Larkin; number eighteen—" his eyes lifted from the paper, met those of Secret Agent "X"—"Victor Randall!"
When he had ceased reading, a buzz of excited comment arose among the doomed men.
Commissioner Foster exchanged glances with Inspector Burks across the desk at which the mayor was seated, and raised his hand. "Excuse me, everybody."
He waited until the buzz of talk had subsided, and then turned to the only other man who had remained silent during the entire conference—Professor Hugo Langknecht, the German psychiatrist.
"Professor Langknecht," the commissioner said, "You must not misunderstand me when I say that in a way I am glad you are among those mentioned on Doctor Blood's list. You are as vitally interested as we are in discovering Doctor Blood's true identity. As a psychiatrist you may be able to study this note and arrive at some idea of what sort of person this bloody executioner is. In your profession, you've had occasion to study many queer kinds of people. Is there any hope you can give us—such as indicating what kind of man we ought to look for in searching for this Doctor Blood—anything that might put us on the right track?"
Professor Langknecht was quite a young man, considering the international reputation which he had already established for himself. His thin sharp features, his high forehead, proclaimed him a scholar. His eyes seemed to be lively, black, constantly flashing behind the extra thick-lensed spectacles which he wore. His thin lips were pursed thoughtfully as he seemed to be giving the question weighty consideration before answering. Then he finally spoke:
"There are many things that we must take into consideration here, commissioner. In our clinic in Vienna—" he stopped, waved his hand impatiently—"but you will not be interested in that. What you want is concrete conclusion. Well, we must first look at the curious way that these murders have been committed—the tearing open of the jugular vein, the draining of the blood." He spoke in a cold, precise voice. He was a typical scientist, treating the problem as if it were an abstract theory of mathematics, rather than one which might involve his own death.
"Who," he went on, "would be apt to do these things to a man? In Cambodia, in Indo-China and in some of the wilder portions of South America, there are, I understand, beasts which subsist upon human—"
He was interrupted by Norman Marsh who suddenly snapped his fingers. "Of course!" the archeologist exclaimed. "I remember, in 1914 in my expedition to Brazil—"
Professor Langknecht stopped him. "Yes, yes, Mr. Marsh. But you must not jump to conclusions. There are other creatures that drink human blood, too—creatures in which the mind of man refuses to believe, but which have been thought to exist from the beginning of mankind. Vampires, ghouls—"
It was Oscar Stanton who stopped him. "Damn it!" he shouted. "Are you going to begin telling us fairy tales now! Here we are, slated to die. There's Patterson—he's marked for today. There's Marsh for tomorrow, Sturgis for Thursday, and the rest of us—Lacey, Larkin, myself, and Randall." He jerked his thumb at Secret Agent "X." "Randall is the luckiest of us. He has a week to live. And here you are telling us about vampires and ghouls."
HE swung on Commissioner Foster: "Why don't you arrange with this Doctor Blood for us to pay him? He seems to have chosen you as intermediary. All right, I'm ready to pay!"
Professor Langknecht wiped his forehead with a large, yellow-bordered handkerchief. He subsided into his seat, looking slightly bewildered at the sudden vehemence of Stanton.
Norman Marsh suddenly started to laugh.
The others looked at him open-mouthed.
Marsh stopped laughing as suddenly as he had begun, his lean, tanned face setting into grim, stubborn lines. "I don't know how you others feel about it, but Stanton is all wet. I think this Doctor Blood is mad. Why, it's impossible to kill one man every day for a year—especially when we know who's scheduled next. I've faced worse things than this Doctor Blood's wild beasts in my life, and I'll take a chance!"
Stanton glared at Marsh. "You wouldn't talk like that, Marsh, if you'd seen what I've seen. Lewis Forman was the last to die—and I was a guest in his house last night." He shuddered. "I'll never forget how he looked this morning. The bed was soaked with blood. His throat was torn—clawed, ripped horribly. And—and his body was drained dry of blood. He was nothing but skin and bones. And you want us all to take a chance on having that happen to us—when twenty-five thousand dollars would square it. We're all wealthy here, we can all afford it easily. Why tempt fate?" Stanton swung on Inspector Burks, whose face had been growing redder and redder every moment. "You, Burks. Why don't you get something done? Why don't you arrange for these payments? Why do you call us all here for these useless conferences? There's only one thing to do, that is, pay up."
Inspector Burks shrugged, turned away from Stanton in contempt. John Lacey, the real estate operator, number fourteen on the list, placed a soothing hand on Stanton's shoulder. "Don't take it so hard, Stanton," he soothed. "Burks may catch this Doctor Blood before it's our turn to pay. Patterson here is the one who really has to worry. He's due to get his today—and there's no way out for him!"
Patterson came out of his reverie. His hunted eyes sought Mayor Sturgis. "What—what steps are you taking to protect me?" he asked.
Commissioner Foster answered for the mayor. "We are going to give you a police guard or, if you prefer, it would be better for you to remain in headquarters—where you should be comparatively safe. You other gentlemen—and you too, your Honor—would be well advised to do likewise."
Stanton snorted. "You'd be doing much better if you arranged to get these payments started. You know damn well that nobody is safe—not even in headquarters. You haven't been able to get the faintest idea of how these murders were committed, or of who did them. You haven't even gotten a glimpse of these beasts of Doctor Blood's. And yet you want us to take a chance. After all, we're all important men in this town. None of us wants to die yet. Maybe Marsh doesn't care. He's risked his life so often that it's come to mean nothing to him. But most of us others here have families, have important interests. We want to live. As far as I'm concerned, I hereby state that I'm ready to pay—unless Commissioner Foster can show me anything concrete which he has done to protect us from this threat!"
The Agent maintained silence during all this time. He continued to study Oscar Stanton. Stanton was known as a plunger in the market—a bear raider of great daring, who had amassed a fortune by his ruthless tactics. It was interesting to note how a man, who could be so merciless as he had been to others, acted when his own life was threatened.
It was Mayor Sturgis who quieted him. The mayor raised a soothing hand, and said: "Gentlemen, as you may know from having read the evening paper, I have taken a step which I hope will be of help to us. I have issued a public letter to—"
"Yes, yes," Stanton shouted, "I know all about that. I saw the paper." He sneered. "Set a thief to catch a thief, huh! This Secret Agent 'X' is probably the one who's behind all these murders—and you call him in to help us! Is that the best you can do? Come on—think, man—your own life is in danger here as well as ours!"
"Excuse me, Mr. Stanton," Norman Marsh interrupted coldly. "I have studied the career of this strange man whom you call Secret Agent 'X' with great interest. It is my profound belief that this man is not a criminal. In view of the gravity of our present situation, I heartily approve of the step that Mayor Sturgis has taken."
Inspector Burks, who had been listening to Stanton's diatribe with beaming approval, now made a gesture of impatience. He took a long black cigar from his pocket, lit it, and puffed furiously. He growled: "Mayor Sturgis is the boss, of course, but I'd never have done anything like that if it was left up to me. Why, this Secret Agent 'X' is the slickest crook in the country—in the world for that matter. I ought to know. I've been up against him dozens of times. If you think he is going to walk in here because he's been offered immunity, you're mistaken. He's probably laughing up his sleeve at us all right now!"
And it was at that moment that the inter-office 'phone on the commissioner's desk rang.
Commissioner Foster picked up the phone, listened for a moment, then quickly covered the mouthpiece, stared at the others with excited eyes.
He glanced at Burks, then stooped and whispered in the ear of Mayor Sturgis.
The mayor's eyes opened wide with excitement, and he rose. His fists were clenched on the desk. There was a look of extreme satisfaction on his face.
"Gentlemen," he exclaimed, "I have to announce—that Secret Agent 'X' has accepted my invitation! He is waiting outside now!"
FOR several moments after the Mayor's startling announcement, the room was the scene of astounded comment and bustling excitement. Voices were raised, everyone tried to talk at once.
Inspector Burks exclaimed harshly: "We've got him now! We'll put him in a cell and keep him there. And I bet you these damn murders stop!"
The mayor turned upon Burks irritably. "You'll do nothing of the kind, inspector! I've given Secret Agent 'X' my word that he is to have twenty-four hours' immunity, and I meant every word of that. You will keep your hands off for twenty-four hours!"
Inspector Burks lowered his head sullenly. "All right. But the minute the twenty-four hours expires, I'm grabbing him!"
The Agent withdrew to a corner of the room where he could survey all the occupants, and made ready to view this visitor who had come impersonating him. The various occupants of the room were still raising their voices in loud discussion and protest. Only one other man in the room was silent now; that was Professor Langknecht, the psychiatrist. He sat quietly, with his knees crossed, but his small, lively black eyes behind those spectacles had been busy surveying each man in turn in the room, listening carefully to all their comments.
The medley of voices ceased as Mayor Sturgis, turning to Professor Langknecht, said: "What is your opinion, professor? Shall we enlist the services of Secret Agent 'X'?"
Langknecht stirred as from a reverie. "You should certainly talk to him, Mr. Mayor. In a situation such as this, we must turn to anything at all that holds a possibility of salvation." He added with an air of eagerness: "As a psychiatrist, I am myself extremely anxious to meet this person who calls himself Secret Agent 'X'."
"All right," the mayor exclaimed with a sudden air of decision. "We'll have him in."
He turned to the 'phone, but Oscar Stanton shouted: "Then I won't stay here! I'll have nothing to do with this business. It's bad enough that my life is in danger, and that I can't get help from the police department. But to have to place my life in the hands of a felon like this Secret Agent 'X' is unbearable. I'm going!" He turned and stamped out of the room stormily before anyone could stop him.
John Lacey said disgustedly: "Let him go. I'd rather he wasn't here anyway. Maybe we'll all be better off."
"What do you mean by that?" Commissioner Foster demanded.
Lacey shrugged. "What do we know about Stanton anyway? His partner, Lewis Forman, has just been murdered. And Stanton was his guest last night. Stanton was in the room right next door, yet he claims he didn't hear a thing." He took a step closer to the Mayor's desk, glared at Burks. "Have you investigated Stanton at all? I've had occasion to. Do you realize that the ten deaths that have already occurred have been deaths of men who are influential in some of the largest firms in the country? Do you realize that the stocks of those firms have gone down in the market? And do you know what's happening? Our friend, Oscar Stanton, has been buying, buying, buying; buying the stocks of those firms at bargain prices! If they go up again, he will have made himself a million dollars by the deaths of these men!"
SECRET AGENT "X," standing against the wall near the window, glanced out and saw Stanton in the street now walking rapidly away past the car in which sat the beautiful Paraguayan dancer. The Agent could see the car from his point of vantage at the window; he watched closely as Stanton passed, but detected no sign being exchanged between Stanton and the woman.
Everything that Lacey had said was already known to Secret Agent "X." Stanton had been under observation by the Agent's operatives for the last ten days. And the Agent knew that as soon as Stanton turned the corner he would once more be picked up by a shadow, and followed wherever he went. The Agent's eyes were troubled, though, as he glanced out of the window. He wished now that he had taken the time to phone to his headquarters and ordered that a couple of operatives be placed on this woman who was parked across the street, to shadow her. He could do nothing about it now though.
He saw Foster pick up the 'phone, instruct the man at the desk outside to send in the visitor.
In the few moments that elapsed now, a great hush fell upon the room.
Inspector Burks chewed on his cigar viciously. Commissioner Foster interlocked his hands in front of him, and was cracking the joints nervously. Mayor Sturgis was drumming rapidly on the desk. The other men in the room were shifting about in their chairs, or pacing up and down in the narrow confines. The Agent could understand just how they felt. This was a momentous time in their lives in more ways than one. Not only were they being threatened with a gruesome death by an unknown individual who termed himself Doctor Blood, but they were about to come face to face with a man whose name had almost become legendary in the annals of crime—Secret Agent "X"!
The Agent, trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible, began to make his own arrangements for the reception of the visitor. It was true that this man might be only a publicity seeker, and harmless. On the other hand, he might be an emissary of the dread Doctor Blood, in which case he must be captured at all costs. "X" felt that if he could have such a person alone in one of his retreats for several hours, he would be able to elicit from him enough information to lead him to Doctor Blood.
The Agent moved closer to the door, surreptitiously extracted his gas gun from his pocket and held it in his hand shielded from the others in the room by his body. It was ready for instant use. Now he waited tensely for the appearance of the person who was masquerading as Secret Agent "X."
The silence in the room was like a blanket of dark expectancy. So quiet was it that the ticking of the little clock upon Commissioner Foster's desk was clearly audible.
And then the door opened. All eyes turned toward the doorway.
A SIGH that was almost like an exclamation of astonishment arose from those in the room.
The Agent noted out of the corner of his eye that Professor Langknecht was the only one in the room who was not staring at the visitor. On the contrary, the Professor had turned his face away and buried it in his large handkerchief.
It seemed that the Professor had suddenly developed a great interest in wiping his face clean. This was strangely at variance with the desire which he had expressed a few moments ago to meet the person who was calling in the role of Secret Agent "X."
The Agent's lips tightened in a grim line. Mentally, he noted the Professor's name as another to be investigated along with Oscar Stanton.
"X" swung his eyes back to the doorway.
Mayor Sturgis exclaimed hoarsely, "What—"
He got no farther. A slight, weird figure suddenly became visible in the corridor—but only for the space of a second.
There was a short vision of a twisted, vicious countenance; then a small metal object came sailing into the room, and crashed against the commissioner's desk. It broke with a faint, tingling sound, and at once the room became flooded with a biting, acrid, blinding fog through which it was impossible to see.
Pandemonium was let loose in that room. "X," holding his breath, leaped toward the doorway. But just then the heavy body of some one in the room barged into him, throwing him off balance, sending him tripping backward. The door slammed while "X" was scrambling to his feet. He did not know whether the visitor who had thrown that gas bomb into the room had entered or had departed. The fumes of the gas were overpowering. In the impenetrable darkness, there were sounds of men retching, of men stumbling, pushing against each other.
"X" had recognized the nature of the chemical which had come from the exploded bomb at once, and he had taken a deep breath at the first sound of the explosion. Now he held his breath, although his eyes smarted excruciatingly.
From across the room, Patterson's voice was heard, raised in an unearthly shriek which suddenly ended in a terrible gurgling sound.
Some one shouted agonizingly: "The beasts—they've got Patterson!"
"X" dashed across the room toward the spot where Patterson had screamed. He thrust aside the milling bodies of panic-stricken men, pushed past them until his sense of space told him that he was at the spot where Patterson had been sitting. Since it was impossible to see, anyway, he closed his eyes, still holding his breath, and groped blindly on the floor. His hand encountered a bloody, revolting body. He touched a severed artery, and came away sopping wet from the spurting blood.
And then his hand found something else—a mouth, a pair of bloody, slavering jaws. Somebody—or something—was stooping over that bloody, gory body, drinking the fresh, spurting blood!
There was the disgusting, revolting, animal sound of a bestial throat gulping down the crimson fluid.
THE Agent reached out his right hand, which still held the gas pistol. He reversed the pistol, brought the butt down with all the force that he could command upon the head of that vicious creature. Still with his eyes closed, he reached down, hauled the suddenly inert body up over his shoulder. His congested lungs seemed to be tearing their way out through his throat, but he managed to stagger across the room with his burden. He did not make toward the door to the corridor, but went in the opposite direction. He had seen another door, just to the right of the commissioner's desk. From previous experiences of his at headquarters, he knew that this little side door would lead him through a narrow corridor toward the rear exit of headquarters.
The room was now filled with groans, shouts, cries of pain. Men were stumbling about, groaning, groping blindly. Others were hammering at the door to the corridor. Apparently the strange visitor had turned the key in the lock after slamming it. There was no egress that way.
"X," still with his burden, found the small door he was heading for, reached out and tore it open. He stepped through into the cool freshness of the outside corridor, took a deep breath of the comparatively clean air, and opened his eyes. He could see once more. He breathed two or three lungfuls of air before he was able to talk. Then he shouted: "This way, everybody—this way!"
He placed his burden upon the floor, stared down at it with narrowed eyes. This was no four-footed beast of prey. It was a man, a young man, whose countenance even now in repose was distorted into a vicious mask of lust. Blood flecked his lips. It was a human being—but it had torn a man's throat, and drunk his blood!
This was the opportunity which he had been laboring for all this time—an opportunity to question one of the tools of the person who had signed the note to Commissioner Foster—Doctor Blood.
"X" had had this very thing in mind when he acted with such swiftness back in the commissioner's room. This strange being with lust of a beast of prey was nevertheless a man. And a man could be made to talk—by methods which the Agent alone knew. He stooped quickly, lifted the unconscious burden over his shoulder, and made swiftly down the corridor.
Behind him he could hear the hoarse cries of Commissioner Foster, Norman Marsh, and Mayor Sturgis as they found the opened side door and urged the others to come out through it.
"X" hastened down the little corridor and emerged through a side door which let him out into Lafayette Street.
He carried his inert burden down the street, and stopped before a police squad car which was parked at the curb. There were no officers in it, in accordance with Mayor Sturgis' orders to leave the coast clear for the arrival of Secret Agent "X." The Agent thrust the young man into the car, went around to the other side and got in under the wheel. There were no keys in the lock, but the Agent drew from his pocket a ring of keys, selected one and inserted it in the ignition. He stepped on the starter, and the motor turned over.
In a moment they were off, had turned the corner, and were headed east. After driving two blocks, "X" headed north four blocks, and drew up before a garage in the middle of a sleazy tenement block.
The Agent left his unconscious captive in the squad car, and entered this garage. In a few moments he emerged, driving a small coupé . This was one of the many cars which he kept planted at strategic spots throughout the city in readiness for just such an emergency.
The young man's unconscious body was a heavy, inert weight, but it took "X" only a few moments to transfer him to the coupé. He then drove away from there, leaving the squad car at the curb to be found by the police.
Eight blocks away, the Agent braked his car to a halt in a quiet block along the river front before a small two-storey building set in between two large, darkened warehouses which were closed for the night.
This little building was one of the many retreats which the Agent maintained throughout the city.
Once more "X" maneuvered his unconscious guest out of the car, slung him over his shoulder and carried him into the darkened doorway of the little building, and up a short flight of narrow stairs.
If he waited outside for another minute or two, he would have seen the small sedan which turned into the block right after him. This sedan was driven by the dark, beautiful woman whom he had observed sitting in the parked car in front of police headquarters.
She had followed him all the way, had watched while he made the transfer at the garage, and then had continued to follow him to this retreat. Her face as she drove past the small building between the two warehouses was inscrutable. But her eyes darted from the parked coupé to the building.
She drove past as far as the corner, turned into the next street, and parked her car. Then she got out, crossed the street and stood in a darkened doorway, watching the house into which the Agent had led his captive. In the darkness, her face showed white and drawn, and her black eyes burned with an intense fire.
WITHIN the house, the Agent was unaware of the woman who watched outside. He carried the unconscious man up the stairs, and into a room on the top floor. This room contained some strange appurtenances. Here, cunningly concealed, were emergency kits of make-up material, a complete assortment of clothes for changes of character, and various instruments and gadgets which the Agent found useful in his continuous battle against crime.
In other rooms of this house there was a completely equipped chemical laboratory, a filing system which catalogued the names of thousands of underworld characters, and a library of several hundred books. This was one of the Agent's main retreats—a place where he often retired to work on particularly baffling puzzles.
The Agent deposited his captive in an armchair, and went to the window. The street outside was deserted. He could not see the woman who had followed him for she had not stayed to watch, but had hurried around the corner to an all-night lunchroom up the middle of the next block, and was busy at that very moment making a telephone call.
She spoke long and earnestly into the telephone, her eyes alight with a strange fire. When she was through, she hurried out of the lunchroom and returned to her vigil across the street. But it was in that interval when she had been gone that the Agent had looked out of the window. Now he was busy with his captive.
That young man was just beginning to regain consciousness. He stirred, batted his eyes. "X" slipped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists; went through his clothes quickly. There was not even a scrap of paper to indicate his identity. There was a large bump on his head, and there were flecks of foam upon his lips. "X's" eyes were inscrutable as he observed these things. What strange kind of being was this, who tore open men's jugular veins, drank their blood?
The young man's eyes were open now, were regarding "X" with a strange sort of terror. It was unbelievable that this timid, harmless looking youth had leaped in to make his kill like a jungle beast.
The Agent demanded of him: "What is your name?"
The other hesitated a moment, then answered sullenly: "Laurento."
"Who sent you to headquarters to pose as Secret Agent 'X'?"
Laurento's voice was monotonous, as if he were making stereotyped answers to stereotyped questions. "Doctor Blood sent me." He said it as if that explained everything.
"Why did you kill Patterson?"
A slow smile spread over Laurento's countenance. His bloody lips made the smile a thing of horror. "That is a question which you must ask of Doctor Blood."
"X" asked him softly: "Where can I find this Doctor Blood?"
Laurento veiled his eyes, and his mouth assumed a stubborn set. "You will have to find that out for yourself." He twisted his head around, rubbed his nose against the lapel of his coat as if it itched. The action was entirely natural, such as any man might make while handcuffed.
The Agent continued patiently, disregarding the subtle appeal to remove the handcuffs. "You are not an American?"
Laurento shook his head. "No. But I've lived in this country for a long time."
"Look here," Secret Agent "X" urged. "You realize that you've just committed a terrible crime. You were under some sort of strange influence when you did it. Now you are more or less normal. This Doctor Blood has made a criminal—a murderer—of you. Why do you protect him? Tell me who he is!"
THE Agent suddenly stopped talking, extended a hand to support the young man. For Laurento's head had dropped upon his chest, his body sagged, and he would have fallen from the chair if the Agent had not caught him.
Laurento's breath was coming regularly, though a trifle slowly. He was falling into some sort of coma. His lips moved weakly, and "X" caught the words: "Doctor Blood will—take care—of everything."
The words died away into silence as the young man lost consciousness. His body became a dead weight on the Agent's supporting arm. The Agent betrayed no sign of exasperation at this sudden checkmate. But he could not figure by what method Laurento had been suddenly thrown into this coma. Though he had done extensive research work in chemistry and the allied sciences, he knew of no drug whose action was so delayed that it could be administered at one time so as to produce an effect like this at a later hour. He forced open Laurento's mouth, sniffed his breath. He perceived no betraying chemical odor.
But his hand on the young man's coat suddenly felt a peculiar wetness on the lapel. He bent closer to examine the cloth, and a peculiar odor assailed his nostrils. Laurento's coat lapel had been saturated with some sort of drug. And the Agent had breathed it.
A staggering thought flooded his brain. Laurento had lost consciousness within five minutes of brushing his nose against that coat lapel. The same thing would now happen to the Agent.
Already "X" could feel a strange sort of dizziness in the back of his head. Peculiar spots were beginning to dance before his eyes. There was no knowing how long this drug would keep him in that comatose condition.
Doctor Blood's plans had worked far better than even that ingenious criminal had anticipated; for now, within five minutes, the one man who might possibly be able to frustrate his fiendish plans would be impotent, lying as inert and helpless as Laurento now was.
But the Agent did not lose his wits as another man in that predicament might have. He crossed the room swiftly but without panic to the opposite wall. He placed his thumb at a certain spot in the molding and pressed hard. Instantly a small panel about three feet square opened downward like a tray. Set upon this panel, and held to it by suction cups were dozens of small vials of vari-colored liquids, together with a hypodermic syringe.
The Agent's knees were beginning to shake, sweat was breaking out upon his brow. He was feeling the powerful effect of the drug which he had inhaled—knew that it would overcome him within a matter of minutes. Even now he was keeping on his feet by a supreme exercise of will power.
Jaws pressed hard together, his whole body straining in every fibre to resist the drug, his fingers nevertheless moved swiftly as he filled the syringe from one of the vials. Then he stripped off his coat, did not wait to roll up his sleeve but tore it from wrist to shoulder. And without stopping to swab off his arm with antiseptic he quickly drove home the plunger of the hypodermic. The syringe contained a powerful dose of adrenalin. "X" did not know the nature of the drug which he had inhaled, but was hoping that the adrenalin, which served the same purpose with other coma producing drugs, would counteract the effect of this one.
He replaced the hypodermic upon the tray, waited tensely for the results. His whole body was in a cold sweat now, the light was dimming before his eyes, and he experienced a queer watery weakness in his legs. He clenched his hands, pressed elbows against his sides, and forced himself to stand stiffly erect.
The blood raced through the arteries, carrying the adrenalin to his heart, which pumped it back through his entire body. If only the adrenalin could become operative before that deadly drug took full control of him. It was a battle of will against matter—the powerful will of a man who had schooled his body to obey every impulse of his mind. He must hold out now—for how long?
Slowly he began to sway on his feet. The room had begun to dance about him. The floor seemed to be tipping, the walls to be slanting. His eyes sought the window where he seemed to see gray shapes in the black of the night outside.
Still he stood there stiffly, defiantly, a man fighting against the elements. And then suddenly, the walls stopped slanting, the floor stopped tipping. He could feel his heart beating faster and faster, recovering from the strange lassitude which had gripped him. The spots began to clear from before his eyes, and he uttered a deep sigh—the only sign of the tremendous, almost unendurable strain under which he had labored for the last three or four minutes. He had won.
Weakly he crossed to the window, swung it open, and breathed in deep gulps of the fresh night air. Then he sought a chair, sat back in it, relaxing and closed his eyes. For the moment he gave no thought to Laurento who had slipped from the chair and now lay in a huddled heap on the floor.
The Agent's only thought now was to regain quickly the strength which had been melted from his body. It was five minutes before he managed to stand once more. He smiled grimly. Only a man of his tremendous recuperative powers could have regained his full strength in so short a time after such an ordeal.
IT was a half hour later that a middle-aged inconspicuous sort of man stepped out into the street from the doorway of that little building between the two warehouses. This man in no way resembled the Victor Randall who had carried Laurento in only a little while before. He had bushy eyebrows, a broad nose, and dark hair which was beginning to gray at the temples.
Secret Agent "X" had assumed a new personality—that of Arvold Fearson, a disguise which he had used on occasions in the past. As Arvold Fearson, Secret Agent "X" was known to many people in the city, including the police officials, to be a private detective in the employ of the Hobart Detective Agency. The Hobart Agency was run by a redheaded young man, an ex-policeman who had been befriended by Secret Agent "X." Now the Agent made good use of Hobart's organization.
As Arvold Fearson, there were many things which "X" had to do now. He had left Laurento upstairs, after having placed him on a bed, securely tied against the time when he should wake up from the coma. Now he looked up and down the street before entering his coupé.
But he did not see the woman who had followed him there. For she had left her post of vigil across the street only a few minutes before, after making another hurried telephone call.
The Agent drove west for several blocks, and pulled up in front of a drug store. He went inside and entered a telephone booth where he dialed a secret number which was known only to himself.
In a moment a precise, military voice spoke over the phone: "Bates talking."
Bates was the head of another organization controlled by the Agent, similar to the Hobart Agency except for one important difference—no one knew about it. For this organization the Agent had drafted men from all walks of life after investigating them thoroughly. The existence of Bates and his vast network of operatives was entirely unsuspected by the public, and the number which had just been dialed was one that was never used by anybody but Secret Agent "X."
The Agent said quickly: "Report on Oscar Stanton."
"Right, sir," Bates said. "Stanton left headquarters this morning in great excitement. He was followed to his home, where we have a dictograph installed. I have a transcript of everything he said at home. He made a number of telephone calls. They were to his brokers, instructing them to buy certain stock when they hit certain low prices. These instructions are the same as he has been giving for the last ten days, except that he added to the list of stocks that he wished to buy the common stock of the Pacific Bank, of which Mr. Gilbert Patterson was the head."
"Tell me quickly what happened at headquarters this morning," the Agent ordered.
"Why, sir, a man came to the commissioner's office claiming to be Secret Agent "X." He threw some sort of bomb into the room. And under cover of the smoke, Gilbert Patterson was murdered as Doctor Blood had promised. It seems that Commissioner Foster had called a conference of seven or eight of the leading citizens of the city. We can't get any definite information, but it is suspected that the commissioner had some sort of inkling that these men were the next to be murdered by the blood drinkers. We are sure of one thing—that Gilbert Patterson was slated for today, and that Doctor Blood succeeded in murdering him. In some way they managed to admit the beasts into the commissioner's office. The man who threw the bomb escaped and carried off with him Mr. Victor Randall, who was also present at the conference. I have men out—"
"You need not work on that," the Agent interrupted him. "Mr. Randall is safe. There was another matter that I asked you to look into—this business of Grover Wilkerson. What have you got on that?"
"I don't know what put you on the track of Wilkerson, sir." There was admiration in Bates' voice. "But he certainly ties in with these murders. I have a short résumé here. Shall I read it to you over the wire?"
"Go ahead." The Agent inserted another nickel in the slot as the operator told him that his time was up, and he listened carefully while Bates read from the résumé in a clear precise voice.
"Grover Wilkerson, ex-millionaire, utilities magnate, recently convicted in Federal Court of fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to five years in jail. Subsequently declared insane and committed to the Ohio State Asylum for mental incompetents. He escaped from the asylum one month ago. Killed two men in the middle west who had testified against him at his trial. Left note threatening to 'get even' with everybody who contributed to his ruin. Has not yet been apprehended in spite of countrywide search for him. Our operatives report he was last seen on a train leaving New York, but disappeared at a small local station. Wilkerson is believed to be very dangerous. Inspector Burks has just released a statement to the press to the effect that he thinks it quite likely that Wilkerson is responsible for the ten murders which have occurred here in the city."
THE Agent marshaled the facts carefully in his mind. "Have you completed the arrangements in regard to Wilkerson as per my instructions?"
"Yes, sir. All arrangements are complete. I have called in all our operatives from the middle west who had at any time seen Wilkerson. They are scattered throughout the city here, canvassing homes, walking streets, on the watch for him. They are instructed if they should find him, to capture him without inflicting any injury unless they should be placed in physical danger."
"All right," the Agent told him. "In addition to the work you are now doing, I also wish you to begin a thorough investigation of a person by the name of Professor Hugo Langknecht, the German psychiatrist who is now visiting this country and whose help has been enlisted by the police to solve these murders.
"Find out if he has any friends, with whom he associates, what his interests are. Find out if he has ever been known to associate with a young man by the name of Laurento. Have you got that?"
"Yes, sir," Bates acknowledged. "Report on Professor Hugo Langknecht—with particular reference to a young man by the name of Laurento. Right, sir. I'll get right on it."
The Agent hung up, and immediately dialed another number, said: "Hello, Herald? May I speak to Miss Betty Dale?"
In a moment Betty was on the wire.
"X" said, using the same inflection of voice that he had employed when he met her on the street corner: "Miss Dale? This is the person—"
"Yes—I know," her worried voice interrupted him. "I have got together most of the information that you wanted from me. I've been working downstairs in the morgue since I left you and have a list of all the news items which have appeared in the past six months about those ten men who were mur—"
"Never mind that," the Agent broke in. "I'll meet you later and you can give it to me. There is something I want you to get at once. This German psychiatrist, Professor Hugo Langknecht—where is he staying while here in the city?"
"That's easy. Can you hold the wire just a moment?"
In a short time Betty was back with the information. "He has rented an entire house on the outskirts of the city. It seems he's doing some scientific research work, and he has equipped a complete laboratory out there. Here's the address."
"X" repeated the number and the street after her. He did not need to write it down. His mind was a vast storehouse of accurately catalogued information from which he could extract any item that he had once learned. He thanked Betty, and hung up after telling her that he would see her later.
SPUYTEN DUYVIL road lay off the main highway far to the north, in one of the loneliest portions of the city. Cold blasts of night wind blew in from the waterfront at the road's end. Darkness lay like a shroud of menace over the deserted street as the Agent parked his sedan opposite the two-story brick building which Professor Langknecht had rented for his stay in the city. Before getting out of the car, "X" noted that all the windows in the front of the house were provided with metal shutters, and that they were closed tight. No streak of light was permitted to show. The house lay gloomy, silent, a fitting edifice for this out of the way, forbidding street.
Secret Agent "X" crossed to the other side, approached the doorway of the building, which was level with the sidewalk. His rubbersoled shoes made no sound on the pavement; his car, which was equipped with a specially constructed motor, had not made the slightest sound as he drove up; yet he was sure that his arrival had been noted, that he was being observed from some point of vantage in the building.
He rang the bell, waited silently. There was no sound from within, but suddenly the heavy oak door was swung open. The hallway within was unlit, but the Agent was able to discern the heavy, brutish features of the oxlike man who stood just within. This man was clothed in a white coat, and wore rubber gloves. He peered at the Agent out of small, piglike eyes, and said: "Yes?"
"X" asked: "Is Professor Langknecht in?"
The big man surveyed him without speaking for a moment, then asked: "Your name?"
"X" produced a card which he handed over. "I am Arvold Fearson," he said. "I should like to speak with the Professor on a personal matter."
The other took the card, said gruffly: "Vait here. I see." He shut the door, left the Agent standing outside.
A few moments later, the door opened once more, but this time on a chain. Through the crack the Agent could see the white coat once more. The gruff voice spoke to him through the opening. "T'e professor iss not in."
The door began to close, but "X" put his foot in the crack. "Just a moment," he said. "I am sure the professor will manage to be in for me if you will give him this message. Tell him that I wish to talk with him about—Laurento."
The man uttered a startled gasp. Then after a pause said: "Vait."
Once more the door was closed. This time it took a little longer, while the Agent waited, his eyes scanning the shadows that surrounded the house. Finally the door opened, this time wide, without the chain.
The big man in the white coat and the rubber gloves stood aside in the hallway. "T'e professor will see you," he announced.
"X" entered, and the door was closed behind him. If he had remained outside only a moment or two longer, he would have seen the sedan which turned into Spuyten Duyvil road and drove up to the house, parked behind his own coupé . He would have seen the tall, black-haired woman with the green hat who descended from the sedan and inspected his coupé; would have seen her turn cloudy eyes in the direction of the house, then cross the street. But the Agent was already within, and the white-coated one was saying: "Follow me upstairs. But do not touch the banister or the wall. It is dangerous."
The other preceded him up the stairs, and led toward a room at the front of the house where he rapped upon another door which was fully as strong as the one downstairs.
This one opened into a lighted room. Professor Langknecht himself stood there, arrayed in a white coat, but minus the rubber gloves. He stepped aside for "X" to enter, said to the attendant: "You may go, Hans."
The attendant bowed, closed the door from the outside. The Agent was left alone in the room with Professor Langknecht. The professor turned and stared at him out of eyes whose expression was hidden by the thick-lensed spectacles which he wore. He was holding the Agent's card in his hand. He glanced down at it, then up again, frowning.
"I do not know of you, Mr. Fearson. What is this matter that you wish to speak with me about?"
IN the single quick glance which he had cast over the room upon entering, the Agent had noted that it was equipped as a very comfortable office, with a small desk at the farther wall, a couch, several chairs, and a row of filing cabinets. The filing cabinets covered an entire wall, and seemed to be divided into sections about three feet wide. "X" now stood tensely facing the professor. "I think you already know why I am here. You must have recognized the name of Laurento, which I told your man to mention to you. Isn't that why you consented to see me?"
His keen eyes were studying the professor, watching for the slightest reaction, for some sign of betrayal of his innermost thoughts. But the professor's face was a mask, his eyes inscrutable behind those glasses. He said: "You speak in riddles, my friend. I know no one by the name of Laurento."
"Perhaps," said the Agent still watching him closely, "you know him by some other name. I will describe him for you. He is a young man, short of stature, not over twenty-five years old; thin features, dark-haired, mild mannered. But his mild mannered aspect is deceptive—for today you saw him hurl a gas bomb into Commissioner Foster's office, and afterward you saw Gilbert Patterson dead on the floor, with his throat ripped open!"
Langknecht still retained full control of himself. Only his face darkened a little, and his lips parted slightly, showing two rows of even white teeth. "I am still unaware of what you speak, my friend. You are very annoying, and I am busy. I shall have to ask you to leave at once. I know of no Laurento."
"Not even," the Agent persisted, "if I should tell you that I know where Laurento is now? Wouldn't you be interested in learning his whereabouts?"
For a long moment the professor stood rigid, staring at the Agent. Then a long sigh escaped through his teeth. "Who are you?" he asked.
The Agent was tense now, ready for action. He had deliberately goaded the other into a half admission. "You can see my name on that card. I am a private investigator. If you are interested in learning Laurento's whereabouts, perhaps we can talk business."
The professor pondered for a minute or two. Then he said very low: "Yes, perhaps we can do business—but not the way you think!"
His hand darted to his shoulder, inside the white coat where there was a bulge. It reappeared in a moment, with a flat automatic. The professor was snarling.
BUT "X" gave him no chance to use the gun. With a movement so fast that it was almost imperceptible, he stepped in, brought his left hand down, palm open, in a slashing blow which caught the professor's arm at a point between the elbow and the shoulder. This was an effective, paralyzing blow which the Agent had learned many years ago. It was knowledge and skill such as this that often made an unarmed man the equal of one equipped with the most dangerous weapon.
The professor staggered backward; the automatic dropped to the floor from fingers rendered numb by that paralyzing blow.
With a furious cry, he hurled his entire weight at the Agent, bore him backward, gouging mercilessly at "X's" face. The Agent twisted his head to escape those clawing fingernails, sidestepped, bent a little to the right and twined his left arm around the other's waist. Then he pushed hard with his right shoulder, at the same time twisting the other's body around. The professor was thrown off balance and crashed to the floor. He started to struggle upward again, but the Agent knelt, twisted his arm in a hammerlock.
Sweat began to break out on the professor's forehead; his small eyes glared viciously up at the Agent through the thick convex lenses.
The Agent was breathing evenly. "I am sorry, professor—" He stopped short. For he felt something cold and hard boring into the back of his neck.
A feminine voice behind him, low and desperate, ordered: "Release him at once, and stay where you are."
The Agent relaxed his grip on the professor's arm, permitting the other to roll away and scramble to his feet.
The professor said, panting: "You have come just in time, Lola. The man is made of steel!"
The Agent rose slowly to his feet with the gun still boring into the back of his neck. The professor hurried to a closet, came back with a length of wire.
"Put your hands behind your back," he commanded coldly. His thin lips were pressed tightly together, his eyes lancing hatred at the Agent.
"X" obeyed under the compulsion of the woman's gun, and the professor wound the wire about his wrists, and twisted it tight.
"Now," he said, "we can talk."
The pressure of the gun was relaxed, and the Agent turned slowly. For the first time he beheld the woman. It was the one he had seen in the sedan outside of headquarters; the one who had followed him to the apartment where he had taken Laurento. He bowed to her in courtly fashion, saying with a half-smile:
"My compliments, madam. You entered this room with the silence of an expert." His eyes strayed to the opposite wall where a section of the filing cabinet had been swung open on a pivot, revealing a passageway through which the woman had come.
The woman held her gun steady, still pointing at the Agent. Her expensive fur coat was open, revealing a nile-green dress which set off the whiteness of her long, slender throat. Under the bright electric lights she was as beautiful, as mysteriously bewitching as she had been in the shadows of the sedan.
The professor wiped perspiration from his face, pointed to the Agent, saying: "He has just told me—that he knows where Laurento is!"
Lola exclaimed, "Wait, Hugo. Come here, Hugo. I have something to tell you. I, too, know where to find Laurento!"
Hugo backed away from the Agent to where the woman was standing. She turned to the professor and whispered in his ear so low that the Agent could not hear what she was saying. All the time, however, she kept her eyes glued to the Agent.
When she finished her whispered message, the professor exclaimed: "That is different, Lola. We will go at once then. Let us put this man in a safe place until we return."
He ran his hands over "X's" clothing, frisking him for weapons. The Agent's various implements were securely hidden, safe except from a thorough search, but the professor found the gas gun in "X's" holster under his coat, drew it forth. He apparently thought it was an ordinary revolver, for he threw it carelessly on his desk.
Then he seized the Agent by the arm once more, led him out into the hall to a small door. The Agent could see that the door to the room next to this was open, revealing a complete laboratory.
The professor took a heavy key from his pocket, opened the small door before which they were standing, and thrust the Agent in. Then he slammed the door, locked it.
"X" was now in complete darkness. He listened closely for any sound from the hallway, but could hear nothing—not even the receding footsteps of the professor and Lola. This told him that the door of the room into which he had just been locked was not only heavy, but also sound-proof. The Agent waited quietly until his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, and until he had become assured that there was no one else in this room with him.
He manipulated his wrists against the wire which bound them, loosening it slowly. It was a long, arduous task there in the darkness. Soon he had the wire loose enough for him to slip his hands through. His wrists were cut and bruised. In the darkness he set about the task of inspecting his prison.
He took his fountain pen flashlight from his pocket, and sprayed the beam around. He was in a small closetlike room, no more than four feet square. It was absolutely bare.
"X" approached the door, knelt before it and took from his pocket the small, compact leather kit which contained a complete set of chromium tools. He held the flashlight between his knees, and went to work on the lock. It was not long before he heard a click as the tumblers yielded to his coaxing. He laid down his chromium tools, turned the knob and pulled on the door. But it did not give. The professor must have shot home a bolt or another fastening of some sort on the outside. He had not placed all his reliance on the lock. The Agent tugged at the door, but to no avail. He was effectually imprisoned in that little room.
He took from his kit a small chisel and a small, collapsible iron bar about a half inch in thickness. This bar was hollow within and contained other sections so that it could be elongated in the same fashion as a collapsible drinking cup. The Agent opened this to its full length of ten inches, and attached to the top a small hammer-head. He now had a complete hammer and chisel. He set to work upon the door. But he made little impression upon it. The solid oak resisted his efforts.
"X" did not give up. He moved around to the wall, tapped upon it at various spots until he heard the hollow sound which indicated that there was no beam here. He had seen the open door of the laboratory in the next room, and his hope was to break through the wall into the laboratory.
He set to work upon the wall with his hammer and chisel. The plaster gave easily before his onslaught. He stopped every once in a while, wondering why the noise he made had not attracted anyone. If the professor and Lola had already gone, they might have left the man, Hans, on guard. Hans must surely have heard the sound of the blows upon the wall. He might even be waiting at the other side to trap the prisoner as he was coming through. But "X" continued with his work. If Hans were waiting on the other side, that problem would have to be faced when he had broken through the wall.
IT required an hour and a half of patient, backbreaking work there in the little room with the meagre illumination furnished by the fountain pen flashlight before the Agent had succeeded in cutting a hole through the plaster large enough for him to wriggle through. Several times while he had been working, he had thrown the beam of his flashlight into the other room through the slowly widening aperture. It was the laboratory which he had noted from the corridor. But he saw, also, that the door to the laboratory was closed now. Whether it was locked or not remained yet to be seen.
The Agent's face, coat, trousers and hands were covered with plaster when he finished. He squirmed through the hole in the wall after collecting his tools. With the aid of his flashlight, he crossed quickly to the door, tried it.
The door was locked.
"X" found the electric light switch, snapped it on, and set to work upon the door. Once more he heard the tumblers click. He turned the knob, pulled. But the door was apparently fastened on the outside in the same fashion as the door to the closet which he had been thrust into. It did not give.
The Agent tapped the wall on either side of the door. If he could find a hollow spot here, he might be able to work through into the corridor. In the closet next door he had not been able to do this, as the whole closet was hardly more than the width of the door, with very little wall to spare on either side. Here, however, there was three or four feet of wall space. But the beams ran solidly. The wall gave forth no hollow sound. There would be no chance to cut through at any point in the wall to the corridor.
Somberly the Agent turned and surveyed the laboratory. On one wall there was a glass case with the shelves full of bottles of all sizes containing liquids of varied colors.
"X" approached this cabinet, thoughtfully studied the labels on the bottles. A smile appeared on his face.
He picked out several of the bottles, one after the other, and brought them to the work bench. Here he found a test tube, into which he proceeded to pour certain quantities from each bottle. He handled the chemicals as if he had been accustomed to using them all his life. And indeed, he had. For the solution he was preparing now was in accordance with a chemical formula which he had himself designed. That formula now reposed in the secret files of the War Department of the United States. It was another contribution of the Agent's to the safety of his country.
When he had finished his task, the Agent sealed the test tube, made a hole in the stopper, and inserted into it a splinter of wood which he cut from the bench. The liquid within the test tube had now assumed a sort of reddish brown hue. He laid it on the floor close to the door, and lit the splinter of wood.
Then he went to the hole which he had cut in the connecting wall, climbed back through it into the closet next door. From here he watched the improvised fuse burning down to the liquid within the test tube. When the fire reached the liquid, there came a blinding flash of light. There was the sound of tearing, splintering wood as the heavy door crashed outward. The entire building shook for a moment. A blinding cloud of smoke enveloped the room.
"X" waited a few moments longer until the smoke had drifted out into the corridor. Then he climbed through the hole and surveyed his handiwork.
The solution which he had placed within that test tube, was as potent as trinitrotoluene. It had torn the heavy door from its moorings, had slitted the wall, and had given the Agent his freedom.
"X" STEPPED over the debris into the corridor. He glanced swiftly from left to right, saw no one. If anyone had been in the house, he or she would certainly have started running at the sound of the splintering door. But everything was silent now.
Swiftly "X" went from room to room in the upper corridor, found them all emptied. He descended to the ground floor. Here it was dark. "X" used his flashlight again, entered the room at the front of the hall. He found the light switch, snapped it on, and stood still in the doorway, studying the thing he had suddenly perceived upon the floor. His face was etched into a grim mask as he approached and knelt beside the body which lay there.
It was Professor Hugo Langknecht. That is, it was what was left of Professor Hugo Langknecht. His white coat shone crimson under the light. He lay stretched out on his back, at full length, dead. His glasses had apparently been knocked off in the struggle which had resulted in his death, for they lay near him, the thick lenses still unshattered by their fall to the floor.
The professor's throat was a raw, bloody, gaping wound. His jugular vein had been ripped open.
Secret Agent "X" cast a swift glance up and down the corridor, his keen ears listening for the slightest sound. There was no indication that anyone was in the house.
He dropped once more to examine Langknecht's body. There was no question but that the professor had perished in the same way as Patterson and the other ten victims. His body was drained of blood. He seemed shriveled, shrunken, and the skin of his face appeared plastered to his cheek bones.
On the floor near him there were peculiar streaks—bloody streaks that might have been left by the claws of some monster of prey. All this must have happened while "X" was confined in that closet, while he was working his way out of the laboratory.
"X's" eyes were bleak as be studied the cadaver of the psychiatrist. The Agent had suspected Langknecht of being the master of those human monsters which were committing the murders. But how to explain this he did not know.
The Agent left the body of Langknecht as it lay, and proceeded cautiously back into the hall. He encountered no one. The house was deserted now.
Outside, "X" surveyed the street, his keen eyes piercing into the shadows on all sides, making sure that the devilish cohorts of Doctor Blood had not remained behind to lay in wait for him as he emerged. The street was empty. He quickly climbed into his coupé.
IT was almost eight o'clock when Secret Agent "X" arrived at the waterfront street on which stood the small house where he had left Laurento. He did not drive directly up to the building, but parked two blocks away, slid from his car, and approached cautiously, invisible in the shadows of the gloomy structures that lined the street. He stopped for a long time at the corner, standing motionless, with his coat collar turned up to hide the white gleam of his shirt front.
In a doorway opposite the house where he had left Laurento, he spotted the figure of a man. Some slight motion of that watcher had attracted "X's" attention. Now the Agent's eyes roved farther down the street, noted another doorway where there was also a dark blob of blackness like the figure of a man. His place was being watched.
He had expected this. Lola must have told Doctor Blood or his lieutenant of this place. Either she worked with Doctor Blood, or else pressure had been applied to her to make her talk. For some reason, however, she had omitted telling Doctor Blood that "X" was confined in the closet in Langknecht's home.
"X" moved slowly, inches at a time, and rounded the corner. He worked his way halfway down the side street, and made sure that there were no watchers here. Then he sprinted across the street, and into a narrow alley between two tall warehouses. He made his way through this alley, hugged the rear wall of a garage until he had worked along close to the back of his own building.
Once more his figure became motionless as he studied the yard that he was in. Finally, assured that there were no watchers here, he opened the rear door of the garage with a pass key, slipped inside and felt his way along through the impenetrable darkness within. Working by his instinct alone, he found the trapdoor in the floor of the garage, which he knew would be there, lifted it up, and went down a short ladder after closing the door above him.
He swiftly traversed a narrow passage cut along the foundation wall of the garage until he came to another door, which he opened with his key. He was now in the basement of his own building. This was an emergency exit and entrance which no one knew about but himself.
He made no noise at all as he went upstairs, his keen ears attuned to the slightest sound which would show him that there were watchers within the house as well as those outside. But he heard nothing. He went through the entire house without finding anyone anywhere. He then approached the room where he had left Laurento.
He turned the knob slowly, silently, his long agile fingers moving it only a fraction of an inch at a time. He had put out the light in the hall, so that when he got the door opened just a crack, there would be nothing to indicate to anyone who might be waiting within that the door was being opened.
His eye, close to the crack, saw nothing but darkness within. He recalled distinctly having left a light on in that room.
For a long minute he kept his ear near that crack, but heard nothing. He took out his flashlight, held it ready, and kicked open the door. In his right hand, he held ready another gas gun, which he had supplied himself with from his reserve arsenal hidden in one of the other rooms. He snapped on his flashlight, swung it quickly over the room.
There was no one there.
The bed upon which he had left Laurento was empty. And at that moment he caught the sound of stealthy footsteps from the floor below.
Doctor Blood had laid a trap—but he had removed the bait. And now the trap was sprung.
THE Agent extinguished his flashlight, softly closed the door of the room and stole quietly to the head of the stairs. He sensed now that many men had entered the house. There was no sound, no shadow of movement, but his instincts told him that he was being hemmed in by adversaries.
The stillness in the house was ominous, pregnant with dreadful peril. Soon the Agent's eyes detected a slight blur of movement in the darkness of the floor below. His stalkers were coming up.
He followed the shadowy movements of the men on the floor below, counted at least four of them. They must have been outside, watching the room from which they had removed Laurento, must have been watching for the light. They knew now that he was in the house.
The Agent was sure that Doctor Blood would have made certain to prepare an unbreakable trap—for he surely suspected now that the man he was trying to corner here must be Secret Agent "X".
Even as he watched, the Agent understood what the attackers' plans were. For he saw the figure of the first man who reached the foot of the stairs raising a hand as if to hurl something. They knew he was up here, and they apparently intended to hurl another of the gas bombs similar to the one that Laurento had used in the commissioner's office.
"X" retreated swiftly from the head of the stairs, sought the ladder which led to the roof. He climbed it quickly, unlatched the skylight, and pushed upward. But it would not open. His mouth set in a grim line. He realized that Doctor Blood had not overlooked any tricks. The skylight had been nailed up from above. His escape was cut off in that direction.
Just as the Agent began to descend the ladder again, there was a tinkling crash on the floor of the landing. One of the men below had hurled up the gas bomb. Almost at once the entire corridor was suffused with a peculiar, cloying, bitter-sweet odor.
The Agent recognized it at once. It was the distinctive odor of hydrocyanic acid—quick acting, deadly. Doctor Blood was not taking any half measures with him.
"X" did not wait to descend rung by rung. He leaped from the topmost step to the floor, sped down the corridor away from the quickly spreading fumes. He tore open the door of the front room where he kept his paraphernalia and equipment, and slammed the door behind him. That would be only a feeble obstacle against the insidious gas. For the hydrocyanic would enter shortly through the crack under the door. But the Agent did not pause to worry about this.
He opened a closet, pressed a spot in the wainscoting, and a section of the wall in the closet opened outward. Behind this wall was a shallow cavity with rows of hooks upon which hung dozens of various ingenious objects. From among these the Agent selected a gas mask and respirator.
He closed the closet door, and with nimble fingers donned the gas mask. He took two or three breaths through the nozzle to be sure that the respirator was functioning properly, then he drew his gas gun and marched out into the corridor. He switched on the electric light, walked to the staircase and went down quickly. He was quite sure that he would encounter nobody now, for the men who had flung that bomb containing the hydrocyanic acid would certainly not have remained within the building.
On the ground floor he peered out through the front window, saw several dim shapes on the opposite side of the street. They were holding sub-machine guns.
Behind the mask, "X's" lips spread in a thin grin. No effort was being spared to make sure that he perished. If by any chance he should succeed in coming out through that front door, in surviving the deadly gas which by now was filling the entire house, they were prepared to mow him down with those guns.
The Agent hesitated only an instant, then started back to the rear of the house, descended to the cellar and made his way out through the subterranean tunnel which led back to the garage. Once out in the open air of the backyard, he took off his gas mask, carried it under his arm, and stole swiftly along the alley to the street.
He moved like a shadow, slipping from one blob of darkness to another, watching keenly to make sure that no one was posted on this side street. Those men were concentrated on the front. Doubtless they had scouted the neighborhood before setting their trap, had been convinced that there was no rear exit from the building.
WHEN he was satisfied that the coast was clear, the Agent slipped across the street, faded into the darkness in the direction of his parked coupé. He had escaped from the jaws of the trap. But his work was yet to be done. His unknown enemy had placed him upon the defensive, had caused him to lose valuable time in this race with death—for the Agent still bore in mind that on the following day Norman Marsh was to die. And "X's" clue had been wrested from him; all the leads which he had been attempting to work upon had been destroyed by the quick action of Doctor Blood. Langknecht was dead. Laurento had been spirited away.
There remained the woman, Lola, and Hans, if they could be found. There was also the possibility that Bates' men might turn up something on Grover Wilkerson, the demented financier. Beyond that there was nothing.
As he drove along now, he was careful to watch in his rear vision mirror. But he was not being followed. Apparently he had successfully eluded the watchers outside his house.
He listened now to the routine police broadcast which came over the short wave radio receiver on the dashboard. Somehow, he was sure he detected an edge of nervousness in the voice of the police announcer. Many of the orders had to do with the precautions that were being taken by the police to protect the doomed men. They indicated that the police still believed that Doctor Blood was employing beasts of prey to do his vicious work. One of these orders in particular was interesting.
"All cars, all cars," the announcer was repeating. "Inspect all automobiles closely. Be on the lookout for Victor Randall. He has disappeared, and it is suspected that he has been kidnapped from headquarters. Stop all cars that look suspicious, inspect the occupants. Mr. Randall must be found. It may be that his kidnappers will attempt to move him in a car. Watch all cars."
The Agent smiled as the announcer began to repeat the order. He was glad that they did not suspect his impersonation of Randall. He was also glad that they thought Randall had been kidnapped in that way. It would give him an opportunity to return to headquarters if necessary, once more in the guise of the banker. He would, of course, have to drop the personality of Arvold Fearson for the present, for it was apparent that Doctor Blood knew who Arvold Fearson was. "X" thought it quite possible also, that Doctor Blood knew he had impersonated Randall. For that master of evil would no doubt also be listening in on the police broadcast, would be quite sure that Laurento had not kidnapped Randall from headquarters.
Suddenly the voice of the police broadcaster was drowned out by a loud buzzing sound, that was repeated five times in quick succession. "X's" hand tensed on the wheel, though he did not slow down. Immediately following the buzz, Bates' voice came over the radio, saying: "Station X calling. Station X calling."
Bates must have something important to communicate, for he never used his short wave sending set unless it became imperative. It was an arrangement which the Agent had found quite convenient, for it gave Bates the opportunity of getting in touch with him, no matter where the Agent was. They used the police band, but employed a variety of codes which made it impossible for the police to understand the content of the messages.
After the station call, Bates' voice continued, delivering the message. The Agent immediately recognized which code Bates was employing, and his nimble brain deciphered as it came over the air waves. He needed no paper or pencil. It was a short message, but Bates kept repeating it and repeating it. He would do so until he received a phone call from the Agent. The message was:
"Important developments at headquarters. Our men cannot discover what is happening, as utmost secrecy is being maintained by Commissioner Foster. How shall I proceed?"
The Agent stopped at the nearest store displaying a telephone sign, entered and called Bates.
"Glad you called, sir," Bates said. "The man I have stationed at headquarters tells me that there's a lot of excitement down there. A good deal of running around. It seems that another murder has been discovered, for they phoned the medical examiner. But they wouldn't disclose what it was, wouldn't even give the reporters any information."
"I know what that is," the Agent told him. "It was up on Spuyten Duyvel Road. You needn't bother any more about getting on the trail of Langknecht. It's he who was murdered up there."
THERE was a moment's silence. Then: "Good Lord, sir," Bates exclaimed. "This Doctor Blood is bad medicine."
"Have you got any further trace of Grover Wilkerson?" the Agent asked.
"No, sir. But I've got some important information about him. One of our operatives from the middle west has just come in by plane. He tells me an item that has been kept secret from the public all this time. Did you know that Grover Wilkerson has only one hand?"
"What?" the Agent asked.
"Only one hand, sir. It seems that about eight or nine months ago he got an infection of the left hand, and it had to be amputated. This was done in a private hospital, and the physician who did it kept it a secret from the newspapers. As Wilkerson disappeared soon after that, none of his friends or acquaintances ever had a chance to learn about it. The way our operative discovered it, was through the certificate of the Board of Health. As you know, every amputation must be reported by the operating surgeon. The certificate that our man found out there, indicates that Wilkerson's left hand was amputated at the wrist."
"That is very important information, Bates," the Agent said slowly. "You must bend all your energies now to locating Wilkerson. Keep your men out on the job day and night. Pay them double wages. And have them search down every possible clue that might lead them to Wilkerson. And warn them to be careful. Wilkerson may be dangerous."
"I'm quite sure he is, sir. The man is certainly mentally deranged, and he has a terrible hatred for society."
"I am going to be very busy for the next three or four hours, Bates. I may not have a chance to communicate with you. If anything of importance turns up, flash it over Station X. Use code 'M' the next time."
"Right, sir," Bates acknowledged.
"One thing more," the Agent added. "Do you happen to have any information in the file on a Paraguayan dancer who may be in the city at this time? Her first name would be Lola."
"Just a moment, sir. I recall clipping some items on that subject. Will you hold the wire?"
In a few moments Bates was back. "Here it is, sir. Lola Lollagi. She was a star dancer in Asuncion. It seems from these clippings that she suddenly decided to come to the United States. She arrived the same week that Professor Hugo Langknecht arrived from Germany.
"I don't know if that has any significance. She is now playing at the Gotham Theatre in the North American Varieties. I also have a clipping here from La Paz, an Asuncion newspaper which states that she left rather hurriedly, with little baggage. She had one brother, a young man who suffered from some sort of mental ailment, and had been confined in an asylum in Paraguay. That is all the information I have on her."
"That is plenty," the Agent told him. "You have given me more than I expected. Continue with the search for Wilkerson, and report to me as instructed."
The Agent was about to hang up when Bates suddenly exclaimed: "Just a moment, sir. One of the other phones is ringing. Will you hold on a minute? It may be something of importance."
"I'll wait," the Agent said.
It was several minutes before Bates returned to the phone, and the Agent had to insert another nickel in the slot to keep the connection.
Bates' voice betrayed a slight tinge of excitement. "It's one of my operatives, sir, who has been shadowing the men who were present at headquarters today. We've got dictographs planted in their homes and this operative who has been working on John Lacey, overheard him telling his wife the contents of a message which he had just received from Commissioner Foster. It appears that Foster wants all of them to meet him tonight. It seems that there is some development that is so important he can't even tell them about it in the letter."
THE Agent thanked Bates, instructed him: "Continue to have all those men shadowed. Will get in touch with you again."
After he had said good-bye to Bates, the Agent dialed Betty Dale's number at the Herald. Though it was quite late, she had not gone home, but had waited for his call.
"I can't meet you now, Betty," he told her. "But there is a point you may be able to help me on. Do you know anything about Lola Lollagi, the Paraguayan dancer?"
"Yes. I handle most of the interviews with women, and it happens that I was getting up a little feature article on her for next Sunday. There isn't much known about her. She has been very reticent since she came to this country, not disclosing much about her past life. Of course we know that she was a great attraction in Asuncion—"
"I know about that," the Agent told her. "What do you know about her doings since she arrived here?"
"She's very beautiful. Many men have been interested in her, particularly Oscar Stanton, the stock speculator. For the last month since she has been in this country, he has managed to meet her every night when the theatre closed, but she never permits him to take her home. They go out a little together, but that is all. The doorman at the stage entrance told me that much about her. Beyond that, little is known about how she spends her spare time. I was anticipating having a tough job dragging information from her."
"You say," the Agent repeated thoughtfully, "that Oscar Stanton has been very much interested in her?"
"That's right. But it doesn't seem as if she returns his interest."
"Thank you," the Agent said. "Suppose you go home now, and get some rest."
Betty's voice was eager, lively. "I'm not the least bit tired. If you think I can be of any further use, I'll gladly—"
"No, Betty. I think that the matter I am working on will rush through to a swift conclusion now. Your aid has been invaluable."
"Well then, if you don't think you'll need me any more, maybe I'll run over to the Gotham Theatre and try to get that interview from Lola Lollagi."
"No, no," the Agent said hastily. "Suppose you put off getting that interview for a day or so. In exchange, I'll promise you a first page scoop."
"It's a bargain," Betty laughed lightly. "I'll go home. But don't forget your promise. And—" her voice lost its banter, grew suddenly serious—"you will be careful? If anything should happen—" a close listener might have detected a hint of a sob—"I—"
"You must not think of those things, Betty." The Agent's voice was hard, deliberately stern. He had schooled himself long ago to repress every softer emotion within himself, to kill it, to subordinate it, to the duty he owed to society.
He walked slowly from the store, reentered his coupé.
SECRET AGENT "X" drove to another one of his apartments, changed his disguise back to that of Victor Randall. He left by a side door, and did not use the coupé again, but took a taxicab. If he had been followed without his knowledge, the watcher would continue to keep an eye on that coupé.
Once in the taxicab, the Agent gave the address of Oscar Stanton's home. Stanton was the one man who had refused to stay at headquarters for the conference with Secret Agent "X." It was Stanton who had announced his intention of paying Doctor Blood rather than rely upon police protection or upon the assistance of Secret Agent "X." The fact that Stanton was interested in Lola Lollagi further made him a focus of interest for the Agent.
When he arrived at Stanton's imposing home, "X" was admitted by the manservant who recognized him at once as Victor Randall. Randall and Stanton, of course, knew each other well.
Stanton was apparently in a state of great excitement. He greeted "X" loudly and effusively—a little too loudly, and a little too effusively, the Agent decided.
Stanton's face was flushed, his collar wilted from perspiration. His eyes did not meet "X's," but kept wandering about, never resting upon any one object. However, the hand with which he offered a whiskey and soda to the Agent was quite steady. "X" wondered if he was really as excited as he appeared.
"What's been happening to you, Randall? What's this about your being kidnapped from headquarters after Patterson was killed?"
"X" shrugged. "I don't know any more about it than you do, Stanton. He knocked me unconscious, and carried me out—must have been as a shield for him, because I came to about an hour later lying in an alley not far from headquarters." The Agent watched Stanton carefully as he told him this story, to see if he believed it.
Apparently the stock speculator did, for he said casually: "You were pretty lucky, Randall. The others didn't get off so easy when they got in his hands. But maybe he only kills on schedule, and you're number seventeen. You have another week to live."
They sipped their drinks in silence for a few minutes. Then Stanton said in a queer voice: "What brings you here anyway, Randall? I should think you'd be traveling around with a police guard, or staying safely at home."
"X" appeared to be hesitant about speaking. Then he said: "I'll tell you, Stanton. Ever since I came to in that alley, I've been thinking about this business, wondering whether it pays to defy this Doctor Blood. You've been talking about paying up—"
Stanton nodded. He said slowly: "I've already made arrangements to pay."
"That's why I came," "X" told him. "Suppose I also wanted to pay. Could you arrange it for me?"
Stanton held his glass arrested in mid-air. For the space of perhaps two minutes, he did not speak, but his eyes suddenly lost their shiftiness, studied "X" as if he would probe to the very depths of his innermost thoughts.
He said, rather as a statement than as a question: "So you want to pay, too. I think—it can be arranged."
"X" acted the part of Randall to perfection. He assumed an air of terrified anxiety. "Do you think he'd take my money—and leave me alone?"
Stanton nodded slowly, still studying his guest. "Yes."
"When—would I have to pay it over?"
"Tonight, Randall. If you can get the money and bring it over in an hour, I will pay it over for you."
"Everything—is arranged? You're sure it'll be all right?"
"Quite sure." Stanton nodded toward a theatre ticket that lay on the end table beside him. "See that ticket? It's for the balcony box at the Gotham Theatre tonight. I go there often." Stanton's eyes again avoided "X's." "There's an actress there that I'm especially interested in—and Doctor Blood seems to know it. I'm to sit in that box, and place the package of money in my hat which I will put on the floor. After the show, I am to stay in the box for ten minutes. During that ten minutes, some one will reach in and take the money from the hat. If you bring me your cash, I'll put it in with mine, and place a note there saying it's from you."
"X" WAS tense now, his mind racing quickly. He said: "But how can you be sure that Doctor Blood will take my money, too? Or how can you be sure that he won't take my money and then kill me anyway?"
Stanton shrugged. "You'll have to take that chance. But I'm pretty sure it'll be all right. I would advise you to pay."
"Perhaps," "X" suggested, still simulating great anxiety, "I could go along with you. Then—"
"Nothing doing!" Stanton rapped out. "If you want to do this, Randall, you'll do it my way!"
"Very well," said the Agent. "I'll do it your way. Anything—anything to escape the death that Patterson got!" The Agent managed to shudder in a very good imitation of extreme terror. "L-let's have another drink. Here, I'll pour it."
The Agent poured the whiskey until Stanton said: "Hold it," and then picked up the syphon of water. For a moment "X" shifted and his body screened his actions from the other. In that second, a little capsule which he had held in the palm of his hand dropped into the glass. He then poured his drink, and handed over Stanton's glass.
Stanton leaned back in his chair, looked at "X" speculatively. "You know, Randall, it's a damn good thing you've come to me. I'd hate to see you get the treatment that Lewis Forman got. It's a damned unpleasant thing to have your jugular vein ripped open, and then have some ghoul drink your blood!" He shrugged, raised his glass. "Well, let's drink to tonight's arrangement!"
Stanton took a long gulp from his glass, and put it down.
The Agent sipped his drink, watching the other. Almost immediately, Stanton's eyes began to droop, his body to sag. In less than a minute his head was resting upon his chest. He was unconscious.
Now the Agent moved swiftly but surely. First he went to the door, locked it, so that he would not be interrupted by the manservant. Then he returned to the chair where Stanton sat, extracted from an inner pocket a kit of make-up material and a triple mirror which he unfolded and set beside the kit. Quickly, maneuvering as best he could, he changed clothes with Stanton. Then his long, capable fingers set to work with furious speed, manipulating the pigments, plastic materials, and other objects in the kit.
In an amazingly short space of time he had transformed his features into those of the man who sat unconscious in the chair. He took a couple of steps up and down the room in imitation of Stanton's walk, and then talked aloud for a moment, mimicking the other's voice. Then he set to work upon Stanton. His job was easier this time as he did not have to work upon his own face but he had to rely upon memory for the features which he was placing there.
When he had finished he stood back and surveyed his handiwork. No one would have suspected that the man who sat there inertly, was anybody but Victor Randall, the man who had just come into the house. "X" had merely changed personalities with the other. The Agent now cast his eyes about the room, found a newspaper on the serving table in the corner. This he proceeded to cut into strips the size of dollar bills, and when he had a package about three inches wide, he wrapped it in newspaper and thrust it into his pocket.
Then he picked up the ticket to the Gotham Theatre, went to the door and unlocked it. Then he rang for the servant.
This moment would be a test. "X" knew that Kroon, the butler, had been with Stanton for several years. Would Kroon penetrate the disguise?
When Kroon entered his eyes instinctively went to "X," and he said: "You rang, Mr. Stanton?"
The Agent eyed him keenly, searching for some sign that the man suspected the change. But no. Kroon was entirely deceived.
"Yes," "X" told him. "Mr. Randall must have been very tired—must have been doing a good deal of drinking. He just took the one drink, and he's gone sound asleep. I must go out. Let him sit there until he wakes up. Be sure he is not disturbed. Do not come in here until I return."
Kroon bowed. "Yes, sir."
The Agent made for the door, followed by the servant. Downstairs Kroon handed him Stanton's hat and coat, and the Agent left. He was quite certain that his orders to Kroon would be obeyed. The manservant had absolutely no suspicion that the man who had just left was not his master.
Outside, the Agent hailed a cab and said: "Gotham Theatre."
Secret Agent "X" was going to keep the appointment which Stanton had told him he had with Doctor Blood.
THE Gotham Theatre was an old house which had long been devoted to the production of legitimate plays. Musty, with the plush and gilt grandeur of another day, it now stood forlornly yearning for the old triumphs when Mansfield had trod its boards. Until recently it had been empty, with only the ghosts of its old celebrities passing wraithlike up and down the narrow aisles. Now the old house was lit up, rejuvenated—with the glittering North American Varieties.
The performance was more than halfway through when the Agent arrived. The orchestra was well filled, as were the balcony and the mezzanine. "X" was conducted to a balcony box. When he was seated his eyes sought the stage, but he paid little attention to what was going on there. His gaze swung back to the fashionably attired women and the well-groomed men among the audience.
Here were hundreds of people, assembled in the usual way to seek entertainment, intent on spending an evening of pleasure despite the grisly menace which they knew was overhanging the city. Tomorrow another man was slated to die, to have throat torn, his blood drained from him by mysterious human vampires; and every day thereafter for a year another man would be doomed to die in the same way. Yet these people came here to be amused.
But "X's" attention was suddenly drawn to the stage. The chorus line of flashing legs backed away from the footlights, and the music struck up a lively tune. The spotlight focused upon the wing. A gorgeous creature daringly draped in a gown of silver cloth pirouetted upon the stage.
It was Lola Lollagi.
Her beauty was dazzling as she bowed with liquid grace. A series of complicated steps carried her directly beneath "X's" box. The setting of this scene was an old Moorish castle. The men and women of the chorus were Spanish grandees and their ladies. Lola Lollagi seemed to fit into the scene as if she had been born for it. The glittering silver cloth dress clung to her sinuous body, cut low at the neck, revealing the alabaster skin of a perfectly formed throat. Two jade earrings were the only ornaments which she wore. Her hair was combed high upon her head. She danced with incomparable grace and beauty. The simplicity of her attire made a striking contrast to the ornate settings and the glittering raiment of the other actors.
Several times she glanced up toward the box in which "X" sat. The fixed smile which she wore for the benefit of the audience remained there; but the Agent detected something else in her startling coal black eyes—something that might have been uneasiness, fear—almost terror. Was this because she resented Stanton's attentions?
Betty Dale had said that Stanton had been paying constant attendance upon the dancer; this was evidenced by Stanton's statement that he frequently visited the theatre and sat in this box. Was Lola Lollagi afraid of Stanton, or was she afraid that some third party would resent her going around with him?
That the woman must have superb control of herself was indicated by the fact that she was appearing here, able to go on with the show, after what had happened back at Professor Langknecht's house.
Lola finished her number, and retired from the stage amid crashing applause. Her last glance was leveled at the box in which "X" sat. And subsequently, while other performers held the stage, the Agent thought he could detect her peering out from the wing—inspecting him, studying him. Was it possible that she had pierced his disguise? It is harder to deceive a woman than a man. He was posing here as Stanton—a man whom she apparently knew well. Perhaps she had been able to detect some subtle difference of appearance which indicated to her that the person who sat in that box was not Oscar Stanton.
When the finale went on, the Agent took from his pocket the package of newspapers which he had cut to the size of dollar bills, and placed it in his hat on the floor.
He watched the curtain drop after the final encore, then sat quietly while the house emptied. Soon the big dome lights in the ceiling went out, leaving only the pilot light on the center of the stage. His box was shrouded in darkness.
ALL was quiet in the theatre. Five minutes passed, six, seven, eight, nine. Nothing happened. For the tenth time the second hand on "X's" wrist watch made a complete circuit.
And then the drapes at the rear of the box parted only an inch or two at the bottom.
Out of the corner of his eye "X" saw a slim, black-gloved hand reach in, pick up the package from his hat on the floor, and disappear. The drapes fell back in place.
Instantly he became galvanized into action. Moving quietly in the box, he parted the curtains and slipped through. No one was in sight. The person who had taken the money had already disappeared.
A narrow staircase led down to the orchestra. To the left, a short corridor curved around in the direction of the stage. "X" knew that the person who had taken that money had not descended by the stairs. He therefore followed the corridor, found that it ended in an iron spiral staircase. The floor above would contain the dressing rooms of the chorus. On the floor below the dressing rooms of the stars and the office of the stage manager.
Looking down into the dimly lit well of the spiral staircase, the Agent could discern a figure disappearing into the regions backstage. All he could discern was a swiftly moving flash of white skin and cloth of silver. Then the figure was lost to sight in the gloom below.
"X" descended swiftly, silently, on his rubber soled shoes. He was now on the level of the stage itself. Everything was quiet. He crossed the open space backstage, came into a wide corridor. There were several rooms along this corridor, and just as he turned into it he heard a door farther down slam shut.
He heard voices to his left, heard several "good-nights" exchanged, heard the stage door open and shut. The personnel of the play had already departed.
"X" heard the doorman tramping around somewhere at the other end of the stage. He would soon be making his rounds to make sure that everything was shipshape for the night, and that everyone had gone home. There would be a few minutes before that tour of inspection.
The Agent knew which door had opened and closed. It was the third one down in the corridor, and he was sure whose room it was. For that glimpse he had got of the silver and white had identified for him the person who had taken the money—Lola Lollagi. She must, then, be acting under the instructions of Doctor Blood.
The Agent drew back into the shadow's around the bend in the corridor, waiting for Lola Lollagi to change her clothes and come out again. He felt sure that she would go at once to deliver the package. And he intended to follow her, to find just how she contacted the party who was eventually to receive that package.
As he stood there watching the door through which Lola had disappeared, his back was toward one of the darkened wings of the stage. Immediately behind him was the huge backdrop upon which was painted the representation of a golden Spanish sunset. In front of this was the tin structure which had been painted to represent the turrets of a Moorish castle. No soul moved upon the stage. He no longer heard the movements of the doorman. That worthy had probably decided that it was unnecessary to make a tour of inspection and had gone into the little cubbyhole beside the door for a snooze.
Five minutes passed. The Agent began to wonder whether there was not some other exit from Lola's room, whether she had not already departed with the package.
He set himself to wait. Perhaps she was opening the package herself. Perhaps—the thought struck him with stunning force—she was not taking it to anyone.
Although his ears were keenly attuned to sound all about, he did not hear the stealthy footsteps of the figure that crept behind him in the darkness while he watched. This figure had materialized apparently from nowhere. It crouched over, with head lowered, stalking silently; it came nearer, step by silent step. As it approached within three feet of the Agent, its head raised, revealing a queer sort of covering over the face that might have been a Halloween mask. Out of this mask, two eyes peered at the Agent.
Slowly, silently, it crept upon him. The right hand held a knife. The left was a claw—a four taloned hideous-looking claw with curved, sharp-pointed talons that were poised as if ready to tear open "X's" throat.
And suddenly that sixth sense which had often come to the aid of the Agent at critical moments made him whirl about. And the masked figure leaped upon him, the taloned claw reaching for his throat!
DEATH stared at Secret Agent "X" out of those two murderous eyes hidden behind the mask of horror.
The Agent dropped to one knee, twisted his shoulder about to avoid the swiftly plunging point of that glittering knife. The claw swished past, missing him by a scant hair's breadth. The talons on the monster's left hand missed "X's" throat, tore into his shoulder, ripping away the cloth of his coat, digging with agonizing pain into his flesh.
The masked monster was upon him now, and he could hear its wheezing breath. The claw flashed upward once more, the talons reached for him again.
The Agent warded off the blow with his elbow, crashed his right fist into that hideous mask. His knuckles smashed the cardboard nose, hurling the figure backwards. But in its backward fall, the claws of the taloned left hand caught in the Agent's shoulder once more, held firm and dragged him after the falling body. The two of them hit the floor together, the Agent on top. The murderous hand was powerless for the moment, being held helpless under the Agent's body. But those claws were free; they came down in another ripping blow. "X" knew now how those victims had felt when they died, what Langknecht and Patterson and the others had faced.
"X" thrust up a hand, met the other's left arm just above the taloned claw. The Agent's powerful fingers dug deep into that arm, warding the claws away from his throat. The monster struggled and twisted under the Agent's grip, exhibiting amazing, almost fanatic strength. It heaved powerfully, threw the Agent off, and scrambled to its knees.
Down came the claw once more in a vicious slash. "X" barely rolled away in time, heard the thud of the knife as it buried itself in the soft wood of the floor. Then he lashed out with his feet, directly at the face of the monster. His heels caught the other squarely in the face, hurled him backward.
An unearthly sound that resembled a shriek of fury burst from the hidden lips behind that battered mask. The Agent scrambled to his feet, set himself to leap upon the other. From the direction of the stage entrance he heard hoarse shouts, the sound of running feet.
His eye caught the figure of Lola Lollagi suddenly rushing out of the dressing room which she had entered before. Her eyes opened wide as she saw the masked figure of the monster upon the floor, saw the person whom she believed to be Stanton about to leap upon it. Her mouth opened wide and she uttered shriek after shriek, high pitched, terror stricken. She still wore her silver gown, over which she had thrown a cloak. Under her arm she clutched the package which she had taken from "X's" hat.
The Agent caught only that single glimpse of her, and was about to disregard her, to turn and leap upon the monster, when Lola's shrieks turned into intelligible words.
"Police!" she screamed. "The police are coming!"
The masked monster struggled to its knees, and "X" turned, saw that the doorman was running across the stage toward them, followed by two uniformed policemen with drawn revolvers. He had apparently heard the struggle, had gone out to summon help.
The monster leaped to its feet, hurled itself at "X," disregarding the threat of the police. Hatred, intense and burning, gleamed from the two eyes behind the mask.
One of the officers shouted: "Stand still, or we'll shoot to kill!"
THE Agent had no wish to be cornered here, and questioned. Once more he was compelled to ward off that gleaming talon with his left arm, to protect his throat against the claws of death.
The police were almost upon them when the claw-man suddenly seemed to realize the danger. He cast a single glance at the threatening revolvers, turned a hateful gaze upon "X," and then swung about, fled down the corridor. Lola already had disappeared.
The Agent gave up all hope of capturing the claw-man. The police were close now, and their attention was all for the escaping monster rather than for him. This was quite understandable, as it would appear to them that "X" was a respectable man who had been attacked by the monster. They dashed past him, and one of the officers fired his heavy service revolver. The explosion reverberated through the theatre, but the officer must have missed, for the claw-man disappeared into the darkness.
The doorman shouted: "Get after him quick! There's a side exit there. He'll get away!"
The two officers hastened after the fugitive, and the doorman, after casting only a single glance at "X," hurried after them, eager to be in on the kill.
The Agent was left alone upon the stage. He turned, crossed quickly, made his way to the stage door, and slipped out into the alley. He heard two more shots from within the theatre, and then the frantic shrill of the patrolmen's whistles. Apparently the monster had escaped them.
The Agent hurried down the alley, out into the street which was more or less deserted by this time, walked quickly to the corner and hailed a passing taxicab.
On the West Side, "X" dismissed the cab and walked two blocks to an apartment house. Here he ascended to the third floor and entered another one of his retreats.
It took him almost a half hour to remove the disguise of Stanton, to wash the deep cut in his shoulder with antiseptic, and then to build for himself once more the personality of Victor Randall.
He must once more use that disguise, for it was imperative that he learn what plans the commissioner was making for the protection of Norman Marsh and the other doomed men.
When he was almost through with his work, the radio in the room suddenly came to life. The voice of Bates announced: "Station 'X' calling. Station 'X' calling."
Then in code, Bates proceeded to deliver a message over the air which the Agent deciphered without difficulty.
"Important meeting called at home of John Lacey for 11:50 P.M. Commissioner Foster has requested Marsh, Sturgis, Larkin and Randall to be present at Lacey's home at that time. I have no means of learning purpose of meeting, and my operative reports he cannot get into Lacey's home. What shall I do?"
The Agent snapped off the radio, glanced at his watch. It was 11:40—ten minutes before the time of the meeting.
He hastened downstairs, stopped in at a phone booth and called Bates. Otherwise, Bates would have continued to broadcast the message until assured that the Agent had received it. "X" then summoned a cab and gave the address of Lacey's home, which he knew to be located on Central Park West. He was ringing the doorbell of Lacey's apartment in the ornate building on Central Park West on the dot of 11:50.
"X" had had no means of telling whether the house was being watched by Doctor Blood's men or not; for opposite the building lay the gloomy expanse of Central Park, thickly wooded at this spot. A hundred eyes might have been peering out of the shrubbery along here without being perceived.
LACEY himself opened the door, and when he saw "X," he uttered an exclamation of astonishment. "We hardly expected you, Randall. Foster phoned your home as a matter of course, but we really didn't think we'd ever see you alive again. What happened to you? Were you kidnapped? How did you get away?" He fired the questions at "X" one after the other with breathless rapidity. Then, shuddering, said: "We were almost afraid you'd had your throat clawed like the others!"
The Agent made no immediate answer, but allowed himself to be led into the comfortable, high-ceilinged living room. The others were already present. Mayor Sturgis was there, as well as Norman Marsh and Frank Larkin. The original eight who had been present in the commissioner's office that morning had been reduced to five now. Patterson and Langknecht were dead, and Stanton had deserted them.
Marsh, Sturgis and the others crowded around "X" eagerly, hurling questions at him. They touched him, squeezed him, acting like hysterical schoolboys. They insisted on his telling what had happened.
He gave them a short explanation, telling them in substance the same story that he had told Stanton, taking as few words as possible.
"And now," he finished, "what is this meeting for?"
Immediately a pall of gloom descended upon them. Sturgis spoke reluctantly. "Commissioner Foster has received another letter from this devilish Doctor Blood. Read it yourself."
He extracted an envelope from his pocket, and gingerly drew forth a folded sheet of paper which he gave to "X." Like the other missive of the doctor's, it was written in blood, scrawled in a bold, large handwriting. It read:
You will no doubt be interested to hear that I have made a slight change in my plans. I have suddenly decided that I need one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. I have therefore selected the names of the next five surviving men on my list, and I request you to inform them that they must make their payments to me not later than midnight today.
If they do not pay I shall, with great regret, be compelled to order that they all perish at once. Either I receive the sum mentioned before midnight, or they will all die tomorrow. If they decide to pay, you may get in touch with Oscar Stanton, who already knows what arrangements must be made.
Yours, for a long life,
The others listened attentively while "X" read the missive, though they apparently were already aware of its contents. When the Agent had finished it, he studied the grisly sheet of paper for a long minute, noting where the blood which had been used for ink had left stains upon the edges of the sheet.
He asked the mayor: "Has this been examined for fingerprints?"
"Of course," Sturgis assured him. "But those smudges show nothing. The man who wrote it must have worn rubber gloves."
The Agent returned the letter to the mayor who folded the sheet, and methodically replaced it in the envelope, returned the envelope to his pocket. Norman Marsh threw himself into an easy chair, and lit a cigarette.
"We've been arguing this thing pro and con for the last ten minutes before you came, Randall," he said. "Larkin and Lacey want to pay. Sturgis and I have absolutely refused. It looks like you have the deciding vote."
LACEY was pacing up and down the room nervously, chewing a cigar to shreds. He stopped suddenly before Marsh's chair, exclaimed irritably: "Stanton was right. From what this Doctor Blood says in the letter, Stanton must have paid up already. It's all right for you, Marsh. You're used to this sort of thing; and you haven't got a family to worry about either. But Larkin and I don't go in for exploring and big game hunting. All we want is to be left alone. And it's worth twenty-five thousand to each of us not to have this terrible threat hanging over our heads!"
Larkin, the newspaper proprietor, was standing with his back to the others, staring out of the window into the night. He said over his shoulder in a dull voice: "I'm with Lacey. This madman who signs himself Doctor Blood has shown that he can carry out his threats. Sturgis and Marsh can be stubborn if they want, but the way I look at it, twenty-five thousand is little enough to pay when you think of what has happened to the others." He glanced at his wrist watch. "It's five minutes of twelve. All five of us may be dead, with our throats torn open at one minute after midnight. I'm for calling Stanton right now—"
Mayor Sturgis interrupted him. "Just a minute, Larkin. There's no sense in talking this way. We're all pretty well on edge." The mayor's face was indeed gray with worry. He showed the effects of the terrible strain upon him. For, in addition to being one of those upon Doctor Blood's list, he was also burdened with the responsibility of handling the entire situation. There were fine beads of sweat under his eyes.
He ran a hand wearily across his face as he went on: "I feel much the same as you do, Larkin, but I'm holding out as best I can. We dare not give in to this man the way Stanton has. Don't you understand that it would only mean the beginning of a reign of terror throughout the country? We, here, have been unfortunate enough to be chosen by Doctor Blood; and it becomes our duty to fight him in the best way we can.
"We are not going to pay—and we are going to do our best to make sure that we live through the day. If we are alive by midnight tomorrow, it will mean that Doctor Blood is not as infallible as he claims to be. It will break up his entire plan, will give the rest of the men on that list of three hundred and sixty-five the courage to refuse to pay, too." His voice grew eager, urgent. "Don't you see? We've got to carry on!"
Lacey seemed to be somewhat impressed by the mayor's impassioned plea. He stopped his nervous pacing, said: "Well—"
Norman Marsh sprang from his chair, clapped him on the shoulder. "Come on, Lacey, snap out of it! Foster has planned to protect the five of us starting at midnight. He practically guarantees that we'll be safe."
Larkin swung away from the window, demanded eagerly: "What kind of plan?"
"Sturgis will tell you about it," said Marsh.
The mayor explained. "Gentlemen, Commissioner Foster is making sure that Doctor Blood cannot get to us tonight. We are going to place ourselves beyond his reach!"
"What will we do?" Lacey asked sarcastically. "Go up in a balloon and stay up in the stratosphere all night and all day?"
The quip provoked no answering smile from the assembled men.
Mayor Sturgis shook his head. "I am going to do better than that. We are all going to put ourselves—in jail!"
Larkin crossed the room from the window, his eyes burning feverishly. "In jail!" he repeated after the mayor. "Are you crazy?"
"X" had been silent all this time, studying each of the men in turn. He was especially interested in Lacey and Larkin. They had both been so anxious to pay up, to induce the others to pay, but suddenly, upon learning that there was a plan in the wind, they were eager to discover what it was. Neither of them was the type of man which the Agent pictured Doctor Blood to be. But both were clever, shrewd business men, and had the brains. It would be an ingenious stroke for the man who masked himself under the name of Doctor Blood to have placed himself upon the very list of victims whom he had named.
"X's" thoughts were interrupted by the mayor, who was explaining the plan. "Commissioner Foster has arranged for an escort of policemen to accompany us. We will stay in jail all night and all day tomorrow until midnight, and there will be a heavy guard placed inside and outside. Not a soul will be admitted under any pretext. If Doctor Blood can get through that guard, he will have to be good!"
Lacey seemed to be wavering. The idea appealed to him. "Of course," he said reflectively, "Doctor Blood got Patterson right in police headquarters. He might even be able to get at us in jail."
"I'm willing to take that chance," Marsh said quietly. "The only way he got Patterson was under a pretext, by sending some one to pose as Secret Agent 'X.' While we are in jail, no one will be admitted under any pretext."
Mayor Sturgis turned to "X." "What do you say, Randall. Will you go with us?"
"X" nodded. If these men all stuck together tonight, he wanted to be near them. Undoubtedly Doctor Blood would make an attempt upon their lives. Well, the Agent would be right there when the attempt was made. He said: "I'm in favor of it, Sturgis."
"X's" words seemed to carry weight with the others. Lacey capitulated, and set to work to convince Larkin that he ought to throw in with them.
Finally Larkin exclaimed: "All right! I'll go with you—and I hope it works. God, I hope it works!"
"When do we go?" "X" asked.
"At once," the mayor announced. "It is two minutes of twelve—the police escort will be below now."
Lacey poured them each a drink of cognac, and then they filed out of the apartment, went down in the self-service elevator. On the way down, Lacey whispered to the Agent: "I sent the servants off for the night when this meeting was called. No one knows about it."
"X" made no comment. He could have told Lacey that the meeting was not as secret as he thought. Bates had learned of it. And it was highly possible that Doctor Blood also knew about it.
The chimes of a near-by church were just beginning to toll the hour of midnight when the five men, with Mayor Sturgis in the lead, crossed the lobby and went out into the biting cold of the February night.
THE mayor exclaimed: "Aha—everything is on schedule!" Before the curb stood a police van. A uniformed police sergeant and four blue-coats, all with service revolvers in their hands, stood beside the van. They were tense, watchful, their eyes constantly shifting to the dark reaches of Central Park across the street.
Norman Marsh, who was walking beside "X," whispered: "Those officers are as nervous as we are. I'm beginning to have a healthy respect for this Doctor Blood of ours."
"X" smiled. "Who wouldn't have a healthy respect for him. He's in a fair way to terrorizing the entire country."
The uniformed sergeant saluted the mayor, reported: "Sergeant Mace, sir, Morrisville Precinct." He grinned sheepishly. "I've got orders from the commissioner to place you and these other gentlemen under arrest—if you don't mind, sir."
"Not at all, not at all," the mayor said. He had almost regained his usual joviality at the thought of safety. "I dare say we're the most willing prisoners you've ever had!"
Sergeant Mace saluted, motioned to one of the bluecoats who opened the rear door of the van. Marsh went in first, then Larkin, then "X," then Lacey. Sturgis followed them.
One of the bluecoats went around and sat in front beside the driver, while Mace and the other two officers climbed in to the interior of the van.
As they drove away, the single electric bulb in the wire cage in the middle of the roof of the truck cast a dim light which showed "X" the strained countenances of his companions. Larkin showed most the strain that they had been under.
"You—you think," he said to Norman Marsh, "that we'll get there safely? It's after midnight. Maybe this Doctor Blood will—attack us on the way!"
Mayor Sturgis laughed shortly. "I doubt it. If he should be foolhardy enough to try anything like that, it would probably be the end of him." He gestured toward the bluecoats sitting near the door. Each one was grimly holding a sub-machine gun in his lap, while Sergeant Mace kept looking back through a small porthole in the rear door.
"This is really an armored car," Sturgis explained. "Doctor Blood would have to have a small howitzer to stop us. And if he attacks us with anything less than that, those machine guns will mow him down—with his beasts!"
Lacey sighed deeply. "Well, in a few minutes we'll be safe in jail. But I'm afraid I won't get much sleep tonight."
They drove in silence now for perhaps ten minutes. Then the van slowed down.
Sergeant Mace turned and announced to the mayor: "Here we are, sir." He wiped his broad face with a dirty handkerchief. "Whew! I'm glad that ride is over. I sure thought something was going to happen!"
The truck was backing up now, and in a moment the doors opened. Two of the bluecoats descended first, holding their sub-machine guns in front of them. "X" could see that they were in a sort of alley which ended in a small door at the far end. The two bluecoats walked around to the front, reconnoitered and returned, reporting that they had not been followed. It was not till then that Sergeant Mace said: "All right. I guess it's safe."
He got down together with the last bluecoat, and stood alertly while "X" and the others got out. Then he led the way down the alley toward the small door at the back.
"X" recognized the building as the old jail behind the Morrisville Station House. Its use as a jail had been discontinued about a year ago, when the new Morrisville Detention House had been erected right next to the police station. "X" had been here several times, knew that this old building backed up right against the station house.
Sturgis, who was walking beside him, whispered, "This was pretty clever of Foster. No one would suspect that we were hiding in this old jail. I begin to think we may have put it over on Doctor Blood!"
The Agent would have felt much better if he could have shared Sturgis' confidence. He had too great a respect for the unknown individual who used the name of Doctor Blood, had seen too much of how he operated, to feel that they would be unmolested throughout the night. But he said nothing. There was no sense in undermining the courage of the others.
They entered through the small door which Mace held open for them, and the four bluecoats filed in after them.
"All right, Joe," Mace called out to the driver of the van. The gears clashed, and the van drove out of the alley as Mace closed the door behind them.
They were in a small, antiquated receiving room. A long corridor led from here into the gloomy interior.
"How about the guards?" Mayor Sturgis inquired.
"There's a half dozen inside, sir," Mace informed him. "And about fifty posted around the building. There's not a chance of anybody's breaking into this place tonight."
He led the way down the corridor. "If you will step this way, sir, I'll show you and the other gentlemen the quarters that have been prepared."
They followed him down into the jail proper, with the armed bluecoats behind them. One of the bluecoats remained at the door, on guard with a sub-machine gun in the crook of his arm.
On the way, they passed two more uniformed men, armed with riot guns.
"You've certainly taken plenty of precautions," Mayor Sturgis commended.
"Thank you, sir. We're doing our best." Mace opened another door. "If you will step in here, I will show you the accommodations. They were the best we could do on such short notice, sir."
They filed in, one after the other.
The room was square, equipped with a table and several chairs. On the table was a small lamp which cast a dim light.
"You'll be safe in here," Mace called out to them from the doorway. "The windows are all shuttered so no light can leak out."
"But where do we sleep?" the mayor demanded. "I say—"
His words were drowned out by the sound of the heavy door clanging shut. A key grated in the lock. They were alone in the room.
SECRET AGENT "X" stood tense, his eyes sweeping the room. Mayor Sturgis ran to the door, pounded upon it. "Mace, Mace!" he shouted. "What's the matter with you! We want something to sleep on!"
The others all stood around, slightly bewildered by the sudden shutting of the door. There was no answer to the mayor's shout. Sturgis turned away from the door, looked at them queerly. His eyes, deep sunk, looked from one to the other. "Gentlemen—I am afraid I do not understand this."
Norman Marsh said puzzledly: "Neither do I. What's this—a practical joke of yours? If so, you've picked a damned poor time for a joke!"
Secret Agent "X" stood between them. "This is no joke, Marsh. I'm afraid I understand it too well."
Larkin and Lacey crowded about him, as did the mayor and Marsh.
"What do you mean?" Larkin demanded, his voice trembling.
"I mean," the Agent explained, "that we are not here under the protection of Commissioner Foster, or of the police. My guess is that Sergeant Mace is no police sergeant, and that his bluecoats are not policemen. It is a superb masquerade. Gentlemen, I am afraid that we are in the hands of Doctor Blood!"
As if to verify his words, a small wicket in the door was suddenly flung open, and a burst of demoniacal laughter pealed into the room from out in the corridor.
A distorted, ugly face peered in at them through the bars. A twisted claw of a hand, with talons flecked with blood, waved at them wildly.
The laughter that issued from that ghastly mouth was tinged with wildness, with madness. It filled the room, struck sharply at the eardrums.
Frank Larkin put a hand to his throat, staggered backward and slumped into a chair. Then he covered his eyes with his hand and began to moan.
Suddenly the grisly laughter ceased. The claw pointed at them one at a time; and a tight mad voice shrieked at them; "You've guessed it. You've guessed it. You're in the hands of Doctor Blood. Doctor Blood always gets his man!"
The Agent knew that claw. He also noted the battered condition of those hideous features. This was the man he had battled with in the Gotham Theatre—unmasked now. And he also recognized the face. It was the face of Grover Wilkerson—the demented financier, whom Bates' men were seeking everywhere, whom the police of the entire nation were on the hunt for.
The Agent's eyes were clouded as he listened to the madman's ravings. For he was convinced that Wilkerson could not be Doctor Blood. Wilkerson was a demented, dangerous, murderous paranoiac. But his very demented condition made it impossible for him to have acted in the cold, cruel, calculating way that Doctor Blood had exhibited. Wilkerson could never have planned this ingenious kidnapping trick. Wilkerson was no more than a tool.
"X's" hand was in his pocket, on his gas gun. But he did not use it. He could have rendered Wilkerson unconscious, but they would be in no better position than now. For they would still be in the power of Wilkerson's master.
The Agent's mind was racing, already planning for the immediate future, planning some means of taking advantage of the demented financier's condition.
At that moment, Norman Marsh sprang forward, a heavy blue steel automatic in his hand, leveled at the wicker window. The explorer's face was set in a grim line, as he pressed his finger upon the trigger aiming at Wilkerson's face.
The Agent acted quickly on the spur of the moment. He struck Marsh's wrist, causing the automatic to explode into the floor. Wilkerson's face disappeared from the wicker, and the steel window snapped shut.
Marsh swung on the Agent, his eyes blazing. "Damn you," he shouted. "You stopped me from killing that beast!"
The others were also staring at "X," their eyes showing strange suspicion.
The Agent tried to explain to them. "Don't you see, Marsh, we couldn't gain a thing by that. Wilkerson isn't the boss. But killing him will leave us just as badly off as we are now. It was a mistake to show our captors that we are armed. It would have been better to save that as a surprise for a time when it would do us some good."
Lacey sneered. "Sounds like a good argument, Randall, but the fact remains that that madman out there is Grover Wilkerson. He's the one who has clawed all our friends to death, drained their bodies of blood. And Marsh could have killed him if you hadn't stopped him." His voice assumed an insinuating tone. "Maybe you have some special reason for saving Wilkerson's life, Randall. After all, we don't know whom to trust in a situation like this."
Mayor Sturgis tried to soothe Lacey. "Look here, John," he urged. "You don't mean to say that Randall has got anything to do with Doctor Blood!"
"Why not," Lacey went on impetuously. "We suspected Stanton, why can't we suspect Randall. Why, look at the chance Marsh had—"
It was Marsh who stopped him. "Cut it out, Lacey," he snapped. "Randall was right, and I was a fool. Now they know we're armed. You others have guns too, haven't you?"
They all nodded, and he went on. "They forgot to search us when they brought us here. We might have had a chance to use our guns when they take us out of this room. Now they'll be more careful. Randall knew what he was doing when he knocked my gun down. I think you owe him an apology, Lacey!"
It was sometime before the air of tension in the room subsided. But the lingering seeds of suspicion which Lacey had aroused, continued to do their work. The glances which the men exchanged showed that they had ceased to trust each other. And "X" could hardly blame them. For it was entirely possible that any one of them might be connected with Doctor Blood just as they had suspected that Stanton was, just as he himself had suspected that Langknecht was.
"X" found a chair, relaxed, and closed his eyes. To the others he appeared to be sleeping. But in reality the active brain behind those closed eyes was weighing every angle of the situation. They were prisoners of Doctor Blood, and in spite of the fact that there was a police station right behind the building in which they were confined, they would all surely die if the Agent did not evolve some plan to release them.
This was a situation which called for all the resources, all the abilities, all the great daring of that man who was known as Secret Agent "X." And for once he did not feel that sense of extreme confidence which he generally experienced in his clashes with clever criminals.
For Doctor Blood was indeed the master of them all—in ingenuity, in ruthlessness, and in fiendishness.
THE Agent's thoughts were disturbed by the voices of the other men in the room, which rose to a high pitch of excitement. Larkin was almost hysterically berating Marsh and Mayor Sturgis for having compelled him to go with them. "Damn you both!" he shouted. "I wanted to pay, I wanted to settle with this Doctor Blood, and you wouldn't let me. Now you've dragged me into this. We're in the hands of that madman, Wilkerson. Now we'll all have our throats torn open, and our blood drained out of us!"
"We can still put up a fight," Marsh growled. "We're all armed. They may have sub-machine guns, they may have claws, but five determined men like us ought to be able to give a good account of ourselves. To hell with this Doctor Blood. Let's sell our lives as dearly as possible!"
Mayor Sturgis was glumly silent. He let Marsh finish, and then he said: "Perhaps there's some way out of this. Maybe we can do business with this Doctor Blood. It's all my fault, gentlemen. I shouldn't have dragged you into this. But my duty as mayor—"
Secret Agent "X" did not hear the rest of what Sturgis had to say. For he had opened his eyes, and in glancing around the room noted that a tiny aperture in the opposite wall had slid open. It was no more than an inch by probably a half inch wide. But behind that opening he detected an eye peering in at them. He arose from his chair, borrowed a cigarette from Marsh and lit it. Under cover of lighting Marsh's cigarette for him, he whispered to the explorer: "Be careful what you say or do. We are being watched. Don't look around."
Marsh lowered his eyes to signify that he understood. Then he said with a great appearance of casualness: "Perhaps you're right, Sturgis. Maybe it would be better to pay up. I wonder if Doctor Blood would take our money now."
"It's a good thing," Sturgis replied, "that Randall didn't let you shoot Wilkerson through the door, Marsh. If you had killed him, or injured him. Doctor Blood might want to take revenge on us, rather than accept our money. Now we have a chance."
Lacey was pacing up and down, again. He was about to say something, when he stopped short; for the wicker grill in the massive door was swung open once more.
They all turned to the door, remained silent as Wilkerson's ugly face appeared there again. This time Wilkerson did not press his face as close to the grill as he had before. His right hand was close to the opening, and in it he held a small metal object.
The Agent recognized this as the same sort of gas bomb which Laurento had thrown into the commissioner's room, and which the men who attacked him in his retreat had attempted to use on him. Apparently this sort of bomb could be used as a container for various kinds of gases.
Wilkerson's harsh, cackling voice addressed them. "I won't use this gas bomb unless I have to. Doctor Blood wants to talk to you, one at a time. You'll come out in turn, according to your numbers on his list. Marsh is first, Sturgis next, then Lacey, Larkin, and Randall last. Do you agree, or do I throw this bomb in and knock you all unconscious?"
The five men in the room glanced at one another questioningly. Marsh was about to say something defiant, when "X" stopped him by putting a hand on his arm. Then "X" said to Wilkerson:
"Maybe you'll tell us what Doctor Blood wants to talk to us about. And why he wants to see us one at a time?"
Wilkerson seemed to think that over for a minute, then he said quickly: "Yes, I'll tell you. Doctor Blood knows that four of you men are the ones you're supposed to be. But one of you isn't. One of you is here in disguise—he is the person who is known as Secret Agent 'X.' That man must die. The rest of you can buy your way out of here."
Mayor Sturgis started to laugh nervously. "Secret Agent 'X'! Impossible! Why, we all know each other thoroughly. I'll vouch for every one of these men!"
"And who," Wilkerson sneered, "will vouch for you?"
Sturgis flushed. "What do you mean—"
"Stop it!" Wilkerson's mad voice almost cracked with its intensity. "I hate every damn one of you. You all contributed in some way to my ruin. I'd like to claw you all. Answer quickly. Do you agree to come out one at a time, or do I throw the bomb?"
His hand, holding the small object, approached the grilled opening. Lacey shouted: "Wait! We'll go."
"All right." Wilkerson's hand disappeared with the metal object, reappeared in a moment with a pair of handcuffs which he dropped into the room. "Marsh is first. Cuff his hands behind him, and stand well back from the door. You have nothing to fear Marsh, if you are not Secret Agent 'X.' Otherwise, prepare to die."
A HEAVY key turned in the lock outside. The door started to swing open. In the hallway the twisted figure of Wilkerson was disclosed, and beside him that of the bogus Sergeant Mace holding a sub-machine gun trained on the doorway. Mace called out:
"All right, Marsh come out. If any of you others try to come with him, I'll cut you down."
Marsh turned to his companions, said quietly: "Well, see you later." He winked to them, turned and strode out of the room. The heavy door clanged shut behind him.
Sturgis and Lacey and Larkin began to talk all at once. Secret Agent "X" kept quiet. He was content to let the others buy their way out. As for himself, he must devise some means of outwitting Wilkerson and this unknown person who used the name of Doctor Blood. When his own turn came, he would not be able to avoid exposure. He could make no plans now, for he did not know where he would be taken from here. Of one thing he was sure—he would certainly make an attempt to kill Doctor Blood once he came face to face with him.
It was against the Agent's policy to kill. He avoided it whenever possible. But in this case he regarded the person who used the title of Doctor Blood as no more than a mad dog, to be shot on sight. He regretted now, that his gas gun was not a lethal weapon.
His eyes stole to the small aperture in the opposite wall. He breathed easier when he noticed that it was closed now. No eye was observing them. Suddenly he appeared to stagger, clutched at Lacey's coat.
"What's the matter?" Lacey demanded, supporting him with one hand. He led "X" to a chair, seated him in it.
"I don't know," the Agent said, making his voice sound as weak as possible. "I got dizzy all of a sudden."
Mayor Sturgis and Larkin crowded around him. Sturgis said sympathetically: "You must be under a terrible strain, Randall. You've been through more than the rest of us. After all, you were actually in the hands of one of Doctor Blood's men once before. Take it easy, Randall."
"X" kept his eyes closed for a while. He was entirely satisfied to appear to be a weakling before the others. He had accomplished his purpose. For, in staggering against Lacey as he had done, his hands had worked rapidly, efficiently, with a lightness of touch that defied detection. He had noted that Lacey was carrying his gun in an outside coat pocket. And he had made an exchange, placing his own gas gun in Lacey's pocket, transferring Lacey's gun to his own.
So swiftly, so expertly had he done it, that none of them had noticed it. Now he was armed with a weapon that would kill. And he was fully prepared to take the law into his own hands this time. If he got the opportunity, he would execute Doctor Blood in the interests of humanity.
THREE times more in the next hour the key turned in the lock and the heavy oak door swung open, revealing Wilkerson with his hideous claw, and Mace, armed with the submachine gun. Each time another man was led out. And they did not return. Sturgis was the second to go, then Lacey, then Larkin. They seemed more or less resigned to go peaceably, since Wilkerson had told them that it would be possible for them to buy their way out.
Lacey and Larkin were almost eager to make terms with Doctor Blood. Sturgis, though he felt the responsibility of his official position, seemed to be beaten. He was contrite at having dragged the others into this situation.
Larkin, who was the last to go, turned and shook hands with "X." "Well, Randall, I suppose I'll be seeing you shortly. This Doctor Blood must be mistaken about one of us being Secret Agent 'X.' I guess there'll be little difficulty in all of us proving to him that we are ourselves."
"X" made no reply, but shook hands with him, watched him leave the room. Again the oak door slammed shut.
The Agent was alone in the room. He had noted that with Lacey and Larkin, Wilkerson had not bothered to throw in a pair of handcuffs as he had done with Marsh and Sturgis. But he had seen Mace holding a pair in the corridor. Evidently they were sure enough of themselves to wait until they got each man outside now before handcuffing him.
"X" had noted the type of handcuffs which had been used on Marsh, and now, after casting a glance at the small aperture in the wall to make sure that it was closed and that he was not observed, he set to work quickly, extracted from his pocket a small case in which nestled a number of keys. From these he selected one, no more than three-quarters of an inch in length. This was a skeleton handcuff key.
"X" now replaced the case in his pocket and palmed the key. Though his hand remained open, the key rested there, held by the fleshy part of his palm. No one would have suspected that he was holding anything. The Agent took out the gun which he had slipped from Lacey's pocket, examined it to make sure that it was loaded, pulled up his right trousers leg, and stuck it in under the top of his sock. His experience had shown him that very few people when frisking a man for weapons will look there.
Hardly had he finished, when a key grated in the lock, and the big oak door swung open. "X" was slightly surprised, for less than three minutes had elapsed since Larkin had left. He wondered why they were coming for him so quickly. But it was not the distorted figure of Wilkerson which appeared in the doorway.
It was the woman, Lola Lollagi.
"X" watched her silently, with eyes narrowed as she stole into the room, casting a fearful glance behind her. She closed the door softly, so as not to make any noise, then turned, ran impulsively toward him. Her beautiful face was drawn and haggard, and her eyes betrayed inexplicable terror.
She came close to him, whispered urgently: "I know who you are. You're not Randall. You are the man that Doctor Blood has sworn to kill. You are Secret Agent 'X'!"
"X" lowered his eyelids, veiling his eyes. He said nothing.
Her slim hand reached up, gripped his coat lapel, and she shook him impatiently. "Don't deny it. You're wasting time. I'm here to help you. I know who you are, because I followed you from headquarters when you carried Laurento away. Please, please, don't waste time. There is so little left."
"If you are so sure about who I am," said the Agent, "why didn't you tell this precious Doctor Blood of yours. He seems to want to know very badly. You collected his money for him, you told him where Laurento was hidden. Why don't you betray me too?"
SHE dropped her hand with a gesture of despair, allowed her head to droop. "I was afraid of this. I was afraid you wouldn't trust me." Suddenly she raised her head, her large eyes met his. There was no guile in them now, only earnest pleading. "I'll tell you the truth. I'll tell you everything, because I want you to trust me. You must trust me." Her hands clenched and unclenched fearfully.
"X" glanced furtively at the aperture in the far wall. It was still closed. "Go on," he told her. "Talk quickly. They will soon be coming for me."
She rushed on, the words tumbling from her lips. "Everything I did, I did because I was compelled to. Doctor Blood got Laurento in his power, and did something to him that gave him this lust for blood. Then he sent him out to kill." She shuddered. "Laurento isn't the only one. He has Wilkerson, and he has others. They all do his bidding. I don't know what he does to them to make them obey him, but they go out to claw and kill at his command."
She faltered, said hesitantly: "I know you won't believe me when I tell you that I was compelled to do everything I did for Doctor Blood—compelled by the most devilish means!"
The Agent placed a hand on her shoulder, said gently: "I think I know by what means you were forced to do his bidding."
She raised her eyes, startled. "You know—"
"Yes. Let me see if I am right." He had been studying her face carefully, comparing its contours and general conformation with that of another face the picture of which he carried in his mind's eye. Now he went on: "I can see the resemblance. It is undeniable. Laurento is your brother. Doctor Blood got him in his power, did something to him that you talk about to make him lust for blood. Your brother's resistance was feeble; not mentally sound. He was confined in a sanitarium back in Paraguay for a while, was he not?"
Her eyes opened wide, her mouth fell slack. "How—how did you know?"
"If, as you believe, I am Secret Agent 'X' you must not be surprised that I should know things. But let's go on. When you learned that Laurento was in Doctor Blood's power, you appealed to this Doctor Blood to leave him alone. And Doctor Blood compelled you to serve him as the price of your brother's freedom. But he did not keep faith with you. He made your brother kill Patterson, anyway."
"That's right," she breathed. "I got my fiancé, Hugo Langknecht, to assist me when I discovered that Doctor Blood did not intend to keep faith with me. Some detective named Fearson discovered where Laurento was hidden, and somehow discovered that Hugo was interested. He went to Hugo's house, and I followed him there. We caught the detective and put him in a closet, and, as we were about to leave, Wilkerson and some of Doctor Blood's men raided the place and killed poor Hugo. I did not tell them about the detective hidden in the closet. They took me away, forced me to tell where Laurento was hidden. Doctor Blood must have guessed that you were Secret Agent 'X,' for he set a trap to catch you. But the trap failed."
The Agent put both hands on her shoulders, swung her about so that the lamp from the table cast a light upon her face. Then he demanded of her sharply: "Who is Doctor Blood? Is he Oscar Stanton?"
She shivered. "No, no! It couldn't be Oscar. Oscar has been hoping to marry me, even though I told him I was engaged to Hugo. But Oscar isn't the kind of man who could be so ruthless. He would never have had Hugo killed that way, even if they were rivals."
"Who, then, is Doctor Blood?"
She wilted, and her face paled. "I—don't—know! I have never seen his face."
"What did he do to these people—to Wilkerson, to your brother, to the others—to make them into wild beasts?"
"I don't know that—either. Most of the men that he has in his power are like Wilkerson and Laurento—mentally deranged. They are the ones who killed Prescott and Forman and the others. Somehow or other he has managed to gather around him a number of madmen, who do his bidding without question."
"All right," said the Agent. "Now tell me what you have come here for."
"I want your help!" she exclaimed passionately. "Doctor Blood has Laurento here in this jail. We are all his prisoners. I will help you to escape, if you will promise me to save Laurento—to take Laurento and me out of here with you. You are a man for whom nothing is impossible. You must help me in this. I do not ask you to save Laurento from the law. Let him be tried for his crime. They will not send him to the electric chair, for he is insane. But at least he will be confined in an asylum where he will be treated as a patient, instead of remaining under the dominion of this fiend who is known as Doctor Blood. Quick, is it a bargain? I will help you, if you will help me in this way."
"I promise you," said Secret Agent "X" slowly, "that if I leave this place alive, I will not leave without you and Laurento."
A smile almost of happiness suffused her face. "Thank God!" She dipped into her dress, extracted from the bodice a revolver which she handed to the Agent. "Here. It's loaded. The door is open. There are half a dozen men in the building. But I know you can win."
"I'm afraid," the Agent told her, "that it is too late. We have been seen!"
He was right. For the small aperture in the opposite wall had slid open, and a pair of dark eyes had looked through for a moment—a moment only, and then the aperture had been shut. Doctor Blood knew that Lola Lollagi was attempting to save Mr. Randall; and he must also guess that Victor Randall was none other than Secret Agent "X"!
THE Agent acted now without a single lost motion. He dropped the handcuff key in his pocket; there was no further use for it. The time for guile and trickery had passed. Nothing counted now but action. He stooped, retrieved his other gun from under his trouser leg, then snapped at Lola Lollagi: "Get over against the wall. I'm going to open that door and shoot my way out."
Lola sprang to one side, flattened herself against the wall. "Remember," she breathed, "you promised to save Laurento!"
"X" nodded grimly. He kicked open the door, sprang out into the corridor, a gun in each hand. Down the end of the hall he saw Wilkerson and Mace, running toward him. Wilkerson was waving his horrid claw, and shouting: "That's the man. That's Secret Agent 'X.' Get him, Mace!"
Behind them came four or five other men, still in policemen's uniform, armed with revolvers and submachine guns.
Mace stopped short upon seeing the Agent, dropped to one knee, and raised the Tommy-gun to his shoulder.
Secret Agent "X" faced them squarely in the narrow corridor, his feet planted wide apart, the two guns at his hips. His face was a calm, gray mask as he pressed the triggers on his two guns, sent lead rocketing down the corridor toward Mace and the others. He was a cool, efficient fighting machine, and each shot that he fired counted.
The attackers were taut, excited, awed by the thought that they were in conflict with the man whose name had became a legend in the underworld—Secret Agent "X." The Agent's slugs screamed from his guns before any of them could get into action with the Tommies. Smoke filled the corridor, and the reverberations of the Agent's methodically exploding guns rocked the narrow hallway. Not a single shot answered him. He had fired too fast and too straight.
When the smoke cleared, it revealed the Agent, still standing, the guns still at his side, ready for more. But at the other end of the corridor men writhed upon the floor, helpless, groaning. Mace had been shot in the right shoulder. Wilkerson squirmed on the floor beside him with a bullet in his side. No single man of the attackers was left standing on his feet. The Agent, in spite of the imminent danger which had threatened, had not shot to kill; but each of his slugs had been directed at some spot that would disable his attacker.
He called out over his shoulder: "Come on, Lola." Then he advanced down the hall, watchful, wary.
The woman came out of the room, followed him at a short distance. Her startled eyes took in the wounded, writhing men. Her eyes sought the back of Secret Agent "X" and lit up with wonder. She could hardly understand how one man had been able to overcome so many opponents armed as these had been.
THE Agent stepped across the bodies, and Lola followed him. They were in the anteroom now, which led out into the street. The guard was not there. Apparently he had been one of the attackers in the corridor.
The woman exclaimed: "Those shots must have been heard. The police will be here. How will you get Laurento away?"
"No fear of those shots having been heard," the Agent told her. "The walls of this jail are entirely sound-proof. A man standing just outside wouldn't have heard a thing."
He examined his two guns. Lola's was empty, and he discarded it. The other still had a single bullet left. "Wait here," he said. "I am going to find Doctor Blood. If you hear anyone coming, run out into the alley and wait there."
He left her before she could protest, went through a small door at the right and found himself at the foot of an iron staircase which led up to the first tier of cells. From above there came to him the sound of a mad jabbering, of wild voices. Then they suddenly ceased, as another voice, cold, curt, spoke suddenly. The Agent could not understand the words, but he could tell that they came from up above in the cell tier.
Quickly, noiselessly, the Agent mounted the iron staircase. All was dark here. The cells ranged along both walls, leaving a wide cement corridor between. Faces peered at him from behind the iron doors of these cells. Strange voices shrieked at him. These were the madmen whom Lola Lollagi had mentioned. Doctor Blood kept them in cells until he was ready for them to do his evil work.
Slowly, cautiously, the Agent advanced between the two tiers of grilled doors, flashing his light into each in turn. He knew that Doctor Blood was up here, for he was sure that it was he whose voice had spoken just a moment before. Was Blood hiding in one of those cells, waiting to ambush him as he came along, or had he retreated before the advance of Secret Agent "X"?
Four cells the Agent passed, and in each he saw a mad face peering out at him. Four cells on the right, four cells on the left. Eight of these madmen, there were, and each was brandishing a claw through the bars of his door. These claws, the Agent could see now, were of metal, made like a gauntlet which could be slipped over the hand. It was with these that they ripped men's throats.
The fourth cell on the left held Laurento. "X" recognized him at once. The youth was strangely silent, his face drawn and haggard. He said nothing, did not shout or gibber like the others. "X" passed him by, peered into the next cell.
At first he could see no one in there. Then he lowered his light, and noticed the figure of a man cowering in a corner. It was Larkin. His face was white with fear, his entire body was trembling.
"God, take me out of here," he cried. "Take me away from these madmen! Let me go. I'll pay anything!"
"X" maintained silence, passed on and looked in the other cells. He saw Sturgis in the next, was about to look beyond when his eye caught the slightest hint of motion from farther down in the hall.
One of the cell doors at the end was opening silently, stealthily. The Agent dropped flat to the floor, his gun extended in front of him. His keen eyes noted the muzzle of a submachine gun poking out through the bars of the half-open cell door, detected a shadowy shape behind. Slowly that gun was swinging around in his direction.
"X" sighted carefully for a spot just above and a little to the right of the muzzle of the machine gun, and fired once. A horrible shriek answered his shot, and the sub-machine gun clattered to the stone floor. The shadow behind it resolved itself into a human body that toppled forward, crashed into the iron door, and lay still on the floor.
The Agent sprang to his feet, ran forward. He stopped when he approached the still figure on the floor, directed his flashlight downward. His lips set in a grim line as he saw the face of the man he had killed—the face of Doctor Blood.
SLOWLY he turned away, retraced his steps. As he passed Sturgis' cell the mayor gripped the iron bars of the door, shouted hoarsely into the darkness: "Who are you? Where is Doctor Blood? Let us out of here!"
"X" made no answer. He continued on until he had reached the cell where Laurento was confined. That young man stood still, white-faced, his eyes wide with consternation under the beam of light which the Agent flashed at him. There was no madness in the young man's eyes any longer—only a terrible misery. Apparently whatever it was that Doctor Blood had administered to Laurento had worn off, leaving him without that ghastly blood-lust which had made a ruthless animal of him.
"X" fitted one of his pass-keys to the cell door, swung it open. Laurento backed away, suddenly shouting: "Leave me alone! Don't feed me any more of that stuff!" His voice was thin, cracked. It aroused the other mad inmates of the neighboring cells, and the jabbering and screaming, which had ceased when the Agent fired, began once more, filled the whole tier with a wild cacophony.
"X" put out a hand to Laurento, said: "Come with me. I will not harm you."
But his voice was drowned by the shouting. Laurento feared him, probably thought he was Doctor Blood, or one of Blood's men. He had a grip on his taloned gauntlet, and he swung out at "X" with it, attempting to keep him at arm's length.
The Agent warded the blow, stepped in under it, and drove in a short blow to the other's chin. Laurento crumpled up, slid to the floor. In his weakened physical and mental condition that light blow had been enough to down him.
"X" now stooped, swung him over his shoulder, and carried him out of the cell. All the way downstairs he was followed by the mad ravings of the demented men in the other cells, by the shouts of Larkin and the others to be taken out of there.
Down in the waiting room he found Lola Lollagi sitting in a corner, her nervous fingers tearing at a handkerchief. When she saw "X" and his burden she sprang up with a glad cry and ran toward them.
"X" placed the young man in a chair. Laurento was recovering his senses. He opened his eyes, saw "X," and started up. But Lola put a hand on his shoulder, cried entreatingly:
"Laurento, brother darling! It's Lola! Your sister!"
For a moment his eyes were wild, terrified. Then they focused upon Lola, seemed to recognize her. Then he broke down. He rested his head in his hands, wept like a child.
Lola stroked his hair, glanced entreatingly at the Agent. Tremblingly her lips formed words. "What—what are you going to do with him? You promised me—"
"X" was watching the brother and sister with deep understanding.
Laurento cried out between his sobs: "Lola, Lola dear. Take me away from here. Take me away from Doctor Blood!" A spasm of revulsion seemed to be racking his body.
Secret Agent "X" said slowly: "You have nothing further to fear, Laurento. Doctor Blood is dead!"
Lola started, stared at him. "You—you know who he is? You have—seen his face?"
The Agent nodded. "I have seen his face. I know who he is." He raised a hand before she could ask the next question. "Never mind about that now. I promised you that you could take Laurento out of here. Now you must promise me two things, first."
"Yes, yes," she exclaimed eagerly. "I will promise anything you ask."
"First, you must give me your word that you will take Laurento directly from here to an asylum, the address of which I will give you. He will be well taken care of there, and if it is possible, he will be cured. After that he must agree to stand trial for his crime." The Agent scribbled an address on a slip of paper which he handed to her.
"I will do that," she whispered. "I am sure that Laurento will not be sent to jail."
"The second thing you must promise," the Agent said, "is that you will never mention what has happened here tonight. To you and to the world, I am Mr. Randall, and nobody else. Do you understand?"
There was a strange film over her eyes, as she nodded. "I understand," she said softly. "But in my heart I will always remember you by that other name. And hereafter, I shall never believe it when they say that you are a criminal!"
The Agent watched her as she led her sobbing brother out. Then he turned and walked to the rear of the jail. He could hear groans now, whimperings of pain from Wilkerson and Mace and those others who still lay wounded in the corridor. He glanced at his wrist watch. Less than ten minutes had passed since he had shot his way out of the rear room. And in that time Doctor Blood had perished. And Secret Agent "X" was the only man thus far who knew the true identity of Doctor Blood.
IT was perhaps an hour later that the four squad cars of the raiding party from headquarters swung into the street in front of the old jail. Men, armed to the teeth, poured out of the cars. Commissioner Foster and Inspector Burks led the party down the narrow alley. With them was Betty Dale, the young newspaper woman from the Herald.
Commissioner Foster said testily: "I can't understand yet, how the thing happened. I never even suggested that meeting in Lacey's house. Somebody must have phoned in my name." He turned to Betty Dale. "Are you sure of your information?"
She nodded. "My source of information is absolutely trustworthy. I don't know who the man is, but I recognized his voice. He's phoned me before, and given me tips which resulted in scoops for my paper. He instructed me to get in touch with you at once, and bring you here. And don't forget, you promised to give me the exclusive on this."
"Don't worry," Foster grumbled. "If this turns out to be the truth, you'll get the exclusive all right, Miss Dale."
The small door at the end of the alley was open, and they met no opposition as they pushed through the anteroom into the corridor behind. Here they stopped short, uttering gasps of astonishment. For, lined up upon the floor were six men—Wilkerson, Mace, and the others who had posed as policemen. Their wounds had been neatly bandaged, but each was unconscious, deep in a comatose sleep.
Burks knelt beside them, exclaimed: "This is Wilkerson. We've been looking all over the country for him. They've all been put to sleep by some sort of drug!" He raised his eyes to Commissioner Foster, said slowly: "This begins to look familiar to me."
Foster returned his glance, nodded solemnly. "It looks like our work has been done for us, Burks." He was interrupted by a sudden discordant shouting and screaming from somewhere up above. Burks rose to his feet, led the way back, followed by Foster, Betty Dale and the police officers. In the upper corridor they found the electric light switch, and clicked it on. Betty Dale shrank from the sight that greeted her eyes. The madmen in the cells were shouting, jabbering, brandishing their steel talons.
"God," Foster exclaimed. "These are the animals that have been clawing people to death. They are men!"
"Yes," Burks added, "madmen."
They passed down the corridor, along the cell doors, until they arrived at the cell in which Mayor Sturgis was confined. The mayor's face was white and drawn, and when he saw the commissioner and the inspector, he uttered a gasp of relief.
Betty Dale watched while they unlocked the cell doors with master keys, released Sturgis, Larkin and Lacey.
"Where are Randall and Marsh?" Inspector Burks demanded.
"I don't know," Sturgis replied. "We were brought up here one at a time, searched and examined by some man with a mask, and then stuck in these cells. Marsh was brought up first, and Randall last."
Betty Dale had taken a few uncertain steps down the corridor. She uttered a cry, pointed to an inert body which lay half in and half out of an open cell doorway, with a sub-machine gun beside it.
Burks and Foster left the group of rescued men, and hastened over. They knelt beside the body, and Burks uttered a gasp of astonishment. "Norman Marsh!" he exclaimed. "Shot through the head!"
"So Doctor Blood got Marsh after all!" the commissioner said, sourly. He turned on Betty Dale. "I thought your informant told you that we would find Doctor Blood here. Where is he?"
"And what's happened to Randall?" Burks demanded.
FOR answer Betty Dale stooped, picked up a folded sheet of paper which lay beside the body of Marsh. She opened it, and handed it to Commissioner Foster without reading it. He glanced at her queerly, took the paper and scanned it. His face became suffused with a dull red as he began to understand the purport of that message. He swallowed hard, glanced at the others who had come over to crowd around him, and read aloud:
To Commissioner Foster:
Mayor Sturgis invited me to take a hand in this case. I accepted the invitation—but in my own way. I am making this explanation because my name was taken by a murderer, and I must clear it.
Norman Marsh was Doctor Blood. If you will examine the newspaper records of five or six years ago, you will learn that Marsh headed an expedition into the Brazilian jungle. All of the members of that expedition were lost, and Marsh was compelled to live for three years with a tribe in the jungle of Brazil. This tribe is known as the Botocudos. Their religion contains a blood-drinking ritual, and Marsh became one of them. He returned to this country, recently, in order to raise a tremendous sum of money for the purpose of arming this tribe with modern weapons so that he could establish an empire in the Brazilian jungle and make himself a king.
He surrounded himself with men, mentally deranged, whom he rescued from insane asylums; such men as Wilkerson. These unfortunates were easily subjected to his influence, and by means of administering hypnotic drugs he instilled in them a lust for blood, equipped them with the sort of talons which the Botocudos Indians used in ripping open a victim's throat in order to drink his blood. These demented men are now confined in the cells on this tier. None of them, with the exception of Wilkerson, is a confirmed criminal. They should be treated as mental patients.
If you wish further proof that Marsh was Doctor Blood, you may go down to the basement where the cells for solitary confinement are located. There you will find a man named Hans, who was ostensibly the servant of Professor Hugo Langknecht, but was really in the pay of Marsh, and knew him to be Doctor Blood. By questioning Hans properly, and confronting him with the dead body of Marsh, you will have no difficulty in making him talk.
You need have no worries as to the safety of Victor Randall. You will find him in his own home, but he will remember nothing of what transpired within the past twenty-four hours.
When the commissioner had finished reading, he raised his eyes to the others. "Good God!" he exclaimed. "To think that Norman Marsh was Doctor Blood!"
Betty Dale said eagerly: "May I go and phone my paper now?"
"You certainly may, young lady," the commissioner told her. "Whoever your informant is, he has certainly done you a service. You ought to get a raise for a scoop like this!"
Inspector Burks' face was stony, expressionless. "I hate to think," he said bitterly, "that we are indebted to Secret Agent 'X' for breaking this case. He's pretty smart, he is. But if he thinks that he can square his account with me in this way, he's mistaken. I'm never going to give up the hunt for him!"
As if to mock the inspector, from somewhere outside the jail there floated in the notes of an eerie, uncanny whistle that seemed to chill them all to the marrow of their bones.
The eyes of Inspector Burks were stormy. He recognized that whistle, raised his hand in a mock salute, and spoke into the air: "All right, Secret Agent 'X'—you have the laugh this time. But you haven't wiped out all the other charges against you. Some day I'm going to have the pleasure of watching you strapped into the electric chair!"
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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