Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 16


TENSE AND ALERT, AGENT X stared at the man before him. Then he noticed the expression on Burks's face. That expression was grave, thoughtful--not the look of a man who has come to make an arrest or cross-question a suspect. He waited for the inspector to speak first.

"You don't know me," the detective chief said, "I'm Inspector Burks. They told me about you at City College. They said you might be a good man to talk to."

Again the Agent found it difficult not to show amazement. A man of a thousand faces should expect to create strange situations. But this one was unbelievably fantastic.

"Come in, Inspector," he said, making an effort to keep his voice casual.

The inspector entered stolidly, his pale, gaunt face composed.

"It's about these torture murders, Morvay," he said when they were seated. "I've got a theory I want to talk over with an expert--someone like you. These killings strike me as being the work of an abnormal man."

"A sadist," said the Agent quietly.

Burks leaned forward in excitement.

"That's the word. But would a man like that--a sadist who likes to hurt people--have enough brains to execute such a series of crimes? Wouldn't he be deficient mentally?"

The Agent leaned back in his chair, a cigarette in his long fingers, smoke curling lazily from his nostrils. He was enjoying the situation now. What would Burks do if he knew his real identity? It was grotesque, ironic, that the two men pursuing the same group of criminals should meet under such circumstances.

"Have you ever thought," he said "that these acid throwers may be only the tools of some greater criminal, or criminals? The money extorted by the 'Torture Trust' has been gotten with the greatest cleverness. There are cunning brains behind this."

The inspector leaned forward, his eyes snapping.

"By God, I know it! And if there's a master criminal back of this racket, I know who it is!"

"You do?"

"Yes, a man who calls himself Secret Agent 'X.' A man who's as cunning as a fox."

For a moment there was silence so complete that the clock on the mantel seemed to give out sledgehammer blows. Then the Agent spoke.

"Why not go after him?"

The inspector swore bitterly.

"I had him the other night. A cop caught him sneaking down a fire escape after an acid throwing. But he got away--I won't say how. There are twenty headquarters men out looking for him now."

"Tell them to keep at it," was the Agent's calm rejoinder.

Burks didn't catch the faintly mocking note, and if he had he wouldn't have understood. He asked another question relating to sadism. And Agent X, posing as the psychologist Morvay, began a learned discussion of the subject.

When Inspector Burks left, he was impressed with the fact that Morvay was a well-informed man.

THE INSTANT THE DOOR had closed, Agent X sprang out of his chair and set to work again on Morvay's desk. All his casualness of manner had left him. A fierce inward fire seemed to be driving him on. He hadn't forgotten those terrible moments in the subterranean corridors of the black-robed trio's hideout. He hadn't forgotten the haggard, terror-stricken look on Betty Dale's face when he had come in time to save her from awful mutilation. And at any moment the "Torture Trust" might strike again. The threat of it was a black, ever present menace. The inspector's words had brought home to him the utter bafflement of the police.

He finished with the desk and took out Morvay's wallet. It contained sixty dollars in bills, membership cards to several exclusive clubs, a driver's license. Then, in an inside pocket, he found a crumpled, newspaper clipping.

It was marked by pencil and announced the sailing to America on board the steamship Victoria of Sir Anthony Dunsmark, distinguished official of the Bank of England.

For long seconds the Agent stared at the clipping, his eyes glowing strangely.

He reached again for the telephone book. Albert Bartholdy and Doctor Eric Van Houten were both listed, their addresses given. The Agent paused in doubt. He was faced with one of the biggest problems of his life.

If Bartholdy and Van Houten were the other members of the trio, he would have to proceed with the greatest caution. A false step now would put them on their guard. Yet he would have to act quickly before the disappearance of Morvay was suspected. That tiny clipping mentioning the coming of Dunsmark might be the key to the situation. Why was Morvay interested in Dunsmark?

The Agent left Morvay's house and went first to the address of Albert Bartholdy. He changed his disguise on the way to H.J. Martin.

Bartholdy lived in a fashionable apartment building. Posing as a credit investigator, Agent X learned from the apartment manager that Bartholdy was a lawyer employed as an assistant in the district attorney's office. That explained the trio's uncanny knowledge of police movements.

He got his car out of the mid-town garage, drove to Doctor Van Houten's address, and his eyes brightened. It was a private home.

He parked his car far up the block, then, under cover of the darkness, he slipped through a servant's alley, crossed a back yard, and circled the house till he located the windows of what appeared to be an office.

Using fingers and toe holds and risking a fall, he climbed stealthily up the side of the building till he got a view into the window under the narrow space below the shade.

A thin, gray-haired man inside was sitting at a desk interviewing a lady. X could not hear what was being said, but the thin man's manner was studied, professional, He drew a prescription pad from a drawer of the desk, wrote something on it, and handed it to the lady as X watched. The man was unquestionably Doctor Van Houten.

The Agent studied him carefully. Van Houten, too, had a face of intelligence; but the nostrils were thin, the mouth small, and the eyes narrow and close-set. High, flat cheekbones and a cleft chin gave the features a look of power--but it was a face that might harbor brutality and greed--the face of a possible criminal.

The Agent slid noiselessly to the ground and began a patient vigil in the shadows across the street. If an immediate crime were being plotted, the trio would surely meet again.

IT WAS CLOSE to ten-thirty when he saw the figure of Doctor Van Houten emerge. Many patients had gone in and come out. The doctor's office hours were over.

With the skill of long experience, the Agent shadowed his man. His heart beat faster. Doctor Van Houten was getting into a cab.

At a safe distance the Agent followed. Where was Van Houten bound? The doctor's next move convinced him. For Van Houten got out, dismissed the cab and walked several blocks. Then, after a glance around him, signaled another taxi.

The Agent overtook the cab, passed it, and went on out of sight. He pressed the gas button down and drove his roadster like a demon. He glanced at the clock on the instrument board. It was twenty minutes to eleven. Could it be that a meeting was scheduled to take place in the mysterious council chamber at that hour? Van Houten's furtive movements seemed an affirmative answer.

He raced ahead of the doctor, reaching the deserted warehouse at ten minutes of eleven. Somewhere inside the sinister deaf-mutes might be lurking, but there was one route through which the Agent felt he could go unmolested. Morvay always entered by the rear buildings, and Morvay would not be present tonight.

Using his master keys, he let himself in through the now familiar door. The place seemed silent and deserted. But X sensed the presence of death and horror. He stopped a moment, his reasoning faculties working.

The trio always wore black hoods and robes. Was it to hide their identities from their victims? Or did they want to remain unknown to their slaves, the deaf-mutes, as well? Morvay had not had the weird garments with him when he had emerged. They must be stored close at hand, for, if they were to protect Morvay from the gaze of the deaf-mutes, he would not want to traverse the corridors without them.

Risking detection, Agent X probed carefully with the beam of his flash. Then he stepped forward. Reason had led him aright. There was a locked closet close to the first door. He groped, opened it, and drew forth the hood and robe--symbols of darkness and death.

Standing in the blackness of the corridor, he adjusted them over his body and walked forward. Twice he turned on the flashlight, fearless now of being discovered by the mutes.

He was the first to reach the council chamber and he had a strange sense of eeriness as he settled himself into the middle chair. He was taking a terrible chance tonight, going into the very jaws of death. A slip might betray him--some overt act that he couldn't anticipate.

A tiny bulb flashed on, throwing dim shadows around the room. He stared at the floor, saw a slight bulge in the carpet close by his foot and understood then how secret signals had been flashed to the mutes.

The seconds seemed to pass with crawling slowness. He heard no sound in the room or in the vastness of the building outside. Had he been right about Van Houten? Was the man coming here tonight?

Slow footfalls approached. They sounded first as a ghostly whisper, measured, precise. They made his scalp crawl.

Waiting tensely in the dimly lit room, he did not know what the next few minutes would bring.

A faint noise came from the door. It opened slowly and another hooded figure came in. Without sign or word of greeting, the figure moved across the room to a chair at X's right and sat down. Eyes met the Agent's from behind the black hood. Was this Van Houten or Albert Bartholdy, he wondered?

The man did not move or speak, and when minutes had passed, a third figure entered. It was only then that the first man opened his lips.

"What news?" he said in a low, harsh voice. "Are there any new plans to discuss? The Victoria docks tomorrow night. When do we move?"

Agent X wondered what answers would be given to this. Details, he hoped, would be brought out that would make it possible for him to reconstruct what was passing through their minds. But no one spoke.

Seconds passed. The silence in the room deepened. It grew oppressive, deathly.

"Well?" said a voice at last.

The Agent started then. A slow prickle moved along his spine, reaching to his scalp. He grew tense in his chair, flexing the muscles that the black robe concealed.

For the hooded figures beside him were staring his way--the man who had asked the questions and the other who had just spoken.

He could see a sharp, expectant glitter in the gaze that they fastened on him. And all at once he understood. Professor Morvay had been the master mind of the trio. And, because he had taken the middle seat, they thought he was Morvay. Now they looked to him for guidance and strategy in the crime they planned. He was suddenly placed in a terrible position, with death and defeat as the pitfalls into which he would stumble if the answers he made should be wrong

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