Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 4


Chapter IV - POLICE NE
GASPS OF HORROR went up from those in the room. The orchestra, playing a languorous concert number, came to a discordant stop. Men and women crowded forward, craning their necks.

Agent X arose. There was a steely brightness in his eyes, tenseness in the low whisper of his voice.

"Satan has struck," he said.

Leaving the girl at the table, he moved across the floor to mingle with the crowd around the fallen man. Silently, swiftly, he pushed his way close. Looking over the shoulder of an elaborately dressed woman, he got a glimpse of the man on the floor.

The man's hands were still covering his face. Between the quivering fingers Agent X saw inflamed, mottled flesh, pockmarked and drawn together. Faint fumes curled up. The man's skin had been hideously burned. Someone had thrown acid at him.

Agent X turned. He ran to the nearest table, grabbed a bottle of olive oil and shouldered his way back, kneeling by the fallen man. With quick, deft fingers, he poured the sweet oil over the man's tortured face.

It was a simple remedy, but, quickly applied, it might save the man from death or life disfigurement. The man moaned and twitched. One side of his coat fell away. The edge of a gleaming badge showed. He was a headquarters detective. He writhed again, pawing at his injured face, then went limp. Merciful unconsciousness had come.

The Secret Agent got up quickly. Mike Panagakos, the fat, sleek-haired manager, was pushing his way forward.

"Call an ambulance," said Agent X harshly. But another voice cut in on him.

"It's already been done. Everybody keep quiet. Don't try to leave the room. There are men stationed at the doors with orders to shoot."

The man who had spoken was heavy-set, stern-eyed. He looked out of character in the tuxedo that wrinkled baggily around his lumpy body. He was Detective-Sergeant Mathers of the Homicide Squad.

"It's a raid!" cried a woman, the quavers of hysteria in her voice.

"Raid is right! There's been a murder attempted. There's a killer in this room. Every man and woman of you is gonna get searched."

In Sergeant Mathers's words was a savage note. He glared at the people around him with a ferocity that was mixed with bafflement and fear.

"!" whispered somebody hoarsely. And a sudden quiet descended on the room, broken only by the tense breathing of fear-stricken people. Horror seemed to seep out of the corners. The fat face of Mike Panagakos turned a sickly dough color. The whites of his eyes mowed.

Agent X's quick brain grappled with the situation. Detectives, he realized, must have been posted in the room all evening. The police, too, must know that Joe Catrella had hung out at the Bellaire Club. They were leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to solve the hideous torture murders. And the "Torture Trust" in its campaign of terror had turned brutally on the police force itself.

Agent X looked around the big room. At the main entrance, a man with a police automatic in his hand was standing alertly. There was another close to the door of Panagakos's private office in the rear. A third guarded the window by the fire escape. Sergeant Mathers had worked quickly, efficiently.

"Squad cars are on the way," he barked. "There'll be policewomen to search the ladies. Inspector Burks himself is coming."

The imperious clanging of an ambulance bell sounded in the street outside. It stopped at the door of the Bellaire Club. A moment later, the detective at the main entrance stepped back as two white-coated interns entered, a stretcher in the hands of one.

Sergeant Mathers spoke again, pointing to the figure on the floor.

"Get that man to the hospital as fast as you can."

The medics moved like automata. Opening the collapsible stretcher, they lifted the unconscious detective, placed him on it, and carried him out of the room. The gong of the ambulance sounded again, growing fainter as it wound its way through traffic that had stopped as if frozen. The bell seemed to leave behind it a black pall of mystery and terror.

In staccato sentences, harsh as the crack of a whip, Sergeant Mathers began questioning Panagakos.

"Donelly was a good man. He's the third who's had stuff thrown in his face. The first one cashed in. Where was Donelly when he got his?"

Panagakos shook his head. He drew the back of his hand across lips that were moist and quivering.

"I--I didn't see nothing," he said. "I was in my office. When I heard the racket I came out."

A foreign-looking waiter in a short-tailed jacket came close to Sergeant Mathers. He made movements in the air with his hands.

"It was from the kitchen that he came, senyor. It was there that I first saw him--the policeman. But I saw no one else."

Mathers pressed forward, the crowd following, led on by morbid curiosity, and Agent X followed, too.

HE SAW MATHERS round up and question the kitchen staff. Saw them shake their heads. They had seen no one. A hallway led to a big pantry and storeroom beside the kitchen. Agent X knew the angles of the building. He made it a business to learn such things. There was likely to be an air shaft in the storeroom. Why didn't Mathers search there? But he couldn't suggest it. It would attract attention to himself. The detectives would have to work their way. He would work his. But there was worry in his eyes.

Any moment cars filled with policemen and policewomen might arrive at the Bellaire Club. Every person in the room would be searched. It was something that Agent X did not care to risk. There were strange articles concealed in his clothing--articles that it would be embarrassing to have the police find. Sometimes quick changes of disguise were necessary. Painstaking care had gone into the creation of featherweight, portable make-up. Odd kinds of material were cleverly concealed in the linings of his coat and vest.'

To make matters worse, Inspector Burks of the Homicide Squad was a bitter enemy of the Agent's. Discrediting rumors that X was working against the underworld, the formal, routine-loving police inspector regarded the Agent as a particularly vicious criminal.

More than once their ways had crossed. More than once Agent X had led the inspector along the right path to apprehend some evil-doer. But he had done it so subtly, so deviously, that Burks never realized he had been aided. He had only redoubled his efforts to trap the man whose trademark was a gleaming X His suspicions would be aroused if he found hidden disguises on the man who tonight called himself Jeffrey Carter.

With a grim smile on his face, Agent X made his way back toward the table where he had left Betty Dale. He must get away and take the girl with him before Inspector Burks arrived. With armed men at every door and window, this seemed impossible. Only brilliant strategy could accomplish it.

There were fear shadows in Betty Dale's eyes as he approached her. One slim hand was pressed against her breast.

"We're trapped," she said. "They'll search you! What will you do?"

"Sometimes a leopard can change his spots," he said enigmatically.

Her eyes grew wide with wonder as she stared at him. Sergeant Mathers had said that no one was to be allowed to leave the room. No matter what disguise he wore, it would be the same, she thought. Even the Agent couldn't accomplish the impossible.

Close to their table was a heavy drapery across the front of the private booth for diners who wanted to be alone. The booth was empty tonight. The drapery was partially drawn back.

With the light of purpose in his eyes, the Agent stepped quietly into the booth. Inch by inch he edged the drapery across till the booth was covered--till he was out of sight.

The girl looked quickly about. The men and women in the room were staring at Sergeant Mathers, following his every word and gesture as he cross-examined Mike Panagakos and the kitchen staff. No one had seen the Agent go behind the drapery. She looked toward the booth for an instant.

A faint light showed under the drapery's edge. The Agent was mysteriously at work. But fear and perplexity still mingled in her expression. Her ears were strained to catch the wailing of police sirens outside announcing the arrival of the headquarters' cars.

Then she gave a sudden gasp. The drapery in the front of the booth moved. A man stepped out--but not Jeffrey Carter, the clubman who had brought her to the Bellaire Club.

The man who emerged had a hard, pale face. His mouth was a thin line.

There was a frown between his eyes. His eyebrows, in contrast to his white hair, jutted blackly. He carried himself with erect, military bearing. She had seen that man before. He was Inspector Burks of the Homicide Squad.

Betty Dale drew in her breath.

She could not be mistaken. One man had gone into the booth; another had stepped out--but she knew they were one and the same man--Secret Agent X. She knew that his uncanny mastery of disguise had accomplished the impossible.

He didn't try to test his make-up this time. He looked at her, smiled an instant, and nodded. Then his face set again into grim lines. He gestured toward the front entrance and handed her wrap to her. She understood.

With wildly beating heart, but covering her agitation, she walked toward the door.

The burly detective guarding it barred her way. "You heard the sergeant's orders, lady--nobody goes out!"

Then the detective gave a visible start. His eyes widened. He drew himself up respectfully and lowered the gun.

"It's all right," said a cold voice. "I'll show her to the street. See that nobody else leaves."

"Certainly, Inspector!"

The detective's puzzled frown indicated that he couldn't quite piece things together. He could only go by what he saw. Inspector Burks was at the girl's elbow. The Homicide Squad head must, it seemed, have come in the back way. He must have a good reason for making an exception in the girl's favor. The detective stood back, and Betty Dale and the Secret Agent moved unmolested down the carpeted stairs.

They did not hurry. The man at Betty Dale's side maintained his stiffly erect bearing.

But, at the downstairs entrance, his grip on her arm tightened. He gave a swift look right and left and suddenly drew her across the street. Up the block, headlights flared piercingly; a swift car shot around the corner; squealing rubber; and a siren rose into a screaming, pulsating wail.

"The police!" gasped Betty Dale, the words like a sob of fear in her throat.

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