Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 7


FOR HOURS THAT NIGHT, the Agent worked in his secret room in the old Montgomery mansion. Rats scuttled across the deserted floors. Mice squeaked in the walls of the ancient house. From outside came the occasional noises of the city. The rumble of a heavy truck. The faint blare of a taxi horn. But the Agent's chamber was like a little world in itself shut away from the lives of ordinary men.

He had been extraordinarily careful tonight. He had studied closely the faithful recording apparatus in the cellar, making sure that no one had disturbed the privacy of the house. He had taken special pains to throw any possible shadower off the track.

Now, feeling secure, he set to work methodically to achieve the most masterly disguise of his career. On its perfection his very life depended, and perhaps the lives of others, innocent victims of the "Torture Trust."

He took out the movie films, the sound record, and the measurements made during his interview with Jason Hertz. The film he had already developed in his small photographic laboratory.

He set a projector on a tripod, focused it on a silver screen, and switched off the lights in the room.

Then he snapped on the bulb behind the projector and started the machine in motion.

Hertz's image appeared on the screen. Agent X studied it again and again, noting each movement and facial expression. He had made a series of still enlargements from the movie film, and these he studied also.

He placed the hard-rubber record on a phonographic machine and listened to Hertz's voice.

For twenty minutes he practised the vowel and consonant sounds, perfecting tongue and lip movements, until he had mastered the timbre and pitch--until it seemed that Hertz himself was speaking in the small room. Then he seated himself before his triple mirror, and, with the measurement chart at his side, began the elaborate make-up.

He used his finest pigments, built up his plastic material, working in thin layers with constant reference to the notes he had made. He reconstructed each plane and line of the ex-convict's features; then practised characteristic expressions. He laughed, frowned, registered fear, surprise, and arrogance as he had seen Jason Hertz do.

Even then he wasn't satisfied--not until he had risen and moved about the room, imitating Hertz's walk and arm movements. When at last he put his equipment away, Hertz's own mother wouldn't have known that the man in the room was not her son.

X dressed himself as a criminal and gunman: a cheap, flashy suit, a striped silk shirt, a tie that shouted to the world.

But, in the linings of the suit, he hid other articles. There was no telling what desperate emergencies might arise. He took one keen look at the little chamber before leaving. It might, for all he knew, be the last he would ever get.

A taxi sped him to within a few blocks of MacDonough Street. He got out and paid the driver, doubting that the cabman would recognize him as Hertz. The police heads would know him. The detective force would be tipped off. He must avoid representatives of the law. But he didn't fear citizens or ordinary cops except in the region that Jason Hertz had frequented.

MacDonough Street was in a dark, cluttered section near the riverfront. Number forty-four was in a block of ancient, unpainted houses that seemed like a stagnant backwater left by the city's swift progress northward. The Secret Agent's heart beat faster as he climbed the stoop and pressed the bell of number forty-four seven times.

It was at least two minutes before the door opened. Then a slatternly old woman stood before him. Her beady, ratlike eyes were set in a face as evil as a witch's. She licked thin, toothless gums and stared at him out of the black pit of the hall. Then she jerked her head.

"Come in," she said harshly.

She hadn't asked him his name. He knew she had recognized him as Jason Hertz. He followed her along a dusty smelling corridor into a rear room. Here she switched the light on, closed the door after her, and left him alone.

But he had the uncanny sense that eyes somewhere were studying him. He waited breathlessly, and seconds later a closet door opened and a man stepped out.

The man was small, dressed in gray, and his face had the dead, listless color of putty. His eyes, too, were listless, reptile-like; but they focused on X's with cold, calculating intelligence.

For seconds the man studied X at close range, then took a pad from his pocket and the stub of a pencil. He scribbled a sentence on the pad and handed it to the Agent.

"Come with me," the sentence read.

And X realized with a start that the gray-clad man before him was a deaf-mute. Looking closer, he saw that the masklike face of the man seemed to conceal some horrible inner maladjustment. Was he insane, or a drug addict? There was something chillingly sinister about him, as though he were the very emissary of death.

HE LED THE AGENT out a rear door of the house, through a back yard into another street as evil-looking as the one in front. A car was waiting at the curb. It was a dark-colored, closed vehicle, and at the wheel of it sat another man of the same type as X's guide. His features were not the same, but there was a weird similarity of coloring and manner that puzzled the Agent.

He got into the car at a gesture from the guide. The auto moved away. It glided through deserted streets, passed narrow, one-way alleys, then, in a particularly black spot, the gray-clad man at X's side leaned forward. In his hand was a strip of dark cloth. He raised it, slid it across X's face and blindfolded him.

The act made the Secret Agent's nerves tingle with excitement. There was no fear in his heart--except the fear of possible failure. The precautions taken by the deaf-mute warned the Agent that he was coming in contact with some super criminal who left nothing undone.

The car stopped at last. Agent X, blindfolded, unable to see a step he took, was nevertheless making precise inner records. His uncanny memory was at work, his super-sensitive faculties registering impressions.

He was drawn out of the car, guided by one of the evil gray men. He heard a door open, and marked in his mind the position of it. He was led along a passageway, and he kept track of each individual step. He turned to the right, went down a flight of stairs, up another, walked straight ahead through a second corridor.

His ears even registered the acoustic properties of the hall. Another flight of stairs and his guide stopped him. The Agent's eyes behind the cloth were bright. Brief as the time had been, he felt certain he could retrace his steps. The blindfold had failed of its purpose.

Then Agent X had a sense of chill, a sense of quiet, a sense that he was in some old, dark building where gloomy shadows lay. Slowly he was pushed to the center of a room. The blindfold was taken from his face; footsteps withdrew; he was left in absolute darkness.

For seconds that seemed endless, he stood there, wondering what was to come next. There was no movement in the room, no sound. Then suddenly a light flashed on. It was a bulb set in a reflector, a small searchlight, and it was focused directly on his face.

He waited, staring toward the light, certain that other eyes behind it were upon him, certain that he was being observed, analyzed, picked to pieces. Would his disguise stand the test?

Gradually his gaze adjusted itself to the brightness of the light. He could see the faint illumination it shed in other parts of the room. He could see the walls, the furniture. Then he gave an inner start. Perfectly coordinated nerves held it in abeyance. But he let his face muscles sag as Jason Hertz would have done. He registered an uneasiness he didn't feel.

For there were three black figures in the room. They sat on chairs like three ravens of death facing him. There were black hoods over their heads, trailing black cloth over their bodies. Through holes in the hoods he saw the evil glitter of eyes.

There was not one criminal, then, but three behind the murders that had taken place. He was in the presence of the "Torture Trust," the men whose inhuman brains bad plotted hideous villainy.

A voice came out of the gloom, cold and precise and dangerous as the buzz of a rattler's tail.

"What have you got to say for yourself, Jason Hertz?"

The Agent gulped, stirred, and imitated Hertz's tone as he had learned it from the phonographic record.

"I--I lammed out of stir. I figured maybe you'd have something fer me to do. That's how come I dropped the note. A guy's gotta eat."

"We know you got out of the penitentiary. We have eyes. We read the papers. But we know your limitations, Hertz. It seems remarkable that you could have escaped without outside help. Will you please tell us exactly how you did it?"

The Agent knew at that moment how perilous was the ground upon which he stood. There were brains of diabolical cunning behind those sinister black hoods. His life hung upon the answer he made.

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