Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 2

novelTHE TORTURE TRUST

Chapter II - FORCED TESTIMONY
UNDER THE LAWYER'S HANDS, the roadster leaped ahead in the darkness like a live thing. A machine-gun bullet struck against the metal back of the car. Another passed screamingly between the two men's heads, slapped against the shatterproof windshield, and sent spiderweb lines radiating in all directions.

Hertz, his face white and ghastly, crouched whimpering in his seat. He stole a sidewise glance at the lawyer's features, saw the hawklike nose, the jutting chin, and deep-set eyes. The man was driving as calmly as though death were not riding the wind behind him.

They passed at last beyond the searchlight's range, and the bullets ceased to come. There would be pursuit; but it seemed nothing outside of a bullet could catch that speeding car. Under its long, low hood the smoothly running motor rose into a mighty paean of power. The speedometer needle swung to sixty, seventy, eighty as the car leaped ahead along the dark road. Hertz spoke again.

"You gotta tell me where I'm going. I won't stand for this."

"No?" The single word was ironic, mocking.

"Where you taking me--that's what I wants know."

It seemed that a grim smile spread over the lawyer's face. He was silent, and leaden fear gnawed at Hertz's heart again. He only knew that they were leaving the city behind; that they had reached a country road. Then the car swung sidewise, turning off the smooth macadam. It passed along a dirt lane between rows of pines that moaned and whispered in the night wind. They came to a jarring stop.

"Get out!" said Gibbons.

The mystery of the night seemed to deepen. Hertz's nerves were almost at the breaking point. He crouched back, showing his teeth, his hands hooked like talons.

"I won't!" he shrieked. "I'll--I'll--"

Under the instrument-board light he found himself looking into the sinister muzzle of an automatic. His craven spirit weakened.

"All right, I'll go. Take that gat away. Don't shoot!"

But the gun was not withdrawn. Hertz walked ahead, trembling, with the gun in his back, and the outlines of a house suddenly rose out of the blackness before him. It looked like a farmhouse, low and ramshackle.

A key grated in the lock. He was pushed inside and the door closed after him. There was the stuffy smell of deserted rooms and musty carpets. Gibbons appeared to know what he was about. He pushed Hertz into a rear chamber, struck a match and lighted an oil lamp. The windows of the room were tightly boarded up. Gibbons thrust a chair forward and motioned Hertz to sit down.

Alone with the mysterious lawyer, Hertz had a deeper sense of dread. The compelling eyes of Gibbons were upon him again. He sensed mystery behind them, and power. It was as though they were boring into his very soul. The voice of the lawyer sounded harshly.

"You are free of prison, Jason Hertz. In return you are going to give me information!"

So, that was it! A snarl rose on Hertz's lips. His eyes gleamed wickedly.

"I won't tell you nothing. I don't know nothing!"

The gray-haired man before him smiled again and drew a clipping from his pocket. He held it in front of Hertz's face. It had been cut from a newspaper--

CATRELLA KILLED AT SCENE OF TORTURE MURDER.

"He was one of your pals, Hertz. You've seen the papers in prison. You know that murders are being committed--men tortured to death. Joe Catrella was in on it in some way. Give me the names of his friends."

The question came relentlessly; but Jason Hertz shook his head.

"I don't know nothing--I won't talk," he cried.

He'd heard rumors of the series of hideous killings that were baffling the police. Prominent people found dead--tortured. "," the papers called it. Fear sealed his lips. He knew little; but he dared not tell even that. Death was the penalty meted out to a squealer in the underworld, and there was mystery and horror behind this murder-wave that eclipsed anything he had ever heard of before. There was an uncanniness to it that made his spine crawl He wished he had stayed in jail.

"I don't know nothing," he repeated wildly.

His voice died in a gasp. He found himself looking into the eyes of the lawyer, found himself unable to turn away. Like a bird staring at a snake; he was held fascinated.

The lawyer's face was coming closer to his--closer, closer. The lawyer's eyes were pools of blazing light.

Hertz cowered in his seat, pressing till the rungs of the chair cut into his back. Terror of the man before him rose in his throat and seemed to choke him. He sensed again that he was in the presence of a person who had powers beyond his knowledge--vast depths of strength and magnetism. It seemed that his own brain was being battered into submission.

"Think back, Jason Hertz. It is March, 1933. You have not been caught by the police as yet. You are not in jail. You are with Joe Catrella, plotting evil. What is your understanding with him? Who are his friends?"

The eyes of the lawyer were relentless. His voice went on droningly. Jason Hertz felt himself slipping--slipping into the mysterious depths of hypnosis.

From drowsiness, Hertz went into laxity of posture, slumping in his chair, staring with glassy eyes into the face of the man who called himself Crawford Gibbons. Then slowly his body became rigid; his fingers tightened around the arms of the chair; his legs pressed stiffly against the floor. He was in the third stage of the hypnotic state, the stage known as catalepsy, his will completely under the dominance of the strange man before him.

"You will speak, Jason Hertz. You will answer my questions."

Sweat broke out on the forehead of the escaped convict. Fear still fought for control of his subconscious mind. But the man in front of him substituted another fear, deeper, more imminent.

Gibbons reached around the side of Hertz, his forefinger extended. He pressed the tip of it against Hertz's spine.

"There's a machine gun at your back, ready to blow you to pieces, Hertz! You can feel it there, pressing, pressing. You must speak. Who were Catrella's friends? Who gave you your orders when you were with him?"

A gurgle came from Hertz's lips. They moved slowly. The cords in his neck stood out.

"I--don't--know!" he gasped. "The Bellaire Club. We hung around there. Panagakos, the manager, may have been--I got notes in the blue vase--telling me what to do--the vase on the dance floor. So did Catrella. We never knew--who the big shot was--the guy we was working for. We sent notes to him the same way. Don't kill me--for God's sake! That's all I know; I swear it. They got me--in that spaghetti-joint holdup--when I tried to make a little dough for myself on the side. I had a moll and she--"

His voice trailed off. For the lawyer, Gibbons, had stopped listening and had taken his eyes away. A man in the hypnotic state tells the truth because he must. Jason Hertz had told all of interest that he knew!

Gibbons moved back and Hertz sat staring straight ahead of him. His labored breathing told that he was in the hypnotic trance. He might stay thus for hours.

Gibbons drew a pencil and notebook from his pocket. He placed the pencil in Hertz's fingers, put the notebook under his hand.

"Write, Jason Hertz! Write one of those notes to your boss--telling him you are out of prison, ready to serve him again."

The fingers of Jason Hertz moved mechanically. The pencil whispered across the paper like the pencil of a spiritualistic medium doing automatic writing. When the note was finished, Gibbons tore the page loose, folded it, and put it in his pocket.

Then he began a series of quick, mysterious movements.

He brought the light nearer Hertz, studied his face, and, after a few seconds, walked to a cabinet standing against the wall. He opened the front and drew from it a collection of odd-shaped apparatus.

There was a magnesium flare set in the center of a silvered, parabolic reflector. There was a small movie camera, a Dictaphone machine driven by a spring motor, and a set of elaborate measuring instruments based on the formulae of the Bertillon System. He placed them in front of Jason Hertz.

Lighting the flare, he focused it on Hertz's face and body.

"Get up!" he ordered. "Walk around, Hertz."

The escaped convict obeyed, rising from his seat and moving about the room in the manner of a sleepwalker. But his muscles made characteristic movements that the lens of the movie camera in Gibbons's hands began to record.

"Sit down," said Gibbons after a time.

Again Hertz obeyed, and Gibbons brought the camera closer.

"Smile," he commanded, and Hertz did so. Then in quick succession Gibbons ordered the felon to scowl, laugh, register fear, surprise, and arrogance.

He set the camera down with a snap, turned off the magnesium light, and started the motor of the Dictaphone machine.

"Now, Hertz--follow me. Repeat first the vowel sounds--aaa--ah-oh--ooo--ee! Now the consonants. Ker--ter--bur--mer--"

The needle of the Dictaphone recorded the vibrations of Hertz's voice on the hard-rubber cylinder. Gibbons was using the science of phonetics, setting down every inflection of the convict's lips, throat, and tongue for future use. When he was satisfied that he had missed nothing, he closed the Dictaphone and set to work with his measuring instruments, going over the planes of Hertz's face. He jotted down the widths of Hertz's eyes, mouth, and nostrils, the angle of his jaw, the slope of his forehead, the height of his cheek bones.

Satisfied at last, he put his apparatus away, keeping only the movie film, the cylinder from the Dictaphone, and the figures he had set down.

He took up the notebook and pencil and began scribbling a brief note.

"You have betrayed your friends, Hertz," he wrote. "You know the penalty of betrayal in the underworld. There is murder abroad, torture, horror. Your only chance to live is to escape from the country. I am giving you that chance. To catch a wolf I am freeing a rat. In the enclosed envelope you will find a passport already filled out and a boat ticket to South America. Take them, go, and never come back."

The lawyer took a hundred-dollar bill from his pocket, put it in the note he had written, placed it in the envelope with the ticket and passport, and pinned it to the front of Hertz's coat. Then he paused a moment, holding the pencil in his hand.

With a strange, grim smile on his face, he reached forward and made a mark on the envelope--a mysterious "X" that seemed to have no purpose or meaning.

But if Jason Hertz could have seen it, he would have understood more about the strange adventure he had been through. For the man whose symbol and trade-mark that "X" was had built up a reputation which had reached even behind prison walls. It was a reputation for swift movement, startling courage, masterly disguises that no man could penetrate--and mysterious motives that no man could fathom.

It was a reputation that baffled the police as well as the underworld. For the man who hid behind "X," symbol of the unknown quantity, seemed to be working against crime, even while classed as a criminal.

Gibbons turned then and strode through the door into the night, and behind him floated an eerie yet melodious whistle that had in it an unearthly quality like a voice from some other world.

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