Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 3


IT WAS AN HOUR LATER that Gibbons, the lawyer, parked his roadster and walked along a quiet street at the outskirts of the city. His movements were quick, eager. There was a strange, restless brightness in his eyes.

The silence of the night was punctured by the shrill cry of a newsboy, peddling an early morning edition. Gibbons bought a paper and the restlessness in his eyes deepened as he stared at the front page. Black headlines were spread across it. They told of another mysterious torture murder--a millionaire's son found dead in his penthouse apartment, his face eaten away by acid.

Somewhere down the block a police siren sounded and a green roadster whirled by. Gibbons, watching from the shadows, recognized the man in it--a detective from the homicide squad. Murder seemed to whisper through the darkness of the night. Menace lay like a pall over the city.

The lawyer's pace increased. Once he paused in his swift stride to press a hand to the left side of his chest. An old wound, received on a battlefield in the World War, had given him a momentary twinge of pain.

A harsh laugh fell from his lips. Years ago doctors had predicted that he had only a few months to live; but he had gone on living, defying death. Perhaps it was this closeness to death that made him so restless--or perhaps it was something else.

He reached a wealthy residential section at length. The river flowed beside him; millionaires' homes and expensive apartment buildings rose at his right. At the corner of the block he stopped. A high wall followed the line of the side street. A huge pile of masonry, bleak and austere, towered above the sidewalk, the windows of it boarded up. It was the old Montgomery mansion, facing the river, the house that the litigation of heirs, quarreling about the estate, had kept empty for years. Its luxurious rooms were gathering dust now. Mice moved unmolested across its polished floors. Moths were nibbling at the expensive rugs.

The man who called himself Gibbons turned and walked down the side street. There was no one in sight. He followed the wall as silently as a shadow. A few gaunt shrubs that had not been properly tended for years made a sparse fringe along the wall.

Suddenly the man stopped. He parted two shrubs and stepped behind them. His hands moved in the darkness for an instant. An old door leading into the ancient garden swung open. The door closed softly behind him.

He was in a place of ruin, decay, and desolation with the teeming life of the city shut away. Under the glow of the sky overhead, he picked his way through the garden, passed statues fallen from their pedestals, passed a tumble-down summer house, passed a fountain that had long since ceased to spray moisture.

He appeared to be at home, appeared to know where he was going, appeared to belong there. He came to the rear of the house, lifted the cover of the cellar door, and descended a flight of stone steps.

A key grated in the lock. In a moment he was inside. Then he paused by another door in a rear room of the old cellar. Flashing a tiny electric light, he pried loose a piece of paneling and stared intently at a hidden dial.

A clocklike mechanism behind the dial moved a cylinder of paper slowly like the drum of a seismograph. There was a stylus poised over the paper. It recorded blows and footfalls. The paper drum was blank, showing that for the last twenty-four hours no one had passed through the hidden passageway behind the door that led down to the black waters of the river. The man nodded in satisfaction.

He moved up into the house, to a room that was hidden beneath the huge front staircase. It was in reality the false back of the old butler's pantry. The partition had been expertly moved forward and a door into the secret chamber was concealed by shelves that swung outward.

Here the man who had made the house his home could be as much shut away from the world as though he were in the black depths of a vault.

There were strange things in that secret room: a small chemical and photographic laboratory, jars, bottles, and mysterious boxes; a miniature arsenal, containing humane but efficient weapons; gas pistols that could knock a man unconscious within a radius of twenty feet; tiny, stupefying darts concealed in cigarette lighters; a concentrated tear-bomb in the stem of a watch that would momentarily blind a man when he stooped to look at the time. There was also a mirror at the side of the wall under strong lights. It had three movable sides that would show every angle of a man's face, head, and body.

Gibbons walked up to it and stood regarding himself. Then he moved away and seated himself at shelf before another mirror. His long, restless fingers began to stray across his face. Beneath their tips a mysterious transformation took place. He plucked tiny plates of tissue-thin metal from his nostrils--plates that had made his nose hawklike; peeled a transparent covering of fibrous, fleshlike material from his chin and cheeks; lifted the clever, mesh-thin toupee of gray hair from his head. His whole appearance had changed.

The mirror reflected him as he really was--as he was never seen by any living soul--as he never appeared except in the silence and secrecy of this one room. The face that stared back at him from the mirror was even-featured and boyish-looking. Gray eyes that held a hint of humor in them. Brown hair and a smooth-shaven skin.

It was only when he turned his head and the light fell on his face in a certain way that new lines were brought out--lines that made him look suddenly older, mature, poised--with the record of countless experiences written in them, and indications of restless energy and driving will-power that would not let him be quiet.

A grim smile came as he looked at himself. Secret Agent X. The man of a thousand faces--a thousand disguises--a thousand surprises! The man of whom it was whispered that he had the unofficial sanction of a great government in his fight on the criminal hordes preying upon society. The man said to be officially dead in the records of the Department of Justice--his supposed death arranged that he might disappear and fight crime in a new and startling way.

His real name and background were mysteries known, if at all, only to a chosen few. Who was Secret Agent X?

Suddenly a frown crossed his face.

He glanced at the telegram that lay open on a table in the strange room.

It was in code and it had been sent from Washington, D.C., to a certain Elisha Pond, care of the First National Bank. Its seemingly meaningless words were burned into his mind like a brand.

"Six victims claimed in Torture Trust," the code words of the telegram stated. "Why aren't you on the job?"

He picked the yellow sheet up and walked toward a metal strongbox that rested on a shelf. For a moment he hesitated.

Holding the telegram in his left hand, he ran the fingers of his right delicately along the lid of the strong-box till he reached a certain raised rivet head. He pressed this, and there was heard a faintly audible "click."

The rivet head corresponded to the safety catch on an automatic. But the forces that it held in leash were a thousand times more destructive. There were two pounds of TNT concealed in a false bottom of the box which, unless the safety catch was pressed, would explode when the lid was raised. The terrible explosive guarded Agent X's secrets from anyone who might penetrate his hideout during his absence.

He laid the telegram for safe keeping on top of a special document that the box contained.

The document bore a governmental coat of arms. It was couched in brief and simple terms, but its words carried a strange portent.

In recognition of brilliant work performed and faithful service rendered, we confer upon you the title of Secret Agent X. Your way will be a lonely one. You will combat crime, fight ceaselessly against those who seek to destroy law, order, and the decencies of civilization.

You will stand ready to risk your life in the cause of humanity as you did while serving your country in the intelligence Division during the World War. For reasons, which you will comprehend, there can be no official acknowledgment of your work or sanction of your methods.

Your funds, however, will be unlimited. Ten public-spirited men of great wealth, unknown to you and unacquainted with your name, have subscribed a fund for your use. A fraction of this fund is on deposit in the First National Bank. It can be drawn by you under the cognomen of Elisha Pond This account will be replenished whenever it becomes low. Utilize it as you see fit.

With a quick movement, the Secret Agent closed the box and released the safety catch again. There were those who knew of his existence and had absolute faith in his methods. He would endeavor to live up to that faith.

He began going over his face again with quick, deft fingers. The boyish lines disappeared under the magic touch of his hands. Gray hairs appeared at the temples. The flabby contours and dignity of middle age came into being. He leaned forward and stared intently at his own reflection. The man of a thousand faces had again achieved a master disguise.

Jeffrey Carter, clubman and gentleman of leisure!

That was his role for the rest of the evening. It was after one o'clock, but he had no intention of going to bed. Sleep was a thing he seldom indulged in. Restless, dynamic forces seemed always driving him on. And tonight there was work to be done--a series of hideous murders to investigate.

He had taken the photographs, the sound record, and the measurements of Jason Hertz for a purpose. No pains were too great, no efforts too laborious in creating a new disguise. When the time came to impersonate Hertz, he would do it with the skill of an artist and a scientist. But the time for the impersonation had not come.

He rose, removed the clothes he had been wearing, and, from a closet containing a vast wardrobe, selected a trim tuxedo. It fitted perfectly his lithe, muscular figure; but, as he slipped into the coat, he winced again at the twinge of pain near his heart.

That and the scar on his chest, drawn into the lines of a crude X where a piece of shrapnel had ploughed, might sometime give him away. It was a risk he was prepared to take.

THE SECRET AGENT, alias Jeffrey Carter, took a taxi downtown. He told the driver to swing left at Twenty-third Street, and he gave a number in a block of medium-priced apartment houses. Through the agent's mind a series of sentences were moving, repeating themselves again and again. Bellaire Club! Panagakos! A blue vase on the dance floor!

He paid the driver, dismissed the cab, and walked forward. This was not a night-club section, but Agent X had special business. Halfway down the long, silent block he stepped back into an angle formed by the intersection of two walls. Here the deep shadows lay as black as ink.

For a moment the agent's eyes narrowed. He was staring upward, along the brick facing of an apartment building opposite. There was a light showing behind the drawn shade in a window on the sixth floor.

The Agent fingered the black batwing tie above his immaculate shirt front, gave his silk muffler a deft twitch, then moved briskly out of the shadows and crossed the street.

He entered the building, passed through a small foyer where a switchboard operator was sitting, and ascended by an elevator. Walking left along a corridor, he pressed the button of apartment No. 63.

There came a sound of high heels clicking over the parquet flooring inside. A moment later the door opened and a girl with blond hair and a petite figure stood on the threshold.

She raised an uneasy hand, patted her gleaming coiffure nervously, and stared closely at Agent X, her blue eyes narrowing in worried speculation.

"Miss Betty Dale, I believe," the Agent said. "May I come in?"

His voice now was cultured, softly modulated. The masterly disguise he had affected tonight hid his real identity. He was playing a part for a purpose.

"My name is Jeffrey Carter," he continued. "I'd like to talk to you a few moments if you can spare the time."

As he spoke, he watched the girl's face narrowly. It expressed uneasiness, doubt, perplexity. Obviously she did not know who he was. Obviously, to her he was a perfect stranger and a suspicious one at that.

"Come in," she said at last, a note of reluctance in her tone.

She turned, her small pretty face screwed up in worry, and led the way into the sitting room.

The long, powerful hands of Jeffrey Carter moved then. One of them flickered out, the fingers holding something that was like a thin stick of pomade.

He made a quick movement close to the wall as he passed by, then slipped the mysterious stick back into his pocket. There was a faint smile on his face. His disguise had proven adequate under the gaze of a girl whose intelligence and cleverness he rated as high as her beauty.

He reached out and snapped off the electric light switch, plunging the room into darkness.

The girl gave a little gasp of surprise and fear; but the stranger's voice reassured her.

"A beacon shines for all good mariners," he said.

She turned. On the wall at her back was a glowing X, shimmering there with a strange eerie light. It was the mark of the Secret Agent--written in the purest radium paint--paint made by a secret formula and containing thousands of dollars' worth of the world's most expensive metal.

"It is you then?" she said, relief in her voice.

The Secret Agent had given her many moments of worry in his desire to use her as a test. He had come to her in dozens of different disguises. She never felt sure of her ground until he gave her some characteristic, identifying sign.

His manner changed now. He was no longer the suave clubman. There was a tenseness in his attitude that the girl sensed. When they were seated in the next room, Jeffrey Carter talked quickly, moving his long-fingered hands restlessly.

"Blue vases are the devil's choice," he said suddenly.

The words were incomprehensible to the girl; but she relaxed in her chair, all uneasiness gone. The Agent generally spoke in metaphors and parables, the significance of which she learned in due time. Almost everything he said had some double meaning.

Respect and intense loyalty mingled in her blue eyes as she regarded the man who tonight called himself Jeffrey Carter. Whoever the Secret Agent really was, she knew that he had been a friend of her dead father's--the father who had been a police captain, slain by underworld bullets.

She had been brought up to feel an intense hatred of criminals. The death of her father had crystallized this feeling.

This man, her father's friend, was working against the underworld. She trusted him, relied upon him, knew that he was kindly and brave. There had been times when he had placed sums of money collected from criminals in her hands--to give to charity, to help the poor and those who had been victimized by underworld plots.

She knew that he kept nothing for himself, asked nothing but to live dangerously, recklessly, gambling with Fate. There were moments when wonder filled her as to what sort of face lay behind those brilliant disguises. Would she ever know? Or would death claim him before she had penetrated the secrets of his life?

The Agent spoke mysteriously again, his eyes gleaming with some hidden emotion.

"You are an accomplished dancer, Miss Dale, and to dance beautifully is an art. Tonight I ask you to dance with me."

She gave a start of surprise and flushed slightly. "What do you mean?"

"The Bellaire Club is calling us, Betty. There is music to be danced to and a blue vase to be looked at. Put on your best frock."

She shrugged, nodded, and flashed him a smile. Something deeper than caprice and a love of dancing, she knew, lay behind his words. And when, at the end of ten minutes, she emerged from her boudoir, she was a vision of loveliness.

Betty Dale was a girl who knew how to wear clothes. Poise and refinement were instinctive with her and that good taste which is something inborn and can never he taught. Because of these things, she had gotten ahead in the world. She had won a career for herself as a star reporter on the Herald. When she was covering society stuff, she could meet and hob-nob with fashionable people on their own plane. This made her invaluable both to the paper and the Agent.

More than once she had helped him by going places with him when he needed a feminine companion, by carrying out his orders, and by getting information that he required.

Tonight she was clad in a white evening dress with a fur wrap draped over her shoulders. Together they went to the street and signaled a taxi.

They were whirled through the brightly lighted thoroughfares of the great city to the doors of the Bellaire Club, which, for all its gaudy ostentation, was a place of ill repute, a place where sinister things had happened.

It was frequented by the fast, wealthy set, and by gangsters and gamblers who had made big money. There were gambling tables in the rear, a dance floor, and a large orchestra in front, with tables for couples to sit at and drink.

The Secret Agent had asked Betty Dale to accompany him tonight because a lone man or woman coming to the Bellaire Club was at once an object of curiosity to Mike Panagakos, the flabby-jowled, sloe-eyed manager. The Agent did not want that.

He whirled Betty Dale around the room once, and his eyes gleamed as he saw a blue vase on a low settee by one wall. It was a fine piece of Turkish pottery that somehow fitted in with the gaudy, exotic atmosphere of the club. It seemed to have been placed there as a receptacle for flowers, but it was empty now.

As they whirled past it, the Secret Agent's hand flicked out. The note he had made Jason Hertz write fell into the vase.

By that act he believed he was opening a trail that might lead him into the shadow of hideous murder and mysterious death.

When the dance had ended, they seated themselves at a table to watch the moving crowds about them; the sinuous, over-painted women, and the immaculately dressed men.

Then Betty Dale suddenly caught her breath, and the Secret Agent's head turned quickly.

Across the room a group of people had scattered. A woman gave a hoarse cry of fear.

From the center of the group, a man ran forward into the circular spot cast by an overhead light. He was holding his hands to his face, staggering drunkenly--and, as Agent X watched, he let forth a scream of agony that shivered through the air with the keenness of a knife thrust. Then he collapsed and lay writhing on the polished floor.

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