Pulp Heroes: OPERATOR #5 - RAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH, Chapter 1

novelRAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH

CHAPTER ONE - Field Office #3
NERO fiddled while Rome burned. And nearly two thousand years later, in the City of Washington, D. C., distinguished guests at the brilliant reception given by Mrs. Glenna Hawkins, dances to soft music and chatted idly of trivial things. And even while they laughed and chatted, newspapers were being hawked in the streets; newspapers carrying strange, black, disturbing headlines:

AZTEC REVOLUTION OVERTURNS MEXICAN

GOVERNMENT! SELF-STYLED DESCENDENT

OF MONTEZUMA MAKES SELF EMPEROR!


The little man did not see these last news flashes, because he was already in the drugstore, crouched at one of the telephone booths.

Had he not been so nervous, he might have noticed the man who had come out of the subway kiosk behind him, and who had slid into a convenient doorway while he himself hesitated at the corner. Now, the second man strolled casually past the drug-store, peered in, saw the other in the telephone booth. He walked by the drug-store entrance, disappeared down the street.

The thin man, meanwhile, had inserted his nickel in the slot, and dialed 211--the long distance operator. He asked for a number in Washington, D. C., and two minutes later he was speaking Viciously into the transmitter.

"Thees," h said cautiously, "ees Miguel Esprada. You--remember?"

"Yes!" a crisp voice at the other end answered. "Did you find out anything?"

The thin man glanced about him furtively, brought his mouth close to the instrument. "You 'eve promise' me that you weel pay ten thousan' dol-lar--"

"No," the voice at the other end broke in. "I promised you five thousand. Come, Esprada, I'm very busy. Have you five thousand dollars' worth of information for me?"

ESPRADA'S eyes gleamed with avarice. "I 'ave, senor. But I am in the very great danger. You mus' send two of your--w'at-you-call?---operators to meet me and take me to Washington. There I weel talk. I can tell you w'ere is the secret 'eadquarters of the Aztecs in New York. I can tell you 'ow they make the men to explode. But you must be careful. There is a leak in your War Department. The nephew of the Secretary--Vance--"

His voice broke in a thin shriek of terror as the air in the drug-store seemed suddenly to change. Customers and clerks turned at the note of terror in Esprada's voice. A hush suddenly descended upon the noisy interior of the store.

And through that hush rose Esprada's fear--chilled voice: "The exploding death! Help--"

He started to run for the door, and suddenly his panic was communicated to the throng in the store. A mad stampede began toward the street. Jerks hurdled counters, men and women pushed each other roughly out of the way. And Esprada raced faster than all.

But he was too late. Abruptly, as if a huge hand had reached out from infinity, all that throng in the brilliantly lit store ceased to run, staggered, fought against an overwhelming power that seemed to be pushing the eyeballs out of their heads, to be causing the blood to burst from their nostrils and their eardrums.

And then, each individual in that store seemed to burst from within!

With a terrific series of popping explosions, all those people in the store burst into torn and bloody fragments of flesh and bone and clothing--as if a time bomb inside them had exploded!

The air was filled with blood and the stench of burned flesh, with flying fragments of humanity. The electric lights shattered into bits, plunging the interior into darkness. The plate--glass windows of the store burst outwards in shards, catapulting bits of human flesh into the street. Not a soul was left alive in the store....

Outside, people fled from the scene of the sudden holocaust, shrieking in terror. Something dreadful, inexplicable, had happened. The corner of Times Square and Forty-second Street was transformed abruptly from a busy, bustling intersection, into a charnel house.

Police patrol cars raced toward the scene with sirens screaming. Fire trucks roared through the streets. Gas and electric emergency squads arrived. Police reserves established a wide cordon about the corner, while other bluecoats attempted to quell the near-panic of persons in the subway system below who had heard the explosion.

Reporters sped to nearby telephones to rap out the dreadful news to their papers, while high across the street, on the tall Times Building, the news-strip continued to Bash its items:

AZTECS REPORTED MOBILIZING TEXAS

BORDER...SPOKESMAN AT WHITE HOUSE

STATES THERE IS NO CAUSE FOR ALARM.

And the man who had been Migual Esprada a few minutes ago, was no more. Bits of him lay scattered on Times Square, together with shreds of the other unfortunate patrons of that store. The secrets he had offered to sell would never be sold....

IN Washington, a blue-eyed, keen-faced young man jiggled the hook of his private telephone desperately.

"Operator!" he barked. "I was connected with New York. Reestablish that connection at once. This is government business!"

"Sorry, sir," the operator answered. "New York reports that there has been an explosion in the store where the pay telephone was located. Everybody in the store was killed!"

"Thank you," the young man said in a low voice, and racked the receiver slowly. His blue eyes had become suddenly cloudy as he stared across his desk. After a moment, he picked up another telephone beside the one he had just used, spoke three words into it: "Field Office Three!"

A few seconds later he was saying: "Chief! Are the Secretary of State and the Secretary of War there yet? Insist that they wait. It's more serious than they realize. We must make them understand. Yes, I'll be there inside of ten minutes!"

He hung up, picked up the other telephone, and spoke a number into it. When he got his connection his voice, which had been crisp and tense, softened a bit.

"Tim? You dressed? Big doings on. I'll pick you up at the usual corner in five minutes. Don't keep me waiting!"

ON a side street in Washington, D. C. there is a down-at-heels two-story stucco building to which no one ever pays any attention. The small plot of ground in front of it is unkempt, full of weeds.

A faded "To Let" sign on the door directs any one interested to inquire at, a real estate office---not in Washington, but in New York City. Anyone desirous of renting this house would find his path beset by many difficulties. The rental demanded was so high as to deter any prospect from further inquires. But should he be persistent enough to get in touch will the New York real estate firm; and should he be profligate enough to be willing to pay the exorbitant rental, he would then be informed that the owner had investigated his references and found them unsatisfactory. The house remained unkempt and apparently untenanted....

Around the corner from it was the home of Mrs. Glenna Hawkins, the popular Washington hostess. It was here that the splendid reception was being given this evening, and it was outside her home that the limousines of the Secretaries of State and of War were parked.

The affair was well on its way when additional guests arrived. A young man and a boy drove up in a long, low-slung roadster whose throttled purr spoke of great reserves of power.

Because of the press of cars on the block, these two parked at some distance up the street. The young man got out, revealing a tall, well-knit, athletic figure, faultlessly attired in evening clothes. He had keen, intelligent, blue eyes; a strong chin, and a virile mouth. He moved lithely, with poise and with the suggestion of swift efficiency in emergencies. He was Operator 5 of the American Intelligence. Only a few persons knew him as James Christopher.

The boy, a freckle-faced lad of perhaps fourteen or fifteen, remained in the car, he slipping behind the wheel into the seat just vacated by the young man. His youthful, mischievous gray eyes twinkled as he said:

"Not owning a tuxedo, Jimmy, I guess I'll have to stay out here with the other chauffeurs. When the party's over, bring me out some of Mrs. Hawkins' caviar sandwiches, will you?"

The young man whom he addressed as Jimmy, did not smile. He glanced keenly up and down the street, his gaze probing into the shadows opposite, and on either side. He said grimly:

"It won't be that kind of a party, Tim. Now I'm sorry I called you. I hate to leave you out here."

Tim laughed, youthfully, infectiously. "It's not me they want, Jimmy. It's you. And besides, they couldn't get at me if they tried. You know darn well this car is bullet-proof; and with the windows up and the doors locked--"

The young man nodded, smiled affectionately. "All right, kid. As long as you're here, I can use you. Turn the window up as soon as I leave you, and don't open it for anybody! If you see Vance Snyder, the nephew of the Secretary of War, coming out, tail him and phone me as soon as you can. It's mighty important that we keep him in sight from now on!"

The boy's face suddenly grew serious. "Okay, Jimmy," he said quietly. "You can depend on me. And--good luck to you, Jimmy!"

The young man watched while Tim closed the window beside the driver's seat; then he turned silently and strode down the street toward the brilliantly lit home of Mrs. Glenna Hawkins.

As he walked, in swift, long, space-covering strides, his face--though that of a young man in the middle twenties--was etched in grim lines as if its owner had crammed many experiences into the short span of years. He walked swiftly, on the balls of his feet, hands swinging loosely at his sides. His appearance was deceptively casual, but his whole body was taut, ready to swing into blinding action at the first call of emergency....

At the door of the Hawkins home, he presented an engraved invitation to the flunkey, who relieved him of his hat and topcoat and led him into the reception hall. The name on that card of invitation was: "Carleton Victor," and it was thus that the flunkey announced him.

Glenna Hawkins, the hostess, was surrounded by a bevy of admiring men as he approached her. She elapsed herself, and gave him her hand, smiling graciously.

"So very nice of you to come, Mr. Victor," she said in her soft, drawling Southern voice.

GLENNA HAWKINS was a vivacious little thing, full of nervous energy. Her full, rather plump figure more than made up for by the sparkle in her lively eyes and by her consent stream of witty chatter. A widow at twenty-six, she had half of Washington offering to bestow another name upon her. Her husband, a career man in the diplomatic service, had died in an accident a couple of years before. Somehow, she seemed suddenly to have acquired unlimited funds, and her functions had become the talk of Washington.

She stood there now, holding the tall young man's hand, smiling and seeming to exchange trivial remarks with him. None of the guests were within earshot, for she had managed to move away from her admirers without appearing to do so. To any one observing her, it seemed that she was the perfect hostess, making her latest arrival feel at home. In reality, she was saying: "They are waiting for you, Operator 5. Z-7 is there, with the Secretaries of State and War. You'd better go right in to them before they get impatient. Use entrance number three. You know the way."

The young man who had been variously addressed that evening as "Jimmy," as "Carlton Victor," and as Operator 5," smiled as if Glenna Hawkins had said something very amusing. He seemed to be entirely preoccupied with his charming hostess. But his eyes had already swept over the assembled company, had noted the presence of a certain man.

He spoke urgently now, swiftly, though he continued to smile in a pleasant, carefree way: "I see that Vance Snyder is here. Did he come with the Secretary of War, or did he come alone?"

Involuntarily Glenna Hawkins' eyes strayed across the room to the sallow-skinned, foppishly dressed man who stood by himself in the middle of the room, shunning the gay groups about him. This man was evidently suffering from some sort of nervous strain. His small, restless eyes had flicked many times toward the tall young man, and each time he had turned away quickly, as if he feared to be observed.

Glenna Hawkins replied to her guest's query: "Vance Snyder came alone, just a couple of minutes before you did. Why do you ask? Surely there can't be anything wrong about Vance; he's private secretary to the Secretary of War--as well as being his nephew!"

The young man smiled thinly. "I am afraid that Vance Snyder needs watching. Keep your eye on him when I leave you. If he should follow me out of here, give me the usual signal--two green lights in the passageway."

The hostess' eyes expressed concern, though her lips continued to smile for the benefit of anyone who might be watching. "But surely you don't suspect Vance Snyder? The Secretary's nephew--"

The young man shrugged. "Even the Secretary's nephew," he said. "There are strange things occurring these last few days. Men in positions of trust are becoming traitors--men in very high places. There is danger all about us. If I can only convince those two old fossils inside, before it's too late."

Quickly Glenna Hawkins put a hand on his arm. "Is--is it that serious, Operator 5? Is the country really in danger?"

He nodded somberly. "In very great danger, Mrs. Hawkins. We are faced by a very powerful menace--so great that it can corrupt men like the nephew of the Secretary of War!" Suddenly he bowed to her. "I had better go. We may be observed, and we've talked too long already. Remember, watch Vance Snyder."

He left her, and started across the gay reception room. The buzz of light conversation assailed his ears on all sides, but he did not smile. He wondered how these people would act if they were suddenly made aware of the things that he had learned tonight. He could imagine the laughter dying on their lips, could almost see the dreadful fear growing in their eyes. But by no outward sign could any one tell what was going on behind those quiet blue eyes of his. To all appearances he was a slightly bored society gentleman, aimlessly strolling across the room.

HIS eyes sought Vance Snyder, but found no trace of the man in the gay assemblage. The Secretary's nephew had apparently vanished....

Operator 5 threaded his way casually among the guests, bowing here and there to an acquaintance, but managing deftly not to engage in any lengthy conversations. Finally he reached the other end of the ballroom, stepped out into a corridor. He glanced both ways to be sure that he was not observed, then crossed and opened a door opposite.

He slipped into an unlighted room, closed the door behind him, and made his way across in the dark. His hand touched a knob, he opened another door, and entered a small closet. Here he used a small, flat flashlight that fitted inconspicuously in his evening clothes, directed its beam at the wall.

His long, dexterous fingers felt along the wall, counting a row of nail heads that ran across it at about the height of a man's head. When he reached the eighth, he pressed hard with his thumb, and a hidden spring clicked. The entire wall rose at his touch, revealing to the beam of his light, a narrow wooden staircase. Unhesitatingly, he stared down, and as his foot touched the second step the wall descended behind him, closing off the closet.

When he reached the bottom of the flight of stairs, he followed a dank cellar wall for ten paces. Here he stooped and touched another spring. A section of the wall slid away, and he stepped through into a low tunnel. The wall closed behind him once more, and he followed the passageway for perhaps ten feet.

Suddenly he stopped, his eyes focused on two small green bulbs on the wall at his right which had begun to glow.

He pressed a button in token that he had seen the signal, and the light in the bulbs died once more. Using his flashlight, he hurried along the passageway for perhaps fifteen feet more, where it abruptly ended in a blank wall.

He bent down, focused his flashlight on a small hole in the wall, about two feet from the floor. At once there was a rumbling noise, and a section of the wall slid away, revealing a lighted room. He stepped within, and the wall-panel closed behind him.

A steady clack of typewriters greeted him from perhaps two dozen desks arranged in rows. At each of these desks, men in shirtsleeves worked. Behind the desks, other men worked at long rows of filing cabinets along the walls. The scene was one of bustling activity.

The men at the desks seemed to know him, for they nodded respectfully as he passed through the room into a small foyer-like space where a single man sat on guard. The man arose when he entered, smiled in welcome, said:

"You better hurry, Operator 5. Z-7 has sent down twice already to ask if you were here."

The young man did not smile. He asked swiftly: "Someone just came in through entrance number four. Who was it?"

The guard nodded. "Only Vance Snyder. He went upstairs, said he had an urgent message for his uncle. I didn't like to stop him. Did I do wrong?"

The young man nodded grimly. "I'm afraid you did, Sommers."

He left the bewildered guard, passed through two more rooms filled with busy men, and then up a flight of stairs to the upper floor.

HERE there was similar activity. The entire floor was divided into glass-enclosed rooms. In some of them were teletypewriters, in others were batteries of phones. Everywhere men were working at top speed. At the places where the windows should be, long strips of soundproof board hot been nailed. No light shone out of this house, no sound came from it. Huge exhaust fans carried the stale air away, and brought in fresh. In an alcove at the side of the hall was an electric stove upon which fresh coffee was constantly being brewed for the busy men.

And the faded "To Let" sign on the front door, the unkempt lawn, concealed the fact that here was housed a unit designated as WDC---Field Office No. 3 of the United States Intelligence Service. The hostess in the house around the corner was a name in Washington society, but just another number in the rolls of the Intelligence Service. And she performed a highly useful duty in acting as a blind for Field Office No. 3.

Operator 5 hurried past the glass-enclosed offices, mounted to the second floor, and rapped twice at a door.

It was opened by a solidly built man whose flashing black eyes and black hair gave emphasis to his thin-lipped, shark featured face. He smiled, stood aside for Operator 5 to enter. His face now, even though he smiled, was lined with care. "We've been waiting for you, Operator 5," he said.

Operator 5 nodded to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of War, who were seated on either side of the polished mahogany desk in the center of the room. Then he turned to the man who had admitted him.

"I'm sorry, Chief," he said, "but I had to wait for an important phone call. Then, I had to double on the trail here, to make sure we weren't followed."

As he spoke, he fingered a watch-charm, fashioned in the shape of a death's-head, which hung on a chain across his vest. He gazed somberly at the three men. "Gentlemen!" he announced crisply, "I have very disturbing news for you!"

The Secretary of State, a stout man with a round, shrewd face and a thin scattering of gray hair, arose from the desk, frowning. "Your chief here tells me," he began irritably, "that you have been advancing some wild theories--"

"Wait, sir!" Operator 5 broke in. "My theories are far from wild. You, sir--and the whole nation, for that matter--are sitting on a keg of dynamite. And I am speaking literally now!"

The Secretary of State uttered a short, impatient laugh. "My dear boy, that's all rubbish. The Secretary of War and I have minutely gone over the forces available for national defense. Mexico is a weak, backward country. It is poor. The morale of its inhabitants is low. It is impossible to conceive that it could successfully make war upon--" he paused, then rolled the words in his mouth--"upon the United States of America!" He turned to the Secretary of War, who sat cross-legged close to the desk.

The Secretary of War was a tall, thin man, whose hair rose in a bristly pompadour from a long, wrinkled face. He uncrossed his legs, recrossed them the other way, then said: "Of course, my dear young man! The whole idea is preposterous. We have given more freight to your hot-headed reports than we should--only because of your chief's insistence--" he nodded in the direction of the black-haired man who had admitted Operator 5--"of your chief's insistence that you have never been wrong in the past." He leaned forward in his chair, pointed a finger at Operator 5. "I have even gone so far as to concentrate the bulk of the Third Army in the Eighth Corps Area, along the Mexican Border--"

OPERATOR 5 interrupted him earnestly. "But don't you see, sir, that if my reports are well--founded, it is suicide for us to do that?"

He swung about, addressed all three men. "Let me go over the situation: A revolution has occurred in Mexico. A strange leader has arisen who calls himself Montezuma the Third, and who claims to be the rightful heir to the throne of the Aztec nation, which was overthrown by Cortez four hundred years ago. He has named himself Emperor of the Aztecs, and has set up temples to the ancient Aztec gods, where they sacrifice human beings by tearing out their hearts from their living bodies on the altars--"

The Secretary of War waved his hand in a gesture of impatience. "We know all that--"

The black-haired man who had admitted Operator 5 arose from behind his desk, his square, powerful fingers drumming a nervous tattoo on the glass top. He said: "Please, gentlemen! I suggest you wait until you hear everything that Operator 5 has to say."

This man behind the desk was known only by a number--Z-7. He was the Washington chief of the United States Intelligence Service. Through those blunt fingers of his passed the threads of every major intrigue that arose to menace the country; behind those raven-black eyes of his lurked more knowledge of matters vital to the country than even the Secretaries of State and of the Army could command. And they gave his unusual abilities a tremendous amount of grudging respect.

"Operator 5, gentlemen," he went on, "is the only man in the service whose judgment I respect without reservation. You could do worse," he added dryly, "than to hear him out!"

The Secretary of State shrugged, glanced at his fellow cabinet member, said: "Very well. Go on, Operator 5."

The young man turned eagerly to Z-7. "Chief! Let me have those reports in file 2318!"

Z-7 pressed a button at the side of his desk, and when a shirt-sleeved clerk appeared, ordered him to bring the file. In a moment Operator 5 was holding in his hand a thick sheaf of papers. He glanced keenly at both the cabinet members, riffled through the papers.

"Here, gentlemen, are a series of reports that have already been called to your attention. In Texas, in the last two days, there have been more than a dozen unaccountable deaths. Men have suddenly been killed--without warning--by exploding into bits! Among the victims are Major General Stanton, who was temporarily in command of the Third Army--" he read from the list--"Captain Polk, in charge of the Border Patrol; Captains Evans and Steele, and Lieutenant Worth of the flying corps, who were commanding Biggs, Hensley and Laredo Fields, respectively."

His keen eyes bored into them as he hammered home each point. "In New York, far away from the Mexican border, a Colonel Allison suddenly explodes into bits as he is entering the armory of the Twenty-third Field Artillery. There are other casualties--a list numbering fifty-one deaths. All these men exploded, gentlemen---exploded into bits of flesh and bone--without any apparent cause!"

His tone dropped, became confidential. "In the last two days, sirs, thirty-two airplanes took off from army bases, and did not return. We have every reason to believe that those planes haven't been destroyed--they have been forced to fly in a certain direction--"

HE WAS interrupted by a hurried tapping at the door. A clerk entered, with a typewritten message. "Sir!" the clerk blurted to Z7. "T-this has just come in on the teletype from our San Antonio office!"

He handed the flimsy to Z-7 who glanced at it, paled, and looked up at the others. He nodded to the clerk, who turned and left. When the door had shut behind him, Z-7 said to them huskily: "Gentlemen, let me read this to you:

...WDC-13...ENTIRE CONTINGENT

BORDER PATROL WIPED OUT BY

MYSTERIOUS EXPLOSION....HUNDRED

AND FIFTY MEN BLOWN TO BITS...NO

TRACE OF BOMB...CANNOT DISCOVER

CAUSE...PLEASE RUSH US MORE MEN...

SAT-1"'

He finished reading, glanced up at the two cabinet members. The Secretary of State snatched the flimsy from him, read it with his own eyes, then lifted his head and stared blankly at his colleague. The telephone on Z-7's desk jangled, interrupting him, and the Chief picked it up, answered it. Then he handed the instrument across to Operator 5.

He at once recognized the voice of the young Irish lad whom he had left outside in the car. The boy's voice was tense with excitement.

"Jimmy! Vance Snyder is up to something. I spotted him coming out of the servants' entrance of Mrs. Hawkins' house, and I followed him. He walked down a couple of blocks, and went in a drugstore. By the time I got there, I just saw him come out of a phone booth, and I tailed him back to Mrs. Hawkins' house. He went in the same way!"

Operator 5 rapped out: "Okay, Tim. Get back to the car, and wait for me!"

He hung up, and his eyes bored into those of the Secretary of War. "Did you tell your nephew of this meeting, sir?" he demanded.

"Why--no. But I did tell him of this office. After all, he is my secretary."

"You should never have done that, sir!"

The Secretary of War flushed. "Young man!"

Jimmy Christopher was not listening. He had picked up the phone, and was jiggling the hook. "Give me Sommers...Sommers! Did Vance Snyder go out and return within the last few minutes? He did? He's on his way up? Have two men seize him and bring him to Z-7's office--at once! Yes, I know who he is. Do what I say!"

HE SLAMMED down the receiver, raised a hand to still the indignant protests of the Secretary of War. "Mr. Secretary, if your nephew is an innocent man I will be the first to apologize to him. But with things the way they are--"

He swung to the door as a knock sounded, pulled it open. Vance Snyder stood there, panting in the grip of two of the Secret Service men.

Operator 5 ordered them quietly: "Let him come in, boys. You can go."

The two men were puzzled, but at a nod from Z-7 they obeyed.

Vance Snyder glanced at his uncle, rearranged his rumpled clothing. There was a hint of terror in his eyes as he blustered: "Who ordered that I be dragged up here? This is outrageous--"

Jimmy Christopher rapped out at him: "Snyder! Whom did you phone to a few minutes ago?"

The Secretary's nephew glared at Jimmy Christopher. "By what authority--?" Jimmy's eyes were blazing. He stepped forward, seized Snyder by the lapels of his coat. "You fool! Tell me quickly! To whom did you phone and what did you tell that person?"

The Secretary of War arose from his chair. "See here, Operator 5! This has gone far enough. My nephew--"

Jimmy, still clutching Snyder's coat, whirled on the Secretary. "Your nephew," he said coldly, "just sneaked out of the servants' entrance of the house around the corner, and went to a public telephone booth to make a call."

The Secretary glanced at his nephew indulgently. "I am sure that Vance can explain everything." He addressed Snyder. "To satisfy Operator 5's baseless suspicions, Vance, tell him why you made that call."

Snyder lowered his eyes "I don't see that it's any of his business," he said sulkily. "There's no law to prevent me from making a little extra money."

"What do you mean?" Jimmy Christopher demanded.

"Why--I have a newspaper friend who pays me for news tips. His paper is very generous. They're paying me five hundred dollars to tell them about this conference here. Of course, the paper won't state the location of this office--"

"So you told it to him in confidence?" Jimmy Christopher groaned.

Snyder fidgeted under Jimmy's powerful grip, nodded reluctantly. "Yes. But I assure you, it won't--"

Z-7 stepped quickly around the desk to interrupt. "What's the name of this newspaper friend? Who is he?"

Jimmy Christopher suddenly released his grip on Snyder's coat. He said swiftly to Z-7: "Wait, Chief. There's something more important than that right now. "You've got to empty this house of every man--at once!"

Z-7 paled. "You mean!"

"That Snyder here, has unwittingly been giving information to Montezuma and the Aztecs! He's not the only one. That's how they've been able to stage their explosions at crucial moments. I'm positive they're going to send their exploding death into this house! They may be doing it now!"

The Secretary of War deliberately sat down, stared at the others. His ruddy face was set stubbornly. "I won't leave here," he said. "I don't believe a word of this hair-brained operator of yours. I trust my nephew implicitly. You others may go if you are frightened--" his lip curled scornfully--"at what this scatter brained young man tells you!"

Operator 5 met the gaze of Z-7. "And you, Chief?" he asked. "Will you get all your men out of here before they're all destroyed?"

Z-7 looked at him helplessly. "I'm sorry, Operator 5," he murmured. "If the others stay--"

Operator 5 sighed. "Very well, gentlemen. I hope you don't mind if I go myself?"

He wheeled, strode for the door. Once out in the corridor, however, he did not make for the exit. Instead, he glanced quickly up and down to see if he was observed; then, with fingers that worked like oiled instruments of precision, he extracted from his pocket a small object made of aluminum.

It was a cone--no more than an inch and a half long and an inch in circumference at its base. He set it on the floor in a corner, lit a match and touched the flame to the apex. Almost at once, a thick mass of black smoke rose in the hallway, so dense that it was impossible to see anything through it. It spread rapidly, filling the hallway.

This was a device which Operator 5 had perfected in his own laboratory, and which he always carried with him in case it should become necessary for him to make a quick escape under cover of a smoke screen. The cone contained a skillfully blended mixture of phosphorus and chlorosulphonic acid--the chemical base of smoke screens ejected from the funnels of battleships. Although Operator 5 carried that cone for a different purpose, he found it useful now.

He felt his way through the dense cloud of smoke, jerked open the door of the room he had just left. The four men looked up in startled surprise as the thick clouds floated in.

Operator 5 shouted: "It's here! Get out quick!"

Z-7 jumped from behind his desk, seized the Secretary of War by the arm. "Come on, sir!" he exclaimed. "You can't doubt now!"

THE Secretaries of War and State, Vance Snyder and Z-7 rushed from the room, and Operator 5 followed them down the stairs. On the way, Z-7 issued swift orders to the men in the offices to evacuate the house, and a steady stream of shirt-sleeved workers hastened from the house, through the front door which had never been used before. Within a few minutes, the house was completely empty....

Out in the street, they gathered in small groups, watching the thick clouds of smoke that billowed from the building. Operator 5 stood close to Vance Snyder, with Z-7 and the two cabinet members. From afar they could hear the clangor of fire apparatus.

And suddenly, as they watched the house, there came a dull, muffled explosion from within it. Every pane of glass in the building was shattered; the shutters on the windows were thrust outward in splinters as by some invincible force. The air about them became thin, hard to breathe, and they backed further away.

The crashing, shattering noise of the explosion died away, leaving in the air the terrified cries of the crowding pedestrians who had stopped, astonished at the sudden exodus of men from a house they, had believed to be empty.

The Secretary of War stared at his nephew, haggard-faced. "Vance!" he exclaimed.

Vance Snyder had been staring at the building with the eyes of a madman. Now he groaned: "God! What have I done?" And suddenly he thrust his uncle aside, sped across the street. In a moment he had reached the other side, and they saw him stagger, saw blood spurt from his ears and nose. He stumbled forward another few steps, into the entrance....

And no sooner had he stepped within that house than he suddenly seemed to disintegrate! With a short, sharp explosion, he was torn into a thousand pieces. There was nothing left of the man who had been Vance Snyder....

Z-7 glanced somberly at Jimmy Christopher. "Now," he said, "We'll never know the name of his newspaper friend!"

The Secretary of War had covered his face with his hands. Now he raised his head, and his long, wrinkled face gray and drawn. He glanced wordlessly at the Secretary of State. Then he said to Jimmy Christopher: "Operator 5, everything you told us was correct. I don't know what to say, or what to do. We place ourselves in your hands!"

Jimmy nodded. He said crisply: "I suggest that you authorize me to fly to the Mexican border. If I'm right, the next move of the Aztecs will be to wipe our armed forces in Texas!"

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