Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 1

novelTHE TORTURE TRUST

Chapter I - NIGHT GETAWAY
THE PRISON GUARD'S feet made ghostly echoes along the dimly lighted corridor of the State Penitentiary. The sound whispered weirdly through the barred chambers, dying away in the steel rafters overhead. The guard's electric torch probed the cells as he passed, playing over the forms of the sleeping men.

It was after midnight. All seemed quiet within the great, gloomy building that was one of society's bulwarks against a rising tide of crime.

The guard passed through a door at the end of a corridor, and the echoes at last ceased their eerie whisperings.


Seconds of silence passed. Then a new sound came. It issued from cell No. 17--the sound of furtive movement.

The man who had been lying as still as death when the guard passed threw his blankets aside. His hard, shrewd eyes gleamed eagerly. His narrow-boned face took on the alertness of a prowling weasel.

Jason Hertz, down on the prison books as convict No. 1088, had not been asleep at all.

His thin, clawlike hands, which had dabbled in every sort of crime from blackmail to murder, became suddenly active. He drew the blankets apart, wadded one into the shape of a sleeping man, and stuffed it under the other. Then he reached beneath his bunk and drew out a roundish object the size of a melon.

It was a ball made from stale bread mixed with water and kneaded together. The bread he had saved for the last three days. He set it on the end of the bunk nearest the door, covering the top of it with scraps of loose hair collected from the floor of the prison barber shop. It looked like the tousled head of a sleeping man, and it would serve to mislead the guard when he made his next tour of inspection.

Hertz pulled other articles from beneath his bunk--articles which had been smuggled to him under mysterious circumstances. And, as he looked at them, an uneasy expression crossed his face. He recalled the visitor who had come to him the day before and on other days during the past several weeks--the tall, gray-haired man whose card bore the name: "Crawford Gibbons, Attorney-at-Law."

He recalled the strangely compelling look in the lawyer's eyes, the forcefulness of his manner, the abrupt persuasiveness of his voice.

Who was Crawford Gibbons, and who was employing him? Why was he aiding Hertz to escape?

These were the questions Hertz had asked himself, for, behind the guard's back, Gibbons had quietly slipped him a chamois-skin bundle. In it were tools and instructions making his getaway possible.

The prison authorities regarded Hertz as a desperate criminal. Among his vicious associates in crime, he was rated as being hard-boiled and as dangerous as a snake. But the lawyer, Gibbons, had put fear into Jason Hertz's heart. Gibbons had refused to answer questions, refused to reveal his motives. Yet, under the mysterious dominance of the man's personality, Hertz had felt his own will crumbling. It was as though Gibbons had cast a spell over him.

Conflicting impulses stirred in Hertz's mind; one, the desire to escape and go back to his underworld haunts; the other, the fear that he might be entering some sort of trap. He paused a moment, fighting within himself. But it was useless. Something stronger than reason cried out that he must follow the lawyer's instructions.

With a cleverly-shaped skeleton key that Gibbons had given him, he opened the door and stepped into the corridor, every nerve alert. He listened, but no sound came except the snores of sleeping men.

Shoes off, as silent as a fox, he walked away from the cell, turning into a branch corridor. He climbed a flight of steel stairs and reached the empty cell block above, which was used for overflow prisoners. It was as deserted as a tomb. Hertz entered one of the empty cells, grasped the bars, and climbed up toward the metal ceiling with the agility of an ape. There was a galvanized iron roof above him. For a moment he struck a match, feet braced on a crossbar below.

The tiny flickering flame showed that the metal, seemingly intact, had been cut through with a fine hacksaw--his own handiwork of the night before.

He lifted his hand, pressed against the galvanized iron, and a circular piece of metal moved upward. A dark opening appeared, large enough for a man to crawl through.

Hertz thrust his fingers up, caught the strong edge of the thick metal, and lifted himself. He braced his elbows, rested a moment, then strained again. In a second he was in the narrow "attic" of the prison, between the ceiling and the roof.

A faint gleam of light made by the night sky showed ahead. Hertz crept toward it, across the top of the metal ceiling, careful to step on the steel rafters to which the sheet iron was fastened. He came to the light--the square opening of a barred window--and used his hands again.

Drawing a hack-saw set in a metal frame from his blouse, he attacked the bars before him with the skill of a man accustomed to the use of tools. The hardened chromium bit through the bars one by one and Hertz wrenched them loose.

He fastened a loop of strong line, which he also took from his blouse, to the stub of one bar, threw the end out the window, and crawled through feet first. Hand over hand, he lowered himself to the ground below.

Clouds obscured the stars. Hertz moved forward in utter darkness, his bare feet soundless on the earth.

He stopped a moment to get his bearings, then walked on toward the southwest wall of the prison. Trembling violently, his fingers groping, he felt along the stone surface till his hand encountered a rope. He had been expecting it, but fear made him recoil for an instant as though the rope had been the dangling body of a snake. Then he approached it gingerly again.

The mysterious lawyer, Crawford Gibbons, had kept his word.

Hertz seized the rope and began the ascent of the wall. It was an easy matter for him to draw himself up its side. With a skill born of experience, he avoided the two strands of electrically charged wire at its top. He balanced himself, stepped over them, and went down the rope on the other side.

His escape was an accomplished fact now. He was free, once again a potential menace turned loose upon an unsuspecting society. But fear still made his heart beat madly.

He had moved only a few yards ahead when he halted as abruptly as though a chain had been stretched across his path.

Somewhere close by in the darkness a whistle had sounded. It was a strange whistle, melodious yet unearthly, seeming to fill the whole air with a ventriloquistic note. It aroused in Hertz a stark, unreasoning terror.

His beady eyes sought to pierce the darkness. He almost cried out. Someone was standing directly ahead of him. He had caught sight of a vague silhouette.

"Follow me," said a low voice.

The words came out of the black vault of the night like an inexorable command from Fate itself. They had in them that compelling quality that paralyzed Hertz's will.

The clouds thinned a little, letting a ray of wan starlight through. He saw the quiet face and the silvery hair of the lawyer. He sensed again the unswerving fixity of the man's eyes upon him. Then, like a sleepwalker, he followed as the other turned and led the way.

Where was he going? He did not know. What strange purpose did the lawyer have? It was veiled in black mystery.

Hertz stumbled on through the darkness for what seemed a quarter of a mile. He knew he must be somewhere close to the road leading to the prison. Then he heard the faint sound of an automobile engine idling. The man ahead clicked on a flashlight no larger than a pencil Its thin beam disclosed for an instant the lines of a low, powerful roadster parked by the highway.

Crawford Gibbons motioned for him to get in.

Hertz rebelled. Fear of the strange man had been growing in him. He set his jaw and blurted a question.

"What's the idea? Where you gonna take me?"

There was arrogance in his tone now. He was out of the prison. He might make a break for it and escape into the darkness, run away from this fear-inspiring man.

"Get in," said Gibbons harshly.

"What if I won't?" blustered Hertz.

The answer came so suddenly that he gasped. Powerful fingers clutched his arm. He was lifted off his feet, thrust into the car. Then the gray-haired man got in beside him, and the car moved ahead.

Fury and fear welled up in Jason Hertz's mind. His lips opened and he gave a loud, involuntary cry.

"Fool!" hissed the man beside him.

Hertz shrank back in his seat, afraid of what he had done. For his cry had echoed startlingly through the night. A light flashed somewhere on the wall of the prison--another and another. A siren rose like the voice of some monster, beginning with a throaty gurgle and lifting into a furious, spine-chilling wail. The purple shaft of a searchlight on one of the prison towers winked on. Its shimmering beam moved, swung downward, centering on the car. An instant later Hertz cried out again in a frenzy of fear.

For a flickering pinpoint of light leaped out on the wall of the prison. There was a staccato rattle like the drum-taps of doom. And, in the air around the speeding car, there came the deathly whine of steel-jacketed bullets.

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