Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 8

novelTHE TORTURE TRUST

Chapter VIII - TERRIBLE SECONDS
SLOWLY HE DREW HIS LIPS into a smile. He straightened his body, threw out his chest, facing the spectral trio with the arrogance of a criminal proud of his handiwork.

He was a student of human psychology, and he acted now as he believed Jason Hertz would do in his shoes.

"You gotta hand it to me," he said. "You're king-pins an' you're smarter than me. But I pulled a fast one when I slipped outta the big house. There ain't many guys could 'a done it."


"You haven't answered our question, Hertz!" There was a relentless note in that cultured, measured voice.

These men, X sensed, were not ordinary criminals. They bore no relation to the underworld of thugs, gunmen, racketeers, and gamblers--except that they lived by death and the fear of it that their deeds inspired.

He smiled again. "You wants hear about it right from the start?"

"That's what we want."

"Well, I bought a hacksaw from a snowbird named Cooper. His brudder smuggled it to him, see? An' he was too shaky to use it. I give him money to buy coke instead. I snitched a key from a guard when he had his back turned talkin' to another guy. The key was on a chain. I stuck a piece of soap on it, see, and made a nifty pattern."

Agent X, alias the convict. Hertz, chuckled again as though at his own cleverness.

"There was tools in the machine shop," he continued. "I was a good guy. They made me a trusty. I made me a key from the pattern in the piece of soap. When I got the chance I slipped out and went to the empty cell-block up top. I cut a hole through the ceiling and got amongst the rafters. That's the way a guy they told about in the papers did it."

"Then," came a voice in the gloom, "you cut the bars of an end window--and climbed down to the yard. We read all that, Hertz. But how about the wall?"

X laughed again.

"You must 'a seen about the rope, too," he said. "I left it there. There's lots of things a trustee can do. I snitched that rope in the cellar, the one they used to haul ash cans out on a pulley. I tied a bolt to it an' slung it over the wall. There was a loop on it. I caught the loop on a brace that the wires on top of the wall was fastened to. I did a pretty slick job."

There was silence as he finished his tale. He knew that evil brains were debating, weighing the story he had told. He believed it rang true. Hertz had been a trusty. Convicts in the past had used exactly the methods he had described to escape.

But there was a slow constriction around his heart and he could feel his pulses pounding. What if he had aroused their suspicions?

Then another of the black-hooded trio spoke. His voice was lower, hoarser, but it, too, had a cultured note.

"You've done well, Jason Hertz. You are cleverer than we thought. We may be able to use you again. But for a time you will have to lie low. We will call you when we need you."

There was finality in the voice. The Agent's heart sank. He must find out something definite. He couldn't wait around for weeks while the hideous murders went on.

His disguise had worked. He was not suspected, but he had learned little. Who were these men? What faces lay behind those black hoods? Where did they live?

He stared again beyond the range of the searchlight, looked at the black-hooded figures with quick penetration. His eyes came to a focus on one.

The right foot of the middle man was thrust slightly forward. The toe of a shoe projected from under the black robe that dropped to the floor. On that shoe the sharp eyes of the Agent detected streaks of mud--mud that had caked recently, mud that formed an irregular pattern. And, in that brief glimpse, his astute brain registered an impression that was photographic.

The hooded men, so far as he could see, made no signal; but one of the mask-faced deaf-mutes returned. The Agent was familiar with the regular deaf-and-dumb language, but he could not follow the strange finger conversation that ensued between the trio and the mute. It must, he concluded, be in code.

The blindfold was slipped over his eyes again; the light in the room went out. He was led through darkness. The sinister trio obviously believed him to be Jason Hertz. But they were taking no chances. Besides themselves only the deaf-mutes were allowed to know the secrets of this hidden place.

Agent X was storing impressions again. He was being led out by a different route. The stairs were different, so were the corridors. The acoustic properties of the latter, responding to his footfalls, gave out different echoes.

When they reached the street, he was pushed into a car and the blindfold wasn't removed until they had driven many blocks. But the Agent had been marking the intersections in his mind by the different sounds that the street openings made. They had passed four. The rumbling note of the wheels changed each time. They rounded a corner, went two more blocks, then another corner. The blindfold was taken off. The car slid into MacDonough Street.

He was motioned up the steps of No. 44 again, and a deaf-mute rang the bell, two longs and a short. Then the mute wrote on his pad: "Stay here," and thrust it under X's nose.

The witchlike landlady led X to a second-floor room. She lighted a gas jet and left him alone. He heard the deaf-mute descend the stoop and the car drive away.

He crossed the room quickly, thrusting his head out the door. He could hear the faint, shuffling steps of the landlady somewhere below. Taking off his shoes, he tiptoed out, walked down the hall and reached the front door. He made no sound. He kept close to the walls. In a moment he had opened the door and slipped out.

Thinking he was Jason Hertz, escaped convict, they would expect him to stay in the house, glad of a refuge. But the real Jason Hertz was far away, and the man impersonating him had a perilous task to perform.

He moved along the block like a wraith, ducked into a deserted alley, listened a moment, then set to work.

Under the quick movements of his skilled fingers, the brilliant disguise came away. It would take long minutes of patient labor to build it up again; but only a few seconds were required to remove it. And in his coat lining, he had another quick disguise ready.

When he emerged from the alley, he appeared as a young, red-headed street loafer. The silk shirt was gone.

The sweater he had worn under it, surreptitiously, was in evidence, drawn up around his neck. His coat and trousers, specially tailored to be turned inside out, had completed the change. He no longer remotely resembled Jason Hertz.

Keeping close to the shadows, he walked back along the way he had come. He thought out each step, turned the right corners as he came to them, pausing at last by a huge empty warehouse.

His pulses were tingling now. It was into this building that the deaf mute had led him. It was out of it that the sinister trio must come.

Carefully, casually, he skirted the big warehouse. It occupied nearly the whole of a small block. Three sides of it were on streets. But there was a clutter of empty houses in the rear. Agent X moved by these. Then his heart beat faster.

In the street outside he saw the glint of moisture. A puddle, barely dried, reflected the light from a distant street lamp. The mud around the puddle was a light yellow. Dried, it would probably appear white. It formed a precious clue.

He took up his position in the shadows across the street. There was no telling how many secret entrances the chamber in the warehouse had. The most subtle precautions had been taken to guard them. Yet the Agent felt certain that at least one of the trio had passed in through these old buildings in the rear. Might he not be expected to come out the same way?

Night wind moaned along the street. The stars glittered coldly. Somewhere far up on the warehouse a piece of loose tin flapped and groaned like a wounded vampire. The street was cold, bleak, and deserted. But the Secret Agent waited.

IT WAS NEARLY AN HOUR later that he crouched back in his hiding place. A door in one of the deserted buildings had at last opened. A man in a long ulster stepped quietly out, closing the door after him. His movements were not furtive. They were calm, assured. The man's face was even-featured and calm, too, and he was well dressed.

But the Agent leaned forward tensely. On the man's shoes were pale streaks of mud. He picked his way past the puddle as though a recent unpleasant experience had taught him to be careful.

Shadowing was one of X's specialties. He had done much of it in his life. He knew all the tricks. Yet it took every resource at his command to keep sight of the man in the gray ulster.

The man walked four blocks up the street at a rapid pace. He turned left, walked four blocks more to a main thoroughfare and waited for a taxi.

At a fast clip, hands in pockets, head bent low, the Agent walked on by him. His heart was beating rapidly with the excitement of the chase. What if another taxi did not come? What if he lost sight of the man in a traffic jam? These were risks a shadower must always take.

Then he saw a cab approaching from the other direction. He stepped into the street, signaled it. The driver seemed loath to stop because of X's unpresentable appearance. But X waved a bill in his face.

"Make a U turn," he said. "Then drive ahead slowly."

The driver did so and the Agent looked back. He saw another cab glide in to the curb and pick up the man behind. It came on up the street and passed.

"Follow that car," said the Agent.

The driver of the cab obeyed. But the man ahead, as though it were part of a customary routine, changed cabs three times, walked many extra blocks, and used other tricks to throw off possible pursuit.

The trail led at last to a house in the suburbs--a house on a quiet, respectable street. There were no lights in it when the man in the gray ulster entered. But they flashed on soon after. He was evidently staying alone.

The Agent waited outside till long after midnight, till the lights finally went out for good. Then he slipped a handkerchief over his face crossed the street, and moved to the rear of the house. If he should be caught, he wanted to be thought a common burglar.

He took from his pocket a kit of tiny chromium steel tools. There was a glass cutter with a full diamond point among them. He selected the windows of the library, placed a rubber suction disc against a pane, cut the glass noiselessly, and, holding the disc, drew the glass toward him with a faint snap.

In a moment he was in the library, playing the beam of a tiny flashlight over the walls and furniture. There were books, many of them, and a desk with papers on it.

From these he learned the name of the man who lived in the house. Professor Ronald Morvay, psychologist.

That was something. The Agent stored it in his memory. He rotated the beam of his flash, then stopped. It was focused on the wall, on the circular front of a small sunken safe.

The Agent walked to it quickly. House--and safe-breaking were included in his activities--when it was the house of a murderer he broke into and the safe of a murderer he opened.

But there were no clues as yet that would help unravel the plot behind the mysterious "Torture Trust." He knew it was an extortion racket. The police knew that, too. But what diabolical minds were back of it, and how could they be caught?

He knelt before the safe, touched the dial with his long fingers, put his ear to the metal. In the pursuit of criminals he had studied their methods, and he was familiar with the mechanics of safe-breaking. There were few that he could not open by listening to the faint movement of the lock tumblers.

At the end of a minute he had the door of the wall safe in Professor Morvay's library swinging outward on its hinges. Then his hand reached inside.

A common burglar would have been disappointed, but the Agent felt rewarded. There were in the safe several small books filled with a fine, close script. And as the Agent turned the beam of his flash on them and studied them, his eyes gleamed eagerly. He began to read--and read on, devouring the lines, page after page.

He was held in the grip of such appalling horror that his skin felt cold. Here was a record of human ingenuity and fiendishness beyond anything he had ever run into. No wonder the books had been placed in the safe!

They told of a series of experiments by a scientist--a psychologist--who used his knowledge for criminal purposes. They told of the experiments of Professor Morvay on that part of the human brain which harbors the sadistic tendencies--the lust to torture and kill. They told how men with a trace of sadism in their makeup could be trained into inhuman monsters. And Agent X, grim-faced, thought of the gray-clad deaf-mutes with their sinister features. These were Professor Morvay's subjects, the men he had experimented on. These were the sadistic fiends who were only too glad to carry out the orders of their masters. These were the acid throwers!

But the other two members of the murder trio were unknown to him. And there would have to be proof beyond this to convince any jury that the respectable Professor Morvay was a hideous criminal.

X began searching through the second book. Then he stopped. A faint noise had come. He put the books back in the safe, closed the door swiftly and started to turn toward the window. But instead, he held himself as though every muscle were frozen.

For the lights in the room suddenly flashed on, and standing in the door which he had silently opened stood Professor Morvay. There was an automatic in his hand, and its black, deadly muzzle was pointing straight at the Secret Agent's heart.

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