Pulp Heroes - Secret Agent X # 1 - THE TORTURE TRUST, Chapter 19


IN HER ROOM at the Hotel Graymont, Betty Dale paced restlessly. She lit innumerable cigarettes, took short quick puffs, ground them out. Her eyes were dark with worry. Once she went to the window and stared out across the rooftops. Lights showed on the river far away. In the streets below, after-theater crowds surged and jostled, and the faint blare of taxi horns rose in an uneasy murmur.

There was laughter and gaiety in the ceaseless stream of humanity that flowed on the sidewalks around the hotel like a stream washing the base of a great cliff. There were smiling faces and lightly moving feet. But Betty Dale had a sense of uneasiness, a sense that strange, sinister things portended.

That afternoon she had had a visit from the Agent. He had come to her as H.J. Martin, a sallow-faced, sandy-haired man. His card had read: "Credit Manager, Feeder & Wright Department Stores"! She had been fooled as usual until his card had turned black in her hands, leaving a glowing white X on its surface. Then she had known.

But this time his instructions had surprised her even more than his disguise. He had discarded for the moment his habit of talking in parables and innuendoes. He had issued short, crisp statements.

"I want you to do something for me, Betty. If I don't call back before one o'clock tonight, I want you to phone police headquarters. Ask for Inspector Burks and tell him that Sir Anthony Dunsmark has been kidnaped. Tell him Dunsmark has fallen into the clutches of the "Torture Trust," and tell him where Sir Anthony and the members of the trust can be found."

He had given her explicit directions then--street numbers that Betty recognized. The place he described was the old warehouse where she had been held and threatened with torture. Her face paled at the recollection.

"And you," she said. "If the police raid the place, where will you be?"

The Agent had remained silent and Betty had noticed that in his eyes was a strange, bright light. When he spoke again his words had not been an answer to her worried query, but further instructions.

"Don't use the hotel telephone, Betty. Go at least four blocks away. Use a store phone booth and leave as soon as you have made your call."

He had gone then, leaving Betty Dale anxious, uneasy. The hours had dragged by. All evening she had hoped he would call again; hoped that he would countermand his strange orders. How could even the Secret Agent know that Sir Anthony Dunsmark would be kidnaped? The British banker, she knew, had not landed in America. Had Agent X wormed his way into the innermost circle of the "Torture Trust," and if so what desperate game was he playing?

Twelve o'clock came with no further word from him. She called the steamship office then. They told her the liner Victoria, on which Dunsmark was arriving, was in the harbor, but that it would be held at quarantine for an hour or more.

A quarter of one came and Betty put on her hat and coat. She took an elevator to the lobby, walked through it, and passed out into the street. Five blocks away she entered a cigar-store telephone booth and dialed a number. The sleepy voice of a desk sergeant at police headquarters answered her, and Betty said:

"I want to speak to Inspector Burks."

"You can't, lady," the sergeant said. "He ain't here. He's gone home."

"I must speak to him anyway. This is very important."

"Who are you?"

"Never mind. Get the inspector. It's a matter of life and death."

The sergeant grumbled and complained, but at the end of a minute he had made switchboard connections. Another voice sounded over the wire.

"This is Inspector Burks. What's it all about? What do you want?"

In quick, breathless sentences Betty Dale relayed the message that the Agent had asked her to deliver--the message announcing Sir Anthony Dunsmark's abduction--and the inspector's voice rose into a harsh irritable rasp.

"That's impossible! You're lying! The Victoria, the boat he's on, hasn't even docked. She's still at quarantine. I know because I've got cops waiting to look out for him. Who the hell are you, lady?"

But Betty Dale didn't answer. She had done her duty, done what the Secret Agent had asked. She hung up quickly and left the store before the police tried to trace the call.

INSPECTOR BURKS AT THE OTHER end of the wire jangled the receiver futilely. His pale face had turned a shade paler. There was an uneasy look in his eyes. The girl who had called him up and refused to give her name was obviously a nut. What she had told him couldn't be true. Dunsmark couldn't be kidnapped before the Victoria landed. But still he was uneasy. And he wasn't a man to let anything pass.

Growling in his throat, still irritable from having been waked up, he lifted the receiver again and demanded the ship-to-shore service.

"Get me the steamer Victoria--now in the harbor. Let me speak to her captain."

In a moment the call had leaped through the air across the harbor by wireless telephone. The voice of the captain buzzed in his ear. Inspector Burks asked a blunt question.

"Is Anthony Dunsmark still on board? This is the head of the city homicide squad."

The captain answered quickly.

"Sir Anthony left nearly an hour ago. The Police Commissioner came and got him."

There was an instant of dead silence, then Burks spoke hoarsely.

"The Commissioner--say--he wouldn't do that without letting me know."

"It was the Commissioner I tell you--there's no doubt about it."

"What the hell!" exploded Burks.

He was beginning to tremble now. He was beginning to sense that something somewhere was terribly wrong. It wasn't like the Commissioner to do such a thing without informing the heads of his departments.

With shaking hands, Burks dialed the Commissioner's house and got the Commissioner's red-haired wife.

"I want to speak to Charlie," said the inspector.

"He hasn't been home all evening. He's out with the boys again--playing cards, I suppose. You'll probably find him at MacDorsey's."

Burks knew who MacDorsey was--one of the city's richest political bosses. He made the telephone dial buzz like an angry bee, and when he got MacDorsey on the wire his voice was a husky croak.

"Better not interrupt the Commish," said MacDorsey. "He's drawing for a royal flush."

"I've got to speak to him. It's important."

Burks gulped for air when he heard the Commissioner's polished voice, a little chiding now at being disturbed during off hours.

"What is it, inspector? More grief I suppose?"

"Did you go out in a boat tonight, chief, and take that Englishman, Anthony Dunsmark, off the Victoria?"

"Did I what? Say have you gone crazy, Burks? What are you talking about?"

"You didn't get him off about an hour ago?"

"No. I've been here with the boys all evening. What the hell's the matter with you!"

"Dunsmark's been kidnapped, chief. The 'Torture Trust' has got him. The captain of the Victoria says someone who looked like you grabbed him off the boat. I've been tipped off to where he is. I'm going to raid the place."

The Commissioner's tone was apoplectic.

"For God's sake don't let this get into the papers! We'll all look sweet. I'll sit in at the raid. Where is it?"

In brief sentences Burks told him. Then he made the wires hot. His rasping voice started the various departments in action, got other inspectors on the job. He asked that trucks of the emergency squad be sent out, asked the boiler squad to cooperate, and ordered all available men of the homicide squad rounded up.

Half dressed, with his shoes unlaced and his collar unbuttoned, he sent his own car roaring down through the night-darkened streets.

THE BIGGEST RAID in the history of the city police was under way. Telephone wires were humming. Captains and sergeants were bawling orders.

A green, high-speed truck of the emergency squad, cops clinging to the brass rails on its sides, came hurtling out of a side street and roared downtown with its siren screaming. Two motorcycle cops joined it, clearing the way, adding their horns to the din.

Private cars drew aside. Pedestrians scuttled to safety. Inspector Burks, his face bleak, drove madly, holding his own horn down.

The tip-off, whoever had given it, had been complete. And he had made his own instructions complete also. No one was to act until he arrived on the scene to direct the raid.

He found grim-faced men waiting in the dark streets around the old warehouse. There was the glint of dim light on riot guns and on the black, wicked snouts of automatics held in steady hands.

Sergeant Mathers, roused from sleep, his eyes bloodshot, came up for instructions.

"Throw a cordon around the whole building," said Burks. "Circle the block. Don't let anyone get out."

Stealthy-footed men approached the building from all sides. "Those houses in the rear," said Burks. "Watch them, too."

A sleek, official car with a uniformed chauffeur slid to a halt, then crept through the lines of detectives. The Commissioner himself had arrived, his mouth under its mustache a hard, straight line. Someone had put him in a bad spot. Someone had made him appear ridiculous.

"Let's get going," he snapped.

The raid began then. Men with axes, sledge hammers, and crowbars started battering in the doors. Powerful searchlights mounted on the trucks of the emergency squad flashed on, sweeping the sides of the big building, making the dark evil streets as bright as day. Patrolmen and plain-clothes detectives poured in, battering down doors and racing along corridors.

It was Inspector Burks himself who first saw a spectral black-robed form ahead of him. The man flashed into sight for a moment around a corner, and Burks saw the evil glitter of eyes behind the slitted hood.

"Halt!" he said. "Stand where you are or I'll shoot."

The hooded man ignored the warning. He tried to spring up a flight of stairs.

There was the harsh crack of an automatic. Burks had been a dead shot in his day. The man on the stairway screamed and spun around. He tottered, clutched at the wall. Then his body slumped and rolled backwards. He collapsed on the floor of the passage and lay still.

Burks ran forward and snatched the hood loose. Then he gave a swift gasp of surprise.

"God! Albert Bartholdy--one of the D.A.'s snooty assistants. No wonder the cops didn't have a chance."

There was a blue hole in the side of Albert Bartholdy's head. One member of the "Torture Trust" would never plot evil again.

But a patrolman with a riot gun down the corridor cursed in pain. Two sinister gray-clad figures had appeared ahead of him as if by magic. One of them had flung a glittering tube of liquid. It was only by a miracle of good luck that the cop stepped aside in time.

The tube smashed against the wall close to his head. Reeking chemical fumes filled his nostrils. Drops of searing acid struck his cheek.

He cursed again, crouched low, and his finger pressed the trigger of the riot gun. The automatic mechanism jumped and clattered. Flame spurted from the black muzzle.

The two evil, gray forms wilted before it, plunged to the floor, and lay still.

The raiders penetrated to the cellar then. Somewhere ahead a light showed. The inspector ran forward, then stopped. Another black-robed figure lay at his feet, He held his gun steady, but the figure did not move. He stooped, pulled the hood aside, and his face muscles sagged in amazement. For seconds he stared in utter bewilderment.

The man at his feet was not dead but only unconscious. He was breathing harshly, regularly, in the manner of a man under the influence of drugs. But his presence in that place and the black hood he wore showed that he, too, was a member of the "Torture Trust." Burks recognized the features.

"Morvay!" he gasped.

Two cops came forward holding another black-hooded form. He was struggling, clawing, trying to break away. They drew the hood from his head and Inspector Burks looked into the patrician, cruel features of the murderous doctor, Eric Van Houten. The expression of bafflement, rage, and fear in the man's eyes was evidence of guilt.

THE INSPECTOR TURNED and ran on toward the lighted room ahead. His gun was in his hand, but he holstered it and breathed a sigh of deep relief. They had not been too late.

A man in an English-cut tweed suit sat in a metal chair in the center of the room. His arms and legs were manacled, holding him a prisoner, but he was unhurt. His loud voice showed that.

"Bully for you!" he said. "I told those devils the police would come. There were three of them--murderers, torturers. I told them there was law and order in this bally country."

"Dunsmark," said Inspector Burks.

He recognized the famous banker from the many photos he had seen in rotogravure sections of the papers. There was vast relief in his voice. He and his men had saved the city and the country from disgrace. And the "Torture Trust" had been smashed, its three hypocritical members caught red-handed and exposed: Morvay, Bartholdy, and Van Houten.

Then Burks saw a small key on a shelf near by. It looked like the key to the manacles on Dunsmark's arms and legs. He tried it, found that it worked, and freed the Englishman.

Sir Dunsmark stood up, stretched his limbs, and grinned.

"This isn't such a bad country after all," he said. "I had a scare for a time. Things happened rather suddenly, you know."

"What about that man who came for you on the boat? They say he looked like our Police Commissioner."

Sir Anthony was apologetic, courteous, but firm.

"I'll tell you all about it later--tomorrow--if you don't mind. I'm a bit tired by all that's happened. Excitement isn't good for me, you know, and I'm a bit late for a rather important appointment. You gather what I mean?"

"Sure thing! Of course."

Burks knew when to be courteous and when to be hard-boiled. A man like Dunsmark wasn't to be trifled with and told what to do. There might be trouble involved. He personally escorted Dunsmark through the building and turned him over to the Commissioner. Cops and plain-clothes men were still smashing doors, and rounding up the last of the gray-clad men.

The Commissioner was solicitous.

"You must take my car," he said. "I'll see that you have a police escort."

"Really," said Dunsmark, waving his hand in the air. "No fuss or publicity, if you don't mind. As I told the inspector, my nerves are a bit jangled. I'll just borrow your car and slip out. Thanks awfully."

He got into the car and gave the chauffeur the name of a hotel. The car rolled away on velvety springs.

A few blocks from the warehouse and Sir Anthony Dunsmark seemed suddenly to change his mind.

"I'll get out here," he said. "A bit of walk will do me good."

The surprised chauffeur started to object, then closed his mouth. It wasn't for him to quibble with a distinguished passenger. He stopped the car, hopped out, and opened the door with a flourish.

"Give this to Inspector Burks at once," said Dunsmark.

He slipped a small envelope into the chauffeur's hand.

The chauffeur touched his cap, took the note, and got back into the car. He watched Sir Anthony Dunsmark's tall figure disappear down the street.

"That guy's nuts," he muttered.

Then a faint, melodious whistle reached his ears. It was a whistle that stirred echoes high up in the rooftops and whispered eerily along the faces of the buildings. With a prickle on his scalp that he could not quite explain to himself, the chauffeur turned the car and drove rapidly back to the warehouse. He made his way inside the building, found Inspector Burks talking to the Commissioner and gave him the note.

"Sir Anthony Dunsmark handed it to me," he said.

Inspector Burks opened the note wonderingly, then stared in amazement, his eyes narrowing. The sentences of the note were brief and to the point.

Dear Inspector: Look in the closet at the extreme end of the basement corridor. You will find a little surprise. Kindly offer my sincere apologies to Sir Anthony Dunsmark. I regret the inconvenience I caused him; but he is a good sport. I'm sure he will understand when you explain the matter to him.

The note was unsigned. The inspector could make nothing of it. But he ran downstairs again, with the Commissioner following him.

There was a door at the end of the lower corridor--a door into a small closet, so flush to the wall that they had overlooked it. They yanked it open now and stood speechless with amazement.

A man clad only in his underclothes sat on the floor of the closet bound with an old piece of rope and gagged with a piece of his own undershirt. When they pulled him to his feet and drew the gag off, he spoke in a cultured British accent.

"Great Scott! What's the meaning of this?" he said.

"Anthony Dunsmark!" gasped the inspector.

"Yes--and who are you--policemen, or more thugs and murderers?"

"Policemen," said Burks. "This is the Commissioner himself!"

"The Commissioner," said Dunsmark bitterly. "That's what he told me before. If this is your idea of a bally joke, gentlemen--"

But Burks wasn't listening at the moment. He was staring at the note that the Commissioner's chauffeur had handed him. It had been unsigned when he first read it. But now at the bottom of the white page, the outlines of a letter were slowly appearing, turning black as the light fell on it. The letter was an X--and it seemed to Burks suddenly that the X was like an eye staring up at him and winking in sly, sardonic amusement.



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