Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 5
THE TORTURE TRUST
Chapter V - THE ACID THROWER
A second squad car rounded the corner and came roaring down the block, sliding to a screeching halt behind the first. All the detectives in the city seemed to be concentrating on this one point. The sirens had attracted attention. Heads were peering out windows. A small crowd was collecting. Any moment sharp eyes might spy out Agent X and the girl beside him. But she was safe now. He motioned toward the street and she understood.
"You?" she said. "What will you do?"
"The spots of the leopard will change again," he replied.
Her face was pale and uneasy as she left him and mingled with the crowd on the street. A moment later she signaled a taxi, stepped into it and was whisked away.
The Agent turned his back. Head down amongst the shadows of the areaway, his long fingers began to move. They were working in the darkness now, working by instinct and the uncanny skill that past experience had developed.
He left the white hair on, but drew the jutting black eyebrows off and peeled away the plastic material from his face. He slipped rubber cheek plates against his gums to broaden his features, smoothed the frown of Inspector Burks from his forehead, then turned.
As he sauntered out into the light of the street, no one would have known him for either of the two men he had impersonated earlier in the evening. He looked older now, fatter--and the glittering nose glasses with a black cord attached that he slipped on heightened the effect of dignity and age.
The voices in the crowd around him were tense, electrified with fear. Rumors were running like wildfire. The "Torture Trust" had claimed another victim. A newspaper man with a flash-light camera was taking pictures of the front of the Bellaire Club. Soon the presses of the tabloids would be grinding out another story of mystery and horror for a thrill-loving public to devour at their leisure.
But the game that X was playing was a game of life and death.
He slipped through the crowd, moving along the side of the building to the mouth of an alley that tradesmen used. He stared down it, glanced back along the street, then plunged out of sight.
The dignity of his movements fell from him suddenly. He snapped the eyeglasses off, placed them in his pocket. His eyes were bright and piercing as bits of polished steel.
Above him were the lighted windows of the Bellaire Club. He followed the alley on up to the corner of the building. Ahead was a courtyard filled with boxes and barrels. A fire escape snaked up the side of the club, passing the windows of the kitchen, going on up to the roof.
X stood a moment, trying to locate the position of the air shaft he had figured was there. It was either by that or the fire escape that the acid thrower had entered and gone.
Then he drew in his breath. Far above him, silhouetted a moment against the starlit sky, he saw faint movement. It might have been a man's head or hand. He couldn't be certain which; but he crouched back in the black shadows of the courtyard.
Then, swiftly as a cat, he crossed the flagstones and leaped up. His fingers caught the end of the weighted fire escape ladder. The ladder came down slowly, its rusty hinges squeaking.
Agent X paused and listened. No sound came from the darkness above. He mounted the ladder swiftly, up past the kitchen windows, reaching the darkness beyond just as one opened. Inspector Burks was on the job now and would be more thorough than Sergeant Mathers had been.
X took the iron steps two at a time. Speedily, silently, he reached the roof, while behind him a cop stepped out on the second-floor landing. The police, too, were going to search the roof. The Agent had escaped from one difficult situation only to be involved in another. His blood raced madly. Once again he was pitting his wits and courage against the forces of Fate. What if there were no other way down from the roof? What if the police trapped him?
But he didn't dwell on the dangers of the situation.
Lightly as a cat, he leaped to the coping of the roof and balanced there on the balls of his feet.
The top of the Bellaire Club stretched before him. Beyond was another building, higher still--a sheer cliff of offices closed for the day. But against its brick walls he saw vague movement again. A giant spider seemed to be creeping up its bare side.
The Agent's eyes had been trained to work in semi-darkness--to see things that other men missed. There was an iron ladder up the side of the building beyond. Someone was climbing it swiftly--a figure which, even at that distance, had something macabre and sinister about it.
Agent X started in pursuit. He was ahead of the police, one jump in advance on the trail of a would-be murderer. As he reached the higher building, he looked behind him across the roof of the Bellaire Club and saw the head and shoulders of the cop. Then his hands were on the ladder and his feet had found the rungs.
It ran straight up, a sheer hundred feet, to the roof above. It passed by unlighted windows, and, as he mounted, it was as though he were hanging in space.
Then, far behind him, he heard a cry. A pinpoint of flame blossomed in the darkness. There was a sharp, whiplike report. Something struck the bricks beside him and screamed away into the night like a frightened banshee.
The Secret Agent smiled. It wasn't the first time he had been under fire. The cop on the roof below had glimpsed him just as he had glimpsed the man ahead. But there could be no accurate shooting. The policeman's second bullet went wider of its mark than the first. The cop was being blinded by the flash of his own gun.
Agent X continued to climb. The cop below turned on a flashlight, but its beam wouldn't reach. Agent X was too high up. A moment later, however, the iron ladder gave out faint vibrations, warning the Agent that the man below had reached it and was mounting, too.
X traversed the last rungs at dangerous speed. He vaulted over the edge of the roof and stood there like a man on top of the world. The twinkling lights of the city lay below him, peaceful as though murder were not stalking through the night.
He turned and looked along the roof. All seemed quiet. He could see no movement now; but with quick, silent strides, he skirted the edge of the roof, then leaped forward.
At a point opposite where he had come up, another ladder went down. It had become a mad game of hide-and-seek on the rooftops of the city. There was no place up here for a man to hide. X tried the one skylight window and found that it was locked on the inside. The man ahead, whoever he might be, was showing that he knew his ground. His fiendish act tonight had been as deliberate as it was diabolical, planned with the cunning that characterized every movement of the "Torture Trust."
Agent X grasped the top of the second ladder and began the descent as quickly as he had climbed. Six stories below, his feet touched another, lower roof. He crossed it, reached a fire escape mounted on the next building. He was moving along the block on the rooftops.
He looked back again, and, far above, outlined against the high office building, he saw movement. The cop was close on his trail.
A sense of menace seemed to descend on him out of the night. He could outwit the police, but he was pitting himself against criminals as fiendish as they were cunning. He reached under his coat, drew out a pistol. It was one of the weapons he sometimes used in moments of emergency--not an ordinary gun. The Agent did not kill. To slaughter a man was a crude way of dealing with a situation. The Agent operated with finesse, ingenuity, and impetuous daring. The chambers of this gun contained concentrated anesthetizing gas of a high specific gravity. Even in the open, fired into a man's face, it could cause unconsciousness.
He gripped the pistol, climbed still faster. He was on the last flight of the fire escape now, with the roof of the third building ahead. He stared up twelve feet. And, as he did so, a black shape suddenly blotted out the stars. So quickly that the Agent didn't have time to raise his gun, a man's arm flashed out.
With that instinctive response which had more than once saved his life, the Secret Agent twisted his body sidewise. He hung by one hand and foot, swaying perilously away from the iron ladder, out over dizzy space.
Something hissed by in the air close to his face. The stench and reek of chemicals made his nostrils quiver. Burning, acrid fumes made his eyes blink and smart. Then the flesh of his left wrist felt as if a red-hot brand had suddenly been pressed upon it. The pain was so excruciating that his muscles contracted and he almost let go his hold. The silhouette above disappeared.
Biting his lips with pain, the Secret Agent continued to climb. By a few inches only he had missed the liquid torture from the roof above. A few drops of the acid-thrower's torment had struck his wrist, showing what terrible thing he had escaped.
His eyes glowing like points of steel, he went on up, peering cautiously over the roof, the gas gun in his fingers. But the roof was deserted now.
The Agent saw why. With a bound he crossed the tarred space to a heavy trapdoor cover. He tugged at it with tense fingers, but it was bolted inside. Then, stooping down, he placed his ear against the sheet metal. From below came the faint stir of descending footsteps. The acid-thrower had made good his escape.
Philosophical always in defeat, biding his time, the Secret Agent stood up. He couldn't go back the way he had come. He walked across the building to the fire escape at the rear and quickly began the descent.
This one seemed to end in a vacant courtyard below. He paused a moment listening. All was quiet.
He reached the bottom, dropped to the flagstones and started toward a fence in the rear, then suddenly crouched back. A bright beam pierced the darkness close ahead. The ray of a flashlight made his eyelids narrow.
"Stand still, guy," a harsh voice said.
Against the glow of a street light beyond the court, Agent X got a sudden glimpse of the visored cap of a city cop.