STEPHEN KLAW'S train arrived in New York at 8:55 P.M. He slipped quietly off it.
Walking through Pennsylvania Station, his slim and wiry figure might have been mistaken for that of a kid back home from college for the holidays—were it not for those cold, slate-grey eyes of his, and for the sure and effortless way in which he handled himself.
He kept both hands dug deep in his overcoat pockets as a flock of newspaper reporters and cameramen surrounded him.
"Is it true, Mr. Klaw, that you've been sent here to hunt down Dunstan Vardis?"
"That's true," said Steve. "Dunstan Vardis escaped from Leavenworth five years ago. Since then he's made a business of harboring wanted criminals. He controls the most vicious gang in the country."
"Are you going to capture him dead or alive?"
"Suppose he gets you first, Mr. Klaw?"
Steve shrugged. "I'm paid to take chances."
"What about the Suicide Squad?" one of the reporters persisted. "Where are your two partners—Johnny Kerrigan and Dan Murdoch?"
Klaw shook his head. "That's their business. Now, if you'll excuse me—"
"Just a minute, Mr. Klaw!" a photographer begged. "Stand still for a second, will you?"
The man raised a bulky camera to his eye and sighted through the periscope. He had his finger on the lever to click it down. Before he could do so, Stephen Klaw took his right hand from his pocket. There was an automatic in it. Without wasting a fraction of an inch of motion, Klaw fired from the hip.
The shot echoed and re-echoed like thunder in the vaulted train-shed. The slug smashed square into the camera, driving through the box and embedding itself in the photographer's skull. The man went hurtling back, and at the same time there was an explosion from the camera.
Flame lanced upward from it and a bullet screamed wildly into the air, thudding against the steel arch far overhead. Had the camera been pointing at Stephen Klaw, the bullet would have hit him between the eyes.
Those two almost simultaneous shots created a veritable inferno of panic in the great railroad station. Stephen Klaw slipped the automatic back in his pocket, and stepped over to the side of the dead man. A couple of the reporters, with eyes gleaming with delight at such a story, knelt with him. Flashlight bulbs exploded by the dozen.
"What a story!" exclaimed Kearney, of the World. He put a hand on Klaw's shoulder. "How did you know he had a gun in that camera?"
Klaw pointed to the smashed box. Where the lens should have been, there was the round bore of a long-barrelled forty-five calibre revolver.
"Did you ever see a camera with a gun-muzzle for a lens?" he asked.
Police were surrounding them now, and it was necessary to clear a space around the body. Lieutenant Schirmer, of the Homicide Squad, took Steve aside.
"Do you think that man was an agent of Dunstan Vardis?" he asked.
Klaw stared at him without blinking. "What do you think?"
Schirmer scowled. "I think you ought to have a bodyguard. Are you crazy, Klaw? The F.B.I. has kept sending men in here one after the other, to get Dunstan Vardis. And Vardis gets them, one by one. He'll get you, too."
"Thanks for the tip," Steve said coldly.
Lieutenant Schirmer flushed. "Now get me right, Klaw. Nobody wants to see Dunstan Vardis laid by the heels more than I do. But the New York police department has been working on the case for a year. You G-Men think you can come in and clean it up in a month. You don't work right, either. You've got to play with stoolies, and keep your ear to the ground for information, and wait for a chance to grab him."
"That's not the way I do it," Stephen Klaw said. "I've been sent to get Vardis—and that's what I'm going to do."
Lieutenant Schirmer shrugged. "Have it your way, Klaw. I've heard a lot about you, and those other two fellows, Kerrigan and Murdoch. You three are supposed to be the Suicide Squad of the F.B.I. Well, if you want to commit suicide, go right ahead. Should you get in a jam, call on me—if you have the time."
"Thanks," said Stephen Klaw. He nodded, and walked away.
As Schirmer watched him go, the Lieutenant's face was twisted into an expression of intense perplexity. He turned to one of the reporters who crowded around him. "There goes a man," he said, "who isn't afraid of God or the Devil!"
WHEN Stephen Klaw got out into the street he turned north on Seventh Avenue, looking for a taxicab.
A girl in a sleek black Hudson seal coat came hurrying after him, with a handful of little ribbons attached to buttons. She had yellow hair, and deep blue eyes.
"Won't you buy a button, sir," she said, smiling, "to help the starving Chinese?"
Without giving him a chance to refuse, she came up close, and started to pin the button to his lapel. Her lips were still smiling, and she seemed to be saying something to him in a bantering manner. But her voice was suddenly deadly serious, and there was live terror in her eyes.
"For God's sake, be careful, Mr. Klaw!" she breathed. "You're being watched. Pretend to give me a coin!"
Steve studied her quizzically. He took his left hand out of his coat pocket and slipped it into his trousers pocket. He took out a quarter and handed it to her.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Never mind who I am. If you want to find Dunstan Vardis, come to see me tomorrow at noon. The Hotel DeGrasse, Room 715. Ask for Miss Lee." She slipped the quarter into a little tin box, and started to hurry away.
Stephen Klaw reached out and caught her wrist.
"Not so fast, Miss Lee," he said tightly. "It's too long to wait till tomorrow at noon. You tell me what you know—now!"
"Oh God," she groaned, "you mustn't. They—they'll see us talking."
"Who will see us talking?"
"Dunstan Vardis' men. Don't you understand? You're being watched every second!"
"Interesting!" said Klaw. He kept his grip on her wrist. His glance swept up and down the street. There were several men idling nearby, but there was nothing to indicate that they were the men of Dunstan Vardis. "How do you know we are being watched?"
She tried to drag her wrist away, but unsuccessfully. "Oh, you beast! I thought you were clever, and could help me. I—I'm sorry I approached you. Let me go quickly, before they shoot us to death!"
Stephen Klaw grinned thinly. "Let's see those buttons of yours!" He lifted up her hand, which was clutching the buttons with the colored ribbons attached. They were all green, but the one she had pinned on his lapel was red.
"So," he said, "you pinned this ribbon on me so that Dunstan Vardis' gunmen may recognize me later, when they come to look for me. You were posted here for this purpose, in case that photographer failed!"
She ceased struggling. Her eyes met his. A faint, bitter smile tugged at her lips.
"Well," she said, "what are you going to do about it? Will you arrest me?"
"No. I couldn't prove that you work for Vardis. I'm going to let you go." He released his grip on her wrist. "Goodbye, Miss—Lee!"
She stared at him a moment, unbelieving. "You—you're taking that ribbon off?"
His eyes were cold and hard. "On the contrary, Miss Lee, I shall wear it. Go back and tell Dunstan Vardis that I shall wear it all the time—to make it easier for him to find me!"
The girl sucked in her breath sharply.
"Stephen Klaw," she said, "you are a very brave man!"
Then she turned and walked swiftly away.
Steve looked after her, fingering the ribbon in his buttonhole. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded in her direction.
Two men who were sitting in a sedan fifty feet back, saw that nod, and understood its meaning. One of them was big and blond, with the shoulders of a stevedore. The other was tall and slender and black-haired.
The black-haired one, at the wheel, said, "The Shrimp wants her tailed, Johnny. You take care of her, and I'll stick with him."
"Right," said Johnny Kerrigan.
He slipped out of the car, and moved leisurely off in the direction taken by the girl with the yellow hair. No one would have suspected that he was following her, or was even interested in her. But he would not lose that girl. For all his great stature and powerful build, there was not a better shadower in the F.B.I, than Johnny Kerrigan.
Stephen Klaw waited only till he was sure that Johnny had the girl in sight. Then he turned and flagged a cab, knowing that Dan Murdoch, in the F.B.I, sedan, would keep following on his tail.
THESE three men—Kerrigan and Murdoch and Klaw—worked together with the smooth efficiency of well- oiled machinery. All three of them were able to think fast on their feet. And what was more, they thought along the same lines—so that it was hardly ever necessary for them to hold prolonged conferences to decide on a course of action. Each knew that the other two would go through hell for him, and none of them ever had to doubt that the others would hesitate in the face of danger.
They were called the Suicide Squad. For in the F.B.I, they rated only those assignments from which there was little chance of returning alive. Originally, there had been five of them. Now there were only three. Tomorrow, there might be only coffins for the Suicide Squad. But that was the way that Kerrigan and Murdoch and Klaw wanted it. Hard-bitten, headstrong and wilful by nature, they could not have brooked a life of routine investigations and patient trailings of minor bank defaulters or absconders.
And this was the job they had wanted. The name of Dunstan Vardis had become almost legendary in the underworld since his escape from Leavenworth five years ago. In some secret and mysterious way he had developed a sure-fire method of hiding wanted criminals. Every killer in the underworld came to Dunstan Vardis for protection. Convicted murderers with money could pay Dunstan Vardis to effect their escape. Trigger-men and dope smugglers paid Dunstan Vardis a percentage of their regular take as insurance against the time when they might be captured. And in this way Vardis had built up an organization powerful enough to make itself felt in every field of crime. So strong had Dunstan Vardis become, that he felt himself ready to challenge the F.B.I.
Three young Special Agents had already paid the price of attempting to track him down. Yesterday, young Lawrence had been found with his eyes gouged out. They hadn't killed the young Special Agent. They had blinded him.
Almost on the heels of that, in the early hours of the morning, another agent—Jack Sloan—had met death, his body hurtling down through space from the fifteenth floor of an office building where he had gone to make a routine investigation which must have uncovered something about Dunstan Vardis.
So when the Director of the F.B.I, had called Kerrigan and Murdoch and Klaw into his office, they were eager to come to grips with Dunstan Vardis.
Stephen Klaw's eyes had been grey and cold. "Tony Lawrence was blinded unnecessarily," he said harshly. "The kid couldn't have been dangerous to Dunstan Vardis. Why, he was just breaking in. He was only assigned to investigate the relatives of fugitives!"
The Director nodded somberly. "That's true of Jack Sloan, too. It looks as if Dunstan Vardis is throwing down a challenge to the F.B.I. If he can do things like these, and go scot free, then the underworld will figure him invincible, and they'll accept him as their undisputed leader. He'll be the King of Crime, from coast to coast!"
"Do we get the assignment, sir?" Klaw asked grimly.
"Yes. We won't handle it through the New York office, and we can't send a big force of men in there. There isn't enough to work on. It will be up to you three to stir things up, so that Vardis will come out in the open—give us some leverage, so to speak."
Dan Murdoch's dark eyes were frosty. "We'll stir things up, all right!"
"There's only one tangible thing for you to work on," the Director continued. "It may be the break we need. A girl named Nina Prentice phoned direct to this office from New York. She talked to me personally. She's the sister of Gerald Prentice. Remember him?"
All three of them nodded.
"Prentice," said Johnny Kerrigan, who had a prodigious memory for names and faces, "was convicted of diamond smuggling. He drew five to ten in Leavenworth. He escaped a year ago, and a guard was killed. The death of the guard has been published, but not connected with Prentice's escape, so that he won't know he's wanted for murder. It's strongly suspected that Prentice's escape was planned by Dunstan Vardis."
"Right," said the Director. "Well, Nina Prentice phoned that she has information for us. I've arranged for one of you to meet her secretly in New York. She's frightened stiff that something may happen to her brother, and she insists on going through a lot of rigmarole to keep the meeting secret. It may be worth it. I'll give you all the information before you start. Now, how are you three going to operate?"
"As usual, sir," Klaw said promptly, "I'll go in alone. We'll let them know I'm coming, and just when. Maybe Dunstan Vardis will make a try at me." He grinned thinly. "That would be very helpful. Johnny and Dan will work in the background."
The Director shook hands with all three of them. "Take care of yourselves," he said earnestly. "Don't take too many unnecessary chances."
And so here they were in New York. And Dunstan Vardis had already made a try, and failed. And it was certain that he would try again—and again.
KLAW took a cab to Forty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue. He did not look back once, confident that Dan Murdoch was there, behind him. If he were being tailed, Murdoch would know it, and would know how to deal with the shadowers. It was important now that Stephen Klaw should not be observed for the next ten minutes.
He paid off the cab at the Forty-Second Street entrance of the Public Library, and walked swiftly up the steps. In the hall, he stopped to look at a bulletin board, and saw that a short, squat man in a derby hat had just come in after him, and had paused and bent down as if to tie a shoelace. Steve's eyes flicked to the doorway, and he saw the tall figure of handsome Dan Murdoch entering the building.
Murdoch's eyes met his for an instant, and flickered. Then he nodded toward the squat man in the derby, who still seemed deeply interested in his shoelace.
Stephen Klaw smiled, and turned away from the bulletin board. He cut across the corridor toward the elevator, and saw the squat man get up from tying his shoelace, and start after him. But the man had taken only two steps before Steve heard Dan Murdoch's voice raised: "Say, mister! You dropped this ten dollar bill!"
Klaw kept going. When he reached the elevator he did not enter it, but went around it into the rear hall. He followed this hall around, and it brought him out back again into the front lobby, near the bulletin board. He just caught a glimpse of the squat man hurrying down the cross corridor, with a ten dollar bill clutched in his hand. Murdoch was grinning after him.
At the cost of ten dollars, Dan had held the man up long enough for Steve to lose him.
The man would undoubtedly think that his quarry had gone up in the elevator to the main reading room on the third floor, and would lose valuable time in looking for him up there.
Steve turned and went in through the large double doors opening into the ground floor Circulation Room. He glanced at his watch, comparing it with the clock there. It was exactly nine- thirty. He was on time to the minute. He went past the librarian's desk, and turned into the end lane of bookshelves, containing scientific books.
A slim young woman with dark hair was examining a book. The fingers with which she turned the pages were long, slender, patrician. She looked up quickly as Steve entered the aisle, and then looked down.
Klaw stopped quite near her, and looked at the book in the top shelf. This section, the little placard at the top of the shelf announced, was devoted to Science—Criminology. At once, Steve found the book he sought—Abingdon's Anatomy of the Criminal.
He took it from the shelf ostentatiously, and opened it to the title page, holding it in such a way that the dark-haired girl could see it. She drew in her breath sharply. In turn, she flipped the pages of her book back, so that her title page was visible. It was, "Modern Criminal Investigation."
At once, Steve smiled. "Miss Prentice?" he asked.
Her eyes widened with a sudden flicker of relief. "Mr. Klaw?"
He nodded, showing her his identification card case.
Her hands were shaking with excitement as she put her book back on the shelf. "Thank God you made it! I—I was afraid they'd get you before you left the station!"
"Thanks to your warning, I was on guard," Steve told her. "And now, talk quickly. There's very little time. You told our Director over the phone that you had information about Dunstan Vardis?"
"Yes. But I'm afraid it's not very much. You—you know all about my brother, of course?" she whispered shakily.
Steve nodded. "Your brother, Gerald Prentice, was arrested for smuggling uncut diamonds from Holland. He swore he was framed, but he was convicted by a Federal Jury and sentenced to five years in Leavenworth. He escaped. He is still a fugitive from justice."
"That's true," she said in a low voice. "You have the facts. But you don't know the—the terrible truth behind them. Gerald could have cleared himself by naming a certain woman. He didn't, because he loves her. He took his punishment to protect her. Gerald is innocent. He has a large income. He didn't need to smuggle diamonds."
"What has all that got to do with Dunstan Vardis?" Stephen Klaw asked impatiently.
"I'll tell you," she said. "The woman who framed Gerald is called Zara. She works for Dunstan Vardis. It was a scheme to get a hold over Gerald. It was Dunstan Vardis who helped him escape from Leavenworth."
STEVE was watching her closely, watching the swift play of emotion across her sensitive features. "You have proof of this?"
She dropped her eyes. "No. But I've seen Gerald twice since he escaped. I'm going to see him again tonight. I—I'll turn him over to you!"
Steve's eyes narrowed. "You'll betray your own brother? Why?"
"Because otherwise, I'm sure he'll be killed. Dunstan Vardis is using him. He's promised to help Gerald escape from the country through the underground channels he controls. But I'm sure he intends to kill him. I—I've talked to Dunstan Vardis. The man is all evil!"
"All right, then," said Steve.
"No. Wait. There's a condition. You must promise something first. I understand the F.B.I, can't make bargains with wanted men. But you—you have leeway. Don't turn Gerald in. Hold him somewhere. If, within forty-eight hours, you are able to catch Dunstan Vardis, you must promise to release my brother. I'll help you catch Vardis!"
For a long minute, Steve studied her carefully. "I'm sorry," he said at last. "I can't do it."
"But why?" She put a hand earnestly on his arm. "What good would it do to put Gerald in prison? His crime was only smuggling—even if he wasn't framed."
"You're mistaken," he told her harshly. "When Gerald Prentice escaped from Leavenworth, one of the guards tracking him was shot and killed. That makes it murder!"
Nina Prentice's eyes snapped wide open. Her face became utterly white. "Murder! But that's impossible! Gerald never told me. Nothing was ever said in the papers."
Stephen Klaw's voice became a little more gentle. "The murder of that guard was not made public until two days later. And it was made to appear in the newspapers as if it had no connection with your brother's escape. You see, we were sure even then, that Dunstan Vardis had helped Gerald escape. We weren't laying all our cards on the table at once."
"Then—then—" she was very plainly struggling to make herself realize the full meaning of what she had just heard—"Gerald faces the gallows if he's captured?"
Klaw nodded soberly. "The gallows. Or life imprisonment at best. Do you still want to turn him over to me? Though perhaps, if you aid in the capture of Dunstan Vardis, the court will take that into consideration. His sentence might be commuted—"
"No, no. Better let Gerald take his chance with Vardis. Maybe I'm mistaken. Maybe Vardis doesn't intend to kill him."
Steve shrugged. "As you please. Technically, I should take you into custody, since you admit having information about Vardis. But I'm not going to do it. Should you decide to play ball with us, call me at the Hotel Montrose."
He stopped quickly, for Nina Prentice uttered a short cry. He saw her eyes fill with terror as she looked over his shoulder.
"That man! That's Joslin! He'll tell Vardis I was talking with you. They'll surely kill Gerald."
STEPHEN KLAW had already swung around. He caught a glimpse of the squat man in the derby hat, whom he had eluded in the lobby. The man had evidently come around the back way after him. He was looking at them now with a triumphant leer. He turned away swiftly.
"Oh, God, stop him!" Nina Prentice exclaimed in a tense whisper. "If he tells Dunstan Vardis—"
She had no time to finish. Suddenly, Dan Murdoch appeared in the aisle. The squat man recoiled as he came face to face with Dan.
Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder. "Not going yet?" he asked pleasantly.
The man jumped back, and his hand flew to a shoulder holster. It came out with a gun.
Dan Murdoch clucked his tongue. "Not in the library!" He stepped in with a swift, lithe motion, bringing his fist up in a short, beautiful arc that landed flush on the fellow's chin. The man tumbled backward along the aisle, into Stephen Klaw's arms.
Steve grasped his wrist, and twisted. The man gasped with pain, and let go of the revolver. Dan Murdoch stepped in and caught it before it struck the floor. Then Stephen Klaw let go of the wrist.
Their teamwork had been so swift and efficient that the man was disarmed before he knew what was happening to him. Nina Prentice stared at them, a hand pressing hard against her breast. She had never seen two men act so swiftly and in such perfect unison.
Klaw winked at her, and swung the man around. "Well, Mr. Joslin," he said, "what do you think we ought to do with you?"
Joslin stood tense, between Dan and Steve. "I ain't talkin'," he said.
Dan Murdoch shook his head deprecatingly. "Too bad," he murmured. "You're under arrest."
"What for? You ain't got a thing on me."
"What about this gun?" Steve asked.
Joslin looked at him slyly. "Okay, but that's state law. You got to turn me over to the cops."
Nina Prentice said breathlessly, "If you turn him over to the police, he'll get a lawyer. Vardis has several lawyers who appear for his gunmen when they're in trouble. Joslin will tell that he saw me talking to you, and Dunstan Vardis will surely kill Gerald!"
Stephen Klaw raised his eyebrows. Joslin smirked. "I don't know what you're talking about. I never heard of Dunstan Vardis."
"See," said Steve. "He's a perfectly innocent man. He was only carrying the gun for protection against bookworms in the library."
"In that case," said Dan Murdoch, "I guess we'll have to let you go. Scram."
"No, no!" exclaimed Nina. "You mustn't—" But she stopped at a wink from Steve.
"We're not holding you," Dan Murdoch told him. "You claim we haven't a thing on you. So get going."
Joslin looked a little surprised, but quickly he gained confidence. He started to squeeze past Dan Murdoch.
Dan took out his revolver, and spun the cylinder. Stephen Klaw took out one of his automatics. For a brief moment they looked at each other very seriously.
"Who gives it to him, Shrimp," Murdoch asked. "You or I?"
"You take him, Dan," Steve said. "You have a new gun. You want a chance to try it out."
Joslin drew in his breath sharply. "What—what you guys gonna do? What—what you gonna do with the gun?"
"Get going!" Dan said implacably.
"You're gonna shoot me down!" Joslin exclaimed. "You're gonna shoot me when I go down the aisle. That's it! You're gonna shoot me, an' you'll say I resisted arrest!"
"Well," said Dan, "what did you think we were going to do? Hurry up—" he gave the man a little shove—"let's get it over with!"
"Wait!" Joslin begged. "For God's sake, wait. You can't kill me like this."
"No?" Murdoch asked softly, looking down at him out of slitted eyes.
"I'll talk!" Joslin blurted. Terror had complete hold of him now. "I'll talk! I'll tell you anything you want to know. But don't kill me!"
"Where can we find Dunstan Vardis?" Stephen Klaw demanded.
"I don't know!" Joslin breathed. "I swear I don't know. He gives me orders on the telephone."
"How do you report to him?"
"I wait for a call."
"Suppose it's an emergency?"
"Then I phone that woman—Zara. The one with the yellow hair."
Stephen Klaw's eyes gleamed. "The number?"
Nina Prentice said tensed, "That's the woman—Zara. The one who framed Gerald!"
"Nice work," said Dan, marking down the number Joslin had given them. He looked at Steve. "What do we do now, Shrimp?"
Steve grinned at him. "Just what you're thinking of doing, Dan. We'll call on Zara. I know where she lives. I'm pretty sure it's the Hotel DeGrasse. Joslin hasn't told us anything we didn't know. But he may come in handy. Let's go."
Dan Murdoch took Joslin's arm, and thrust him down along the aisle.
"Where you takin' me?" Joslin demanded.
Dan gave him a grin. "You've admitted working for Dunstan Vardis. That puts you in our jurisdiction, my friend. We're taking you up to the New York Field Office of the F.B.I. And if Vardis or anybody else can get to talk with you before tomorrow, then I'm a lame duck!"
They walked him out to the street between them. He was surly and resentful, sensing that he had been tricked into talking too much. Now it was too late. They had every right to hold him on a Federal charge after what he had told them. Murdoch handcuffed him, and shoved him in the car.
Steve took him aside for a moment. "You better stay at the Montrose from now on, Dan—in case Johnny phones in. I'll call you if the going gets hot."
Murdoch nodded, grumbling. "Now don't try to grab all the fun, Shrimp. If you try to cut me and Johnny out of it, well saw your ears off!"
"Don't worry," Steve told him. "I'll call." He watched Murdoch drive away, then turned to Nina Prentice. "Well," he asked, "have you made up your mind? Are you going to play ball with me?"
"Yes!" she said suddenly. "I'm going to trust my brother's life in your hands—even if you do promise nothing. The last two times that I met Gerald, it was in the basement of the Silver Galleon. That's where I'm to meet him again tonight. It's a night club downtown in the Village. The owner is a cripple named Farney. He never gets out of his wheel chair, and he seldom shows himself. He opened the Silver Galleon about a year ago, and it has become a hangout for the underworld."
"What time are you supposed to be there?"
"At midnight. I'm to sit at one of the tables. The last two times, a man came and took me to an inside room. Then he blindfolded me, and led me through a lot of passages. When the blindfold was removed I was in a room with Gerald. There weren't any windows in the room. Gerald said he himself didn't know where he was. They had blindfolded him, too. They were waiting for a chance to smuggle him out of the country."
Steve was listening carefully. "All right. Be there at midnight, just as if nothing had happened. I'll be there, too. Don't give any sign that you know me."
There was a trace of moisture in her eyes as she looked at him. "God help me, Stephen Klaw. I hope I'm doing right!"
WHEN Klaw left Nina Prentice, he walked two blocks west to Times Square, fingering the red ribbon in his buttonhole. He crossed Times Square diagonally, and entered Emlen's Bar just off Broadway.
The place was busy. Thirty or forty people were seated around the horseshoe bar. Emlen's had long been a rendezvous for the tougher elements of New York's underworld. Crack trigger-men, mobsters on the loose, policy racketeers and dope salesmen congregated here. The sole requisite was that they should not be wanted by the police at the moment.
Stephen Klaw made his way to an empty spot at the bar, and seated himself on a stool. The man at his left glanced at him carelessly, and then stiffened. His eyes focussed on the red ribbon in Klaw's buttonhole. The man hurriedly downed his drink, left a coin on the bar, and went out.
Steve smiled. He slipped his right hand into his overcoat pocket. He saw the eyes of other people around the bar fixed on that ribbon. A couple of other men got up and left.
The bartender did not notice the sudden exodus. He moved over in front of Steve, wiping the bar. He started to say, "What'll it be, mis—"
He stopped short, breaking the word off in the middle. He had looked up from the bar. His eyes met Steve's, and he froze.
"Steve!" he choked.
"Hello, Mike," Steve said genially. "What's eating you?"
He knew Mike Emlen. A long time ago he had done Emlen a big favor. It had concerned Emlen's son, who was in a jam. Steve had helped the boy out of his trouble, at considerable risk to himself. Emlen had never forgotten it.
"Are you crazy, Steve?" he demanded hoarsely. "Don't you know that the word has gone out all over town to get you? Dunstan Vardis offers twenty grand to any torpedo who knocks you off!"
"Interesting," said Steve. "I'm glad to hear that Vardis puts such a high value on me."
"See here, Steve," Mike Emlen said earnestly. "I know you're tough. You've bucked pretty bad outfits in the past. But this is different. You can't beat Dunstan Vardis. Look how the bar is emptying. Some of these guys are stoolies for Vardis. By this time, they're phoning him that Stephen Klaw is in Mike Emlen's with a red ribbon in his buttonhole. They'll be coming for you. And you can't fight a whole mob single-handed."
"How do you know I'm singlehanded?"
"I know how you work. When the Bureau sends you, they don't use a regiment. At the most, you've got Kerrigan and Murdoch. Three men. Against maybe a couple of hundred. Vardis is a big man, Steve. He's got every torpedo in town eating out of his hand. They give him a cut of every job they do, just for protection. He's got a system of some kind, for helping them to escape if they get caught. He smuggles them out of the country in some way."
"I know all that, Mike," Steve said wearily. "I thought maybe you could give me some new dope."
"That's all I know—except that you'll be dead in less than twenty minutes if you don't get under cover."
"Do you know about a place called the Silver Galleon?"
Mike nodded, looking around at the quickly emptying bar. "Yes. The Silver Galleon is a joint down in the Village. It's owned by a cripple named Farney. Nobody knows where Farney came from. But he has plenty of dough. Some say he fronts for Dunstan Vardis." Mike kept wiping the bar in front of Stephen Klaw. "And now, why don't you take a tip from a guy who means well by you, Steve. Get out of here. Don't try to take Dunstan Vardis singlehanded."
"What about this woman that's called Zara?" Steve persisted.
"She's pure poison!" Mike Emlen told him. "She's dangerous because she's got looks and brains. To look at her you'd think she was an angel. But inside, she's worse than a snake." Emlen broke off sharply, sucking in his breath. His eyes were fastened on the entrance. "Speak of the devil—"
STEPHEN KLAW had kept an eye on the door all the time that he talked to Emlen. He saw her as soon as Mike did. It was Zara, the yellow-haired woman whom he had met a short time ago.
She stood for just an instant, inside the doorway. She was no longer wearing the Hudson seal coat. Now she had a tawny nutria coat, with one of those fashionable little hand-muffs to match it. Both her hands were in the muff as she moved gracefully up to the bar, alongside of Klaw. She did not smile. She seemed to be studying him, as if he were some new kind of being she had never seen before.
She didn't spare a single glance for Mike Emlen, who moved discreetly out of earshot. Fully three-quarters of the patrons had already deserted the place. Those who remained were on the far side of the bar away from where Klaw stood.
Zara leaned against the bar, facing him. Her glance flicked down to the red ribbon in Steve's buttonhole.
"A little while ago, Stephen Klaw," she said, "I told you that you were a very brave man. Now I must tell you that I think you are a fool."
Klaw's eyes flickered. "Is that your own opinion? Or is it a message from Dunstan Vardis?"
"Take it any way you wish." She moved a bit closer to him. "I like you, Stephen Klaw. That's why I came to warn you. You are doing a very foolish thing. You have nothing to gain by allowing yourself to be killed by the gunmen of Dunstan Vardis. Why do you expose yourself this way?"
Steve's face was inscrutable. "I appreciate your interest, Zara. Did you come to warn me because you like me—or because Dunstan Vardis is worried about what my two partners are doing? Is he afraid that Kerrigan and Murdoch are somewhere around?"
Zara smiled ruefully. "You're a hard man, aren't you, Stephen Klaw? You trust no one."
"Yes," he said, "There are people I do trust. But you aren't one of them. Go back and tell Dunstan Vardis that he doesn't have to worry. I'm alone here. Kerrigan and Murdoch aren't anywhere around. He can safely send his gunmen."
"Why?" she insisted. "Why do you challenge him like this?"
He smiled tightly. "I'm going to break down the reputation of Dunstan Vardis, my dear Zara. I'm going to show the rats of the underworld that he isn't invincible. I'm going to show them that one man—not the whole F.B.I., but just one man—can take everything that Dunstan Vardis can hand out, and still come back fighting. I intend to show the underworld that its idol has feet of clay!"
Zara sighed. "It's a pity, Stephen Klaw. You're the kind of man I admire. It's too bad you have to die!"
She stiffened, and her elbows pressed close against her sides. The little nutria muff pushed out, against Steve's stomach. He read in her eyes what she was going to do. There was a gun in that muff. She was going to pull the trigger, and send a slug into his stomach. The fur would kill the sound of the explosion. She would turn and calmly walk out, as he slumped down to the floor.
"Don't do it, Zara," he said, in a low, conversational voice.
She paused for a fraction of a second, her eyes questioning.
"As you see," he explained softly, "my right arm is resting on the bar. As you can also see, my left hand is in my coat pocket. Do you know what it's doing there? It's holding a thirty-two calibre automatic pistol. The muzzle is pointing at your beautiful body. If you shoot, Zara, I shoot, too. It would be a shame for one as beautiful as you to die—now!"
Mike Emlen had said that she was like a snake, inside. For an instant, her deep, innocent blue eyes seemed to change color, and to glitter with a tinge of reptilian green. But immediately she veiled them. When she looked at him again, that glitter was gone, and she was smiling.
"I was mistaken, Stephen Klaw," she murmured. "I said that you were a foolish man. You are not. You are a very clever man—and still a very brave one. I shall go now. Tell me—would you shoot a woman in the back?"
"No," he said. "Go and tell Dunstan Vardis not to send a woman to do a man's job. Ask him why he doesn't come himself!"
Zara raised her eyebrows. "Do you want me to admit that I know Dunstan Vardis—so that you can arrest me?"
He shook his head. "I could arrest you, if I wanted to, for violating the Sullivan law. I'm sure you don't have a permit for that gun in your muff. But I'm saving you till I can arrest you for murder. Take a tip from me, Zara, if you had anything to do with the killing of Tony Lawrence, or Jack Sloan, or the other G- Men who were sent after Dunstan Vardis, then be sure not to be around when the blow-off comes. I'll have no mercy for you."
She was smiling no longer. The fierce intensity of his voice had shaken her. She turned around very slowly, and walked out into the street.
Stephen Klaw watched the door close behind her. He couldn't see her outside, because the Venetian blinds over the windows were all the way down. But he didn't take his hand out of his pocket.
"Make it Scotch," he said to Mike Emlen, who had come up alongside him.
He drank it neat, without a chaser, not noticing that it came out of a bottle that was Mike's private stock—a Scotch that can't be bought any more, since the war began.
He took out a bill and laid it on the counter, but Mike Emlen pushed it back into his hand. "I'm not taking your money, Steve," he said.
Klaw nodded his thanks, and took the money back. Then, with both hands in his pockets, he went toward the door.
"Good luck, Stephen Klaw!" Mike Emlen called after him, softly.
AS Stephen Klaw stepped out of Mike Emlen's place, one question was beating like a hammer against his brain: Where was Johnny Kerrigan?
Johnny had set out to tail Zara. Surely, if nothing had happened to him, he would have followed her inside. If Johnny had given up the trail of Zara, it was either because he had been killed, or because he had come across a hot lead to Dunstan Vardis. In the latter case, he might have left a message at the Montrose Hotel, which they had agreed upon beforehand as their contact point. He started for the Montrose, which was only two blocks away.
There was no sign of Zara. She hadn't lingered after coming out of Emlen's.
Klaw walked warily now, watchful of everything and everyone in the crowded street. From now on it was certain that Dunstan Vardis would wage a Blitzkrieg. For Vardis must know that a challenge had been thrown down to him which all of the underworld could understand. One man was challenging him. Or, let us say, three men. Dunstan Vardis had planned for a big war—a war with the whole F.B.I. Certainly he must have expected that when his operations became known, the whole weight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation would crack down upon him. He had convinced his followers that he had a strong enough organization to win against the nation's great crime-fighting bureau. What now would those followers say if they saw that only three members of that Bureau had been assigned to the task of ferreting him out? And what would they say when they saw that those three lone men were checkmating their clever and ruthless boss?
The psychology of the Director's tactics was perfect. But the Suicide Squad would have to bear the brunt of an attack which had been planned for an even larger force. Stephen Klaw understood all this as he walked toward the Montrose Hotel.
Now that Zara had failed in her treacherous attempt at Klaw's life, Dunstan Vardis might be expected to stage more spectacular attempts. Machine-gunning in the street? A bomb? A dope-crazed murderer? He had used all these methods before, and no doubt had ample facilities for using them again. Klaw, therefore, walked warily.
By the time he reached the Montrose Hotel, he knew definitely that he was being followed. There were at least two men on foot, behind him, whom he had spotted. And there was a Black and Gold taxi which was also most certainly tailing him. It kept crawling a half block in back of him, and never gaining.
Three times Stephen Klaw stopped and went to the curb, where he would afford a tempting target for anyone in the cab. Each time, he kept his hands in his overcoat pockets, and watched the two pedestrian tailers out of the corner of his eye, as well as the cab. If it should start to gather speed to come shooting past him, he would be prepared.
But they failed to rise to the bait. Each time that he stopped, they stopped. Evidently, they had something else planned—something that would be more certain of obtaining the desired result. Or else they were waiting to choose the most favorable spot for the attack.
With narrowed eyes, Klaw continued up Broadway, then turned west to the Montrose Hotel, which was in the middle of the block. Then they struck.
It was typical of Dunstan Vardis, that the attack was different from anything that might have been expected.
Stephen Klaw grasped the idea at once. And too late, he understood how clever was his adversary.
THREE drunks had been staggering down the street from the Montrose Hotel, toward Steve. Two other men, standing near the curb, were arguing loudly about something or other. Steve suddenly discovered that all these men were clustering closely around him. At the same time, the two tailers came hurrying up from behind, and joined the press of men closing in on him. The Black and Gold taxi accelerated and pulled up alongside at the curb.
None of the men had guns in their hands. They just closed in, purposefully, grimly. The pseudo-drunks were still making noise, talking and laughing loudly. But their eyes were on Klaw. They pushed in so close that his elbows were pinned to his sides.
Simultaneously, someone opened the door of the taxicab, and it yawned invitingly. The close-pressed group of men began to surge toward that open door, half pushing and half carrying Klaw with them.
"Don't get tough!" one of the men said. "Dunstan Vardis wants to see you. Better get in the cab without scrapping!"
Steve braced himself, and pushed against the crushing weight of the close-knit group.
"Okay," one of them said. "He's gonna make trouble. Sap him!"
Blackjacks appeared in several hands. They rose to slam down upon Steve's skull.
Klaw sighed. "Sorry, boys," he said. And he fired both automatics through the cloth of his pockets.
He fired four times with each gun, and the noise of the blasts was almost smothered by the close-pressed bodies. The slugs struck his assailants low, mostly in the groin, for they were fired at hip-height.
Blackjacks fell from nerveless hands. Men screamed in awful agony. They fell away from him as if they were puppets whose strings had been cut. Those who were not hit, turned and ran in sudden, frantic terror.
The wounded men writhed on the sidewalk at Steve's feet. The taxi motor roared, and the cab sped away, with open door swinging wide. Men and women pedestrians rushed headlong away from the vicinity, anxious to get out of range.
Stephen Klaw did not spare a single glance for the wounded men on the sidewalk. He kept his hands on the guns in his pockets, and stepped away from the writhing mass. Black, scorched tears showed in the cloth of his overcoat as he walked toward the Montrose Hotel.
He could have stopped and waited for the police, and participated in questioning the wounded men. But he had no time. He must find Johnny Kerrigan and Dan Murdoch, and he must be in the Silver Galleon at midnight. He was sure that little information about Dunstan Vardis could be gleaned from those men. Like Joslin, they probably knew nothing about their boss. He must be content now with his temporary victory.
A moment after he stepped away from that spot, he was only one of the hundreds of pedestrians on the crowded street. It was night, and the passers-by were panic-stricken by the sudden shooting. It was certain that none would be able to point him out to the cop who was running up from the corner with drawn gun.
Quietly, Stephen Klaw turned in toward the entrance of the Montrose Hotel.
But he had hardly taken a step toward the entrance, when a woman screamed, across the street.
Klaw's eyes swiveled toward that long drawn-out shriek of terror. He saw the woman, standing transfixed, pointing frantically toward an upper window of the Montrose Hotel.
KLAW was already under the canopy of the hotel entrance. He was not in a position to see what was happening above the canopy. But his instincts were those of a fighting man, always attuned to danger. Especially now, when he knew he was at war with the cleverest and most ruthless enemy the Suicide Squad had ever encountered.
Almost in the same split-instant that he saw the woman, he saw other people on the opposite side of the street looking upward and gesticulating wildly. He needed no more than that. He went into a flying leap that carried him forward, to land flat on his face on the sidewalk, just past the canopy.
Almost simultaneously there was a ripping, rending sound. A heavy armchair tore through the canopy, tearing the canvas as if it had been paper, and twisting the iron framework into a mass of curlicued wreckage. It crashed to the pavement with the force of a projectile, and disintegrated into a thousand catapulting splinters.
For an instant, everything was silent in that street. It was as if the whole world had stopped moving. Even the screaming woman had ceased to scream. Then, abruptly, the spell was broken. The woman on the opposite side of the street found her breath again. Hysterical shrieks poured from her throat.
The cop, who had reached the group of wounded men, was uncertain whether to remain with them or to come and investigate this new phenomenon. A man shouted, pointing upward, "That chair came from the fifteenth floor!"
Someone else yelled, "No! I saw it. It was pushed out of the tenth floor!"
A milling mass of people began to swirl around in the gutter, blocking off all traffic. People began to argue and gesticulate. A small crowd gathered around the wounded gunmen. Even for jaded New Yorkers, this combination of a gunfight and a huge chair hurtling out of a window, all within the space of two or three minutes, was too much. Pandemonium swept the crowd in no time.
In all the excitement, they lost sight of the central figure—the one at whom all this had been aimed, Stephen Klaw was no longer there. Unobserved, he had sprung to his feet and hurried into the hotel.
Grimly, he pushed through the revolving doors into the lobby. Dunstan Vardis had first tried to capture him alive. Then, failing that, he had made an immediate attempt to kill him.
Klaw understood very well why Vardis wanted him alive. He wanted information about Kerrigan and Murdoch. Perhaps he had planned to torture it out of Klaw. He wanted to eliminate all three members of the Suicide Squad. He would probably have left Stephen Klaw to be found in some dark street, with his eyes gouged out, like Tony Lawrence. But Vardis, like a good general, had figured on possible failure. He had prepared a quick second attempt. And he would keep on trying. For now it was becoming vital to Dunstan Vardis that he dispose quickly of the Suicide Squad. His vicious prestige was at stake.
The clock over the clerk's desk in the lobby showed that it was twenty minutes before twelve. Little enough time to get down to the Silver Galleon by midnight.
People were streaming out of the lobby, brushing past Steve, almost bowling him over in their eagerness to get outside and see what had happened. He pushed through them toward the elevator. The indicator was in motion, moving past the third floor. By the time he reached the door, the indicator showed that the cage was at the main floor. The door began to slide open.
KLAW kept his hands on the two automatics. It was possible that the men who had thrown that chair were coming down to make their escape. They could easily walk out of the hotel unmolested, for no one could prove who had sent the chair hurtling out of the window. In fact, it would take some time to discover the window from which it had come.
Klaw watched with narrowed eyes as the door slid fully open. The operator stood aside, and three men came out.
Klaw's glance slid past them, and his eyes gleamed as he saw who was standing far back in the interior of the cage. It was Dan Murdoch. Dan must have been upstairs in their room, and had sprinted for the elevator at the first sounds from outside.
Steve had only a second to exchange glances with Murdoch. The three men who had emerged from the elevator suddenly stopped, staring at the red ribbon in Steve's buttonhole.
"That's him!" one of the three shouted. They all made concerted jabs toward their shoulder holsters.
Stephen Klaw stood very still, a set-hard smile on his lips, his agate eyes inscrutable, his hands deep in his pockets. He was waiting for them to get their guns out. He had no need to shoot. Dan Murdoch stepped lithely out of the cage, directly behind them.
"As you were, gentlemen!" he said pleasantly. And suddenly there were guns in Murdoch's hands, boring into the backs of the two men on the ends.
Those two stiffened, with their hands actually touching the butts of the guns in their shoulder holsters, but not daring to draw them. The one in the middle, however, felt no muzzle at his back. His lips drew back from his teeth in a snarl. Whirling, he yanked out his gun.
Stephen Klaw shot him as he turned—through the head. He fired from the right hand pocket, and at the same time his left hand automatic came out to help cover the other two. They stood stiff as soldiers on parade, never moving a muscle, as their companion stretched both hands over his head, then collapsed crumpling to the floor at their feet.
The single gunshot reverberated through the lobby, but there was no one to see what was happening. Everyone had run out into the street. Only the elevator operator watched them, his mouth agape.
"Nice work, Shrimp," said Dan Murdoch approvingly. "I wish I could shoot from my pocket the way you do!"
He had not moved, keeping the two guns boring into the prisoners' backs.
"What'll we do with these rats?" he demanded. "They're the ones that shoved the chair down on you. I was looking out the window, and I saw them do it."
"Upstairs," said Steve.
The two gunmen allowed themselves to be herded into the elevator. The operator sent the cage up to the tenth, and their room. Once in the room, they swiftly disarmed the thugs, and handcuffed them to the radiator.
"What about Johnny?" Steve asked anxiously while they worked over the two gunmen. "Any word from him?"
"Nothing!" Murdoch told him. "He didn't call in. Maybe he's still on the girl's tail."
"He isn't," said Steve. "I met her. Johnny was nowhere in sight."
"By God," said Dan Murdoch, "if anything's happened to Johnny, I'll take Mr. Dunstan Vardis apart, piece by piece."
He turned and glared at the two handcuffed prisoners. They cowered at what they saw in his eyes. But Dan Murdoch immediately recovered his self-control.
"Don't go away, boys," he urged them. "Well be wanting a few words with you, by-and-by!"
Murdoch and Klaw went down in the elevator, and the operator goggled when they showed him their F.B.I. badges.
"Let us out at the basement," Klaw ordered him. "We have no time to stop and answer questions. After we've gone, get hold of Lieutenant Schirmer of the Homicide Squad. He should be around somewhere. Tell him to go up to our room and ask those boys a few questions."
"Y-yes, sir!" the operator stuttered.
"And tell him," Klaw threw back as they stepped out of the cage, "that the Suicide Squad is still alive and kicking!"
Under his breath he added, so that only Dan Murdoch could hear, "I hope!"
They were both thinking of Johnny Kerrigan as they got into the car, which Murdoch had parked around the corner on Eighth Avenue. They went roaring downtown, utterly disregarding traffic lights, and police whistles.
"It's seven minutes of twelve," Steve said. "We've got to get there by midnight. I don't want Nina Prentice to be alone in the Silver Galleon for a minute!"
THEY made it, just as the bells of Saint Mary's Church were tolling midnight.
The Silver Galleon occupied a brownstone house just across the street from the waterfront, at the edge of Greenwich Village. Opposite, was a row of abandoned warehouses, formerly used by the Jersey Shore railroads, but long since condemned. Beyond the warehouses was the river, with the riding lights of half a dozen yachts, and the tall superstructure of a heavy cruiser visible against the Jersey shoreline.
Stephen Klaw left Dan Murdoch, and went directly into the main entrance of the Silver Galleon. Strains of an orchestra came wafting out as the doorman opened the door for him. Within, the smell of stale spaghetti permeated the tobacco-laden air.
A girl at the coat room tried to take his overcoat, but he shook her off. She started to argue with him, insisting that no one could go in without checking his hat and coat, but she stopped with her mouth open, staring at the red ribbon in his buttonhole. She said not another word, but scurried off down a narrow hallway.
Klaw grinned twistedly. The warning was given. In a moment every killer in the place would know that Stephen Klaw was here for a showdown.
A headwaiter came to him, out of the crowded dining room. The man had a barrel chest, and big, hairy hands. He looked out of place in a waiter's outfit. He would have been more at home wielding an iron bar or a blackjack in some strikebreaking fracas. His eyes rested on Klaw for a moment, and Steve saw him purse his lips as he spotted the red ribbon.
"You alone, mister?" he demanded.
"Okay. Right this way."
He started to lead Klaw to a table in the center of the room, but Klaw stopped him.
"I'll take that table—over near the wall," he said.
"That's reserved, mister. You got to take what you get, in here."
The headwaiter found himself talking to thin air. Steve had already started for the table near the wall. The bruiser cursed under his breath, and took a quick, angry step after Steve. He put out a big hamlike hand to grasp his shoulder. But Stephen Klaw seemed to have eyes in the back of his head. He turned just at the right moment, and his cold, level, eyes met those of the bruiser.
"Never try to put a hand on me!" Klaw said softly. He had both his own hands in his overcoat pockets.
The headwaiter jerked his fist back, as if he had touched fire. "Okay, okay, mister. But I tell you that table is reserved—"
"Cancel the reservation, then!"
Klaw crossed the room, passing between aisles of tables whose occupants stared up at him and his ribbon with hard, appraising eyes. There was no doubt in his mind now that Nina Prentice had been right when she said that this place was the hangout of Dunstan Vardis' paid killers. He seated himself at the table he had chosen, pushing his chair around so that his back was to the wall. The headwaiter stood irresolute, a few feet away, wondering how to handle him.
Steve paid the man no attention. He let his gaze wander over the room. An orchestra was chopping out indifferent music, and fifteen or twenty couples were moving slowly around on the roped- off square in the center. His eyes flickered as he spotted Nina Prentice.
She was seated alone at a table alongside the dance floor. Her long, sensitive fingers were wrapped around the stem of a cocktail glass, but she hadn't touched its contents. She was staring off into space, as if studiously trying to avoid seeing Stephen Klaw.
OUT of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Dan Murdoch come into the room. The headwaiter went over to greet him. Evidently no one in the place recognized Murdoch as one of the Suicide Squad. That was all to the good.
Murdoch waved the headwaiter away, and instead of taking a table he went over to the bar at the other end of the room, and stood with his elbows on the railing, facing the floor. Over his shoulder he ordered a drink from the bartender.
The orchestra ceased playing, and the couples went back to their tables. Now, a dozen more pairs of eyes became focussed on Steve, as word went around to those who had just finished dancing that Killer Klaw was here in the place.
Steve saw the attention he was attracting, and smiled thinly. A waiter came over to him to get his order.
"I don't want a thing," he said to the man. "Just go and tell Dunstan Vardis that Stephen Klaw has come for him!"
The waiter tried to look innocent. "Dunstan Vardis? I never heard the name."
"Then you ought to read the newspapers," Klaw told him. "On second thought, never mind taking the message. Vardis surely knows it by this time. You might tell him, though, that if he doesn't come out in ten minutes, I'm going to start taking this place apart—to see what's behind the false front!"
The man flushed, and hurried away.
Klaw half-closed his eyes, as if he were dozing. But his head was thrown back, so he could see everybody in the room. Suddenly he stiffened. He almost lost his pose of easy somnolence. He blinked, and looked again. Yes, there could be no doubt about it—the man in the waiter's uniform, who had just come out of the kitchen, was Johnny Kerrigan!
Steve felt a surge of gladness. He had been sure, for the past hour, that something had happened to Johnny. He looked across to the bar, and saw that Dan Murdoch had also spotted their big partner.
Johnny was carrying a tray with two sandwiches, which he served to a couple at a nearby table. Then he started back to the kitchen. He threw a quick side glance at Steve, and nodded his head almost imperceptibly.
Steve caught his cue. "Waiter!" he shouted imperiously, raising his hand.
Johnny turned, apparently saw that he was wanted, and came over to Steve's table. Steve picked up a menu, and pretended to be asking him about the food. In reality, he said swiftly, "What's the lay, Johnny?"
Kerrigan bent over him, as if advising on the dishes.
"This is it, Shrimp!" he said. "This is Dunstan Vardis' headquarters. I followed that dame down here. She went in the front entrance, and I could see her talking to a cripple in a wheel chair, in the foyer. I decided to take a look around the back. The place wasn't open for business yet, so I broke into the cellar and looked around. There's a secret passage of some sort that leads under the street to those warehouses on the waterfront. I came upstairs, and what do I do, but run into that cripple in the wheel chair, with four or five hard guys. I was just going for my gun, when the cripple says: 'Oh! You're the waiter the Acme Agency sent!' I said yes, and that's how I'm a waiter. But I got no gun. I heard the cripple telling one of the boys to frisk me, so I ditched my gun in a big pot of soup. Now I can't get it."
"Take one of mine," said Steve softly.
"Nix. Too dangerous. We're probably being watched. That cripple—Farney—has a million eyes. What are you and Dan doing here, Shrimp?"
"We're going to work in about ten minutes, Johnny. It's the showdown."
"Okay. I'll change to my street clothes, and work my way down to the cellar. I'll see if can I get through that underground passage to the warehouse. If you get that far, come through after me."
"Right, Shrimp. See you in hell. If no see no more, say good- bye to Dan for me."
With that, Johnny Kerrigan turned away and headed for the kitchen, writing down an imaginary order for a chicken liver omelette.
BARELY a moment after Johnny Kerrigan had disappeared into the kitchen, Stephen Klaw was treated to another surprise. A door opened in the wall, close to where he was sitting. The yellow-haired woman, Zara, came into the room. She was clad in a daring, low-cut evening dress which was molded to every curve of her voluptuous body.
She threw a quick side-glance at Stephen Klaw, but did not greet him. Instead, she walked right past him, and went over to the table where Nina Prentice was sitting. She bent low, with her back to Steve, and talked swiftly with Nina. Then Nina arose, her face flushed with clashing emotions, and followed Zara back toward the side door.
Immediately, Steve was alert. Zara was taking Nina Prentice to see her brother. And he had reason to believe that Nina would never come back from that interview. Dunstan Vardis could not afford to leave Nina alive, to tell what she knew. He was going to cause her to disappear.
As the two women approached the door, Stephen Klaw got up from the table, and signalled with his hand across the room to Dan Murdoch. Then he stepped directly in the path of Nina and Zara.
The yellow-haired woman looked at him coldly. "What do you want, Stephen Klaw?"
He smiled. "Nothing, dear lady—except to go along with you and Miss Prentice."
Zara shook her head, her eyes never leaving his. "No, Stephen Klaw. You see—here, I am the mistress!"
She must have given some secret signal. For now, a group of men were pushing close around them, coming from the nearby tables. Their hostility was no longer veiled. They had guns in their hands, and the guns were covering Stephen Klaw from a dozen angles. Two of the men stepped deftly in front of Zara, so that their bodies shielded hers from Klaw's guns. The others moved in close to him, from all sides.
Klaw smiled, keeping his hands in his pockets. "Very neat, my dear Zara. You deliberately brought Miss Prentice this way, to get me away from the table—so I wouldn't have a wall at my back."
"Thank you," Zara acknowledged. She took Nina Prentice by the arm, and dragged her around behind the screening bodies of her gunmen.
"Finish him without noise if you can!" she ordered. "Have the orchestra play loud music."
She stopped, her face becoming paper-white. Her hand dropped from Nina Prentice's arm. Behind her, Dan Murdoch had suddenly appeared. He was pressing the muzzle of his revolver to the white skin at the back of her neck.
"I think," he drawled, "that I have the situation well in hand, Shrimp. The lady understands that as soon as these rats of hers fire the first shot, I'll fire the second—into her pretty spine!"
Zara stood motionless. Her eyes blazed with fierce hatred at Stephen Klaw. "What do you want?" she demanded hoarsely.
Steve stepped back, pushing the gunmen out of his way. As long as their mistress was threatened by Dan Murdoch's gun, they didn't dare resist.
Klaw reached behind him, and opened the door in the wall. He stood to one side, and bowed. "Ladies first!" he said.
Zara stepped forward unwillingly, with Dan Murdoch close behind her. Nina Prentice followed them through.
Stephen Klaw remained where he was. "Keep going, Dan," he called out. "I'll be along in a couple of minutes."
He closed the door behind him, and stood with his back to it, facing the roomful of gunmen. His hands came swiftly out of his pockets, gripping the automatics. The room had become so still that the snick of his safety catches was distinctly heard.
"All right, boys," he said softly. "Come and take Killer Klaw!"
FOR thirty tense seconds, there was not the slightest movement in all that room. Men with guns in their hands were facing Stephen Klaw—men as hard-bitten as any to be found in the underworld. They had only to press the triggers of their guns. But they remained unmoving.
Every one of these men had heard the almost legendary stories about the Suicide Squad. They had heard how Kerrigan and Murdoch and Klaw had gone into dens where they were outnumbered ten to one—and had come out alive. They had heard how the three hellions of the Suicide Squad seemed actually to seek death—and yet, never to find it. Just now, these gunmen had been ready, hot for a fight, under the eye of their mistress. That had been due to the desire to shine before her. There was no doubt that she commanded the unholy love of men, just as in the case of Gerald Prentice, who had been willing to allow himself to be framed into prison rather than betray her.
But now she was gone, and they knew that one of the terrible Suicide Squad had taken her away. Perhaps she would never return. What was the use then, of fighting this other one, who stood there so coolly, with his guns ready to blast? Some of them must surely die if a fight started.
Klaw could read these thoughts in their faces. He knew also, that their respect for Dunstan Vardis had perceptibly diminished in the past few hours. They did not have the blind confidence in him that had carried them on before the Suicide Squad appeared on the scene. They were not sure that Vardis could do the things for them that they had thought he could.
Time passed in that room, with each second ticking slowly, like an aeon of time. If only one of those men should decide to shoot, that would be the end of Stephen Klaw. He would go down, taking with him many of these rats. But he would be dead.
He faced the prospect calmly, without a flicker of emotion showing in his cold features. The men before him saw in him the modern incarnation of the flaming warrior of olden days, who wasn't afraid to die because he saw visions of Valhalla.
To them it was incomprehensible. These men killed for profit, or to save their skins. They didn't fight for the love of fighting, but to make a mean living. They could not understand one who offered to risk his life for honor, or for the love of battle.
Slowly, as the seconds ticked away, some of the crowd at the back of the room started to trickle out, slinking away and hoping that the hard-eyed man with the automatics would not notice them.
STEPHEN KLAW saw them steal away. And he let them go. He faced those others nearest him, and a little smile of contempt twitched at his lips, for he saw that they would not fight.
"All right," he said harshly. "Listen to me, all of you. As I look at your faces I don't see any who are wanted for serious crimes. Perhaps the wanted men are in some other part of the building. You are all would-be gunmen and thugs. You haven't the guts for a real fight. You thought you'd have an easy time of it under the protection of Dunstan Vardis. You even thought that with Vardis behind you, you could laugh in the faces of the G- Men. Well, I'm a G-Man. Let's see which of you wants to laugh first!"
There was no response. Indeed, many of them looked away from him, lest he think they were defying him.
It was Stephen Klaw who laughed at last.
"Get out! All of you!" he ordered harshly. "Get out of here, and leave town. Never come back. Dunstan Vardis won't be able to help you after tonight. Leave your guns. And never try to make a living by guns again, because you'll surely come up against the G-Men, and next time you may not be so lucky!"
Uncompromising and unsmiling, he stood there with his automatics, and waited.
He had not long to wait. Almost before he had finished talking, men began to stoop and lay their guns carefully on the floor, and quietly slink away. Soon there was no one in the great room, except Stephen Klaw. He raised one hand, and wiped sweat from his forehead. Then he turned, and opened the door in the wall. He went through into the passage, after Murdoch.
There was a dim bulb illuminating the hall. He followed the corridor to the end, with his automatics out. He came to a flight of stairs leading down. At the foot of the stairs he saw an open door. The door was in a larger hall, and he saw that the hall led on beyond that open door, seemingly into utter darkness. Klaw did not follow it any farther than the door. He stepped through it into a small room.
Murdoch was there, and Zara, and Nina Prentice. Murdoch still had his gun in Zara's back. But none of them was looking toward the door. None of them saw Stephen Klaw enter.
They were too busy looking at that which was at the other end of the room.
THERE was an opening in the far wall, where a sliding secret door had been opened, affording a view of another dark passageway beyond. But framed in that opening there was a grotesque and revolting man.
He was seated in a wheel chair, which could be propelled by a self-contained motor. The lower half of the man's body was covered by a robe, and only his head and torso were visible. His head was tremendous. It was shaped like an egg, and the narrow chin served all the more to accentuate the unbelievable width of his skull. His forehead was shining white, like wax, and he wore a wig which was so manifestly not his natural hair that one wondered why he bothered to wear it at all.
This queer creature was chuckling. And the chuckle made a horrid, vile sound in the room. The reason for his amusement was the Thompson sub-machine gun which lay across his lap, pointing at Murdoch and the two women.
"Well, my dear friends," he was saying, "it seems that I shall have one last pleasure before leaving—the pleasure of raking you all with snub-nosed slugs! You and your two friends, my dear Murdoch, are entitled to my compliments. I never thought that the efforts of three men could break up the power of Dunstan Vardis!"
Stephen Klaw was invisible to the cripple in the wheel chair, because he had the darkness of the hallway behind him, and because Murdoch and the two women were between him and the open panel. He could barely see the man over Nina Prentice's shoulder. His eyes reflected puzzlement. This man was surely not Dunstan Vardis. He had pictures of Vardis, before the man had escaped from Leavenworth. There was not the slightest resemblance. This must be the cripple, Farney, who had been mentioned both by Nina Prentice and by Johnny Kerrigan. Yet he spoke as if he were the master.
And now, for the first time, Stephen Klaw saw that there was another man in the room. He was standing over at the left of Murdoch, and his hands were bound behind his back. His clothes were disheveled, and his hair was mottled. He lacked a shave, and there was blood on the right side of his face which had evidently trickled down from a wound in the scalp. But Steve recognized him at once. The resemblance to Nina Prentice was so marked that there was no doubt he was Gerald Prentice.
Prentice spoke now, for the first time. "Why kill my sister?" he demanded hoarsely. "Let her go, Vardis. She never harmed you."
The man in the wheel chair shook his head, still chuckling. "Impossible, my dear Gerald. You see, when I leave this place, I intend that none shall remain alive to say what Dunstan Vardis looks like." His eyes swung to Zara. "Not even you, my dear Zara!"
And then, he must have pressed some secret spring. For with the swift smoothness of a well-oiled mechanism, the secret door slid shut with a click. Dunstan Vardis disappeared, and nothing was left but blank wall. There was only one little aperture in that blank wall—a loophole. And now, the barrel of the submachine gun was thrust out through that loophole.
THERE would never have been time for any of them to escape from the room before the gun began to stutter its flaming death. Zara screamed, and leaped to one side. As if her scream had attracted the killer's attention to her, the barrel of the gun swung in her direction, and flame streaked from the muzzle. The snub-nosed bullets lanced out at Zara.
But someone uttered a hoarse shout. It was Gerald Prentice. Shouting, he leaped forward awkwardly, in spite of his bound hands. And he threw himself directly in the path of that stream of lead directed at Zara!
Nina Prentice screamed as she saw his body battered by the flailing bullets. For a moment he danced in the air, as shot after shot thudded into him. Prentice was dead before he hit the floor.
But his sacrifice had been unavailing. For one single bullet had caught the beautiful Zara in the throat, and she fell slowly, graceful even in death, upon the body of the man who had sacrificed everything for her sake.
Dan Murdoch had thrust Nina Prentice behind him when the machine-gun began its chatter. He raised his revolver, and fired six times, quickly, straight at the bit of muzzle which showed through the loophole. At the same time, Stephen Klaw's two guns were spitting fire, at the same target.
Klaw fired seven times with each gun, emptying the clips. He hit it fourteen times, and Murdoch hit it six times. Those twenty sledge-like impacts in split-second succession must have paralyzed Dunstan Vardis' hand, for the muzzle of the machine-gun disappeared.
Klaw's fingers flew as he inserted another clip, and emptied it into the blank wall. But none of his shots pierced it. The bullets ricochetted into the room. That sliding door was made of sheet steel.
They heard a sudden whining of machinery from behind the door, and Klaw exclaimed, "That's an elevator, Dan! He's going down!"
The two men swung out of the room, dragging Nina Prentice with them.
"Wait!" she begged. "Let me stay here. My brother—"
Dan Murdoch and Stephen Klaw looked at her with sympathy. Murdoch patted her on the shoulder.
"Sure, kid. Stay with him. And don't feel too bad. Your brother was a brave man. I'd have been proud to shake his hand."
There were tears of gratitude in her eyes for those few words as she watched them hurry out. Then she turned to her dead...
KLAW and Murdoch followed the long hallway, reloading as they went. They noticed that the corridor sloped downhill, and they guessed that it would lead them into the lower part of the warehouse fronting on the river.
"Johnny is down there!" Klaw said. "He said he was going down to look around. He'll run right into Vardis and whatever is left of his crew—and he hasn't got a gun!"
There were no lights here. The corridor was in utter darkness, and Murdoch used his flashlight. They came to a strong, oaken door, and stopped before it. Klaw tried the knob. It was not locked. He had his hand on the knob when he heard sudden shouts from the other side, sounds of a furious struggle.
"Let's go!" he shouted to Dan Murdoch.
He thrust the door wide open. They stepped through, shoulder to shoulder.
They were at the head of a flight of stairs, leading down into the basement of the warehouse. And this, they saw at a glance, was the final hideout of Dunstan Vardis. It was equipped like an arsenal. It was here that were stored the weapons used by Vardis' gunmen.
But they spared not a second glance for all that. Their eyes swept to the panorama of struggle in the center of the room.
Johnny Kerrigan was there. From somewhere he had gotten a gun and was fighting with it. But at just this moment it went empty. A dozen thugs were coming at him, and at the far end, where a sliding garage door opened out to the dock, sat the cripple in the wheel chair. He must have come straight down in the elevator. His face was twisted with rage as he urged the killers to close in on Johnny Kerrigan. For the moment, their guns were useless against him, for he seized one of their number and whirled him high above his head. He was using the inert man's body as a club.
Only Johnny Kerrigan, with his stevedore shoulders and his primordial strength, could have done that. He was flailing that body around, and the thugs were backing away from him, waiting for a chance to get in a shot.
As Murdoch and Klaw came down the stairs, Johnny swung the body, hitting two of the thugs. They went down like nine-pins, and Johnny laughed out loud, deep in his chest, and went in at the others, not the least concerned about their guns.
A little rat-faced thug sneaked around in back of him, and raised his gun to deliver the killing shot in Johnny's back.
Klaw and Murdoch took care of him. Their guns began to blast as they came down those stairs, shoulder to shoulder. The first to fall was the little rat who had tried to shoot Kerrigan in the back. Then they went down, one after the other, as thunder filled the underground room.
Taken by surprise, those gunmen had no stomach for this hot work, facing all three of the Suicide Squad. They turned to run, but saw at once that they couldn't beat the burning slugs from the avenging guns of the three G-Men.
"Don't shoot!" they shouted, almost in unison. And their hands went up in the air, guns clattering on the floor.
Only one man did not give up.
That was the cripple in the wheel chair. Dunstan Vardis raised his machine-gun, with his lips drawn back in the snarl of one who hates all the world. He raised it to cover Klaw and Murdoch. Klaw fired at his head and Murdoch at his torso. Murdoch's bullet killed him.
Klaw's forehead puckered in puzzlement. He had seen his slug hit the man in the head, but it had not even jerked him back. It had seemed to carry away part of his scalp, but there was no blood.
But Dunstan Vardis was dead, and that was the thing that counted. They came all the way down the stairs, and Kerrigan wiped blood from his face, and grinned.
"Hi, punks," he said. "You didn't come any too soon!"
Stephen Klaw patted him on the back. "That was nice club-work, Johnny, I never saw you do that before."
He stepped past them, and went over to the dead body of the cripple. He knelt beside him, and uttered a low whistle. Kerrigan and Murdoch came over, keeping an eye on the prisoners, although it was hardly necessary, for they had no more fight in them.
They looked down at the head of Dunstan Vardis.
"No wonder I didn't recognize him!" Stephen Klaw said. "That's all wax!"
Indeed, Vardis had built up for himself a head of wax upon his own. The broad forehead, the hydrocephalus skull, were all made of wax. Stripped away, it revealed the true features of Dunstan Vardis.
"That's why he didn't want anyone to remain alive," Dan Murdoch said. "I mean anyone who had seen him. He must have put in a lot of effort on this disguise, and he didn't want to have to change it!"
Stephen Klaw turned to Kerrigan. "What about you, Mope?" he asked. "How did you get down here?"
Johnny grinned. "I just wandered down, and fell into a beehive. But come here. Let me show you what I found!"
First they tied up the prisoners with strips of burlap sacking, and then Johnny led them into an adjoining room.
"Take a look!" he said.
A girl was lying unconscious on the floor. "That's Mary Lawrence," he explained. "She's poor Tony Lawrence's sister. She came down here yesterday. It seems that Vardis phoned her and told her he had her brother, and she could save him by coming. Well, the poor girl came down, and they held her, figuring that if the F.B.I. tried to get after Vardis for blinding poor Tony Lawrence, they could threaten to do the same to her."
"Is this where you found her?" Steve demanded.
Johnny nodded. "I came down here, and broke into this room, in the dark, and heard her sobbing. She was tied up. I flashed my light, and untied her, and she started to tell me her story. She found out what happens to the criminals who paid Vardis to get them out of the country. Here are a couple who were supposed to leave today."
He led them to an open trapdoor a few feet away, and pointed down the opening.
Dan Murdoch uttered an exclamation. "Coffins!" he exclaimed.
"Sure," said Johnny. "And dead men in them. They're Vardis's clients. He helped them to escape, all right!"
"I'm sorry we shot him," Stephen Klaw said. "I would have liked to see him hang."
Johnny Kerrigan kicked a machine gun lying on the floor. "See this? It almost finished me. I found it, and figured I owned the place. And then, while Mary Lawrence was showing me the coffins, three hoods jumped us. I turned the machine gun on them, but the clip held all duds. It didn't shoot."
"My Gawd!" said Dan Murdoch. "What did you do?"
Johnny grinned as he knelt and took Mary Lawrence's head in his arms, and chafed her skin to revive her. "I threw the gun at them!"
He pointed to a small huddle of bodies over in a corner. "The boys thought they'd like to take me without noise, so they all jumped me. Too bad for them. That's where I got the "club" I was using in there."
Twenty minutes later, the place was flooded with police, and reporters. Klaw was giving interviews, while Johnny Kerrigan held Mary Lawrence's hand, and while Dan Murdoch talked earnestly with Nina Prentice.
Lieutenant Schirmer scowled, and drew Stephen Klaw aside.
"Looks like those two buddies of yours are mighty interested in the girls. What do you think?"
Stephen Klaw looked over at them, and made a wry face.
"Only till the next job," he told Schirmer. "The Suicide Squad can't afford to get tangled up with women—except at the other end of a gun!"