Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 15


THE TAXI ROLLED ON through the dreary, rain-swept night. In the rear compartment the inert body of Professor Morvay lurched grotesquely with every jounce the car gave. His still face and glassy eyes were like those of a corpse. But he was not dead.

The driver of the cab pressed the small lever beside his seat a second time, cutting off the flow of odorless anesthetizing gas that had swept Morvay into the dreamless depths of unconsciousness. The driver's face was expressionless, but under his visored cap his eyes glowed with piercing brightness.

Several times fares stepped to the curb, signaling him to stop, supposing the cab empty. But the cabman drove by them briskly. He avoided the lighted streets, turned west, and whirled into a long avenue that led uptown. He bore steadily ahead through the rain with the purposefulness of a man who has a definite objective.

Wheeling into the broad drive that skirted the river, he passed millionaires' homes and block upon block of expensive apartment houses, magnificent with their liveried doormen and glittering foyers.

Once he turned his head and glanced sidewise at a gloomy old house that rose on a corner. Its windows were boarded up. There was an air of decay and desolation about the place. It was the old Montgomery mansion which the litigation of heirs had kept empty for years.

A faint, grim smile twisted the mouth of the cabman, alias Secret Agent X. In a chamber of that house he had achieved his present disguise. The past twenty-four hours had been exciting ones. A man rated as dead had come to life. The members of the hideous "Torture Trust" believed he had gone down with the speeding taxi that had plunged off the dock. Their sadistic slaves had watched for him to rise to the surface, and he had not risen. The crash of the cab had been something he had planned deliberately.

They did not know that he could hold his breath a full two minutes under water and swim with the swift, powerful strokes of a diving otter. They hadn't seen him when he reached the surface under the inky shadows of the dock. And they didn't know that he had communicated with Betty Dale, told her to keep under cover in her room at the Graymont Hotel.

There was tonight a glint of ironic amusement in the Agent's eyes. This was the second taxi he had driven within a space of twenty-four hours. The first he had stolen and destroyed. This one he had bought. But he preferred to consider the first a loan, for money from the account of Elisha Pond would pay for them both eventually. He wasn't a criminal, and when he found it necessary to destroy property, he took pains to reimburse the owners. The present cab had been purchased for the purpose of installing the hidden tank of compressed gas, the lever control, and the outlet tube in the passenger's compartment. To aid in capturing a man like Morvay, to break the hideous "Torture Trust," the investment seemed legitimate.

But he was not taking Morvay to jail.

The cab passed on up the drive, turned east, then north, and continued through the heart of the city. Agent X drove with the ease of a man to whom all types of cars are familiar.

He came to the suburbs at last, but still forged on through the rain-swept night. Miles beyond the city limits, he turned off on a little dirt road. The cab jounced and pitched like a ship on a stormy sea. The body of the Professor Morvay rolled with it, his glassy eyes still directed toward the ceiling and the X that glowed there. But the eyes were unseeing now.

Agent X stopped the cab. He opened the door and lifted Morvay out as though he had been a sack of meal. He carried him, arms and legs dangling, through the pelting rain, to the dim outlines of a house. It was an old, ramshackle farmhouse--the same one to which he had taken Jason Hertz on the night Hertz escaped from prison.

He held Morvay over his shoulder with one hand for a moment. A key grated in the lock, the door opened, and Agent X and his prisoner were inside.

The rain drummed steadily on the worn shingles of the roof. There was the musty, stifling smell of old carpets and moldy walls. The Agent took Morvay to a back room and struck a light.

There he set to work quickly, eagerly, for he had much to do. He deposited Morvay in a chair, backed the chair to an upright supporting the big beams in the center of the room and, after drawing Morvay's inert arms about the upright, snapped handcuffs over his wrists, Morvay was now a prisoner, held erect in the chair by the metal cuffs.

Agent X went to a shelf and drew out a bottle and a piece of cotton. He dipped the cotton into the bottle and held it close to Morvay's nose. The pungent smell of carbonate of ammonia filled the room.

Slowly Morvay stirred and began to breathe more deeply as the powerful stimulant overcame the effects of the gas. In three minutes he lifted his head. His eyes opened, closed, and opened again. They were no longer glassy, but were alive, intelligent. Morvay had returned to consciousness.

But fear and horror overspread his features. He tugged at his manacled hands, strained till the cords stood out in his neck, then began cursing harshly. There was the look of an evil, predatory beast on his features.

The Agent's face was bleak, unyielding. His eyes under his visored cap glowed like coals of fire.

"Agent X! You are still alive then?" said Morvay. "They did not kill you--the fools, the fools!" There was bitterness in his voice and fury bordered on the insane. The blundering deaf-mutes were to be pitied if he ever got free.

Agent X came closer. He hadn't spoken, but his eyes were boring into those of the professor's. His voice was low, persuasive.

"You are a murderer, Professor Morvay--one of a trio of murderers. The electric chair awaits you. But there is one road of escape. It is a road which no man of decency or principle would think of following. But you have proved that you are neither. Therefore, I am offering you this road. Turn States' evidence, tell me the names of your two friends, your fellow criminals and murderers, and you will escape the death penalty."

Agent X knew it would be futile to employ the method he had used so effectively with Jason Hertz--the method of hypnosis. A man of Morvay's type, a psychologist and hard-headed intellectual, could never be hypnotized.

Morvay blinked at the Agent for a moment, as though weighing the proposition. Then his lips curled back in an ugly sneer and a mocking laugh came from them.

"Fool! Fool! I will tell you nothing! You have no evidence against me! No proof! You will never find out who my colleagues are, nor learn our secrets!"

His harsh laugh sounded again, and seconds passed as their eyes clashed. X might have resorted to torture to make Morvay talk. But that was not his way. He knew that men are not always truthful under torture--and the truth was what he wanted.

He stood frowning, irresolute, with Morvay's harsh laughter ringing in his ears. He might turn Morvay over to the police, but the evidence against him was still too weak. There were missing links in the chain; and it wasn't the Agent's concern to have individuals arrested. He wanted to smash the whole hideous pattern of the "Torture Trust."

He turned then, brought his movie camera out, and focused the calcium flare on Morvay's evil face. The professor cursed and struggled in his chair as the camera clicked. Before he realized what was being done, X had started the Dictaphone machine also, making a record of his voice. Morvay grew wise suddenly, and ceased speaking. There was a light of fury in his eyes, and he followed every movement the Agent made like a tiger hoping for a chance to spring.

Agent X, silent and intent, filled a hypodermic needle from a small vial in a rack. There were other vials beside it, each marked with a different number of hours. He selected the one labeled, "Thirty-six."

Morvay began cursing again as Agent X approached him with the hypo needle. He bared his teeth like a cornered animal and the light in his eyes was satanic. But calmly, deftly, the Agent thrust the point of the needle into his arm and pressed the plunger home.

Morvay's curses became incoherent, babbling. His lips quivered, his eyes closed again. In a few moments his head fell forward. For thirty-six hours he would be dead to the world.

Agent X unsnapped the handcuffs from about the upright and carried the professor to the attic. There he deposited him on a pile of straw and carefully went through his pockets, taking Morvay's keys, watch, and private papers. He descended to the first floor room, removed the record from the Dictaphone machine, the film from the movie camera, and left the farmhouse, driving back through the rain to the city. His interview with Morvay had not been satisfactory. He had failed to learn the identities of the other members of the "Torture Trust." He was still working in a black pall of mystery.

For hours that night he labored in his hidden room in the old Montgomery mansion. Sleep seemed unnecessary to the Agent. Vital, nervous forces drove him on. He developed the movie film, wound it on a drying reel, put the Dictaphone record under a phonograph needle, and listened to Morvay's voice.

Once he thrust a hand into his pocket and brought out a box of varicolored, transparent capsules. They were about an inch long, filled with various essences and strange looking substances. The Agent selected several and swallowed them.

He continued his work until the slow, gray fingers of dawn crept across the street outside and made steely glints on the surface of the river.

BY THE NEXT EVENING Agent X had a disguise of Professor Morvay as perfect as the one he had done of Jason Hertz. He left the Montgomery mansion as twilight descended and took a taxi to Morvay's house in that respectable street in the suburbs. There he once again opened the safe and began a more comprehensive inspection of the books it contained. He found something he had not had time to investigate before--a lengthy paper written in code. It appeared meaningless, unintelligible. Groups of five letters were spaced at intervals across the page. Where did Morvay keep the code book which would make the paper understandable? He searched the room for a half hour without results.

Then, philosophically, with a box of cigarettes, a pencil and sheets of paper handy, he settled himself in a big chair under the light. Patience and perhaps hours of work lay ahead of him, but he knew how to go about the task in hand.

In forty-five minutes, by use of word frequency tables, he had mastered the code of Morvay's paper. His eyes gleamed with excitement. Besides giving methods of work, countersigns, times of meeting, and types of acids used by the "Torture Trust," there were two names listed. The names were Albert Bartholdy and Eric Van Houten, M.D. Names which had a ring to them--names which seemed to carry dignity and prestige.

The Agent's face hardened. Crime in its most hideous form sometimes blossomed in high places just as the deadliest fungi grew in the richest soil. It was not always the spawn of the poor, the downtrodden, and suffering who turned to the byways of evil. Nature worked strange contrasts.

He put the paper away in his pocket and reached for the telephone book, then paused. There had come a sudden strident ringing of the front door bell. Supposing it were Van Houten or Bartholdy come to pay a social visit to their colleague in crime? His disguise would fool them, but could he play his part, knowing nothing of their relations with Morvay?

With wildly beating heart he strode to the door, opened it, then stepped back, for once finding it difficult to maintain his composure. For the man who stood before him was Inspector John Burks of the city Homicide Squad.

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