Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 9

novelTHE TORTURE TRUST

Chapter IX - THE MURDERERS STRIKE
IN THE SPACE of a second, the Agent knew what he faced. The menace of death hung heavy in the room. There was death in Professor Morvay's green-gray eyes and in the thin, cruel line of his lips. Legally he could find justification for shooting the Agent who appeared now as a common thief. Morvay would say to the police that he had shot in self-defense. Any instant the Agent expected to feel the impact of a bullet above his heart.

But the fear that gripped him was not for himself. It was for the success of his plans. Death would bring an end to them all.


But Morvay did not shoot. Instead, he came forward slowly, the gun held in fingers that were as tense as a bird's talons. His eyes were fixed upon the Agent, boring in, trying to penetrate behind the handkerchief.

X understood. Morvay was taking no chances. Curiosity was restraining the quick pressure of his trigger finger. The Agent appeared as a common burglar. But there was a chance that he might be someone else--a detective, for instance.

This doubt was the slender thread upon which the Agent's life hung. He would live until Morvay's curiosity was satisfied.

In those brief moments while the psychologist approached, X studied him. He saw the high, peaked forehead, the aquiline nose, the ruthless intelligence of the eyes. Morvay, he suspected, was an intellectual giant who had gone wrong, a man with erudition and a vast store of knowledge at his command. If the other members of the "Torture Trust" were like him, no wonder the police had been baffled. The professor and his colleagues were masters of death, cunning, pitiless, diabolical, laying the threads of their extortion racket like a sinister tarantula's web.

Morvay spoke then, and X's keenly attuned ears recognized his voice as one of those he had heard in that mystery room where the deaf-mute had taken him.

"Stand still--lift your hands--or you die!"

Slowly the Secret Agent raised his arms. The acceleration of his pulses had stopped. They were normal now. An icy calm possessed him. His brain was working with the silent, faultless precision of some finely adjusted mechanism. He was matching his wits against death.

Holding the automatic in his right hand, standing only three feet from the Agent, Morvay reached out with his left. He drew the handkerchief down over the Agent's face. Whom he expected to see, X did not know. The Agent's disguise was that of a common thug--a street loafer lured into the byways of crime.

And, as Morvay studied him, the Agent saw curiosity give way to another emotion. A sinister message was flashing from the professor's eyes. The pupils had contracted. The whites glinted evilly. He had the look of a crouched jungle beast ready to spring. Morvay was planning to kill, planning it deliberately, ruthlessly, satisfied now that his nocturnal visitor had nothing to do with the police.

In X's right shoe was a weapon he might have used--a tiny air gun in the front of the sole, firing a stupefying dart, and discharged by pressing back in a certain way on his heel. It was one of many masterly defensive weapons he had devised. But he dismissed the idea of employing it now.

There was a greater issue than his own life at stake. There was the work to which he had dedicated that life. To use the dart now would give away to Professor Morvay that he wasn't what he appeared--a common burglar. Morvay, when he recovered from the dart's stupefying effect, would be suspicious, on his guard ever after--and he would warn the other members of the "Torture Trust." They might disappear and carry on their fearful operations in some other community. X must stick to the role he had elected for himself.

With the quickness of a striking snake, he lashed outward and upward with his foot. He bent his body back, threw his whole weight forward, and the toe of his shoe struck Morvay's gun arm.

The gun exploded with a deafening report as Morvay's tense fingers jerked the trigger. The bullet went over the Agent's head, so close that he felt it flick the cloth of the cap he wore. His toe broke Morvay's hold on the weapon. It spun in the air, clattered to the floor, and Morvay staggered back with a cry of pain.

In an instant Agent X had swept tip the gun and had reversed the direction of its muzzle. He snarled in his throat like a vicious thug.

"Stick 'em up, guy. Make any play and I'll burn yer guts. Thought yer was smart didn't yer?"

His eyes glittering like those of a snake, the professor obeyed. Those eyes were upon X now, watching, calculating. And X knew that Morvay's suspicions were not entirely quieted. The Agent spoke again.

"Open that safe."

To emphasize his words, he thrust the gun closer, skinning his lips back from his teeth, making his face hideous.

"Open it, or I'll drill yer."

With a shrug Morvay turned. He knelt before the safe. His long fingers turned the dial. The safe's door swung outward.

"Stand back!"

With his gun, Agent X motioned Morvay against the wall. Then, his face greedy, he stepped forward and thrust his left hand into the safe. He withdrew it, fingers clutching the books. He thumbed them, stared at them closely, then flung them to the floor with a harsh curse.

"Where's the dough? What are yer tryin' to hand me?"

The professor was silent, and X pressed the gun savagely against his body.

"I'll give yer two minutes to come across."

Morvay nodded toward the desk. "You'll find money in there. The bottom left drawer."

Agent X backed away, crouched, fingers curled over the butt of the gun--the picture of a cash-crazed crook.

He jerked open the drawer of the desk with his left hand, pulled out an envelope. His fingers slipped it open, drew forth a sheaf of bills. There were many of them--tens, twenties, several hundred in cash, he estimated. Growling exultantly, he wadded the bills up, stuffed them in his pocket. There was a telephone on the desk. He yanked the cord loose, breaking it away from the box on the wall.

Then slowly, still holding the gun trained on Morvay, he backed toward the window. He thrust his feet out, eased his body backward, and in a moment the darkness had swallowed him.

HE WAS CERTAIN NOW that his acting had convinced Professor Morvay--certain that Morvay believed him to be a mere thief. He crossed through several back yards, gliding between night-darkened houses. In the glow of a street lamp, he examined the roll of bills he had taken. There were more than he had thought--nearly four hundred dollars. It was money that he would turn over immediately to Betty Dale.

That was his practice when he took cash from criminals. There were worthy people upon whom the shadow of crime had fallen heavily. There was, for instance, the mother of a lad he knew, a boy who had foolishly taken part in a crap game that the police had raided. He had been sent to the workhouse for six months. The mother was destitute. This cash, taken from the murderer Morvay, would give her food and a roof over her head while her son was in jail. Betty Dale would see to that.

The Agent placed the sweater under his silk shirt again, making himself more presentable. He took a taxi to the block Betty lived on.

Walking along the block, he puckered up his lips and his strange, melodious whistle filled the air. It awoke echoes along the quiet street, piped eerily among the rooftops and whispered to silence in the dark areaways.

He came to a stop opposite her apartment building, then stepped back into the shadows formed by an angle where two walls met. Looking upward, he saw that her windows were dark. Betty Dale was out or had gone to bed. He stood for a moment irresolutely.

Then something on the ground caught his eye. A whitish spot lay at his feet. He stooped down.

Close to one toe of his shoe was a cigarette stub. A little farther away was another. He had trained himself to observe small things, to miss nothing. What were these cigarette stubs doing here? Here in the spot where he always stood watching Betty's windows after whistling for her? He stared more closely. There was a third stub just behind him. They told a story to the Agent. Someone else had stood here, waiting, watching--long enough to finish three cigarettes.

He struck a match and stooped down. Then he drew in his breath with a hiss. His fingers, suddenly tense, reached down and picked one of the stubs up. His eyes narrowed to steellike pinpoints as he examined it.

On the cigarette butt were yellowish, uneven stains--the marks of the fingers that had grasped it. And the Agent's spine began to crawl with horror, with a slow, deepening dread.

His mind leaped back to those other hands he had seen--the hands of the gray-faced deaf-mutes--the acid throwers. Their fingers, he remembered, had been stained with the fumes of the liquid horror they carried. One of them must have been standing out here, watching Betty Dale's window. He crossed the street at a run, entered the building. The night switchboard operator was lolling before his plugs, half asleep. The Agent asked a question in a tone that brought the man up with a jerk.

"Miss Dale," X said. "Is she in?"

The switchboard operator shook his head.

"She got a call from her paper a half hour ago."

Dread deepened in the Agent's heart. The Herald seldom called Betty Dale at night.

"Get the paper at once," he said. "Let me speak to the night editor."

He went to the booth in the apartment's lobby, picked up the instrument. The operator at the switchboard plugged in a number. The crackling voice of the Herald's night editor came to the Agent's ears.

"Hello. Who is it?"

"Let me speak to Miss Betty Dale, please."

"Miss Dale? She's not here."

"Didn't you call her a half hour ago?"

"No--she works here in the day."

"You don't know where she is then?"

"Home, I guess--why? Who's calling?"

The Agent didn't answer. His hands trembled for a moment as he hung up. Fear possessed him--an icy fear that crept along his spine like the touch of some loathsome reptile--not fear for himself but for small, courageous Betty Dale, who had aided him so often.

Someone other than the Herald's editor had called her from the outside, lured her away. Someone had spied upon her movements, left cigarette butts with acid stains upon them--the badge of a hideous profession. Betty Dale had fallen under the black and awful shadow of the "Torture Trust"!

 

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