Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 11


THE SECRET AGENT, sensing the awful significance of Betty Dale's disappearance, sprang into action. There were times when he could be patient, times when he could wait, catlike, hour after hour to achieve some end. This was not one of them.

He felt responsible for the fate that had overtaken Betty Dale. If she had not aided him, been seen with him, this would not have happened.

He left the apartment building in long, quick strides. At the corner taxi stand where all-night cabs were available, he spoke to the drivers.

One was the cabman who had taken Betty Dale to the Herald building. He was taciturn at first under the Agent's sharp questioning, but a dollar bill loosened his tongue.

"Did Miss Dale go to the Herald office?" The Agent asked.

The cabman could not remember. He had gone on after collecting his fare, he said.

"Was there anyone around--any other car near by?"

The taxi driver stroked his chin. Yes, he remembered now. There was a closed car parked down the block. It had made little impression on him. There were always cars around the Herald office.

The Agent nodded. There was the harsh glint of steel in his eyes. He jerked open the door of the cab, got in, and gave the driver a number.

Agent X, unknown to anyone but himself, had invested some of the funds entrusted to him in several cars. In his perilous work he needed one always handy. Each car was registered under a different name. He kept one, a sleek, fast roadster, in a mid-town garage.

The number he had given the driver was two blocks away from the garage. When the cab stopped, he got out, paid the driver and disappeared into a shadowy areaway beside the street. There he affected another disguise. He was H.J. Martin now, the man in whose name the mid-town car was registered.

He strode quickly to the garage, and the night attendant got the car out for him. A minute more and he was speeding toward the West Side riverfront--toward the dark alleys and sinister dives around MacDonough Street.

The traffic lights had been turned off for the night. The streets were almost deserted. He drove with reckless abandon seemingly, but really with such skill as few men could duplicate. His face grim, his hands tense on the wheel, he rocketed around corners, plunged through side streets, raced against time. He passed through MacDonough Street and onward, a half dozen blocks to the vicinity of the warehouse.

There he slowed the car's speed, creeping forward, lights out, the engine barely turning over, till the big car was close to the vast bulk of the warehouse that rose silent and sinister into the night.

He parked the car in the blackest spot he could find near the row of dilapidated buildings in the warehouse's rear. Then, wraithlike, he slipped from it.

DEATH SEEMED TO LURK in every hidden corner of the street. Death sounded in the soughing of the night wind, in the far-off whisper of the city. He was in a street of death and evil.

Once again he took the kit of steel tools from his pocket. There were delicate skeleton keys hung on a metal ring. There were instruments that could open any door. These, combined with the Agent's uncanny skill, made every lock pregnable.

Moving close to the wall, he approached the door out of which he had seen Professor Morvay come. He kept so near to the building that the dim arc light at the street's corner did not even cast a shadow. He was no more than a darker blotch in the darkness of the night.

One of the small, gleaming tools was in his hand. His touch on the lock was as delicate as the touch of some skilled musician playing a beloved instrument. He moved the steel tool softly, turned it, probed. The knob of the door twisted in his hand. The door opened.

A moment more and he was inside the building. And the instant he entered it, he knew that it constituted a section of one of the routes along which he had been led. The faint acoustics of the walls were familiar.

But the darkness was like a black, evil pall, and, at the end of the first corridor was another door. It, too, was locked, and the Agent paused to open it. He passed through it as easily as some disembodied spirit.

He stood listening, heard nothing, and winked on the beam of his pencil-thin flashlight. By twisting the end he could cut down its light as water is cut at the end of a garden hose by turning the nozzle. It cast a spot of radiance no bigger than a dime. He probed with it along the walls.

But he had to admit that he was at a loss. Where was Betty Dale? There was a chance, a terrible possibility, that she had not been brought here at all. There was another chance that she was being interviewed by one or more of the mysterious heads of the "Torture Trust."

He knew he could find again that chamber where he had first heard the voice of Professor Morvay. His mind had stored away directions for reaching it. To go there now seemed his only course.

In the darkness, picturing himself as still blindfolded, he began retracing his steps, going back along the way the deaf-mutes had led him. Up a flight of stairs, along another corridor, still on. He was in the warehouse proper now.

There was a feeling of solidity around him. A penetrating dampness in the air as of great, chill spaces. He was getting close to the secret council room, and every nerve in his body was taut.

Then he paused. It seemed to him that he heard a faint sound somewhere in the building. It was like an irrepressible whisper, coming through many thicknesses of walls.

He moved back quickly, half the length of the corridor. Then he listened again.

The sound came once more, and the hair on the Agent's head seemed to rise. The sound he had heard was a girl's scream of terror, faint, muffled, seemingly subterranean, but with such a note of agony in it that it was like a stifling, icy substance constricting his heart.

He gave up any idea of going to the council chamber now. Betty was not there. Somewhere down in the dark sub-cellars of the warehouse she had been taken. He dared not think what they were doing to her, what had inspired that awful scream.

His ears were straining, his brain trying to locate the exact direction of the sound. He was desperately afraid that he might go the wrong way.

He reached a door along the corridor, opened it, turned on his flash, and saw that it led up. He ran on till he came to another. Dampness beat against his face as he swung the door back. There were stairs leading down.

He descended and found himself in a place that was like a series of catacombs. Each second seemed like a lost hour. He moved forward frantically, searching, groping, icy fear for the girl driving him on.

Ahead, nearer this time, the scream sounded again. There seemed to be only a few thicknesses of walls between it and himself. His ears had caught its exact location. He moved on with greater speed.

There was another door before him. He opened it with one of his master keys, melted through it, found himself in a dank corridor beyond. Running swiftly, he reached the corridor's end and stopped short. Directly ahead was a faint crack of light shining below the edge of a door.

Silently as a shadow, he crept up to it. A third frenzied scream came from behind it, so close that it was like a knife stab.

The Agent had to steady his hand as he tried the knob. It, too, was fastened. He had never moved so quickly in his life as he did thrusting the key into the lock aperture. His hand grew steady again. In this crisis, nerves and muscles were cooperating. The crack of the door widened.

Swift as a streak of light, the Secret Agent was in the room. Then horror widened his eyes.

Betty Dale sat in a metal chair that was somehow reminiscent of a prison death house. He saw the metal bands that held her, saw her face, white as parchment, her eyes stark with terror. He saw the gray-faced deaf-mute who bent over her, the swab of acid-soaked cotton in his hand.

And in that instant the Agent leaped across the floor. There was no time for subtle action. A drop of the greenish, horrible fluid had already fallen off the swab. It had fallen on Betty's dress close to her white neck. Fumes of it were curling up. Fumes from the swab itself were close to her nostrils, close to the satiny softness of her face, as the torturer brought it nearer.

Betty had come out of her faint only to find her tormentors waiting, ready to go ahead with their terrible deed. The Agent did not know this. He only knew that, mercifully, he had been in time.

So quickly that the mute in front of Betty did not see him until it was too late, he leaped forward. His hand struck the swab from the torturer's fingers. His other hand, balled into a hard fist, struck the gray-clad man in the side of the head, sending him reeling away.

The other mute whirled and came toward Agent X with a tube of acid in his hand. He flung it. Reeking fumes filled the air. But the Agent sidestepped and rushed in.

He swung again and sent the man crashing back against a shelf filled with bottles. The bottles leaped and fell with a clatter of breaking glass. More fumes filled the room.

From the corner of his eye, Agent X saw the first man he had struck rise and scuttle from the chamber like a streaking gray rat.

But there was no time to follow. The air was suffocating, deadly. He turned to Betty Dale. She was sitting in the chair, her face almost corpselike with the fear that had filled her. She could barely speak.

She watched him dumbly as he stared at the cuffs that held her. Seconds were precious. Where had the deaf mute gone? To warn his masters? To get reinforcements?

X's hands were trembling--unusual for him. The steel bracelets presented difficulties. The keyholes in them were too small for any of his master keys.

Then he turned and leaped to the man who lay on the floor. The mute was breathing stertorously. He was unconscious. X fumbled in the man's pockets, exclaiming with relief when he found a ring of keys. Two of them were small, fragile.

He thrust one into the locks of the cuffs on Betty's wrists and ankles, and the cuffs snapped open. But it had taken time, and time was a precious thing.

He lifted her out of the chair, stood her on her feet, but she could not walk. Fear and the cramped position she had been in had stiffened her muscles.

He picked her up bodily; turned toward the door of the chamber. Somewhere in the vast building overhead, there was a faint noise. It was like a signal bell. Down a long corridor he saw a dim flicker of light. He didn't like it. Deaf-mutes could not hear, but they could see. What if there were others? There was no way of knowing how many of his terrible subjects Professor Morvay had trained.

Running as swiftly as he could, he carried Betty back the way he had come. But he found that one door had snapped shut again. He had to put her down and work with his master key. That took time.

At the level of the ground floor, at a junction of corridors he paused. There was a whisper of sound behind--the sound of running feet. Pursuers were coming out of the darkness. He and Betty would shortly be overwhelmed. The girl must be gotten away at all costs. If she were injured, burned with acid, it would haunt him to the end of his days.

He stooped and whispered to her.

"Rats are coming out of the night. A terrier may have to hold them in check. Do as the terrier says."

He carried Betty along a passage into the rear group of buildings. He set her down and found she could walk now. Then he spoke again, calmly, as though death were not close at their heels in the darkness.

"Go straight ahead and out the door. A car waits across the street. Drive away--as fast as you can. Go to the Hotel Graymont. Wait for the terrier there!"

He heard her breath come quickly, felt her fingers clutch him. She did not want to obey--did not want to desert him. But a steely touch of his hand on her arm gave accent to his order. He pushed her forward, heard her footsteps receding.

He was glad he had done it. The sounds in the corridor behind were close now. Betty Dale could not walk rapidly. Carrying her, he would have been overtaken surely. Her only chance of escape was for him to make himself a dike against the human flood of evil and horror that was surging in upon him.

He waited tensely till the sounds of the running feet were close. Then he whipped out his gas pistol and fired. There were only six gas-filled shells in the gun. He discharged them all, laying a momentary barrage in the corridor.

There was the noise of a stumbling, falling body. Gasps of fear came out of the darkness and the footsteps receded. Then the gas cloud cleared and the fierce wave advanced again. The blackness vomited leaping, flying figures. There were a half-dozen of the gray-clad men.

Struggling fiercely, fighting against the human torrent that engulfed him, the Secret Agent went down in a flying welter of arms and legs and lashing fists.



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