DECEMBER Thirtieth, Nineteen-forty. Two days before New Year's. It was a Monday. The schools were closed, but the banks and stores and theaters were open. Money was flowing freely, and all the liquor stores were crowded. The city was in a gay mood.
But there was no cheer in the little brownstone boarding house in the Seventies, just off West End Avenue. The black bit of ribbon on the door told its own grim story in the heart of a city given over to holiday festivities.
The funeral was over, but the long row of cars parked outside that modest building spoke much for the esteem in which the deceased must have been held; and meant that he had a great many good friends.
The license plates on those cars told another story, added another bit of information for the discerning passer-by. The car in front of the door was FBI 1. Behind it was DJ 2, both District of Columbia. FBI 1 belonged to the Chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. DJ 2 was the official car of the Assistant Solicitor General of the United States, the assistant to the Head of the Department of Justice, of which the F.B.I. was an integral part. There were other cars, belonging to state and national officials. A passing pedestrian might have wondered what brought all these important personages to the funeral of a person who had lived in such modest surroundings as the brownstone that was Mother Kelly's Boarding House.
Inside, these important personages were gathered in the living room, talking in hushed tones. And on the first floor, in a small room which Mary Kelly used as an office, sat the owners of license plates FBI 1 and DJ 2. Mother Kelly sat behind the old-fashioned, roll-top desk. She was dry-eyed, and her slim, frail body was erect. Her white hair was combed back tightly, and her dress was neat and fresh. But there was a faint streak of tear-stain upon each cheek.
On the wall directly behind her chair, there was a framed picture of a gray-haired man, strong-jawed, level-eyed. Underneath it, a small gold plaque which read:
INSPECTOR THOMAS KELLY
Federal Bureau of Investigation
United States Department of Justice
Presented by the Department of Justice
in grateful acknowledgement of the loyal
services of a brave man who gave up his
life in the performance of his duty.
April 15, 1930
The Chief of the F.B.I. now held another framed picture in his hand. This was the picture of a younger man, but with the same strong jaw and level eyes.
"Mary," he said as he handed it to her, "you have been the wife and the mother of G-men. Ten years ago your husband died, and now it's your son. No woman has ever given more to her country. Whatever I say is meaningless in the face of your grief. Take this picture and this plaque and put them beside those others. May they help you bear your grief."
Mary Kelly took the picture and the plaque. For a moment, as she looked at the young man's portrait, her shoulders jerked. And then she carefully stood it on the desk. "Thank you."
The Assistant Solicitor General of the United States cleared his throat, He brushed irritably at his right eye, which seemed to be watering. "If there is anything you should ever need or want beside your pension, Mrs. Kelly, you have only to name it. We have a fund—"
She smiled wistfully. "There is nothing I need. This little boarding house gives me a living. All I ask of you is—" her frail hands clenched on the desk—"that you do everything possible to bring my son's murderers to justice!"
THE Chief of the F.B.I. threw a worried glance at his superior, the Assistant Solicitor General. "We must wait, Mary—"
"But why?" she cried earnestly, rising from her chair and standing over them. "You sent Tom after a criminal who called himself the 'Undertaker.' You sent him with another young, strong lad, named Jerry Nichols. But they never got the Undertaker. Instead, the Undertaker got them. He sent their bodies to us, in coffins, just as he has done so many times in the past, with others. In the morning, we found the coffin, with poor—Tom's body in it. And the Undertaker added his grim jest by—by preparing the body for—burial. Tom was—embalmed."
The Chief nodded. "I know, I know, Mary. I saw him. And I saw young Nichols, too. That makes eight. Eight men of the F.B.I. have gone after the Undertaker. All came back in coffins..." For the Undertaker had spies and agents everywhere. It was the strongest organization the F.B.I. had ever bucked. The Undertaker guaranteed protection to crooks, murderers, criminals of every description—and collected an assessment from them every month, like insurance. In return, he kept them out of jail. Every law-enforcement officer who arrested a criminal in the Undertaker's protection turned up in a coffin—embalmed and ready for burial. It was getting so that detectives were fearful of arresting a crook who carried one of those coffin-charms which identified him as being under the protection of the Undertaker!
Mother Kelly's eyes were flashing. "Then, why don't you do something? Why don't you throw every man of the F.B.I. into the job of getting the Undertaker?"
"We can't, Mary," the Chief said, miserably. "Ninety percent of our agents are working on sabotage and spy assignments. National Defense takes priority over everything else. We've got to keep our munitions plants from being blown up. And the Undertaker is aware of this. He's trading on it, counting on the fact that we can only send a few men after him."
"But—but—are you going to keep on pitting two or three men at a time against a powerful and ruthless organization? It—it's the same as—as suicide!"
"I know, I know. But—"
The Assistant Solicitor General raised a hand. "There's no other way, Mary. Congress wouldn't permit us to take men off National Defense assignments. And if we did, it would give foreign saboteurs an ideal chance to cripple the country. We've got to go on trying to get the Undertaker by assigning only a few men at a time—"
"You—you're going to—throw other men's lives away?"
"I'm going to try it just once more. I'm assigning three men—"
"Three more sacrifices!" Mother Kelly exclaimed. "What three men could succeed against the Undertaker?"
"The three men I have detailed to this job," the Director said with a faraway look in his eyes, "are eminently fitted for it. I should have given them the assignment in the first place—except that I needed them on other work. Now they're free, and I've asked them to come here. Lisbeth Nichols, the sister of poor young Jerry Nichols, saw the men in the hearse, who left her brother's body at their house Friday night. She can describe them, and identify them. She's in hiding now, lest the Undertaker find her and kill her before she can tell what she knows. I've talked with her on the telephone, and she wouldn't even tell me where she's hiding. But she said she would send a message to the three men I'm assigning, and make an appointment to meet them. With her help, those three may succeed where others have failed."
Mary Kelly gave him a queer look. "Would you care to tell me who those three men are?"
He nodded, smiling a little. "You've met them, Mary, and you know them. Their names are—Kerrigan, Murdoch and Klaw!"
"The Suicide Squad!" she exclaimed. "Johnny Kerrigan. Dan Murdoch. Stephen Klaw. They're willing to take the job?"
The Director said, "They're sore at me for not having assigned them to it in the first place. They're flying from Chicago tomorrow."
"I want to help them!" Mother Kelly said fiercely. "I want to help them avenge my son—and all the others. Tell them that. Tell them they can call on me for anything!"
NEITHER Mother Kelly nor the two men with whom she was talking was aware that their conversation was being overheard at that very moment. None of them was aware of the pseudo-mourner who had his ear glued to the door.
That man moved quickly away from the door as he heard Mother Kelly's two visitors rising to leave. He hurried down the stairs and went out through the long hallway, without entering the living room where the others were gathered. Furtively he made his way across to Broadway and stepped into a corner drugstore. He squeezed into a telephone booth and dialed a number.
"This is Number One-sixteen," he whispered into the phone. "Emergency report. Put me through, quick!"
Only a mile or so away—a couple of blocks west of Times Square—another man sat in an office on the first floor of a small, dignified looking building. On the stone front of that structure was chiselled the name:
FLAMOND UNDERTAKING PARLORS.
From the outside, one would never have suspected the nature of the activities which went on within. The main funeral parlors were quiet and sedate, with a frock-coated manager who dealt courteously with any patrons who chanced to require their services. The business they did was substantial, and their prices were quite high. The Flamond Funeral Parlors enjoyed a very good reputation. But if any outsider had managed, by some accident, to pass through the strong steel door which shut off the cellar stairs, he would have been shocked beyond words. And he would have had a terrible story to tell—if he had ever succeeded in leaving the place alive.
For down here was a whole vast basement floor in which the real work was done. Here were secret embalming rooms which never saw the light of day. From here were taken the embalmed bodies of those law-officers who had been sentenced to death by the Undertaker. In one corner of the great basement there was a stack of caskets, collected secretly over a period of time, with all manufacturer's marks removed.
Weapons were stored here, and there was also a great vault with a time lock, where the daily proceeds of the Undertaker's widespread assessment system were kept.
Upstairs, on the first floor, was the office of Pierre Flamond, the directing genius of this efficient organization for the furtherance and protection of crime.
Flamond was a cadaverous-faced man, with white hair and great, bushy white eyebrows. His forehead was high and narrow, and his lips were thin. Dressed in his frock coat and his flowing bow tie, he presented to the world an appearance of deep-seated respectability.
THE man who sat opposite him in the office was Jonathan Jason, his attorney and fixer. Jason's position in the legal world was above suspicion, just as was that of his employer. No one knew that the many cases which Jason and his assistants handled in court were all referred to him by the Undertaker. His practice was generally thought to be wide and lucrative, and he had the reputation of always winning for his client. But today, Jason was palpably nervous.
"...but suppose the police should raid this place," he was saying. "The evidence they would find downstairs—"
"My dear Jason," Pierre Flamond interrupted, "you must do me the justice to believe that I have overlooked nothing. In the first place, this is the last spot in the world that the police would raid. And I will tell you why. Because the man they seek calls himself the Undertaker. They would hardly believe, therefore, that he is really in the undertaking business—"
"True, true," Jason said. "I'll admit that this is the cleverest masquerade ever conceived. But suppose one of your operatives were arrested and given the third degree? Under pressure, he might be forced to talk—"
"Never fear, my dear Jason. My operatives know that able lawyers will come at once to their assistance with writs of habeas corpus. And if the lawyers fail, there is always recourse to force. Already, half a dozen of my operatives have been taken out of jails by a mass attack."
Pierre Flamond leaned across the desk, his deep-set eyes boring into the lawyer's. "Furthermore, Jason, everyone who works for me knows that if they talked—no matter how they were beaten or tortured—the immediate punishment would be death. I am satisfied, Jason, that no operative of mine will ever betray me." He stopped a moment, then said with slow deliberation: "I am even sure of you, Jonathan Jason!"
"Of course, of course," the lawyer said hastily. "You can depend on me, without question. But—but suppose the police should pick up some clue that would lead them here? You can't deny that such a thing might happen."
Flamond smiled crookedly. "In that case, Jason, the police would find nothing here."
"Ah!" said the lawyer. "You've got the basement mined!"
"Don't be too curious, Jason," Flamond said dangerously. "It is not quite healthy."
The lawyer grew pale. "I didn't mean anything. I—I only wanted to cooperate." He changed the subject quickly. "What about Lisbeth Nichols, the sister of that G-man who was embalmed together with young Tom Kelly? She saw your men on the hearse. Have you taken care of her?"
"Not yet," Flamond admitted. "She's smart. She's in hiding. I have two hundred operatives scouring the town for her. The trouble is, we don't know what she looks like. But we'll find her."
"If she should go to the F.B.I.—"
Flamond's lips twisted. "I would like her to do that. The F.B.I. will place her in protective custody. And I will have one of my planes drop a demolition bomb on any building in which they keep her."
"That's a desperate resort—"
"But necessary. She saw the two men on the hearse. By the way—" Flamond looked queerly at the lawyer—"you know who one of those men was?"
For a moment, Jason was silent. A strange sort of tremor passed through his body. "Not—not my brother?"
The Undertaker smiled, and nodded. "Jock Cooligan, alias Noah Jason."
"Noah!" exclaimed the lawyer. "He promised me he'd lay low after his escape from the police. I told him I'd never be able to get him acquitted."
"Exactly. So he applied to me, and I engineered his rescue, as you know. Since then, he's been working for me."
"But—but why did you have to let him go out on that hearse?"
"Because Jerry Nichols had been after him. Nichols had a wanted poster, with your brother's picture. I deemed it only just that your brother should be the one to deliver his embalmed body!"
"Yes, yes. But—but if Lisbeth Nichols ever identifies him—"
"That is why we must find her quickly, Jason—"
He was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone. Flamond picked it up. "Yes?"
"It's Number One-sixteen, sir, with an emergency report," a voice said. "Shall I connect him?"
In a moment, One-sixteen was pouring his report into the telephone. Flamond's eyes began to glitter.
"Ah!" he said when the spy had finished. "Excellent work, One- sixteen. You shall receive a bonus this month."
He hung up, chuckling, and looked at Jason. "The Federal Bureau of Investigation is about to provide me with three more candidates for my coffins!"
Jason raised his eyebrows. "You mean they haven't learned their lesson yet?"
"It would seem so. They are sending three of their crack agents here from Chicago. Kerrigan, Murdoch and Klaw."
"The Suicide Squad!"
"Exactly!" purred Pierre Flamond. "The Suicide Squad. I am sure we can arrange it to their liking—their suicide!"
He flipped up a key on the enunciator box beside his desk, and said, "Instruct Number Nine to report for duty at once. Tell her that she will have fifty men to support her in this operation, and that I do not want her to fail. There are three G-men coming here tomorrow, and they will lead us to Lisbeth Nichols!"
He flipped down the key, and looked significantly at Jason.
"I think," he said softly, "that we shall need four coffins instead of three..."
A FEW horns were tooting, and the New Year's Eve crowds were thick on Broadway. Blue-coated policemen were stationed every hundred feet or so, and mounted officers on horseback worked hard to keep the throng on the sidewalks. Somebody was waving a pillow case out of a hotel window, and everybody was happy and gay—everybody but Stephen Klaw.
Steve threaded his way morosely through the loud and effervescent gayety of Times Square, and turned east on one of the side streets. A big, husky drunk in evening clothes collided with him, and hung on for a moment, recovering his balance.
"Watch it, Shrimp," the big drunk whispered. "Don't you know you're being tailed."
Steve helped the big fellow to get his legs under him.
"I know it, Johnny," he said. "Two little greaseballs. Where the hell is Dan?"
"Covering the hotel. The girl hasn't shown up."
"Hell," said Steve. "If it wasn't for those two greaseballs, I'd think it was a bum steer."
The big drunk wabbled on his pins, and clung even harder to Steve for support. "Here they are, right up behind you. Want me to hold them so you can shake them?"
"Hell, no. Just bring up the rear."
Johnny Kerrigan hiccupped startlingly, let go of Steve's coat, and staggered away, pushing through the crowd of pedestrians that flowed around them.
Steve continued on his way, heading for the Hotel Sovereign, fifty feet down the block. A henna-haired woman with a pasty face underneath a generous coating of rouge brushed by his shoulder and smiled at him.
"Happy New Year," she said.
"Same to you," Steve grunted, and kept going. The woman looked disappointed. The two greaseballs who were following Steve passed by the woman, and she stooped swiftly and whispered into the ear of one of them. She jerked her head down the street, in the direction of big Johnny Kerrigan, who was bringing up the rear, still doing his drunk act.
The little dark-haired man turned swiftly and looked at Johnny, and his eyes glittered. He motioned to his companion and they both moved back toward Johnny Kerrigan. The henna-haired woman smiled cynically, turned and followed Stephen Klaw.
Steve appeared to be aware of what was happening behind him. He turned in at the entrance of the Hotel Sovereign without looking behind him. He heard a man scream, heard another utter a loud yelp of pain, and he smothered a grin.
The doorman slowed up the revolving doors for him, and smiled. "Happy New Year, sir."
"Same to you," Steve said. He passed through into the lobby.
Music was eddying up from the Scarlet Room in the basement, and more music was coming from the Regal Room at the rear. The lobby was thronged, and the taproom at the right of the lobby was doing a tremendous business.
Steve made his way through the jostling crowd of bare- shouldered women and freshly-barbered men, paying attention to none of them. He entered the taproom. The bar was solidly lined, and all the booths but one were filled. On the table of that unoccupied booth was a card which read, "Reserved."
Steve made for the empty booth.
A hostess in a sheath-like black gown and a gilt tiara on her head stopped him.
"I'm sorry, sir, but this table is reserved—"
Steve looked at the gilt letters stitched on the left side of her bodice, which read, "Hotel Sovereign."
"I'm the party for whom the table is reserved," he told her.
She raised her eyebrows. "But it's being held for a Miss Nichols—"
"That's right. I'm to meet her here."
He took off his hat and coat, and slid into the seat.
"Then you're Mr. Klaw?" the hostess asked.
"That's right. Stephen Klaw. Suppose you bring me a brandy- and-soda while I'm waiting." He frowned. "Miss Nichols should be here by this time."
The hostess nodded. "She said she would be here at nine. It's a quarter after—"
"Is she a regular customer here?" Steve asked.
"No, sir. She sent a messenger at five o'clock, with a reservation. She asked for a table in the Regal Room, but this was all we had left."
"All right," said Steve. "She'll probably be along. Get me that drink, like a good girl."
"I'll tell your waitress, sir."
The hostess left, and Steve looked around the crowded taproom.
A couple of greasy-looking men at the bar had been watching him. They hastily turned away when they saw his glance sweep toward them. Steve gave no sign of noticing them.
A tall, slender man detached himself from the bar near the two greasy-looking customers and walked leisurely down along the booths toward the men's room at the rear. He came abreast of Stephen Klaw's table, jingling the change in the pocket of his tuxedo trousers. He brought his hand out with the change in it, and—apparently by accident—dropped two of the coins. They rolled under Steve's table, and the slender man uttered an angry exclamation. He bent down, searching for the money. As he did so, he said, "Hi, Shrimp. They've got the place covered from every angle. They're watching like hawks. I don't think the girl will dare to show up."
Steve picked up a menu and pretended to read it. It covered his face.
"I think these galoots are wise to you, Dan. They tried for Johnny, outside. I think he damaged a couple of them—from the sounds I heard. Look out for yourself."
"Don't worry about me," chuckled Dan Murdoch. "I'm just wondering if the girl will come."
"If she gets here," Steve said, "they'll try to knock her off."
Dan Murdoch crawled farther under the table, in search of a dime. "There must be a dozen of them around. We'd have a tough time getting her out."
"Well," said Steve, "hang around. Johnny should be right outside. The three of us ought to be able to take care of her."
Murdoch found his dime, got up, and dusted off his trousers. "The one break we get, is that these monkeys don't know what the Nichols girl looks like. But they'll know the minute she joins you at this booth. If we could only warn her—"
"Nuts," Steve broke in. "Better scram. Here comes my waitress."
DAN MURDOCH tossed the dime in the air, caught it, and strolled away, passing a beautiful blonde waitress who was carrying a tray with Steve's brandy-and-soda, and a dish of canapés. She was wearing the costume of an English tavern bar- girl, with a tight, high bodice, and a skirt that barely reached her knees. Her legs were shapely, and her body was firm, the skin of her face and throat full-textured and fresh. But as Steve glanced casually at her, he had the impression that she was working under a terrific strain. Her hand shook just a bit as she placed the brandy-and-soda on the table.
Steve looked up at her and smiled.
"Relax, sister," he said. "There's nothing to be nervous about. New Year's comes regularly every year. It'll all be over in the morning."
She threw a quick, scared look over her shoulder, then brought her eyes around to meet Steve's.
"You're right," she said huskily. "It'll be all over in the morning—if you don't get me out of here quick!"
Steve's hand was reaching for the brandy-and-soda. He stopped for a second, and then lifted the glass, covering up the beginning of an involuntary gesture of surprise.
"What do you mean, sister?"
"You're Stephen Klaw, aren't you?"
She forced a smile to her lips, to cover the deadly seriousness of her eyes. Then she said quickly, "I'm Lisbeth Nichols!"
Klaw's face was impassive. "You're a smart girl," he said. "How'd you get the costume?"
"I've been registered upstairs in the hotel," she told him hurriedly, "ever since nine o'clock this morning. I only went out long enough to send you the message to meet me here, and to send a Western Union messenger with a deposit and reservation for a table here for tonight. But they must have a spy here in the hotel. They found out about the reservation. When I came downstairs a few minutes ago I saw them—waiting like executioners to—to kill me. So I went around the back way, and bribed one of the waitresses to let me take her place tonight."
She bent over the menu which Steve was holding, as if she were pointing out to him the desirable dishes, or recommending something special. Her face was close to his, and Steve could hear her swift, excited breathing.
"Nice work," he said. "You've got grit, Lisbeth. Count on me for whatever you need."
"I'm afraid now," she breathed. "I—I don't know what to do next. I had to come in and warn you. But now—now I don't see anything to do but give up—"
"Don't give up yet," Stephen Klaw murmured. "You're not the kind to give up."
"But what can you, alone, do against these murderous thugs?"
"I'm not alone. But I can't do a thing if you quit on me. What room are you registered in?"
"Nine-o-nine. My sister is up there now, with a gun in her hand. The room is in her name—Mrs. Jane Meredith."
"All right," said Steve. "Go back to the kitchen. Act as naturally as you can. When you come back out here and find me gone, try to look surprised."
"Suppose—something happens to you up there?"
Steve laughed harshly. "There are a couple of friends of mine around here who will take over."
She looked into his eyes for a moment, and suddenly she smiled. "I know who those friends are. Kerrigan and Murdoch. The other two thirds of the Suicide Squad. All right, Mr. Stephen Klaw, I'm going to trust you. I'll fight them!"
THERE was new, fresh color in Lisbeth Nichols' cheeks as she picked up her tray and hurried back in the direction of the kitchen.
Klaw looked up and saw the henna-haired woman coming toward his booth. She stopped alongside the table and said, "Hello."
"Hello and good-by," Steve said sourly.
She laughed. "You're not very friendly." She put her handbag on the table and slid on to the bench opposite him. "Come on, don't be grumpy. Buy me a drink, won't you?"
Steve scowled. "Listen, I'm waiting for my wife. She's a very jealous woman. She always carries a gun and she's liable to shoot you if she finds you here. Why not scram?"
The woman laughed once more. She opened her bag, and put one hand in it. Steve saw something hard poke against the cloth, toward him.
"I'm the one that has the gun," the woman said softly. "And you're not waiting for your wife. You're waiting for Lisbeth Nichols. You probably realize that this is a trap for her. You perhaps intend to leave and try to warn her before she gets here. Well, you'll do nothing of the kind. I want you to sit very still—"
"Tut, tut," said Steve. He tipped his brandy glass, and flicked the contents at her dress.
Instinctively, she jerked away.
Stephen Klaw reached out in a lightning motion and grabbed the bag. His hand closed over it, pinioning her hand inside, together with the gun she was holding. He twisted a little, to turn the muzzle away from himself, then jerked the whole thing out of her grasp.
The woman's eyes blazed as she wiped the brandy-and-soda from her dress and coat. But she made no move to recover her bag.
Steve said, "Pardon me," and turned the bag upside down, dumping all its contents on the wet table. The gun was a small, twenty-two calibre pistol with a short, two-inch barrel. It was of Swiss manufacture, a make which Klaw had never seen before. But it looked business-like enough for deadly work at close range.
"Nice little gun," he said, slipping it into his pocket. He spread out the rest of the stuff and raised his eyebrows at sight of a queer little charm made of black polished ebony and attached to a thin platinum chain. The charm was a miniature coffin, with the lid closed. Upon its face was engraved the number 9.
"Ah!" Steve said softly. "So you're Number Nine, eh?"
The woman tried to snatch the coffin-charm from him, but he slipped it into his pocket.
For a second, she seemed to be on the verge of springing at him. But she got control of herself and sat back in the chair, studying him.
"Mr. Klaw," she murmured, "you're a very foolhardy young man."
"Thank you," Steve said absently. He was fingering through the other things which had fallen from the bag. There was a card case containing engraved calling cards. The name on the cards was: Wilma Manfred.
"Wilma Manfred, eh?" he said. "And you work for the Undertaker."
She started visibly. "You—know about that?"
He laughed. "Everybody who carries these coffin-charms works for the Undertaker. You're Number Nine, so you must be pretty important. Right up near the top."
"Well?" she breathed, "what are you going to do about it?"
"I'm arresting you," he told her.
Before she realized what was happening, he had brought a pair of handcuffs up from under the table and slipped a bracelet around her right wrist. He snapped the other on his own left wrist.
SHE stared at the handcuff in stunned silence. Then she raised her eyes to his. "Don't be a fool, Stephen Klaw. This place is full of the Undertaker's men. You'll never leave here alive—much less take me out with you."
He shrugged. "All right then, we'll see how you like being handcuffed to a corpse. Let's go!"
He started to get up, but she said hastily, "Wait. Wait just a moment."
"You must know that the Undertaker hates to have his operatives taken into custody. We operatives of the Undertaker never work alone. We have enough men here to blast you to death."
"I know," Steve said bitterly. "Last week, a young G-man by the name of Bill Nichols arrested Number Thirty-nine. He was shot down in the street five minutes after he made the arrest, and Number Thirty-nine was rescued. Bill Nichols died in the hospital—but not before he had managed to whisper a few words to his sister, Lisbeth."
The woman nodded. "And Lisbeth Nichols sent for you. But believe me, Stephen Klaw, she'll never tell you what she knows. The minute she appears here she'll be killed. And the minute you try to take me out of here, you'll be killed. Look!" She nodded in the direction of the bar. "Do you see what I mean?"
She must have given a signal of some sort, because half a dozen men were closing in on the booth. Some of them had come from the bar, others from the adjoining booths. And a few more were trickling in from the street entrance and the hotel lobby. The place was filling up with grim-faced operatives of the Undertaker, all in evening clothes. They were moving in silently, and each man had a hand in his pocket.
Hardly anyone in the taproom was aware of what was happening. The New Year's revelers were busy with their own fun, and if they noticed that surging body of well-dressed thugs, they thought it was some holiday prank.
Klaw's eyes were grey and cold. He rose to his feet, yanking the woman up by the handcuff. He slid both his hands into his pockets, dragging her wrist over toward him as he did so. He smiled.
"Well, boys," he said mildly, "what's holding up the show?"
They were close to the booth now, forming a sort of semicircle in front of it. A couple of them brought guns out of their pockets.
A lantern-jawed man in the front rank of the thugs, looked at the bracelets linking Klaw's wrist to the woman's.
"The key!" he said softly, stepping closer, and thrusting a revolver at Klaw's stomach. "Give me the key."
Steve didn't appear to move. But his right hand came out of his pocket gripping one of his gunmetal automatics. It rose two feet in the air in a whip-lash motion and the sight struck the lantern jaw a sharp blow.
The man's mouth snapped shut under the impact of that smack. His head popped back and he collapsed. The others muttered oaths and surged forward.
"Kill him!" Wilma Manfred ordered fiercely.
But just then there was a strange interruption. Someone began to laugh.
IT was a strange, booming sort of laughter, like the deep-throated, Jovian hilarity of the gods. It rose above the strains of the music which seeped in from the orchestras in the Scarlet Room and the Regal Room, and it filled the taproom of the Hotel Sovereign. Those thugs were more startled by it than they would have been by a gunshot. Involuntarily, they turned to look. Johnny Kerrigan leaped up on the front end of the bar and started to kick away the glasses and bottles.
Kerrigan's laughter ceased abruptly. He stood there now, with a heavy revolver in each hand. He was no longer weaving on his feet.
"Happy New Year to you all!" he boomed. "Which of you rats wants to go out with the old year?"
Down at the rear of the taproom there was another sudden commotion, and the tall, lithe figure of Dan Murdoch leaped up on to, the bar. He, too, had a revolver in each hand. He was smiling, but there was a dangerous glitter in his dark eyes.
"Hi, Shrimp," he said.
"Hi, Mopes," said Stephen Klaw, from the booth.
Suddenly, one of the thugs shouted, "It's the Suicide Squad! My God, the whole damned Suicide Squad is here!"
"That's right," Murdoch said softly. "The Suicide Squad. Who wants to start the fireworks?"
"Shoot, you fools!" the woman shouted. "Shoot! They're only three against all of you. Shoot..."
Her voice died to a broken gasp as she saw the thugs fading away from the semicircle in front of the booth. As if by magic, a wide space opened in front of Steve's table.
There were few members of the Underworld who had not heard of Kerrigan and Murdoch and Klaw—the three Black Sheep of the F.B.I. who were never sent on a regular routine assignment, but who always rated the calls where death was almost a certainty. Not so long ago there had been five of them. Then there had been four. Now there were only three. Tomorrow there might be two, one—or none.
Klaw bowed to the woman who was handcuffed to him. "Will you do me the honor to come along quietly, Wilma? Or shall I pick you up and carry you?"
The color had gone from her face, leaving it ghost-white under the rouge.
"I'll come," she said, very low. "These fools are afraid of you three. The Undertaker will deal with them. But there are others, outside, who won't be afraid. You'll never live to see 1941—none of you!"
Steve shrugged. He stepped around the table, and out of the booth. She went at his side, still watching a little hopefully for a move from the motionless thugs.
The other patrons in the taproom were looking on, wide-eyed and incredulous. They saw one slim and wiry man, who looked hardly more than a kid, leading a woman prisoner out through a crowd of gunmen, while his two companions held the wolves at bay.
KLAW got to the street door, and stopped there. Dan Murdoch ran down the length of the bar to where Johnny Kerrigan was standing, then turned and faced the mob once more.
"Okay, Johnny," he said.
Kerrigan then leaped off the bar, and went over to the door. He turned and faced into the room, with the two revolvers at his sides.
"Right, Dan," he called.
While Kerrigan covered him, Murdoch jumped down to the floor, and walked to the door. Little was said among those three as they executed the maneuver. They had worked so long together that they could almost read each other's minds, and they functioned like a piece of smooth-running, well-oiled precision machinery.
Murdoch went through the revolving doors, out into the street. Then Klaw pulled Wilma Manfred through. Johnny Kerrigan waited, covering the thugs. Steve, on the outside now, stopped the movement of the revolving doors, and shouted, "Okay, Johnny!"
Kerrigan nodded, and backed out. Steve started the door moving again, and Kerrigan reached the street. Murdoch had already flagged a cab, and Klaw started to lead Wilma across the sidewalk. A small group of men was clustered fifty feet away, and one of them exclaimed, "It's Number Nine! They've arrested Number Nine!"
GUNS began to bark as Klaw pushed the woman into the taxicab. Kerrigan and Murdoch swung to face the new attack, and their guns spoke in a blazing quartet of deep-toned thunder. Those four guns of theirs played a deadly symphony of doom for the thugs who were blasting at them. Erect and disdainful of the bullets that sang about their heads, they sent a withering barrage into the close-huddled group of gunmen.
From the Hotel Sovereign, several of the thugs came barging out to join the fray. Kerrigan and Murdoch were facing down the street, and to those jackals from the taproom it seemed to be a good opportunity to take the two G-men in the flank. But they had reckoned without Stephen Klaw.
In the taxicab, Klaw thrust the woman into the seat, holding her there by the one manacled hand. With the other, he fired his automatic nine times at the surging mass of men who were fighting to come through the revolving doors. Glass shattered and men screamed as Klaw's lead mowed them down and drove them back upon those behind. The throngs of pleasure-seeking pedestrians scattered, leaving the field of battle to the fighters.
But it was over almost as soon as it began. More than half of the Undertaker's gunmen lay dead in the street. The rest lost their desire for the fight. They turned and ran.
Kerrigan and Murdoch lowered their empty, smoking guns, turned and looked at each other.
"Nice work, Mr. Kerrigan," said Dan.
"Thank you, Mr. Murdoch," Johnny said, "and the same to you."
Stephen Klaw grunted impatiently. "Will you two Mopes stop patting yourselves on the back? We're losing money while this cab waits. Can't you see the flag is down?"
They both turned solemnly and bowed to Steve.
"Sorry, Mr. Klaw," they said in chorus, and climbed into the cab.
The driver looked a little sick.
"Now l-listen, gents," he quavered. "My draft number ain't been called yet. I d-don't wanna get knocked off before I even join the army—"
"It's all over, Oscar," Steve told him, as he saw the name Oscar Hammer on the card in its metal frame. "Nobody will shoot at us for a while now. Get going up Eighth Avenue, fast."
"Sh-shouldn't we w-wait for the cops?"
"We are the cops!" Dan Murdoch told him, poking his badge out under his nose. "See?"
"Oh! I s-see," Oscar stuttered, and his big foot tramped on the gas.
He was so nervous that the cab jerked and bucked for ten feet before he got it going. But then he really gave her the gun, and dodged and twisted through the traffic like one possessed.
Kerrigan and Murdoch reloaded their revolvers while Stephen Klaw unlocked the handcuff from his wrist. Wilma Manfred was dazed. She kept looking from one to the other of them, as if unable to believe that they were all still alive. Time and again she had witnessed the ruthless manner in which the deadly and efficient gunmen of the Undertaker had disposed of opposition. She could not yet understand why the superior numbers of the gunmen had been routed by these three men.
She offered no resistance when Klaw transferred the bracelet from his own wrist to her left wrist. Now both her hands were cuffed.
Steve handed the key to Kerrigan.
"Take her up to Mother Kelly's, Johnny. Hold her there incommunicado. Maybe she'll decide to talk."
Wilma Manfred looked at him dully. "You're not taking me to the police station? You're not booking me?"
Steve laughed harshly. "You want to be booked, eh? So one of the Undertaker's lawyers can bail you out, or get a writ of habeas corpus! Well, lady, the answer is no. We're going to keep you out of circulation till we clean up Mr. Undertaker. You're too dangerous."
She had a beaten look in her eyes. "I—can't believe it. This can't be happening. No operative of the Undertaker has ever failed to get free. The Undertaker guarantees it."
"This is one time," Dan Murdoch chuckled, "when the Undertaker's guarantee is only worth thirty cents on the dollar." He looked at Steve. "Have you got the play, Shrimp?"
Klaw nodded. "I contacted Lisbeth Nichols. I know where to find her."
"Ah!" said Johnny Kerrigan. "I get it!"
Wilma Manfred looked incredulous. "That's impossible. I had my eye on you every minute of the time. Lisbeth Nichols didn't show up. And you talked to no one except Murdoch, here and the hostess and the waitress—" She stopped abruptly, and a light flickered across her eyes. "I see! One of those girls was Lisbeth Nichols!"
Steve nodded approvingly. "Smart girl. Now, if you could only get to the Undertaker and tell him—"
Murdoch leaned forward through the connecting window and gave Oscar directions for reaching Mother Kelly's. Then he turned around in the folding seat, next to Johnny Kerrigan, and faced Steve.
"One of us will have to stay with Wilma at Mother Kelly's," he said.
Steve nodded. "That's right. And it can't be me."
"Hell," said Johnny, "you always get the breaks."
"Wait a minute," said Dan. "We could lock her in Mother Kelly's attic room, the one with the shutters. And we could leave Oscar on guard outside the door. Mother Kelly would stay with him—"
"Wait," said Murdoch. "I'll talk to him."
THE cab was just pulling up in front of the three-story brownstone boarding house, where the bit of crepe still hung alongside the door.
Murdoch was busy explaining to the driver, "It's like this, Oscar. I'm Murdoch, and these are my partners, Kerrigan and Klaw—"
"Yeah," said Oscar. "I know all about you guys. They call you the Suicide Squad. I never could figure out how you got that label. But just now, I seen why. Boy, the British ought to have you three guys. They'd lick Hitler overnight—"
"Thanks," said Murdoch. "But they won't let us go. Now listen, there's something you could do to help us—"
"Name it, Mr. Murdoch. I ain't much for talking, but my dough is on you three guys."
"Fine. Now we've got this dame here, and she's a sort of white elephant on our hands. We can't take her to a station house or to the Federal Court and book her, because the Undertaker would get his lawyers in there to free her, or else he'd send a small army of gunmen to blast her out of jail. He's done that already, a half dozen times."
"Yeah, I know. I read in the papers how he bombed a court house in Indiana—"
"So we want to keep this lady under cover. We can do it here, in Mother Kelly's. But one of us would have to stay with her—unless you were willing to do it—"
"Say no more, Mr. Murdoch!" Oscar exclaimed dramatically. "Just give me a gun."
"Mother Kelly will give you one," Johnny Kerrigan said. "She has a small arsenal in there."
"Let's go," said Steve Klaw.
FIFTEEN minutes later, the taxicab was speeding south on Eighth Avenue again. Only this time, Johnny Kerrigan was at the wheel, wearing Oscar Hammer's cap and hack badge. Dan Murdoch and Stephen Klaw were his passengers.
Back at Mother Kelly's, Oscar Hammer was in seventh heaven, sitting with a gun in his lap outside the door of the attic room in which they had locked Wilma Manfred. They had taken the extra precaution of handcuffing one of her wrists to the bedframe, so there was little chance of her escaping by her own devices. The only danger was that they had been followed to Mother Kelly's by some of the Undertaker's men. But this was so remote a possibility that Mother Kelly had been willing to chance it. She herself was sitting in the parlor downstairs, by the window, with a shotgun beside her.
"And good luck to you boys," she had said at parting. "Strike a blow for—young Tommy!"
There were tears in her eyes as she watched them drive away.
"We'll strike a blow for Tommy, all right!" Dan Murdoch said grimly. "If we can only get to the Undertaker!"
Johnny Kerrigan parked the cab on Ninth Avenue, and they walked the block across to the Hotel Sovereign. The crowds were becoming thicker and wilder as midnight approached. It was going to be a big New Year's all right, from every angle. And the Undertaker would get in his licks tonight, too. During the past year he had built up an organization that was virtually invulnerable to all law-enforcing efforts. Criminals everywhere, plying their trades tonight among the gay, hilarious throngs, would rob and murder with impunity, knowing that the tithe of their takings which they paid to the Undertaker would guarantee them safety.
The assessments these crooks paid to the patron devil were heavy, but they were worth it to them. And the Undertaker's reapings from tonight's sweep of crime would be gigantic.
Somewhere in the city that unknown ghoul sat chuckling, safe behind the impregnable wall of the criminal army of thugs he had built up. And to him, the three men who sought him must have seemed a very small worry indeed...
THE crowds thickened as Kerrigan and Murdoch and Klaw approached the hotel. They saw that the police had roped off a large area in front of the building. The bodies of the Undertaker's gunmen had not yet been removed. The Medical Examiner's staff and the Homicide men were measuring and marking off the spots where the bodies lay. No one was permitted to enter or leave the Sovereign.
"Well," said Kerrigan, "how do we get up to Room Nine-o- nine?"
"There's Inspector Hansen, of Homicide," Murdoch said. "We could take him aside and tell him about it."
"Nix," Steve vetoed. "There must be plenty of the Undertaker's spies hanging around there. Let's keep as far away as possible. We don't want them on our tail now. The idea is to talk to Lisbeth Nichols without giving the Undertaker's men a chance to get at her."
"Were you looking for me?" a clear young voice asked, behind them.
"Well, I'll be damned!" said Stephen Klaw, turning around. "Boys," he said, "meet Lisbeth Nichols!"
She smiled at Kerrigan and Murdoch. "I ran out through the kitchen exit when I saw you three shooting it out with that crowd in the street. I knew the police would sew up the hotel in a few minutes, and I'd be caught inside. I thought you'd be coming back to find me, so I hung around out here."
She was still wearing her short-skirted waitress's uniform, with a fur coat thrown over it.
"Let's get out of here, quick!" Stephen Klaw said.
He took her by the arm and led her back toward Eighth Avenue. Dan Murdoch went ahead, and Johnny Kerrigan trailed, just in case any of the Undertaker's gunmen should recognize Steve and start anything.
Horns were blowing all around them and close-packed people were shouting good-naturedly to each other. It still lacked an hour of midnight, and the revelers were getting themselves in the right mood for the end of the old year.
There was a little Coffee Pot down near the corner of Eighth Avenue, and Steve took Lisbeth Nichols in there, and ushered her to a booth. Johnny Kerrigan and Dan Murdoch followed them in, and joined them. Steve pulled down the Venetian blind over the window so that they could not be seen from the street. Dan Murdoch, who sat facing the door, took a gun out of his holster and kept it in his lap. His eyes never left the door.
"Four coffees," Kerrigan told the waiter.
Lisbeth Nichols looked from one to the other of them. "I—I never expected to see all three of you alive again. I thought—if just one of you survived that gunfight outside the Sovereign, it would be miraculous."
"We have a lease on life," Murdoch told her with a crooked smile, "until we get the Undertaker."
Lisbeth's sensitive face immediately clouded. "My brother, Jerry, needs to be avenged. And so does Tom Kelly—and all the others."
"What can you tell us that will help?" Stephen Klaw asked.
"Only this. I saw both men on that hearse Friday night—or, rather, three o'clock Saturday morning. I hadn't been able to sleep, and I heard a noise outside. I went to look out the window. Those men had already left the coffin at the door, and they were climbing up into the hearse to drive away. I saw their faces clearly, but I didn't see the coffin. After they drove away, I looked down to the stoop and saw the black box. But the hearse was gone."
"I see," said Steve. "And you could identify these men if you met them again?"
Klaw looked glum. "All we have to do is find them, huh?"
"No, no!" she said eagerly. "I recognized one of them. It's a criminal named Cooligan. Jock Cooligan. My brother, Jerry, used to bring "wanted" posters home, and he used to let me look through them. I remember distinctly, seeing the face of this Jock Cooligan on one of them. He was wanted for murder. It was easy to recognize him, because he had a crooked nose, and a scar running from his lip down to the cleft of his chin. I'm sure it was Cooligan!"
Kerrigan nodded. His memory for faces was prodigious. "Jock Cooligan, alias Noah Jason. His brother is the well-known criminal lawyer, Jonathan Jason. Noah was the black sheep of the family. Jonathan was going to defend his brother on the murder charge, but Noah escaped when the car in which he was being taken to court was sideswiped by a hearse. Happened a year ago last May, and no one has ever seen Jock Cooligan, alias Noah Jason, since then."
"You think Jonathan Jason would know where his brother is hiding out?" Murdoch asked.
"I doubt it," said Johnny. "Jonathan's reputation is pretty good. He even stated publicly that if he knew where Noah was, he'd turn him over to the police."
"H'm," said Stephen Klaw. "You can never tell by what a guy says. Let's give this Jason guy a whirl."
"The sucker test?" Murdoch asked.
Lisbeth Nichols looked puzzled. "The sucker test? What's that?"
"Wait and see," Klaw said cryptically.
Murdoch got up and went to the phone booth. He looked up a number in the book, scribbled it on a bit of paper, and brought it back. "That's his address," he said. "Hudson River Terrace, West Fifty-first Street. And his phone number."
Kerrigan got up, took the paper and tore off the telephone number. He put the phone number on the table.
"Okay, Shrimp. Give us fifteen minutes. It'll take that long for us to get over there in these crowds.
Klaw nodded. Kerrigan and Murdoch went out.
"But I don't understand," Lisbeth Nichols protested.
Klaw grinned. "It's a little system we work when we need to check on a guy. Come on, have another cup of coffee while we wait."
At the end of fifteen minutes, Klaw got up and went over to the telephone. He dialed the number which Murdoch had scribbled down. Lisbeth Nichols came close to him, so she could hear what was said.
"Mr. Jason?" Steve asked. "Mr. Jonathan Jason?"
"This is Mr. Jason," an irritable voice replied. "What is it?"
"I should like to see you at once, sir. May I come over?"
"Well—er—I was just going out to a New Year's party. Who are you? What do you want?"
"I am Stephen Klaw, Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
There was the sound of a suppressed gasp at the other end. "Klaw!" A moment of silence followed, then Jason hurried on, in a more normal voice. "I've heard of the name. What did you want to see me about?"
"I have reason to believe that your brother, Noah, is involved with the Undertaker."
"Impossible! I don't believe it!"
"I have information that tends to prove it."
"Just what is this information?"
"I would prefer to tell you in person."
"Have you told anyone else about this, Mr. Klaw?"
"Not yet. I thought I'd wait and talk to you before reporting to Washington."
"In that case—" Jason's voice was almost eager—"can you come over in about fifteen minutes?"
"Thank you. I'll be there."
Klaw hung up and grinned at Lisbeth. "I think we've hooked him. Let's go!"
"But what's the sucker test?" she demanded as he hurried her out of the coffee pot, into the crowds swirling along Eighth Avenue. "How does it work? All I can see is that you've exposed yourself to terrible danger—if Jonathan Jason is really working with the Undertaker."
"That's the idea." Steve explained. "If Jonathan knows where Noah is, and if he's protecting his brother and working with the Undertaker, then we're giving him a chance to make a sucker of himself—by nibbling at our bait!"
IT took them the full fifteen minutes to get over to the Hudson River Terrace, on West Fifty-first Street. Lisbeth looked around in search of Kerrigan and Murdoch, but she didn't see them. Steve had hold of her arm with one hand, but he kept the other hand in his pocket as he steered her straight into the swank entrance.
The doorman was not in evidence.
Steve was alert, watchful. He led the way across the spacious foyer to the door of the elevator, which was closed. The indicator showed the cage to be at the ninth floor. Steve turned and stood with his back to the wall, both hands in his pockets now.
"Press the elevator button four times quickly," he told Lisbeth Nichols, "and then three times, slowly."
Puzzled, she obeyed.
Immediately, the indicator began moving down. In a moment the cage reached the ground floor and the door slid open. Johnny Kerrigan grinned at them from the controls. In the corner cowered the uniformed doorman, and the elevator operator, goggling at the heavy service revolver with which Johnny was keeping them covered.
Steve pushed Lisbeth into the cage and Johnny closed the door and sent it up again.
"I see it worked," Steve said.
Johnny nodded. "Right on schedule. Dan and I herded these two bozos up with us, and we made 'em use a pass-key to open Jason's apartment door. Dan kept these guys quiet while I moseyed in. Jason was just hanging up on you, and he didn't wait a second. He dialed another number. I jumped him and clicked the phone down, so the party at the other end must have thought it was a mistake."
"Did you get the number he dialled?" Klaw asked.
"Sure did," said Johnny.
He opened the door at the ninth floor, and shoved the doorman and elevator operator ahead of them to Jason's apartment.
Dan Murdoch was sitting on the lawyer's stomach when they came in. Jason was wearing a beautiful black eye and a split lip.
"Can you imagine it?" Dan said indignantly. "He tried to make a break. He grabbed for a gun in his desk, and I had to smack Mr. Jason a couple of times."
"Hello, Mr. Jason," Stephen Klaw said. "Haven't we an appointment?"
"This is an outrage!" Jason gasped, wriggling under the weight of Murdoch's lanky form. "You have no right to do this to me!"
"Of course not," Kerrigan said soothingly. "We ought to be ashamed of ourselves!"
He gave Steve a slip of paper on which there was a memorandum. "I checked with the phone company on the number he called. This is what they gave me."
Klaw raised his eyebrows when he read, "Flamond Funeral Parlors."
"This is rich," he said. "The Undertaker has really been an undertaker all the time!"
"You're mad!" Jonathan Jason cried, from his position on the floor. "You're mad to think that Flamond is the Undertaker. He's a respectable business man—"
"Then why did you phone him as soon as you hung up on Klaw?" Kerrigan demanded.
"I—I merely wanted to talk to him. He—he's a friend of mine."
"Sure," said Johnny. "You just wanted to wish him a Happy New Year!"
Stephen Klaw grunted. "Wrap him," he said. "And the other two guys, also. We'll leave them here while we go New Year's calling!"
THE Venetian blinds were drawn all the way down over the main floor windows of the Flamond Funeral Parlors as Stephen Klaw approached the place, walking on the opposite side of the street. But he saw that there was a light in a window on the upper floor.
Klaw walked to the next corner, crossed the street and came back. When he was about halfway up the block, a slowly moving taxicab passed him. Kerrigan was behind the wheel, and Murdoch in the back. They had once more picked up Oscar Hammer's cab. Steve nodded to them, and Johnny drove a few feet past the Funeral Parlor, and pulled in to the curb.
Steve went up to the door. There was a button alongside it, and a sign which said:
Ring Bell For All-Night Service.
Stephen Klaw rang the bell.
It was deadly quiet on the street while he waited there. Only a few blocks away, the tempo of the New Year's revels was rising to a new high crescendo as midnight came close. But here, off the beaten path of amusement, there was no one.
Footsteps sounded inside and a dim light shone through. Someone was fumbling with the lock. It clicked, and the door came open. A man stood there, but he was partly hidden by the door. And Klaw knew that the man was not alone, for there was a shuffling behind him, as of other men moving into position.
The fellow who had opened the door was squat, with a low forehead and close-cropped hair.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I'd like to see Mr. Flamond." Steve had both hands in his pockets now, and he stood close to the opening.
"Mr. Flamond? Who wants to see him?"
"Tell him it's Stephen Klaw, Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
The fellow's eyes narrowed. "What did you want to see him about?"
"Well," Steve drawled, "I heard he had a coffin ready for me."
The fellow said, "Ar-gh!" and brought a gun out from behind the door.
Klaw didn't take his hands out of his pockets. He fired the right hand automatic through the cloth and hit the man in the stomach. His automatic's bark was muffled by the cloth, and the wounded man's scream was louder than the report.
Steve launched himself forward in a driving thrust and struck the door hard with his shoulder, smashing it backward, into the men who were hiding behind it. Then he was inside.
He swung around, and in the dim light he saw three men who sprang out from the shelter of the door, with guns in their hands. Steve had his automatics out now. He pulled the trigger of each, three times quickly in succession, and his slugs slammed into those gunmen at close range, with sledgehammer force. They were slapped back against the wall before they could fire a shot.
Now, Kerrigan and Murdoch came charging in, with their revolvers out. A door in the rear of the showroom was opening, and men began to spew forth. They were all armed, and viciously desperate. Their guns began to blast.
Kerrigan and Murdoch and Klaw moved toward that upsurging mob, shoulder to shoulder, firing in synchronized unison, sending a steady barrage of death into those gunmen. The leaders fell under the accurate, withering fire, and the others turned and raced back down the basement stairs.
"Johnny and I will take them, Shrimp," Murdoch shouted. "You get upstairs and look for the boss!"
He and Kerrigan raced down the stairs after the retreating thugs, their guns still thundering.
STEPHEN KLAW turned and sped toward the left side of the showroom where another staircase led to the second floor. He took those stairs two at a time, and reached the next floor just in time to see an office door opening. He glimpsed the gaunt- featured Pierre Flamond, and then the door was slammed shut.
Two shots smashed through the panel, waist high. But he had already dropped to one knee, and the bullets missed his head by a scant inch.
Steve placed one of his automatics at a slant, pointing at the lock, and emptied the gun, firing the six remaining shots into a circle about an inch in diameter. Then he sprang up, to one side, and kicked the door open.
He went into that office like a tornado and snapped a shot at Pierre Flamond, who was firing from behind his desk. Flamond's shots were hasty and wild. They spattered the wall behind Steve, and some of them sang into the hallway, through the wide-open doorway. Steve's shot smashed Flamond's right shoulder. He cried out, and dropped the gun. Then he rose slowly to his feet.
"Don't shoot!" he called out.
Steve lowered his gun and took a step forward.
Flamond uttered a hoarse cry of triumph, and raised his left hand and grasped hold of a switch in an open switch-box on the wall right in back of the desk. The switch was a foot above his head, and he gripped it hard, turning a ghastly smile of vicious hatred upon Steve.
"Remain right where you are!" Flamond barked. "If you value the lives of your two friends, do not move!"
Steve stood very still, the automatic lowered at his side.
"What's the play, Mr. Undertaker?" he demanded.
"You are clever enough to understand. If you should shoot me again, I will fall. But I will pull this switch down with me, and close the circuit, which will automatically set off an incendiary explosive in the basement. Your two friends will perish in a raging chemical fire, calculated to destroy everything down there. Do you see the point, Mr. Klaw?"
"I see the point," Klaw answered. "I also see a fuse-box!"
As he spoke he raised his automatic and fired four shots into the four fuses in the box over in the far corner. He saw Flamond frantically drag the switch down, and he prayed that he hadn't missed the fuse which controlled the explosive current.
All the lights in the office abruptly went out. Deep, impenetrable darkness moved in on the place. And at the same time he heard a sharp, crackling explosion from somewhere down below in the bowels of the building.
Steve uttered an exclamation of horror. He had been a split- second too late. That switch had closed the current for just long enough to set off the charge down there. Kerrigan and Murdoch were trapped.
Steve dragged out his fountain pen flashlight and snapped it on, cursing. He swung the beam toward the desk and fixed it on Flamond, who was stooping to pick up his gun, with his left hand. The Undertaker brought the weapon up. His face was twisted in a horrible death's head grin.
Klaw waited until the gun was level. Then, tight lipped, he fired once. His shot carried away the top of Pierre Flamond's head. The bloody mess was limned for a second in the beam of the flashlight, and then it disappeared behind the desk.
Steve whirled about, and raced out into the hall. He took the steps down recklessly, lancing his flashlight ray ahead of him. Down on the main floor, he could hear fire crackling below. Dense, pungent fumes were coming up through that open basement door. Men were screaming down there, and shots were blasting. Somewhere outside, a siren wailed.
STEVE reloaded his guns and raced down those cellar steps, reached the bottom, and stopped short. Flames were leaping high, almost in his face. At the far end of the basement, Kerrigan and Murdoch were barricaded behind the pile of coffins which the Undertaker had prepared for his victims. At the other end, was a group of perhaps fifteen of the gunmen, shielding themselves behind casks of embalming fluid, and piles of hearse blankets. They were keeping up a continuous fire into the barricade of coffins, and at the same time they were trying to edge around the dancing flames, toward the stairs. Kerrigan and Murdoch were making no attempt to escape. But they were covering that open space between the thugs and the stairs, so that none of the gunmen might escape.
Steve raced around the edge of the raging fire, and leaped behind the barricade to join Kerrigan and Murdoch.
"Hi, Mopes," he shouted. "I thought you were cremated by this time."
"We're too hot to burn!" Murdoch yelled. "We were keeping these bozos down here for fear they might get upstairs and cramp your act."
"The show's over," Klaw told them. "Pierre Flamond has no top to his head."
"In that case," Johnny Kerrigan boomed, emptying his revolver into the gunmen, "what's keeping us here?"
He stood up, the upper part of his body exposed above the barricade, to the fire of the gunmen. Disregarding the whining slugs, he shouted, "Listen, you mugs. Flamond is dead. Throw down your guns and surrender and we'll let you out of here. Otherwise, you stay down here, and get cremated!"
"To hell wit' you!" screamed one of the thugs. "You'll get burned alive too. You ain't got the nerve to keep us down here—"
"They have, they have!" shouted another of the gunmen. "It's the Suicide Squad! They don't give a damn. I'm quittin'!"
He jumped up, threw down his gun, and raised his hands in the air.
The firing ceased. With the fire raging less than ten feet from them, those gunmen rose, one by one, and threw away their weapons. In two minutes, they were all standing there with their hands up.
Kerrigan winked at Murdoch and Klaw. "It pays to have a reputation, I guess! Go ahead, Shrimp. Get upstairs, and cover them as they come up."
Klaw nodded, and raced back around the fire, to the stairs.
"One at a time!" he shouted. "Come on, and snap it up!"
The gunmen came, eager, glad to get out of the raging inferno, even at the cost of their liberty. Klaw herded them up, and Kerrigan and Murdoch waited till the last of them had left, then followed. They didn't get out any too soon. As it was, Johnny had to beat out a fire that caught at Murdoch's coat.
Up in the showroom, they herded the thugs out into the street, just as the first of the police cars raced up, siren shrieking. In a few moments the street was filled with police cars and fire apparatus. But the building which had housed the Flamond Funeral Parlors was doomed—along with the body of Pierre Flamond.
Inspector Hansen of Homicide arrived, and Klaw told him the set-up, as swiftly as possible. He turned the prisoners over to Hansen, for there would be as many local charges against them.
"After you get through throwing the book at these boys," Murdoch said, "we want them. We have a whole encyclopedia to throw at them!"
Steve Klaw looked at Kerrigan and Murdoch, and then he looked at his watch. "It's twenty-five minutes of twelve, Mopes," he said. "We have a prisoner at Mother Kelly's to turn in. Besides, Lisbeth Nichols and Mother Kelly might feel a little more like welcoming the New Year if they knew we'd settled a score for Tom Kelly and young Nichols."
"Good idea," said Dan. "Let's go."
"Wait a minute," Johnny Kerrigan protested. "Shouldn't we call up the Chief and report?"
"Aw hell," said Dan Murdoch. "We'll call the Chief next year!"