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Title: The Murder Monster Author: Emile C. Tepperman * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0601461h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jun 2006 Most recent update: Mar 2013 This eBook was produced by Richard Scott and Colin Choat Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
The setting sun cast a cold, hard glint across the waters of the Hudson. Brittle spearheads of light flashed athwart the waves that rippled at the bank of the river below the somber walls of the State Prison.
The chill of early November dusk was in the air; almost it seemed to reflect a spirit of dreadful foreboding, to presage the approach of calamity. Somehow, the air seemed charged with thunderbolts of doom, poised and waiting to be hurled at the grim walls of the gloomy pile that loomed above the river, imprisoning fifteen hundred bitter men.
It was Sunday afternoon, and the inmates were being given a glimpse of life in the world beyond their cells. They were being treated to a football game between their own team and the team of Ervinton College, an institution that played the State Prison once a year.
The players on the field, convicts and college boys alike, were lost in the excitement of the game. But the convict spectators displayed only a listless half-interest. Behind the high wire screen that separated their section from that of the visitors, they sat tensely, eyeing each other furtively, shifting nervously in their seats. Over the whole prison there seemed to be an air of tension, of taut expectancy.
That sixth sense that is so highly developed among men who are confined alone for a long time seemed to have divined that death hovered near. Many cast glances backward toward the main building, where were confined the more recalcitrant prisoners—dangerous criminals, untamed by their imprisonment, who were denied the privilege of witnessing the game.
The closing whistle blew, interrupting the play at nothing to nothing. Rousing cheers came from the section set apart for the visiting college spectators. The convicts cheered half-heartedly. They were casting furtive glances around the field and toward the grandstand where the warden sat, entertaining the faculty of Ervinton. The keepers, who were stationed ten feet apart across the front of the prisoners' seats, called out, "Everybody remain seated till the teams are off the field!"
The visiting team deployed from the field, trotted into the basement through the side entrance of the main building, where showers and a locker room had been set up for them. The convicts watched them gloomily, in marked contrast to the hilarity of the college boys. For they were not going home to well-cooked meals in comfortable dining rooms, to the fond glances of proud parents, to the arms of sweethearts. They were going in to a dreary supper and dismal cells, to their lonely thoughts and gnawing memories.
An inch of fiery red sun showed over the top of the wooded hills to the west, across the river. Dusk had come quickly. It was growing dark fast, and the guards now hurried the convicts into a double line and marched them toward the main entrance. The warden, with two of his deputies, stood in the grandstand talking to several of the faculty of Ervinton College who had come down to see the game.
The warden was a tall man, with a lined, wrinkled face topped by iron- gray hair. The weight of responsibility for all these prisoners sat heavily on his shoulders. Moodily, as he talked, his eyes rested on the leading ranks of convicts marching dispiritedly toward the building.
In a moment that front rank would step through the entrance, would be led to the mess hall. Another dreary day would be done, a dreary night would commence.
But that marching line never reached the entrance.
For there erupted, at that moment from the basement exit in the side of the building, a disorderly swarm of men. The Ervinton college players, the substitutes and the coaches, were being herded out, still in their football uniforms. Some stumbled, others ran, and it was evident that something terrible had happened inside.
The warden leaped from the grandstand to the field, started to run toward the basement exit, followed by his deputies. Several guards swung in after him. The long marching line of convicts had halted at a command from the head keeper, and stood silent, watching the strange exodus.
And suddenly the warden, who had been running across the field, stopped short in his tracks, his face white, his hands trembling. For right behind the college players, forcing the boys ahead at the point of submachine guns and rifles, there appeared other men—men who were dressed in the street clothes which the college boys had left in the lockers, but who did not look like college boys.
The warden exclaimed, "God! It's the lifers! They've gotten loose somehow —and they must have broken into the armory; they've all got weapons! Look, there's Gilly, and Furber, and—" he named others of them whom he knew by sight. "Quick, Turner," he addressed the deputy immediately behind him, "signal the gatehouse guard to close the gate. Have the two tower guards enfilade them with machine gun fire!"
The deputy turned to obey. At the same moment, one of the armed convicts raised a Thompson gun to his shoulder and directed a stream of lead into the gatehouse. The guard there was flung against the wall of his little enclosure, his body riddled by a dozen slugs; the gate, which had been opened to permit the egress of the visitors, remained open.
And now was demonstrated the devilish ingenuity behind this well-planned escape. The convicts, their faces screwed into snarling masks of defiance and hatred, were herding the college players along in front of them, pushing them toward the open gate. No shots were fired at them from the wall towers; for the very good reason that the college boys, being in front, would be the first to be hit.
The warden could do nothing. He stood there helpless, his face bleak, and watched the most dangerous criminals in his charge march through that gate to freedom. He said hoarsely to the deputy, "Good God, Turner, they're using the Ervinton boys as shields!" His hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically. "We can't fire at them now. Those innocent boys would be the first to be hit!"
And Turner did not signal the tower guards. A small group gathered about the warden, gazed spellbound at the vicious faces of the escaping convicts. Turner and the other deputy flanked their chief, hands hovering over the service revolvers holstered at their hips, not daring to draw them, lest such an overt act provoke the vicious lifers to let loose again with the machine guns and mow down innocent spectators as they had killed the gatehouse guard. But after that one burst of fire from the Thompson, the escaping convicts rushed grimly across the yard toward the gate. The long line of marching prisoners proceeding toward the main building had stopped without orders from the keepers who flanked them. The marching convicts cast envious glances at those who were escaping, but they made no move toward a break for freedom themselves. They had no living shields, like the others. The warden raised his voice, calling hoarsely to some of the armed convicts. "Gilly! Renzor! You can't get away with that. You'll be caught before you get a mile from here. Drop those—"
He stopped as Gilly, one of the two he had addressed, swung snarling toward him, bringing the submachine gun around to bear on the little group. The warden and those with him dropped to the ground to avoid the threatened barrage. But Gilly did not fire, for a tall, heavyset convict who was running alongside him shouted, "Never mind that stuff, Gilly! Keep on goin'!"
Gilly grumbled, but obeyed. The convicts hustled the terrorized college boys along through the gate. Outside, there waited a huge closed truck, with motor running. The convicts piled into this, the motor roared, and the truck sped away, leaving the Ervinton boys with their hands in the air.
Now the guards in the towers directed a withering fire at the swiftly moving truck. But no damage was done; its sides were of sheet metal, and wheels were equipped with solid tires. In less than three minutes it had rounded a bend in the road to the south, and disappeared from view.
Inside the prison grounds, bedlam reigned. The hundreds of excited spectators were shouting and gesticulating, running aimlessly around the ball field. In the yard the keepers were herding the remaining prisoners into the main building, while the warden uttered crisp commands to his deputies.
"Shut the gates! March the men to the cell blocks—we'll feed them later. Turner, go into my office and start the siren; then phone all the towns along the roads; get out the state police." He addressed the other deputy, "You, Seely, see the men safely in their cells, then get out every available keeper and guard—organize a posse. I'll lead it personally."
One of the professors from Ervinton College, who had joined him at the first sign of the break, tapped him on the shoulder. "I am afraid, warden, that you will not be successful in catching those men. This was a well-planned escape."
There was a look of desperation in the warden's face. "We must get those men back, Professor Larrabie!" he exclaimed. "They are the most vicious criminals in the state. Gilly, the one that wanted to mow us down with the machine-gun, is a killer many times over. He was about to be transferred to the death house!" The warden went on, his words tumbling out with hysterical speed, "And the others—Dubrot, Renzor, Gerlan—the brainiest, most ruthless fiends we've ever had here! Can you imagine what it means—a gang like that at liberty?" He shuddered. "If I don't bring them back I—" his voice broke, "there'd be nothing left for me. I couldn't face the governor!"
"Nonsense!" the professor retorted. Professor Larrabie was a tall, kindly man. He was extremely wealthy in his own right, but was also an enthusiastic scholar. Though he had no need for the income, he loved his scholastic work. He held the position of associate dean of Ervinton, and was far from a worldly man. But he showed that, for all his unworldliness, he had a well-developed sense of observation. For he said, "I believe this was done by one of the visitors, Warden. Just prior to the end of the game, I noted that someone from the visitors' stand arose and entered the building. He came out immediately before the escape. I believe that person to be responsible. But the sun was in my eyes, and I could not see his features."
Just then Turner, the deputy, came running out of the main building. He was breathless, and his face was ashen. He exclaimed, "The siren doesn't work, sir—it's been tampered with. And the phone is dead! I can't get a connection to notify anybody!"
The warden turned a haggard face to Professor Larrabie. "Ten minutes ago, Professor, I'd have staked my life that a thing like this was impossible." He seemed to have aged ten years in those ten minutes. "It's a perfect jail break!"
Professor Larrabie nodded. "It would be. The deliverer of those men is very clever. He foresaw everything!" The professor's gaze wandered over the field where the crowd of visiting spectators was milling around, shouting and gesticulating excitedly. He indicated a figure running toward them across the field. "Here comes Harry Pringle, the son of the deputy police commissioner of New York. Harry is a school chum of my own son, Jack. They are both alumni of Ervinton." The professor stared near-sightedly at the running youth. "He seems to have something momentous on his mind!"
Harry Pringle reached them, breathless, greeted the professor, then swung to the warden. "Look here, sir!" His thin, ascetic face was burning with intense excitement. "I saw somebody leave the stand a little while ago and enter the building, then come out in about ten minutes. I've been searching through the crowd for him, but I can't find him now. I thought you ought to know about it."
The warden nodded. "Thanks, Pringle. Professor Larrabie has told me the same thing. But the sun was in his eyes, and he couldn't tell who it was. Did you recognize him?"
Harry Pringle shook his head. "It was nobody I know. But," he added eagerly, "I'd recognize him if I saw him again. I'll never forget that face —now!"
The warden said, "Then I shall have the gates closed and give you an opportunity to examine every person on the grounds. But," he put his hand on young Pringle's shoulder, "I'd advise you to be careful. If the person who aided those criminals to escape should learn that you saw him, your life wouldn't be worth two cents, my boy."
An armed file of guards emerged from the building at this moment. The warden said to Turner, "I'm heading the posse. You take charge in my absence. Nobody is to leave the grounds until Mr. Pringle here has seen his face."
The guards piled into three or four cars, the warden got into the first, and the posse started out. Professor Larrabie watched them go, and shook his head sadly. "He will never catch them," he said to Turner. "They have too much of a start."
The professor was right. Late that night the warden and his men returned. They had not been able to pick up a single trace of the truck. Nobody had seen it. He sighed deeply, tired and worn from the long, fruitless search. He asked Turner, "Did that young fellow Pringle have any luck?"
"No, sir. He looked everybody over, but not a face like the one he saw. The police are going to have him go through the rogues' gallery in the morning on the chance that he may recognize one of the pictures."
The warden looked hopelessly at his deputy. "He won't, Turner, he won't recognize it. Whoever that man was, he's too smart to have his picture in the rogues' gallery. This whole thing has been done too cleverly and ingeniously."
He sank wearily into the chair behind his desk. He seemed to have shrunk within himself. His whole bearing was that of a beaten man.
"I am afraid, Turner," he said, "that there are bad days ahead."
On a night, some four weeks after the sensational escape of the twenty- five convicts from the State Prison, a quiet, strikingly handsome gentleman might have been seen seated alone at a table in the Diamond Club.
The Diamond Club was the swankiest resort of the New York City underworld. During prohibition it had been a carefully conducted speakeasy, so elaborately rigged up with safety devices and complicated alarm systems that, though it had been raided a dozen times by prohibition agents, not a drop of liquor had ever been found on the premises.
The proprietor of the club was "Duke" Marcy, former beer baron. Marcy had always been too clever to get into the toils of the law, and now he was able to secure a liquor license, and to operate the Diamond Club as a legitimate enterprise. He took particular pleasure in exhibiting the various devices by which he had frustrated raids in the old days, and these secret liquor caches, light signals and false doors were a never-ending source of attraction to the crowds which nightly thronged the place.
"Duke" Marcy's floor show was the talk of the town, his prices were exorbitantly high, and he did a thriving business. With it all, people wondered why Marcy, who was said to have reaped a fortune out of his former illegal activities, should bother with comparatively small-time stuff like running a night club; they wondered if its purpose was not to cover up some darker, more insidious operations of the underworld czar.
The handsome gentleman who sat alone at the table near the dance floor watched with detached interest while Leane Manners, the star of the floor show, pirouetted expertly through the steps of a complicated and exquisitely delicate dance, with the spotlight following her every graceful movement.
At the end of the dance a thunder of applause filled the room, mingled with cries of "Encore, encore!"
The dancer's eyes swept over the gay, flashily dressed audience, flickered for an instant as they met the gaze of the quiet gentleman, and then she swept into motion once more as the orchestra swung into the rhythm of the music for her encore.
When the encore was over, she was compelled to take three bows before retiring. She did not go back to the dressing room, but threw a cloak over her shoulders, stepped off the floor. Half a dozen unattached men rose enthusiastically, inviting her to their tables. But she favored the quiet gentleman who had also risen and was bowing to her with the innate courtesy of an old world aristocrat. She made her way toward his table.
"How do you do, Mr. Vardis?" she said. She knew this man only as Mr. Vardis, a quiet, unobtrusive gentleman of wealth, with powerful affiliations. It was he who had been instrumental in bringing her to the attention of influential booking agents, resulting in her engagement by "Duke" Marcy for the Diamond Club.
She was not aware—nor was anybody else in the world, for that matter—that the firm mouth, the aquiline, masterful nose, the high forehead and the coal-black hair of the mysterious Mr. Vardis were an elaborate disguise masking the features of a being even more mysterious. For the person behind that disguise was—Secret Agent "X." 
[1 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Regular readers of these exploits will need no introduction to Secret Agent "X." The man who hides his identity behind that symbol of the unknown quantity has figured in previous chronicles. Little is known about him personally, except that he saw active service during the War, was wounded in action, and later entered the Intelligence Service. In this branch he so distinguished himself that the value of his special resources and abilities was recognized by the government to be as necessary in peace times as in time of war. Accordingly, after the Armistice, a remarkable proposition was made to him by an official high in government circles. He was made a free-lance agent, commissioned to combat crime wherever it reared its ugly head in the country. It was guaranteed that his anonymity would be preserved.]
Mr. Vardis courteously held a chair for her.
The orchestra struck into a waltz, the lights were dimmed, and couples left their tables to dance. As a waiter approached within hearing, Mr. Vardis invited Leane to dance, but the beautiful red-haired girl laughingly refused.
"I'd much rather sit and talk to you," she smiled. Her voice was musical, cultured, bore out the impression one somehow got that she was a girl of refinement and education.
Mr. Vardis smiled depreciatingly. "That will be as great a pleasure for me." He seated himself, and gave the hovering waiter an order for wine, selecting it from the wine list with the care of a connoisseur.
Leane maintained the attitude of a careless young dancer having a good time. She continued to smile at her host; but her voice took on a quick urgency. "I'm so glad you've come, Mr. Vardis. There are some things you'll want to know."
Leane Manners had not been introduced to the Diamond Club by accident —nor had Secret Agent "X" become interested in her by accident. She was the fiancée of another of the Agent's lieutenants, and he was given carte blanche to proceed in any manner that he saw fit, reporting to no one, responsible only to himself. The powers granted to him were unprecedented but they were warranted by the wave of unlawfulness that swept the land after the War, rendering the usual law enforcement agencies almost helpless.
Secret Agent "X" as he became known, fully justified the confidence that had been placed in him. He never betrayed that trust, no matter what personal sacrifice his duty entailed. To finance his activities ten wealthy men, who were unknown to him and to whom he was unknown, subscribed an unlimited fund which is on deposit to his credit in the name of Elisha Pond at the First National Bank. As this fund becomes depleted by his necessary expenditures in the battle against crime, it is replenished by these wealthy men, who never ask an accounting, never know how it is used. But they feel that it has been well spent when they read in their newspapers of the destruction of another criminal gang, or of the capture of some vicious master criminal whom the police have been unable to cope with. Always, in these cases, there remains at the end an element of mystery, for the police themselves do not know how the discomfiture of the criminals was brought about, except that some mysterious force entered the situation at the opportune moment. Reading these accounts, those wealthy men smile knowingly, and feel that their money has been put to good use.
The young man was named Jim Hobart. Hobart did not know Mr. Vardis; he knew Secret Agent "X" by another name. The Agent never permitted his assistants to know more than one of the various identities he assumed in his operations.
When Jim Hobart had mentioned that Leane, who lived in a middle western town, wanted to come on to work in New York, "X" had concurred in the idea, had sent for her, referred her to "Mr. Vardis." As Vardis, he had gotten her the introduction to the booking agents, had maneuvered so that she came to the Diamond Club. In addition to the salary she received here, the Agent maintained her on his own payroll. Her duty was to watch for information that would be useful to him. All over the country he had such representatives, received stray bits of information that often helped him to prevent crime before it was even committed.
Now he nodded somberly. "I expected that you would learn something of interest here." Then casually lighting a cigarette, he threw a side glance at the occupants of the near-by tables who were regarding him and Leane with curiosity, and leaned over the table, his lips smiling as if he were whispering a soft compliment.
In reality he was saying, "So that you will be able to work intelligently for me, I will tell you what brought me here tonight. You have read, of course, about the jail break from State Prison last month?"
"Those escaped convicts," the Agent told her, "have not been seen or heard of since the escape. They were not the average run of criminals. Among them were fiends like Dubrot, who has a giant mentality—perverted strangely toward evil; men like Gilly and Renzor, who take human life without blinking an eyelash.
"And there were twenty-five of them—twentyfive vicious, depraved criminals who can no more rid themselves of the urge to evil than a leopard can change its spots. Those men are loose somewhere in the country, hiding out, planning death and destruction!"
The Agent had spoken forcefully, eloquently, with a purpose. Now, Leane sat tensely, gripped by the picture of menace that his words had evoked. She listened raptly as he continued.
He was still smiling for the benefit of those at the other tables. But his words were in deadly earnest.
"It goes without saying that they did not escape without outside help. Therefore there must be some one, somewhere, who knows about them, perhaps holds the secret of their present hiding place. So far all the forces of the law haven't turned up a single clue." His voice dropped even lower than before. "I want to find those men! I am asking everybody with whom I have contacts to keep their eyes open—to watch for any little hint that may be of help. I am asking you to observe carefully everything that happens here in the Diamond Club; and for a very good reason—Baylor and Nagle, two of the escaped convicts, used to be 'Duke' Marcy's private gunmen. It is just possible that Marcy may have had something to do with the escape. Keep constantly alert, report everything to me, no matter how trivial—"
She interrupted him, her face suddenly flushed.
"I think I can tell you something, Mr. Vardis. Baylor and Nagle— I've heard their names mentioned here, but it slipped my mind until you just brought them up. It was on the very day of the jail break, too. Linky Teagle had come in to see 'Duke' Marcy. You know Linky Teagle?"
"Yes. I've seen him around. He used to be Marcy's pay-off man."
She nodded nervously. "That's right, Mr. Vardis. Teagle and Marcy came out of the private office in back, past the dressing room. I had come in early, and I was resting there. They thought they were alone, and I heard Teagle say, 'Baylor and Nagle are in on it, too, Duke.' Marcy said something I couldn't hear, and then they stepped out of the hall. At the time, the names didn't mean anything to me, so I paid no attention. But now—"
The Agent leaned back in his chair, his fingers drumming on the table. "Teagle!" he repeated. "Teagle would never talk. However, it's worth trying. Thanks, Leane."
"Another thing," she went on swiftly. "Marcy had been staying away from here more and more, until a couple of days ago. Just yesterday he began spending more time here. His old girl friend, Mabel Boling, with whom he's supposed to have broken off, has been here to see him twice today, and twice yesterday. She comes in the back way, and goes right to his office. Everybody is supposed to think they're angry at each other, but it's not so. They're up to something, those two."
The soft music of the waltz hardly made it necessary to raise the voice above a whisper. Leane watched the calm face of Mr. Vardis as he cogitated the information she had just given him. She felt almost as if she were under a spell beneath the keen, penetrating eyes that burned in that otherwise austere face. Though she knew nothing about Mr. Vardis, except that a friend of her fiancé's had recommended him highly. 
[2 AUTHOR'S NOTE: This feeling of Leane's was amply justified by past events. Jim Hobart had been a young policeman, discharged from the force in disgrace when the agent had met him. "X" had known that Hobart was innocent of the charges upon which his dismissal had been predicated, and he had befriended the red-haired, good-natured young man, given him employment. Hobart didn't suspect the true identity of his employer. He knew only that his benefactor was a newspaper man by the name of A. J. Martin, and that Mr. Martin could do wonderful things, and had many strange powers. Jim Hobart received credit for capturing the criminals. Due to this Hobart had received the commendation of the police commissioner and had been permitted to obtain a license as a private detective. He now operated the Hobart Detective Agency, the most profitable client being Mr. A. J. Martin. It looked very much as if Leane Manners would shortly become Mrs. Jim Hobart. It was thus that the Agent requited faithful services.]
Only recently, on a case that the Agent had solved, he had so arranged it that She felt that she could trust him, that the fortunes of herself and her sweetheart were secure in his hands. She started to speak again. "If Linky Teagle should come here again—" Suddenly she stopped, lowered her eyes, and her voice changed to a casual, conversational tone. "I'm so thankful that I have this job, Mr. Vardis. It's easy work, and the pay is good—"
No muscle of Mr. Vardis' face moved to show that he was aware of the reason for the sudden change of tone. But he had noted as quickly as Leane, the shadows that suddenly stood near the table. One was their waiter, carefully carrying a musty wine bottle which he held in a napkin. The other was a huge man, faultlessly attired in evening clothes—"Duke" Marcy himself.
WHILE the waiter poured the wine, "Duke" Marcy bowed first to Leane, then to Mr. Vardis, as Leane introduced him. Marcy spoke in a soft, unctuous voice that went ill with his tremendous physique. He said, "Forgive me for taking the liberty of stepping over to your table. I was eager to meet this friend of Miss Manners, who displays such an excellent taste in ordering wines." His eyes followed the almost caressing hands of the waiter who handled the bottle. "Only a connoisseur of the first rank would order Montrachet of the vintage of 1904. It is the only bottle we have. I had hoped to preserve it for my own use."
Mr. Vardis, who had arisen, said politely, "You will join us, of course?"
As "Duke" Marcy seated himself in the chair which the waiter brought, he said with a grand gesture, "No, Mr. Vardis, I am not joining you. You are joining me. This bottle of Montrachet comes with the compliments of the house!"
Mr. Vardis accepted graciously. Leane Manners fidgeted as they sipped the exquisite Burgundy. Marcy's eyes were veiled throughout the conversation that followed. As he turned from Vardis to Leane in the course of the talk, the huge muscles of his shoulders and upper arms showed in rippling undulations through his dress jacket. The corded veins of his thick, squat neck moved as he spoke. He seemed capable, should the occasion arise, of taking a man like Mr. Vardis and breaking him in his hands.
Leane's hand shook as she sought Vardis' eyes. Had Marcy heard her utter the name of Linky Teagle? Was he playing with them?
The waltz ended, and as Marcy turned for a moment to view the next number of the floor show, Leane caught a distinct flicker of the eyelid from Mr. Vardis, and a slight nod of reassurance. She smiled once more, relieved. She trusted him implicitly.
Marcy evinced no disposition to leave. He seemed bent on outstaying Mr. Vardis.
When this became apparent, Mr. Vardis rose, excusing himself. There was no point in his remaining now. The single name that the girl had uttered had been sufficient for him. There were some other things that he wanted to know, but he could get the other information elsewhere. He bowed in courtly fashion over Leane's hand, shook hands with Marcy.
Marcy's huge paw encircled his own hand, and Marcy, grinning, with his eyes narrow-slitted, began to exert pressure. It was his favorite means of instilling respect in men he met. That crushing bear grip of his brought sweat to men's foreheads, left them weak and tingling, with their right hand useless for hours afterwards.
But now, Marcy's brows contracted in surprise. This man was his match.
Leane, who knew that trick of Marcy's, watched breathlessly, helpless to stop the pain she knew was going to be inflicted on her friend. But suddenly she sighed in relief as she saw Mr. Vardis' hand wriggle slightly, clasp itself about Marcy's big paw, and contract.
Mr. Vardis' hands were slim, long fingered and powerful. The tips of the fingers barely met behind Marcy's knuckles, yet Marcy winced. Only a second did Vardis continue the punishing grip, then he suddenly released his hold, still smiling courteously. Once more he bowed to Leane, and made his way leisurely toward the door.
Marcy gazed after him with a puzzled expression. He said to Leane, "Say, girlie, that friend of yours is no slouch." His lower lip protruded slightly, his eyes became pinpoint. "I'll have to pay more attention to him in the future!"
Mr. Vardis had excused himself at the Diamond Club, stating that he had an appointment for which he was late. But upon leaving the place, he no longer seemed to be in a hurry. Instead, he strolled down Broadway in a leisurely manner, and entered a cigar store. He stepped into the telephone booth and dialed a number that was not in any book. Almost at once, a precise voice came over the wire. "Bates talking."
Vardis asked, "Who is on duty tonight, Bates?"
Bates recognized the voice, answered quickly, "Stegman and Oliver, sir. They are here now, awaiting orders."
"Good," said Mr. Vardis. "Have them go out and inquire around cautiously. I want to know where Linky Teagle can be found tonight. I will call back in an hour." 
[3 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Secret Agent "X" did not depend on any one organization, such as Jim Hobart's detective agency, for all his information. At a good deal of trouble and expense, he built up the organization headed by Bates. "X" has steadfastly refused to disclose to the author just where the office is, or where Bates is located, or what the telephone number is. Men all over the country report to Bates, who is more or less of a clearing house for news of national importance. That "X" has other agents besides those headed by Bates there is no doubt. He often uses a man from Jim Hobart's outfit, one or two from Bates' office, and, perhaps, others whom I do not yet know about. The reason for this, I understand, is so that they may not be able to check with each other to discover his identity. One thing is very definite: though these men are from every walk in life, they have been thoroughly investigated by the Agent, and are absolutely dependable.]
Bates repeated the orders crisply to be sure he had them right. "Information is wanted as to the whereabouts of Linky Teagle. It is wanted within an hour." He paused a moment, and "X" heard him issuing swift instructions at the other end. Then his voice came again. "Okay, sir. Stegman and Oliver have left. Anything else?"
"Yes," said Mr. Vardis. "What reports have you on the robot murders?"
"Nothing helpful, sir," regretfully. "All the witnesses of the crimes who have been interviewed by our men swear that the murderers are a strange race of robots. They did not talk, and they walked stiffly, as automatons do. The four murders reported have netted them large sums of cash and were all attended by an absolute lack of mercy. In no case were the victims warned, or threatened. In fact, no word was spoken. The robots merely shot to kill, then walked off with the money."
"I know all that," Mr. Vardis said shortly. "I will call you back every hour from now on. Have the men circulate in the underworld; let them try for any kind of lead to these robots. Any further reports now?"
"Only one, sir. The man who is shadowing 'Duke' Marcy reports that Marcy has done nothing suspicious today, in fact seems to be busy running the Diamond Club. The only thing of possible interest was a short conversation that Marcy had only a few minutes ago with a stranger named Vardis. Our man recommends looking up this Vardis."
"Vardis is all right," said Mr. Vardis. "I know all about him. Proceed with the investigation of the robot murders, and with the matter of Linky Teagle."
Mr. Vardis left the telephone booth and walked east, purchasing an evening paper on the way. He turned in at a dilapidated brownstone house west of Sixth Avenue. This was one of a row that had deteriorated into boarding houses for down-at-heels theatrical people. Mr. Vardis had been able to secure the basement floor at a nominal rental, and he lived here alone, coming at odd times, going as he pleased, with no one to note his actions, which were, at times, more or less surprising. Now, in the seclusion of an inner room, he set himself to scan the paper carefully, studying the reports of the so-called "robot murders."
A great deal of space was devoted to them, for they bore all the qualities of sensational terror that aided in the building of newspaper circulation.
The first of them had occurred the day before yesterday, and had been attended with an exhibition of daring, ingenuity and ruthlessness that had left the city gasping.
At eleven-thirty at night, four figures had strutted stiffly into the office of the cashier on the mezzanine floor of the Grand Central Station. This was the office where all the ticket clerks brought their cash from the ticket windows on the upper level of the station. It was estimated that the cash on hand exceeded twenty thousand dollars.
The four figures might have been men—they had the faces and bodies of men—except for the fact that they moved stiffly, jerkily, like automatons, and never uttered a word. They bore a striking facial resemblance to each other—so much so, that they might have all been cast from a single mould. Their faces were youthful in appearance, pleasant and harmless looking. But they quickly demonstrated that they were far from harmless. For they drew automatics with silencers attached, and shot to death the cashier, the assistant cashier, and a guard on duty in the office.
Then they scooped up the cash in sacks which they produced from under their clothing, and boldly marched out through the lower level exit. It was not until they were well away that the bodies of the murdered men were found in the office. The assistant cashier lived long enough to tell the story to the police.
The police might not have believed the story in its entirety, even though the four robots had attracted attention in their march through the station, had there not come in swiftly upon the heels of this crime, the news of three other robberies committed at almost the same time by men answering the same description. In one case a patrolman on the beat where the robbery took place had seen them escaping with a sack of loot from a local post office, and had emptied his service thirty-eight at them. Bystanders swore that every one of the patrolman's shots had struck the robots, yet they were not wounded. Instead, one of the robots turned as if impelled by some mechanical device, raised its gun and fired at the policeman, killing him instantly.
For three days now those robberies had continued with impunity, the robots striking in parts of the city where they were least expected, always avoiding spots where the police had massed to trap them. The city was growing panicky. Deputy Commissioner Pringle, in charge while Commissioner Foster was away in Europe, had cancelled all leaves, had every available man on duty.
Mr. Vardis put down the paper, clenched his hands tightly. His eyes were bleak, almost fathomless. This menace of inhuman robots devoted to crime was a possibility that he had often envisaged with dread—not for himself, but for the community where they would strike. For it was inevitable that at some time or other there would arise a criminal with a mind of such scientific skill, of such devilish ingenuity, that it might develop such robots to do its work.
Such a criminal would be difficult to combat, for he would be clever, dangerous; he would remain hidden in security while his machines robbed and killed. And even if some of those machine-like fiends of man's creative skill should be caught or disabled, the criminal himself would still be free to continue in his diabolical traffic.
If this thing had arisen now, it was a most inopportune time for the agencies of law enforcement, because of the added menace of those twenty-five hard-bitten convicts who were still at large, and who might be heard from at any moment now—also with reports of pillage and murder.
The newspaper flares about these escaped criminals had not died down yet, even after a month. The accounts of the nation-wide search being conducted for them shared honors with the robot murders. In addition to the rewards offered by the government, many individual newspapers were offering large sums for information leading to their capture—dead or alive. But no amount of tempting cash reward had so far succeeded in coaxing a single hint as to their whereabouts. Were they out of the country? The editorial writers hoped so —for, though it might reflect on America's penal institutions that these convicts had been able to make a clean getaway, yet thousands of citizens would sleep easier if they were sure that those vicious men were no longer a hidden menace to their families.
"X" was almost certain that they were still somewhere in the country, hiding in some extremely clever retreat until they were ready to make their presence felt. The task of locating them, however, seemed utterly hopeless. He had reports from his agents everywhere—with not a single helpful hint among them.
So far, the only lead he had was the name which Leane Manners had spoken —that of Linky Teagle.
"Duke" Marcy's former pay-off man. "X" knew him as a crook of a low order of intelligence, who, since Marcy had turned from bootlegging to other, possibly more subtly insidious enterprises, had existed as a hanger-on at the fringe of the aristocracy of the underworld.
It was his business to "spot lays" for daring hold-ups, to "put the finger" on likely looking victims for kidnap plans; it was quite likely that a man like him would know where those escaped convicts were hiding out— but very unlikely that he would impart this information to a casual questioner. His very value to the underworld lay in the fact that he could be relied upon not to talk under any circumstances. Many a time had he been sweated in headquarters, "put through the mill," but never had he uttered a word of betrayal. Teagle must be handled in a skillful manner to be induced to disclose information.
Mr. Vardis opened a cunningly concealed door in the wall of his room. A closet was disclosed, containing a row of filing cabinets. From one of the drawers labeled "G," he took a thick folder, and proceeded to examine its contents carefully.
The name on the edge of this folder was "Gilly"—a name he had good cause to remember. It was also the name of one of those twenty-five vicious criminals who had been released from State Prison. 
[4 AUTHOR'S NOTE: The name of Gilly will be recalled be those who read the recent exploit of Secret Agent "X" related under the title of "Servants of the Skull." Gilly was one of the vicious gunmen who acknowledged the criminal known as the Skull as his master. Gilly almost caused the Agent's death during those exciting days of hairbreath adventure; but when the Skull's plans were disrupted, and his headquarters were invaded by the Police under the guidance of the Agent, Gilly had been captured with the others. Gilly had been serving a life sentence for his part in the Skull's crimes when the jail break took place, and he was one of the twenty-five to escape.]
Delving into the folder, Mr. Vardis picked out several sheets which were clipped together. They were headed, "Friends of Gilly." Among them was a sheet containing photographs, side and back, of one John Harder, once an associate of Gilly's. Harder was a fugitive from justice in the Middle West, and there was very little likelihood of Gilly's having been in touch with him recently.
Mr. Vardis placed these photographs on a little dressing table in one corner, turned on a strong daylight bulb, and spread out the contents of a flat black box which he withdrew from a drawer. This box contained all the material necessary to change the appearance of his face; a wide range of pigments, specially prepared plastic material, face plates of different sizes and degrees of concavity, nose plates, even sets of plates of various sizes to slip over the teeth. 
[5 AUTHOR'S NOTE: To the reader these disguises which the Agent assumes may appear to be simple matters, requiring little effort or expenditure of energy; just as, in hearing a pianist playing a difficult number, we may watch his fingers racing across the keyboard and imagine that it is easy. On the contrary, each disguise that "X" assumes requires a degree of skill, or artistry, of sheer genius that it is impossible to estimate. It is known how difficult is the modeling of a head by a sculptor working at his ease with clay. Imagine then, how much more difficult it is to model upon one's own face the likeness of another man, duplicating facial muscles, pigmentation, and the thousand other details that make the individuality of a man.]
The long, facile fingers worked swiftly. Under their deft manipulation, the face of Mr. Vardis began to melt, finally disappeared, revealing for an instant the true features of that man of mystery—Secret Agent "X." They were young, strong features, expressive of indomitable will, high intelligence, keenness and courage. They were features that no man now living could boast of ever having seen.
Only for a moment did that powerful face remain under the glare of the daylight bulb. The long skillful fingers worked surely, efficiently, and shortly there appeared the face of John Harder—the fugitive from justice, the friend of Gilly, the gunman.
An hour later of that same evening a man might have been seen making his way west across Times Square, hat brim pulled down and coat collar turned up against the steady drizzle that was slanting downward out of a pitch-black sky. Any policeman in New York would have recognized the features of that man if he had looked into his face; for they were the features of the notorious John Harder, wanted for murder in three states, whose picture had been broadcast in every newspaper in the country.
But Secret Agent "X" passed unmolested across the world's busiest thoroughfare, proving once more the truth of the old adage that the best hiding place is generally in the most conspicuous spot.
The clock on the Paramount Building said ten o'clock. Electric signs flashed all along Forty-second Street, announcing burlesque, movies, legitimate drama, penny arcades, restaurants, special sales, announcing, in fact, every possible attraction to lure pennies, quarters, halves and dollars from the pockets of the amusement seekers who thronged the streets. None of those amusement seekers was aware that here, almost at their very elbows, was being staged a greater, tenser drama than any they could pay their good money to see in the gaudily lit theatres. Secret Agent "X" made his way over to Eighth Avenue. The rain was increasing in intensity, and he lowered his head to allow the water to slide off his hat brim. But he kept his eyes ever watchful, eyeing passers-by and loiterers, appraising them swiftly, certainly. The unknown foes that he was setting out to pit himself against were diabolically clever. They might even be shadowing him already. At the corner of Eighth Avenue and Forty-second, a man stood looking into the window of a cheap clothing store.
The Agent came up beside this man, but did not look at him. Instead, he glanced in the window, appeared to be interested in the display. After a moment, "X" began to run his forefinger along the front of the window, tracing an idle pattern. He noted that the man was watching now, out of the corner of one eye, and the Agent swiftly wrote the word, "Bates" on the wet pane. The man saw it, but made no motion to indicate that he understood. After a moment, though, he turned and walked unconcernedly around the corner and up Eighth Avenue.
He stopped in the middle of the block before the brightly lit window of Haley's Bar and Grill. There was a colorful display of bottles in the window, accompanied by the sign, "Licensed to serve wines and liquors."
The man who had led "X" around the corner stopped for a moment, nodded almost imperceptibly in the direction of a second man who stood close to the doorway of Haley's, and continued on his walk.
The Secret Agent turned toward the entrance, drawing a cigarette from his pocket. At the door he stopped, asked the man standing there for a light. The man obligingly produced a book of matches, lit one and cupped the flame from the rain while "X" lit his cigarette. He murmured, "Teagle is in the rear room in the third booth on the left. Stegman and I picked him up easy. He's all alone; seems to be waiting for some one." 
[6 AUTHOR'S NOTE: These two operatives of Bates', like all the others, had no idea who their real employer was, or what was the ultimate purpose of the various queer tasks.]
"X" said, "Good work, Oliver. You and Stegman are relieved for the night. Report back to Bates, then you can go home."
Oliver said, "Right, sir," and left, walking in the direction Stegman had taken. If he recognized the face of the man he had just spoken to, he gave no sign of it. Those who were in the employ of Secret Agent "X" were trained never to ask questions, never to wonder at the sometimes curious things they were ordered to do.
The Secret Agent, meanwhile, entered the barroom, walked through, past the long bar lined with drinkers, and into the rear room. This was equipped with tables set into booths along both walls.
Linky Teagle sat in the third booth, as Oliver had said. He was glowering moodily at a glass of beer, half empty, on the table before him. Teagle was a man of medium size, with a thin, pinched face, small eyes that never rested and never looked directly at any one. Sparse, muddy-colored hair was combed back from a low forehead in an effort to conceal the fact that he was almost bald. He was dressed in a tight fitting double-breasted blue serge suit, and the automatic holstered under his left armpit made a visible bulge under his coat.
He looked up with a start as the Agent slid into the seat opposite him, and frowned when he found it was not the person he apparently expected. His frown changed to a look of consternation as "X" removed his hat, and he recognized the widely advertised features of John Harder. He glanced around furtively, made sure that no one had noticed, and muttered without moving his lips, "Put that hat on, quick! You nuts?"
"X" obeyed, smiling grimly. His ruse was thus far successful. Everything depended now upon whether Linky Teagle was really in possession of any information about those escaped convicts, as Leane Manners had suggested in the hint she had dropped.
Teagle said, "You're Harder. What the hell you doin' in this town? You'll get spotted inside of half an hour!"
All they knew was that they were called upon to perform. All they knew was that their work was dangerous but not illegal, and that they were extremely well paid. Their loyalty to their unknown chief was above suspicion, and they never asked questions. Many of them, like Oliver, were reformed criminals; some, like Jim Hobart, were ex-policemen. There were even numbered among those on "X's" payroll a former sword-swallower from a circus side-show, and a general of the old Imperial Russian Army.
"X" said slowly, his voice assuming a toughness that went well with the character he was impersonating, "That's my lookout, Teagle. I got to talk to you."
"Not here, damn it. Wouldn't I look swell, bein' found with you? The cops would ride me for ten years. There's a law in this state about consortin' with known criminals. Who sent you to me?"
"I've heard o' you," said "X." "I got to get in touch with an old pal o' mine by the name o' Gilly—" he watched the other keenly as he mentioned Gilly's name, and detected a quickly suppressed start of alarm. "He broke outta jail a while ago with some more guys, an' I gotta see him. I've been told you know where he is. How about it?"
Teagle made to rise. "We can't talk about that here. Let's get out some place—"
"X" put out a hand, restrained him. He was close to victory. By his very attitude, Teagle had half admitted that he knew where Gilly was. Taken by surprise, his mind had failed to react quickly enough so that he could make immediate denial. By failing to make that denial, he had implied that he knew what "X" wanted to know.
"X" spoke tensely. "We don't need to talk about it. You know me. You know I'm one of the boys. Take me to Gilly."
Teagle's face was pale, but there was a crafty gleam in his eyes. "Forget it. I don't know a thing about it; ain't heard from Gilly since he broke outta State Prison with the rest of the boys. Whoever told you I know where he is was givin' you a sleigh ride." He glanced around the place nervously, and gulped the rest of his beer. "Better scram, big boy. I can't help you, an' you'll only make it bad for me if I'm found wit' you. Besides," he added urgently, "I'm expectin' some one here any minute now—an' it wouldn't be so good for you to meet—that person."
The Agent made no move to leave. His eyes bored into the other's as he said slowly, very low, "Teagle, I know you can put me wise where Gilly is. I need to see him bad. If you hold out on me, I'll figure you for a wrong guy. And, Teagle, you know how I handle wrong guys!" He waited a moment, watched Linky Teagle's hands move aimlessly, nervously on the table. The go-between knew Harder's reputation, knew that Harder had killed often in the past on very little provocation.
The Agent went on gently, "On the other hand, I'm a great guy to my pals. Anybody who treats me right don't suffer by it. I got plenty of dough, Teagle, an' I'm willing to pay for favors!"
Teagle's hands stopped moving on the table. There was a greedy, appraising look in his eyes. He wet his lips. "How—how much would it be worth to you—supposin' I could dig up the dope on Gilly?"
"How does a couple of grand sound to you, Teagle?"
The Agent saw the light of avarice dissipate the sullenness from the other's face.
Teagle hesitated a moment, then said, "I—I think maybe it could be managed. I'd have to get in touch with some people, an' maybe it would take a couple of hours. Tell you what—" he was almost eager now—"you meet me in front of this place at twelve tonight, an' I'll tell you if it's okay. Better go now, before my friend that I'm expectin' gets here."
The Secret Agent rose. "I'll be here at twelve," he said shortly.
Teagle looked up at him, said, "I ain't tryin' to give you advice or nothin', but you better put on some work clothes, an' grease up your face. You're takin' an awful chance walkin' the streets this way."
"I'll worry about that," the Agent told him. He leaned over the table, acting out the character of the tough John Harder. "You wouldn't be thinkin' of any kind of a double-cross, would you, Teagle?"
Linky Teagle stared back into the hard face above him. "I got a reputation," he exclaimed indignantly, keeping his voice low with an effort. "Nobody can say that Linky Teagle ever squealed!"
The Agent nodded. "See that you keep that reputation."
He walked through the front bar, with his hat brim turned low. Outside, the rain was coming down fast. But the Agent did not hurry away. Instead, he turned into a nearby doorway, and with swift fingers he remodeled the lines of his face. John Harder, the fugitive from justice, disappeared. Working in the dark, by the sense of touch only, the Agent smoothed away the lines of dissipation that had marked the features of Harder, removed the plate from his teeth, inserting another. He discarded the slouch hat, replacing it with a cap which he produced from an inside pocket, and took off the brilliant-hued necktie he had worn, donned, instead, a staid green tie. He reversed his topcoat. The inside became the outside now, and being of waterproofed tweed, gave the appearance of a raincoat. 
[7 AUTHOR'S NOTE: For the necessities of quick change, When he emerged from the doorway, he was no longer John Harder, but a pale, anaemic looking clerk in search of a drink. Once more he entered Haley's Grill, made his way to the rear, and seated himself in a booth commanding a view of Linky Teagle's table. Teagle's expected guest had already arrived. "X" tensed as he recognized the broad shoulders, the bull neck, and the dominating features of "Duke" Marcy!]
Marcy was talking very low, almost inaudibly, and Teagle was bent forward, ears straining to catch his words. When Teagle spoke in reply, his voice was just as low. It was impossible to overhear their conversation, impossible to get any closer without arousing suspicion. The subject of their talk would have to remain their secret for the present.
The Agent ate a few bites of the sandwich he had ordered, drank part of the coffee, and left. He would have given much to know what Marcy and Teagle were discussing, but there were many things he had to do yet tonight. He felt somehow that he was drawing closer to the heart of the mystery surrounding that ruthless jail break. If Teagle kept his appointment at midnight, he might reach to the very core of it. He might, too, be walking into a trap— especially in view of the fact that Teagle was intimate with Marcy. But that was a risk that Secret Agent "X" was always prepared to take. 
[8 AUTHOR'S NOTE: From the very first, upon entering into his strange career, the man who is known as Secret Agent "X" had decided that his life was forfeit to the cause he was espousing. He knew that peril would beset his every step, that there would await him around each corner the danger of a death without honor or acclaim—a death that might be lingering, full of agony. But long ago on a battlefield in France, when he recovered from a wound that should have killed him, he considered that his life was no longer his own; so he risked it daily, feeling that already he was living beyond the span of time allotted to him in the scheme of things. His sole regret upon the contemplation of death would be that he could no longer be of service to humanity in its constant struggle against evil.]
If "X" had continued to shadow Linky Teagle, he might have heard a very illuminating conversation. For Teagle, after a short talk with Marcy, arose, while the ex-gangster waited for him, the Secret Agent has several stock disguises which are simpler than most of the other's, and which he has used so often that he can build them even in the dark, by the sense of touch alone.
[?] and went outside, crossed the street to a phone booth in a drug store. The rumble of the subway drowned most of his conversation, but some fragmentary phrases were audible. "—wants to join up... not a chance? —how'll I stall him?... what! You sure Harder died last month? Then this guy must be phony... I'm meetin' him at twelve... will you have some men around?... I don't know who he can be—say! There's only one guy I ever heard of who could pull a make-up like that to fool me! I bet it's..."
When Teagle returned to the booth where Marcy awaited him, his cunning little eyes were shining with excitement. He could not repress his news. He leaned over the table, whispered confidentially to the big ex- gangster...
Secret Agent "X" was also making a telephone call at a booth not a block away from the drug store where Teagle was talking. "X's" call was to another of his lieutenants, perhaps the most trusted—Betty Dale. 
[9 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Betty Dale is already well known to readers of previous annals. The daughter of a police captain who was killed in action, she was left alone in the world but for Secret Agent "X," who was a friend of her father's. "X" aided her to finish her schooling, then saw her well placed as a reporter for a daily newspaper. Many times in the past had he found occasion to enlist her services in his battle with crime. And Betty had grown to care more than she liked to admit for this strange man, whose true features she had never seen. She was always glad to help him, eager to hear his voice.]
Often weeks passed during which she did not hear from him, during which she lived in an agony of uncertainty as to whether or not he still lived; for she knew that his chosen career carried him ever into the byways of danger where a man's life is, more often than not, measured by the speed of a lethal bullet or the flashing arc of a sharp-edged knife.
Only when she heard his voice on the wire after such a period did she breathe a sigh of relief, only to give way once more to concern over his safety —for she also knew that when he called her he was again engaged in some stupendous battle with crime and required her services.
She wasted no time in banalities now, for she knew what matter the Agent was working on, recognized the urgency in his voice.
"I haven't been able to dig up a thing on the jail break," she told him regretfully. "My paper is going to increase its offer of a reward to ten thousand dollars; but I'm afraid it won't do any good. If there are people in the underworld who have information, they are too much in fear of their lives to try to sell it.
"I know, Betty," the Agent said. "But there is another angle I want to look into, and I think you can help."
"What is that?" she asked eagerly.
"Didn't you do some publicity work last year for a Broadway show?"
"Yes. The name of it was, 'Woman in Black.' Mabel Boling was the star."
"Exactly. You got to know Mabel Boling pretty well, didn't you?"
Betty sounded puzzled. "Why, yes. Mabel feels she owes me a lot; her show would have been a failure without the publicity I developed for her. But —what has she got to do with this—"
The Agent's voice interrupted her "Mabel Boling is very close to 'Duke' Marcy. And there may be a connection there with this matter I'm investigating. I'd like to meet Mabel Boling, Betty."
"You couldn't have called at a better time," Betty told him. "I can arrange for you to meet her tonight if you wish!"
"There's a bazaar at the Grand Central Palace. It's a society affair and is being given to raise a fund for the relief of the unemployed. Mabel Boling is going to be there."
"Mabel Boling—at a society bazaar?" the Agent asked.
Betty laughed. "It may sound funny, but Mabel's up in the world these days. She doesn't see 'Duke' Marcy any more—at least, not in public. She hangs out a lot with young Harry Pringle, the deputy commissioner's son —he's crazy about her. And, since Harry is on the bazaar committee, Mabel will be there, too.
"I see," said "X," reflectively.
"I was just dressing to attend the bazaar myself. I am covering it for my paper. If you'll meet me there, I'll introduce you to Mabel."
The Agent figured time quickly. His appointment with Linky Teagle was for midnight. It was not ten-thirty. He'd have ample time to stop in at the bazaar, meet Mabel Boling, and still keep the appointment.
"I'll be there," he said.
Betty's voice was troubled. "How will I know you?" 
[10 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Though Betty Dale was perhaps closer to him than anybody else, in the world, she had never been allowed to meet Secret Agent "X" in any of his permanent assumed personalties, such as Elisha Pond or A. J. Martin. Thus, she never knew in what guise he would next present himself to her. This man whose face she had never seen, she admired and loved for his kindliness, his courage, his bravery and strength. And she often wondered if it would ever be vouchsafed her to talk with him for an hour without having the shadow of some horrible crime looming over them, calling him into perilous paths.]
"Don't worry," he chuckled. "I'll make myself known to you!"
Betty Dale did not know at the moment that by her eager invitation she was unwittingly placing the man she admired most in the world in the greatest danger he had ever faced in his career.
The 1934 Unemployment Bazaar was the most lavish undertaking in years. Society had subscribed heavily, men and women of wealth entered into the spirit of the affair with the greatest of enthusiasm. It was as if these favored of fortune were seeking by some means to ease their consciences of the burden of the knowledge that thousands of families went without food and clothing while they basked in the lap of luxury.
Limousines were parked down the length of Lexington Avenue and in all the side streets. Fully five thousand people were circulating upstairs in the huge bazaar room, which had been equipped with booths all around the four walls. Manufacturers of everything under the sun had rented booths here, content to display their names, to give out samples of their merchandise, and to have it known that they supported the cause.
Other booths had wheels of chance at a dollar to five dollars a throw. And at these booths the elite of New York's wealthy class amused themselves, winning baby dolls and trinkets of no intrinsic value. One man, immaculate in his evening clothes and accompanied by two ladies in dresses that must have cost enough to feed a hundred families, spent fifty dollars at one of the wheels before he got a winning number and won a stuffed kewpie. He presented it to one of the ladies with him. She carried it around with her proudly. The man was Roderick Pringle, wealthy banker, who was serving as deputy police commissioner. He was the father of Harry Pringle, the young man whom Betty Dale had mentioned. The lady to whom he had presented the kewpie was his daughter, the other was his wife.
The daughter said, pouting, "It's a wonder, dad, that Harry doesn't pay some attention to us. He's one of the committee here and supposed to be busy, but he does nothing except hang on to the skirts of that Boling woman!"
Roderick Pringle, frowning, followed with his eyes the glance of his daughter, across to where a handsome young man of perhaps twenty-nine or thirty stood in earnest conversation with a beautiful, hard-faced, dark-haired woman at least five years his senior.
The face of the portly deputy commissioner became choleric. "He's at it again, in spite of what I told him! He has no consideration for his official position. The woman's not even a good actress—and she consorts with underworld characters." His voice became caustic. "A fine crowd for the son of the deputy police commissioner to hang out with!" He clenched his fist. "Wait till we get home—I'll give it to that young pup. This has got to stop, once and for all!"
His daughter, perhaps regretting that she had called his attention to Harry's companion, tried to change the subject. She tugged at his sleeve. "Dad! Who's that terribly attractive man who just came in over there? Isn't he handsome? And he looks so dignified!"
Roderick Pringle swung his gaze from his son around to the entrance towards which his daughter was looking. "I don't know the man, Irma. Never saw him around before." He bent bushy brows on his daughter. "Now don't you go getting interested in strange men. I've got enough on my hands with Harry!"
Irma Pringle laughed. "I'm sure he's somebody important, dad. Look, he seems to be coming in our direction!"
The tall, dignified gentleman was indeed approaching them, having noted their presence as he entered. When he came up to them, he bowed in courtly fashion, spoke with the modulated accents of good breeding. "I beg your pardon, sir. You are Commissioner Pringle, are you not?"
"My name is Vardis. I am a stranger in New York, but my friend, Commissioner Foster, wrote me before leaving for Europe that if I visited the city I was to look you up. I took this opportunity of making myself known to you."
Pringle thawed out at mention of Foster's name, and introduced Mr. Vardis to the ladies. The conversation drifted into various channels, and as they talked they moved around, examining the interestingly equipped booths. Mr. Vardis was an engrossing conversationalist when he wanted to be, and his listeners were entranced by the swift flow of anecdote and comment that came from his lips.
They stopped before one booth in the line of brilliantly lit stalls along the wall that was not open. The wooden shutters were still in place. It bore the number, thirteen. Pringle nodded toward it. "There's a generous contributor to the cause of charity. The people who rented that booth contributed five thousand dollars to the bazaar fund."
On the closed shutters was a sign reading as follows:
This booth donated by anonymous benefactor. It will be opened shortly before midnight, and a surprise is promised to all. Be sure to stay for the opening.
"It's probably the contribution of some manufacturer or department store," Pringle said. "It'll make good advertising for them when it's opened."
Mr. Vardis noted two young men who approached them across the floor. They, like Harry Pringle, bore buttons in their lapels announcing that they were on the bazaar committee.
Irma Pringle exclaimed, "Here come Jack Larrabie and Fred Barton, dad. I wonder where Ranny Coulter is?"
The commissioner grunted. "Probably up to some mischief. It's a wonder Jack and Fred aren't up to some crazy stunts, too!" He turned to Mr. Vardis, explained quickly as the two young men approached, "These two, together with Ranny Coulter, are chums of my boy. The four of them are generally always together. I wish some one would take them in hand and whip some sense into them. They've all graduated from college, mastered professions, but they won't work. It's a sickness—too—muchmoneyitis! If I lost all my money, it might be a good thing for my boy, Harry; and the same goes for Jack and Fred, here, and Ranny Coulter."
The two young men came up, were introduced to Mr. Vardis. He noted that Irma Pringle monopolized young Jack Larrabie in a possessive manner. Vardis smiled at the commissioner. "Engaged?" he asked.
"Hell, no," Pringle returned. "They want to be, but I won't let them till Jack goes in practice for himself. He's studied medicine, but he won't practice —says what's the use, when his dad is worth a couple of million dollars. His father is Professor Larrabie of Ervinton College, you know. A millionaire in his own right."
"I seem to recall the name," said Mr. Vardis. "Wasn't it Professor Larrabie who was present at State Prison at the time of the jail break?"
"The same. My son was also there. Harry actually saw the man who is suspected of having killed the guards and paved the way for the escape. I'm worried about Harry's safety on that score. But the boy's stubborn— won't have a bodyguard; says his three pals are all the protection he needs."
The crowd before booth thirteen had grown much larger now, and there was a buzz of excited comment and speculation as to the identity of the donors of the five thousand dollars.
Fred Barton, who had been left somewhat alone while his chum, Jack Larrabie, was engrossed with Irma Pringle, joined Mr. Vardis and the commissioner, and the talk turned to the news of the day. Mr. Vardis tried to broach the subject of the escaped convicts, but the commissioner was already answering a question of Fred Barton's about the robot murders.
"I don't think, Fred," the commissioner said with a note of authority "that there is any chance of the robots attacking this bazaar. There are uniformed officers on guard at all the entrances downstairs and at the doors up here. Anybody who looks like a robot wouldn't stand a chance of getting near this place."
"That's a consolation, anyway," Fred Barton remarked. "This would be tempting pickings for them. I bet there's a hundred thousand in cash here tonight."
Mr. Vardis was listening closely now. "Do you believe they are robots or mechanical men?" he asked. "I understand they were shot at, but couldn't be hurt."
"That is true," the commissioner said slowly, "It is a hard thing to imagine, but I am forced to believe that they are robots. In no other way can their peculiar actions be explained."
Fred Barton scoffed. "Impossible!" he declared. "As you know, I've made a thorough study of chemistry and physics. The creation of mechanical men is as far-fetched, as impossible, as the discovery of the legendary Fountain of Youth. It would be physically impossible to exercise remote control, by radio, or by any other device, of the arm, leg and head movements of a mechanical man. These so-called robots act and fight like human beings. They must be human beings."
"And yet," said Commissioner Pringle, with a troubled look in his eyes, "you know that famous line—'There are more things in heaven and earth than the mind of man can conceive of!' Anything is possible in this day and age. How do you feel about it, Mr. Vardis?"
"Naturally," Mr. Vardis replied modestly, "I have not sufficient information on which to base an opinion. However, I am inclined to agree with young Mr. Barton, here. Isn't there a possibility, commissioner, that these robots are, in reality, those twenty-five convicts who escaped from State Prison?"
Pringle shook his head. "Emphatically no. Those robots were seen to touch various articles with their bare hands. They left prints. And those prints match no classification on file anywhere in the world! The only explanation I can see is that they are robots—that they have all been created exactly alike by some master fiend who has acquired more scientific knowledge and skill than our greatest students!"
They were interrupted by the approach of a trimly dressed young lady, hardly more than a girl. Mr. Vardis' eyes grew kindly as they took cognizance of her sparkling blue eyes, of the golden blond hair, showing under the small, chic hat. This was Betty Dale.
She glanced casualty at Mr. Vardis, with no hint of recognition, smiled at Fred Barton, but concentrated on Pringle. "I hope you'll pardon the intrusion, commissioner. I am Betty Dale, of the Herald. I was wondering if you'd grant me a short interview on the robot murders?"
Pringle smiled. "I remember you well, Miss Dale. You don't need to introduce yourself to me. Do you know Fred Barton? And Mr. Vardis?"
Mr. Vardis bowed. Betty did not know him, did not guess who he was. She asked Pringle a number of questions, making notes on a small pad of paper she produced from her bag. When she had finished, she thanked him.
"I'm sorry, Miss Dale," Pringle told her, "that there is little I can add to the news that appeared in the evening papers. We have no idea where these robots will strike again, but I can assure you that the men of the police department are doing everything in their power to protect the residents of the city—from the commissioner down to the lowliest patrolman!"
Several other people approached the commissioner, and Mr. Vardis found himself alone with Betty for a moment—rather, he maneuvered so that they were alone. "I think, Miss Dale," he said, "that I know a friend of yours."
She looked at him quickly. He could see that she was not interested in him, that her eyes were restlessly roving over the crowd as if she sought some one. She remarked politely, "Really? That is interesting. Who is it?"
"Someone," he replied in a voice that had suddenly assumed a peculiar inflection—one that he reserved for her alone—"someone who shall be nameless!"
Her face paled, her eyes widened. Emotion struggled for utterance, but was repressed. "You—Mr. Vardis!" she exclaimed. Then her eyes clouded with concern as he led her farther away from the group around booth thirteen, toward the center of the floor. "You're working on these robot murders?"
He nodded. "That—and more. I haven't much time now, Betty. Let's find Mabel Boling so I can have a little talk with her. Right at this time I am interested in her ex-friend, 'Duke' Marcy—and, also, in young Pringle."
Betty's eyes lowered. She uttered a warning sound. "There she is— with Harry Pringle. It'll be easy; she's coming up to talk to me."
Mabel Boling greeted Betty Dale effusively. She still recalled the debt she owed to the pretty, blond newspaper girl. Betty knew Harry Pringle by sight, too; and she performed the introductions.
"X" led them across the floor to a booth where cocktails were being served in the name of charity at one dollar each. He bought drinks for everybody, while he covertly sized up Mabel Boling. She was unquestionably beautiful. In addition she was vivacious, and an actress of parts. "X" could understand how she would be the perfect companion, for a man like "Duke" Marcy. But she lacked culture, poise. "X" wondered what attraction she possessed that could hold a young man of education and refinement like Harry Pringle.
Betty Dale adroitly managed to engross young Pringle in conversation, leaving the Agent more or less téte-a-téte with the actress. "X" skillfully turned the conversation to "Duke" Marcy. Mabel Boling's face went blank. "I haven't seen him for months," she declared emphatically. "He was the great mistake, of my life." She glanced fondly at Harry Pringle. "I don't even like to think of those days any more."
Though she was a good actress, "X" felt that underlying her words there was a queer note of insincerity. He sensed that she was on guard more or less; that there was something on her mind. Keen judge of human nature, he felt that she could be drawn out at the proper time and place. So, after a little further conversation, he intrigued her into accepting his invitation to have lunch with him the next day. He was a little surprised at the alacrity with which she accepted the invitation, while she cast a wary eye on Harry Pringle to make sure that he hadn't overheard.
Was it possible that she was as anxious to talk to him as he was to talk to her? There was the chance that "Duke" Marcy had spoken to her of his encounter with Mr. Vardis at the Diamond Club.
The Agent betrayed nothing of his thoughts. His face showed only pleasure at the prospect of lunching with an attractive woman. "Suppose I phone you tomorrow?"
She nodded, and whispered her number. And shortly after, she drifted away on Harry Pringle's arm.
The bazaar was in full swing now; women shone resplendent in their gorgeous evening gowns and glittering jewels. Men were spending money freely, placing dollar and five dollar bills on the wheels, paying a dollar apiece for drinks. The Agent agreed with Fred Barton's estimate that over a hundred thousand dollars was being spent in the booths that evening.
He turned back to Betty Dale to find her conversing with a short, wiry, hawk-nosed man whose bald head glittered under the sharp electric lights. Though "X" knew this man, he betrayed no sign of recognition as Betty Dale introduced them.
"Mr. Vardis, this is Mr. Runkle." Her eyes flickered slightly as she looked at the Agent in an endeavor to convey some message.
Runkle shook hands enthusiastically, his full red lips expanding in an unctuous smile. "I saw you talking with the commissioner a while ago," he said. "I suppose it was about the subject that is on everybody's tongue these days?"
"If you mean the robot murders," the Agent replied, "you are correct. One couldn't help discussing them."
Runkle's ferretlike eyes probed into the Agent, almost as if he were aware that this, was a disguise. "You don't happen to be a police officer, do you?"
"I have no connection with the police whatsoever," "X" told him. "What gave you that impression?"
Runkle shrugged. "One sometimes gets a feeling."
Ed Runkle was a criminal lawyer, probably the shrewdest and most successful in the profession. It was he who had once defended "Duke" Marcy on a charge of income tax evasion and got him an acquittal. Runkle had also handled the cases of many of Marcy's old gang including some of those who had escaped from State Prison in the recent jail break. Runkle was saying, "Look at all these people, enjoying themselves here, while murder and robbery goes on in the city. Just as I came in they were crying an extra about another robot murder." He demanded suddenly, "Are you interested in crime, Mr. Vardis?"
"X" shrugged. "Who wouldn't be—when it is so close to us?" The Agent perceived that, for some reason, Runkle was making an attempt to draw him out. "X" would have enjoyed allowing himself to be drawn out, perhaps even to glean some profitable information for himself in the process. But he consulted his watch and noted that it was eleven-thirty. He must leave if he wanted to keep his appointment with Linky Teagle.
He excused himself, and Betty Dale walked as far as the door with him. She wore a troubled expression. "I don't know what it is," she said, "but I feel a strange kind of nervousness—as if something terrible were brewing. It must be recent events. That awful jail break, and now these robot murders." She shuddered. "It's almost as if some evil super-mind were enfolding the city in a fog of terror. People don't feel safe any more. If things like the robot murders can take place day after day here, and the police be powerless to stop them, unable to find a single clue, people will take to barricading themselves in their homes."
Secret Agent "X" nodded somberly. "It's all you say it is, Betty. And there is no tangible lead by which they can be run down. However," he murmured as he bowed over her hand, "with a little luck, I may run into something tonight."
As Betty Dale watched the Agent cross the corridor to the elevator, she felt a sudden premonition of danger, felt almost as if she had seen for the last time the strange man who was Secret Agent "X." Something seemed to tug at her heart.
[?] shouting a warning. But she turned back to the busy bazaar, smothering that feeling in a sudden access of energy. She had work to do; she had to cover the event for her paper.
She stepped inside the doorway, and stopped stock still, frozen at sight of the thing that was happening in the glitteringly lit room.
Booth 13—the mystery booth rented by the anonymous donor of five thousand dollars—had been opened! The crowd of hilarious men and women had stopped their laughter, remained rooted where they stood, gaping aghast at the terrifying figures that swarmed out of the interior of the booth. They were like men, yes. And they were clad like men, all in gray suits and gray slouch hats. But they moved with the quick, jerky strides of automatons.
No word was uttered by them, no sound, except for an occasional unintelligible grunt that might have been expressive of pain or of sadistic pleasure. They seemed to be obscene beings endowed with the shapes of men. Each was armed with a snub-nosed automatic equipped with a silencer, and each walked stiffly to a particular spot in the room. Within a minute every exit was covered. The pleasure-seeking crowd of the bazaar was trapped by these manlike beasts.
And then there stepped to the front of the booth, a hideous, awe- inspiring monster. It walked like a man, but stiffly, as did the others. Yet it differed from the others; for it wore a peculiar contraption like a gas mask. The rest of its body was encased, from the gas mask to the feet in a grayish, rough sort of material that might have been asbestos. Its torso was round, stocky, the shape and size of a large barrel. From its gloved right hand protruded a peculiar sort of tube, ending in a tapering point, not unlike a large hypodermic syringe.
This hideous figure stood for a long minute surveying the crowd, silently, grotesquely, like a frankensteinian monster.
Many of the people in the crowd had not yet noticed this monster, for their eyes were glued in horror to the white, expressionless countenances of the mechanical-appearing men who had swarmed out first; and a slow murmur spread through the throng, tinged with sudden fear.
"The robot murderers!" The word went from one to the other in the amazed throng. These were the beings who had committed the robot murders, emblazoned on the front-page of every newspaper in the city for the past week. No wonder the description was alike in every case. These beings were as alike as peas in a pod—clothes, features, bearing—everything!
The whispered word went around, "automatons!"
Betty Dale felt herself brushed aside by one of these creatures who completely disregarded her as he made for the door, turned and stood on guard, automatic pointed at the crowd.
But she paid him no attention. For her eyes were now focused on that awful figure in the booth—that awkward, ungainly monster that stood silently surveying the room.
The first to regain his wits was a patrolman, one of the twelve assigned to duty in the bazaar. He pushed through the crowd toward the booth, shouting to the other uniformed men, "Let's take 'em, boys! It's the robots!"
He was reaching to his hip pocket as he advanced.
The monster turned its ponderous head toward him as if it were a giant dinosaur noticing a lizard in its path. Its right arm rose, the index finger; lined up with that peculiar hypo-like tube, pointed at the blue-coat.
Only that, and nothing more. No sound, no flash. But suddenly, as if an invisible giant hand had been placed against his chest, the unfortunate policeman was brought to a halt. A look of incredible terror and amazement appeared on his round, moonlike face. And in a moment, fierce, torrid flames were leaping up all about him; sizzling, white-hot flames that scorched the clothes from his body, and the flesh from his face. He screamed again and again —screams of dreadful agony that made the blood of Betty Dale and every one of the spectators run cold with horror.
He rolled on the cement floor, clawed about him frenziedly. No one dared approach for fear of being engulfed in that raging furnace which he had become. A wide circle had been cleared about him. And then, suddenly, he lay still, a pitiful scorched thing, that had just now been a man, an officer of the law, a human being with a love of life, perhaps the father of a family.
Men and women stood silent, petrified by the sudden calamity. A quietness as of the tomb descended upon the assembled company. And then, strained nerves could stand no more. The sight of that lifeless thing that had been burned to death before their very eyes released hysteric floodgates of emotion.
A woman screamed, shrilly, piercingly, and fainted. It was Mabel Boling. She slid to the floor, inert and unconscious. Harry Pringle, who was still with her, stooped to aid the senseless woman, as echoes of her shriek were taken up by women all over the room. The bazaar suddenly became a bedlam of high-pitched, hysterical voices. People milled about in panic, shrinking from the awful figure in the booth.
Harry Pringle knelt beside Mabel Boling, shouting, "Give her air! Give her air! Some water, somebody!"
And in the midst of that pandemonium, the ungainly monster stirred slowly, and a deep, metallic cadaverous voice issued from somewhere in the depths of its barrel-like body. "Let nobody move. Stand still with your hands in the air!"
It was as if some one at a great distance were broadcasting, the voice emanating from a receiving set somewhere in the monstrous shape that dominated the room.
Men and women stiffened to frightened attention as those deep, ominous tones resounded through the place. The uniformed men, cowed by the hideous death of their colleague, obeyed the command with the others. The robot killers who guarded the doors stood motionless, as if they had nothing to do with what was going on. But their automatics were trained upon the crowd. It would have been suicide for anyone to defy the order.
Only Harry Pringle, oblivious to everything, still knelt beside Mabel Boling, striving wildly to bring her back to consciousness.
The macabre being in the booth raised its hand once more, and without warning, without repeating the command, pointed at Pringle. From somewhere in the middle of the room came the agonized cry of Pringle's mother, "Harry! Harry! My boy!"
White hot flames sprang up from the young man. The revolting odor of scorched flesh once more pervaded the room. He threshed wildly about, trying to beat out the flames, to no avail, People backed away from him, forming a wide circle. He started to cry, "Damn you—" but his voice was suddenly smothered by the flames, as he twisted horribly in the throes of excruciating agony.
Jack Larrabie, his young friend, was standing close to the far wall. Behind him was a fire extinguisher, hanging ready for use. Stealthily he reached up for it, but the murder monster seemed to have all-seeing eyes. Again that metallic voice, "Don't touch it!"
The gloved hand made a half-move toward Larrabie, stopped as the young physician stayed his reaching arm in mid-air. He was glaring murderously at the monster.
All this had taken only a few seconds; and in that short time young Harry Pringle's agony ended in merciful death. He seemed to shrivel up, drop to the floor. Flames still licked his pathetic form, and even though he was dead, his body twitched.
Toward the middle of the room, a white-haired woman struggled frantically in the restraining arms of her husband, the commissioner, moaning in a dead voice, "My boy! My boy!"
Roderick Pringle, his face gray, held desperately to his wife's arms. To let her leap to her son would only mean death for her, too.
Of a sudden, wild, uncontrollable laughter burst from the half-crazed woman-no mother's sanity could help cracking under the strain of witnessing such a sight.
But above her strident shrieks of mad laughter, there rose once more that metallic voice. "Gag her! Stop that noise, or—"
The pointing finger started to swing in her direction warningly.
Frantically, desperately, Roderick Pringle, himself on the point of breaking down, threw his arms about his wife, smothering, her cries. At last the surcease of unconsciousness came to the bereaved mother, and she sagged in her husband's arms. Her daughter already lay in a merciful faint on the floor.
Mabel Boling stirred, sighed, and opened her eyes. Her uncomprehending gaze fell on the charred remains of Harry Pringle. She did not realize yet what had befallen him; she was still dazed, and she weakly allowed her head to drop back on the concrete floor.
And now the murder monster and his hellish cohorts had the throng subdued, resistless. From a gay, insouciant gathering, spending money freely in the name of charity, this bazaar had been transformed to a grisly scene of murder and terror, with two smouldering bodies, strangely twisted in death, as mute evidence of the dread horror that had suddenly come among them.
The resonant voice of the gruesome being in the booth now rose in terse, metallic command to its cohorts of robot killers. "Take up the collection!"
The automatons snapped into motion at the order. They swarmed from booth to booth, producing from somewhere in their clothing large canvas bags into which they poured the cash which had been taken in.
The robbery was proceeding with the timed efficiency of a well-rehearsed play, every movement of the automatons seeming to have been carefully planned in advance. The whole thing took very little time. While they were emptying the cash drawers, that ominous voice of the specter in the booth spoke again, addressing the cowering throng.
"Make no resistance and you will be harmed no more. The sooner you learn that resistance is useless, the better off you will be. Remember that for the future when we appear again!"
Betty Dale tried hard to remember every inflection of that voice. But she knew it was useless. The voice was disguised, and besides it was issuing from some sort of metal speaker which made it impossible to identify it.
An outcry from the doorway behind her made her turn suddenly about.
This doorway opened into the hallway close to the stairs and the elevator. She saw the two elevator cages open, with the robot killer who had brushed past her before, standing guard. He had shot the two operators with his silenced gun, and their bodies lay now, one of them huddled—in the cage, the other sprawled half in and half out of the other cage, a pool of blood, seeping along the cement floor from a wound in the head.
The cry that caused her to turn was uttered by a uniformed man who had come down the stairs from the floor above, no doubt attracted by the screams of the women. He was one of the special policemen employed by the building. His gun was holstered at his side, but he drew it as he noted the situation through the open doorway.
He raised his gun, fired six times through the open door at the barrel- like figure in the booth. The heavy slugs from the thirty-eight whined across the room to the thunderous reverberations of the gun and buried themselves in that unholy being—without effect!
The figure staggered slightly from the smashing impact of the bullets, but recovered its balance, raised a pointing finger at the brave attacker.
But the robot killer at the elevator cages was already in action. He emptied his automatic into the body of the special, who staggered, ran a few steps on the concrete floor, and flung headlong down the stairs leading to the floor below. But the searching finger of the ugly monster in the gas mask had found him too, and his body burst into flames, forming a veritable ball of fire that rolled down the steps.
The metallic voice issued an order to the killer at the elevators. "Guard those stairs. Allow no one up or down. We leave now!"
The robot seemed to understand the order as if it were a human being. It moved stiffly toward the head of the stairs, and took up a position there, then proceeded to insert a new clip in the automatic it had just emptied into the body of the special policeman. Betty Dale had her hand to her mouth in consternation. She had no eyes now for the swift movement of the horde of robots and their leader. For she had seen something that made her blood chill with sharp concern. Just before the flaming body of the policeman had hurtled downward, carrying fiery destruction for anyone who might be in its path, she had glimpsed a face—the face of a man who was running up the stairs. It was the face of Mr. Vardis—Secret Agent "X"—returning, attracted, as had been the special policeman who was now hurtling down upon him, by the screams of the women.
Secret Agent "X" had heard those screams as he stepped from the elevator downstairs and started to cross the lobby to the street. He turned to go back, but the cage was already rising in response to insistent ringing from above, where the robot killer was summoning the operator back to meet his death.
The Agent's sure instinct told him that those screams were not occasioned by any ordinary accident—he caught the edge of frightful terror in them.
He noted from the indicator that the second cage was not descending, and his swiftly roving eyes saw the staircase at the left. Several people were in the lobby, and he shouted to them, "Call headquarters, somebody! Send in a riot call!" Then he dashed for the stairs, sprinted up them with a speed that left those in the lobby agape.
On the way up, as he passed landing after landing on the way to the fourth floor, he heard further cries, then silence, which was even more ominous. He passed the third floor, was approaching the fourth, when he saw the special policeman on the landing, got a swift glimpse of the room with the hideous figure in the booth, saw the uniformed officer burst into flame and come tumbling down right at him.
The stairway was narrow, there was no chance of avoiding that hurtling bundle of fire. It would strike him in a moment, engulf him in its flaming destruction.
His brain worked with the speed of lightning. He seized the banister, vaulted over, and hung by his hands on the outside, as the ball of fire rolled down, thumped on the lower landing, and came to a stop against the wall.
The Agent easily supported himself by his hands. He hung there for a moment longer, while the full import of the situation came to him. He heard the metallic voice from the booth order, "You will all remain quiet while we leave. Keep your hands in the air."
There was silence within that room, then the voice again, "All right, we're leaving. File out the back way."
Hanging there by his hands, "X" saw the shape of the robot who had shot the officer at the head of the stairs.
The Agent realized at once what was taking place. Those beings who had committed the robot murders had struck again, this time at the gay throng assembled here in the name of charity; they had brought terror and frightful death along with them; and now they were making good their escape. That escape could not be prevented. But there was one thing that could be done—one of these so-called robots must be captured if possible.
Without hesitation, "X" leaped into action. He swung over the banister, dashed up the stairs, at the same time drawing a peculiar-shaped gun. 
[11 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Secret Agent "X" does not use lethal weapons. His gas gun contains a highly volatile, quick-acting anaesthetizing gas of his own compounding, which serves the same purpose as a lethal weapon without inflicting injury or death. It renders the subject instantly unconscious, and leaves no ill effects.]
The robot on the landing was just turning to depart. From below came the shrill note of a police whistle, the tramp of many feet on the stairs.
As "X" reached the top landing, he got a glimpse into the bazaar room, saw the ghastly figure of the murder monster moving with ungainly, ponderous motions as it stepped through a doorway at the far end of the room, followed by the horde of robots who marched across the floor in its wake.
The robot who had stood at the head of the stairs was just stepping through the doorway to cross the room and join the others. "X" leveled his gas gun and pulled the trigger. A stream of gas was ejected from the muzzle, enveloping the robot's head. The action was a desperate one, for if the robot were protected and not susceptible to the effects of the gas, it would immediately turn upon the Agent and loose a stream of lead from its automatic, which, at that short range, could mean nothing but death.
"X" poised on the balls of his feet, ready to leap forward at the figure if it swung toward him. But it didn't. Suddenly, as the gas struck, the robot sagged, and crumpled to a heap on the floor!
Pandemonium reigned within the bazaar room as the last of the unholy horde left through the far exit. "X" paid no attention to the riot within. He stooped swiftly beside the unconscious figure, looked deeply into the smooth features. He ran his hand along the inert shape. His fingers encountered metal. The figure was wearing a bullet-proof vest, and leg, thigh and arm guards of the same material. No wonder bullets had no effect! He raised his head sharply as a frantic figure raced up beside him. It was Betty Dale. Her face was flushed with excitement, and her hands shook. Her voice was barely audible above the cacophony of sound from inside the bazaar room. "I—I saw you on the stairs!" she exclaimed. She shuddered, closed her eyes tight as if to shut out some terrible sight, "I thought you'd be burned! God! It's horrible! That—that monster—it killed Harry Pringle, and a policeman. And those robots—" "X" arose from beside the inert form on the floor. The feet of the police were pounding closer on the stairs. They were on the landing below now. The Agent put a hand on Betty's shoulder that seemed to soothe her as if by magic. His eyes glittered. "That is all over and done with, Betty. The dead are dead. But this man on the floor here will change the situation. From now on the police and the public will know that these are not robots, not mechanical men, not supernatural beings. The police were rapidly becoming demoralized by the feeling that they had to face super-human beings. From now on they will fight with renewed vigor, knowing that their enemies are no more than men."
He drew Betty Dale away before the first of the uniformed men came into sight on the stairs. "It's too bad that I won't have an opportunity to question this man. I am afraid the police won't get anywhere with him," He shrugged. "Perhaps I can arrange to question him later. Now I must get out of here. I have an appointment."
He pressed her hand, left her, and slipped into the throng in the bazaar room. Betty watched him, speechless, while he mingled with the hysterical crowd who still kept a wide space cleared around the smouldering, scorched bodies of Harry Pringle and the unfortunate policeman who had defied the murder monster.
It was twenty minutes past midnight when Secret Agent "X" appeared again on Eighth Avenue outside Haley's Bar and Grill. He had been delayed by the police investigation at the bazaar, had been compelled to wait while the names of all those present had been taken. The police had been puzzled at finding the killer's unconscious body, had been at a loss to understand how he had been rendered insensible. But no one except Betty Dale had seen the Agent fire his gas gun at the robot-like killer, and she said nothing.
Haley's Bar and Grill was still doing a rushing business. Outside the rain had stopped, but the sky was cloudy and dark. "X" stood near the curb, away from the light that streamed out of Haley's windows. He was twenty minutes late for his appointment with Linky Teagle.
Once more he was in the role of John Harder, fugitive from justice, friend of Gilly, the gunman. He had confidence in the perfection of his disguise, in his knowledge of the characteristics of the man he was impersonating, for he had studied them thoroughly. He would have felt a good deal less confident, however, had he possessed knowledge of a fact not yet reported to the police—the fact that John Harder, the man he was impersonating tonight, was dead! Harder had accidentally shot himself in the leg while examining a machine gun. Harder had fallen on the Tommy, had for two days lain in the lonely hut where he was hiding out, until two of his gang returned. But Harder was dead when they found him—for gangrene had set in. The two pals took his body and buried it in a barren field near the hut. That was the end of Harder.
Gilly, many miles away in State Prison, got word of that event by means of the grapevine telegraph of the underworld, because he was known to be a one- time pal of Harder's. And so, though Secret Agent "X" did not know that he was impersonating a dead man, others did...
The Agent strolled up and down the street in front of Haley's, wondering whether Linky Teagle had been there and gone, or whether he would soon appear. "X" was not unconscious of the possibility that this appointment might be a trap of some sort. He kept a wary eye out for passing automobiles from which a sub-machine gun might spout lead. He now carried an automatic holstered under his left armpit; and few could use it with a dexterity to equal his. He did not intend to inflict death if he could help it—yet it would come in handy if he were being "put on the spot."
No overt attack was made, however. And soon a shadowy figure approached out of the misty night, came close. It was Linky Teagle. Teagle scanned his face, and grunted. "You got nerve, wandering around the city with a fat reward posted for you in every post office in town!"
"X" brushed the remark aside. "Well?" he demanded, "How about Gilly?"
Teagle took his time about answering. "You got that two grand you promised?"
The Agent nodded. "I got it, right here." He tapped the breast pocket of his coat.
Teagle's face was eager. "Okay. Give us it, an' I'll take you to him!"
"X" brought out an envelope and handed it to the other. Teagle almost snatched it from his fingers, opened the flap and drew out the contents. Twenty crisp one hundred dollar bills. He looked up suspiciously. "This ain't— swag from some hold-up, is it? Will I get my neck in a sling if I try to pass it?"
The Agent reassured him. "That ain't hot money, Teagle. It's good cash. You can change it in any bank in the city. Think I'm a sap?"
Teagle pocketed the money. "Okay, Harder. Come along." He turned, proceeded up Eighth Avenue.
The Agent swung in beside him. "Where do we have to go?"
"Don't ask so many questions!" the other growled. "You'll see."
They walked up two blocks, turned the corner and stopped before a small store with windows which, had been frosted to prevent passers—by from looking in. The street was deserted, but "X" noted two doorways across the street, where the shadows seemed, thicker than elsewhere. Also, as Teagle rang the bell at the door, the Agent saw two men appear out of a hallway several doors down.
These men strolled casually toward the store with frosted windows, their hands in their overcoat pockets. At the same time, the two shadows on the opposite side moved, resolved themselves into men, and started across. The Agent did not appear to notice all this, but he crowded closer to Linky, slid the automatic from his shoulder holster and put it into his coat pocket. He did not take his hand out of the pocket, but he looked significantly at Teagle.
Linky looked down at the bulge the automatic made close to his own side, looked up at "X", and said, "What's the idea, friend?"
"X" laughed harshly. "Just an old habit of mine when I go into strange places. You can never tell what's on the cards."
The door of the store opened to Teagle's ring, and a big, heavy-set, man with a walrus moustache looked inquiringly at them, then said, "Oh, hello, Linky. Come on in." He turned and went back down the short, dark hall, motioning them to follow him.
Teagle said to the Agent, "This is where we meet your friend. You don't have to worry about nothin' happening. This joint is okay."
"X" crowded in beside Linky, shut the door behind them so quickly that anybody outside who might have been waiting for a clear potshot at him would have been disappointed.
OUT in the street, the four shadows converged before the door. They did not ring the bell. No word was spoken among them. They seemed to be acting according to prearranged plan, and waited silently.
In a few moments the door opened, and the big man with the walrus moustache appeared again, stood aside for them to enter. They filed in past him and walked down the short hall. The big man closed the door, followed them into the lighted room at the end of the hall
This was a barroom, with a small bar at one end. Near the bar was another door, which was closed. This other door led into a private room where guests could drink undisturbed, transact whatever private business they had.
The big man stepped behind the bar, saying nothing to the four who had entered. They stood near the wall now, hands in pockets, unmoving, their eyes on the door to the inner room. There was something peculiar about them— something that caused the bartender to shudder. They looked like brothers —and they walked stiffly, mechanically. There was nothing to indicate that they were human except four pair of eyes that glittered out of those faces with a merciless light that made the man with the walrus moustache feel, somehow, cold and clammy.
The four men waited stolidly, never speaking.
Presently the door of the inner room opened and Linky Teagle came out —alone. A shadow crossed his face—was it a shadow of fear? —as he saw those four silent figures. He gulped, looked away from them with an effort, and said to the bartender, "He took the doped drink like a fish; he's out cold already."
The bartender grinned nervously, rubbing his hands. "A Mickey Finn always works, Linky. Only I was afraid that guy was too slick to take it. He certainly fell fer the whole lay, just like a sap—expectin' you to lead him to Gilly!" He glanced at the four men. "You can go in an' get him now, boys." He spoke diffidently, as if he almost thought they would not understand him. But they did. One of them produced from his coat a capacious sugar sack, which he unfolded and shook out. It was large enough to hold an unconscious man. The four of them then advanced into the inner room.
The bartender peered over Teagle's shoulder, glimpsed the inert form that lay with head on table, unconscious. He poured out two stiff jolts of whisky, handed one to Teagle, and downed his own at a gulp, sighed gustily. "I'm glad that's over. Did you scratch his face to see if he had make-up?"
Teagle nodded. "It's make-up all right, and damn clever. If I didn't know for sure that Harder was dead, I'd swear it was him."
The four men closed the inner door behind them as they went about their gruesome task of stuffing the inert form into the sack. The bartender shivered slightly. "God! Those guys give me the heeby-jeebies—they don't seem to have no soul. They don't talk or anything; they just look at you with those killer-eyes!"
Teagle's eyes were on the inner door. He seemed to share some of the walrus-moustached one's feelings, but he said nothing. He appeared tense, alert.
The bartender asked huskily, "What'll they do with that guy in the sack —after they're through asking him questions?"
Linky Teagle shrugged. "Maybe there won't be anything left of him by that time." He moved toward the door. "I wonder what's keeping them so long."
The man with the walrus moustache came around to the front of the bar. He said, uneasily, "I'm wonderin'—whoever their boss is, how come he trusts us to see all this? Suppose—" his voice dropped to a whisper —"suppose he give them orders to knock us off after they finish this job?"
Linky Teagle said, "I was thinking of the same thing. We better take a look in there."
His hand snaked inside his coat, produced a gun. He reached out, opened the door wide. The inner room was empty.
The bartender gasped. "They musta gone out the back way!"
And just then there was the sound of heavy steps in the short hall that led from the front door. There had been no sound of anyone entering, but there was the distinct noise of a ponderous tread in the hall now.
The bartender's face went pale. "They left the outside door unlocked —so they could go around from in back!"
Teagle swung his gun toward the hallway, just as a strange, monstrous figure came into view. It was the same horrid being that had struck terror into the crowds at the bazaar, that had launched invisible death at Harry Pringle and the policeman. Its barrel-like body waddled as it walked, and its ghastly gas-masked head peered through the gloom.
It stopped in the doorway, slowly and ponderously raised its hand, with the finger pointing at the bartender.
The bartender screamed, started to duck behind the bar. Linky Teagle had his gun poised. His finger now contracted on the trigger, and seven slugs —seven livid streams of death streaked from the muzzle straight at the monster. But the heavy figure was unmoved by the hail of lead. It was as if those death-dealing bullets that would have been fatal to any man were no more than pellets from a boy's toy sling. With a sure, inexorable motion, its pointing finger sought the bartender, and a flash of flame sprang from the screaming man's clothing. In an instant he had become his own fiery funeral pyre. His screams tore through the small room; horrible, hideous screams that mingled with the echoes of Teagle's gun. He swept his arms in a desperate, flail-like motion over the bar, and the whisky bottle was hurled to the floor, shattered, The alcoholic liquid spread, and the dying man rolled across the floor, right into it. Flames spread, fed by the alcohol, and the place became an inferno. In the meantime, the hellish monster had turned its death-finger toward Teagle. But Teagle, acting with desperate speed, had slipped through the inner door that led to the back room and kicked the door shut.
The room became bright as the flames spread. For a moment the huge, ungainly monster stood there, watching its handiwork. If it entertained any emotion of anger at being balked of its other prey, any disappointment at missing Linky Teagle, there was no way of telling. It turned ponderously and made its way out of the short hall, into the night, where it stepped into the rear of a closed truck that sped away.
A square room, poorly, lit. Chairs arranged in a semicircle before a raised platform with, curtains at the rear.
Walls of whitewashed brick, with small windows high up near the ceiling —a typical cellar room, converted to its present use.
In the chairs were seated beings that resembled men—rather, shells of men, lacking a human spark. They were awaiting something or someone. They smoked, but did not talk. Their startlingly youthful, features bore an uncanny resemblance to each other—as if they were all members of a single family. And in their eyes there was a ruthlessness, a cold-blooded killer lust that it was hard to credit. It was as if they had made a bargain with the devil—trading their immortal souls for a quality of merciless viciousness beyond human conception.
There were four chairs vacant in the semicircle. None of those strange beings paid any attention to the empty chairs. They did not even stir when four of their fellows entered through a side door, carrying a sack in which something squirmed.
They deposited the sack on the floor, and one of them stooped, cut open the rope that tied it at the top. They helped out the half-conscious man who was within it, stood him on his feet. The doped drink had not yet worn off entirely, and the man was still groggy, wobbling, dazed.
The face of John Harder stared about the room with swollen, uncomprehending eyes. He was no longer the desperate fugitive from justice; he was a man with half his senses deadened by dope, unable to familiarize himself with his surroundings.
No words were spoken by the robot killers who held his arms. There was utter silence in the room for a space of minutes. And then the curtains parted at the back of the narrow platform, and the murder monster stepped out— huge, ungainly, terrifying.
At sight of that monster, the captive wrenched wildly at the hands that held him; but his strength had been sapped by the dope, and he was as a child in the grip of his grinning captors.
The monstrous figure on the platform paid him no attention at first. It stood there, planted solidly, its hideous head moving from side to side as it took stock of those present.
Finally, from somewhere in its bowels there emanated the same sonorous metallic voice, that had struck terror into the hearts of the people at the bazaar.
"I have no fault to find with the way you all acted tonight at the bazaar. You were true sons of the monster! Always remember that you must be ruthless, merciless! Do not hesitate to kill—a dead enemy is a harmless enemy; and we have no friends! By striking terror into the hearts of everybody, we eliminate resistance."
The voice paused for a moment, then went on, "In future, however, you must be more careful. Tonight we lost one of you—Number Eight is reported missing, capture by the police. If he had come at once in answer to my order, he would not have been caught. It is imperative now that we release him. My plans are all set for tomorrow morning at eleven o'clock, when he is to be arraigned in court. You will all participate; your instructions will be issued later. Now we must attend to another matter."
The ungainly monster half turned toward the captive, ordered those holding him, "Bring the prisoner forward!" Then it once more addressed the seated audience of killers, "There is one enemy whom I knew all along I would have to eliminate in this campaign, for he was sure to interfere with our progress. That enemy is the man known as Secret Agent 'X.' You have all heard how impossible it is to find him, how dangerous he is. Well, gentlemen, I have the honor to show you—Secret Agent 'X'! He was caught by a simple trick; he practically walked into our hands."
The four men led their struggling captive down to the foot of the platform.
The monster continued, "I am sure that this is Secret Agent 'X' because nobody else in the world could have disguised himself as John Harder. He tried to crash into this organization in that role; gentlemen, John Harder is dead. But this man didn't know it. And there he stands. Look at that disguise. Perfect! It shall now be our pleasure to scrape that putty off his face, and see for the first time the real features of—Secret Agent 'X'! And after we are through asking him a few questions, I will treat him to a bath of fire!"
There was no trace of pity in the eyes of the smooth-faced killers who watched the captive struggle ineffectually with those who held him. He tried to talk, but the powerful drug had paralyzed the muscles of his throat temporarily. It was wearing off slowly, and confused syllables issued from his mouth, syllables that had no coherence or meaning.
He was rapidly searched, and an automatic taken from his shoulder holster, together with a few other papers. Then those who held him proceeded to scratch the plaster and make-up from his face.
While they were doing it, the resonant voice of the monster spoke mockingly, "For once the famous Secret Agent 'X' has nothing to say; for once he is helpless. At last he has met his master! This, gentlemen, is the end of Secret Agent 'X'! There was a note of proud triumph in that voice now—a note of evil, unmerciful triumph, which ended in a gasp of rage as the last of the make-up was removed, revealing the face of—Linky Teagle!
A rustle of excitement, spread among the assembled killers, but even then no word was spoken among them—only, here and—there were heard gross, unintelligible grunts, and the wheezy, terror-impregnated breathing of Linky Teagle.
Above the sound of those inhuman grunts rose the metallic, but now enraged voice of the murder monster. "If this is a trick, somebody is going to pay for it! Scratch that face and see if it's another disguise!"
One of the four killers, grinning as a child might grin when it crushes a grasshopper with its foot, drew a knife and scraped the point along the captive's face, eliciting a muted howl of agony. But no plaster came off. Blood ran freely where the knife point had scored into the flesh. It was indeed Linky Teagle.
The monster uttered a single ominous word, "Explain!"
Teagle gulped, tried to talk, and succeeded only in emitting grotesque sounds. He was in the grip of terror, and he tried desperately to talk. Finally, urged by his dread, he managed to get out some words. The dope was wearing off, easing his throat muscles.
"It's no joke, boss. I had this guy 'X' in the back room, and the bartender brought in the doped drink. But he must have got wise. Because—" he stopped, swallowed hard, and found it impossible to continue.
The monster ordered, "Bring him water."
One of the four disappeared through the side door, returned in a moment with a glass of water which Teagle gulped at a single draught. His throat felt better, and he went on.
"He must have got wise, somehow. Because all of a sudden he pulls out a funny shaped gun. I says, 'What's that, Harder?'—makin' believe, see, that I still thought he was Harder. An' he says to me, lookin' kinda funny, 'So you know who I am! Well, I will show you how to make a quick change, only you won't be able to witness it, Linky.' An' with that, he shoots off this funny gun that don't make no noise, an' I feel a sudden kind of sickish sweet feelin', an' that's all I know till I wake up in the sack! So help me, boss, it ain't no joke!"
Several of the killers stirred uneasily in the silence that followed Linky's recital, It was difficult to tell from their impassive countenances what they felt. Only their eyes blazed with a dangerous lust. But they looked tensely at the monster on the platform. Somehow the monster's rage and bafflement seemed to pervade the whole room.
The resonant voice burst from the bowels of the barrel-like shape. "So he put you to sleep, eh, Teagle? And then he changed places with you—made up as you, and made you up as Harder. Then he came out and sent my men in to put you in the sack." The voice paused, then continued ruminatively, "And to think—I almost got him. I wondered that Linky Teagle could be so quick- witted as to escape the fire bath!"
Teagle looked up, sudden fear in his eyes. "What do you mean, boss —escape the fire bath?"
"You didn't think, Teagle, that you would be allowed to live after learning so much of our secret? Well, perhaps you did. So did that foolish bartender. I killed him. I thought I failed with you. This time I shall not fail."
Slowly the ominous finger rose, pointing st Teagle. "Stand away from him!" ordered the metallic voice.
The four smooth-faced killers who had held him now sprang away. Teagle cried out piteously, "What you gonna do to—"
He never ended the sentence, for he was suddenly enveloped in flames...
Secret Agent "X" did not permit himself to rest after escaping the trap set for him by Linky Teagle.
He knew that the murder monster would quickly discover the ruse by which he had substituted Linky Teagle for himself in the sack. He knew that the murder monster would be spurred to redoubled activity by the realisation that it was the Secret Agent, and not Teagle, who had escaped from the menace of the flaming death in the smelly barroom on Eighth Avenue.
And "X," too, was spurred to feverish activity by the knowledge that there was much to be done yet if the monster was to be prevented from striking again with that horrible flaming death. All hope of gaining admittance to the inner ring of the monster's cohorts was now dissipated. He must follow along other lines of inquiry.
The most promising lead was the actress, Mabel Boling. She was a former friend of "Duke" Marcy. She had been with Harry Pringle when he was killed. The Agent was to phone her tomorrow. But that was too long to wait. If she knew anything, she must be made to talk before morning.
It was to see her, therefore, that the Agent was now on his way. He had discarded, temporarily, the personality of Mr. Vardis. To appear before Mabel Boling in that character might make her suspicious now. He was Mr. A. J. Martin, a newspaper man. As such, he had every legitimate reason to approach her; he would be collecting news on the atrocity at the bazaar, and it was certain that she would not be asleep after her harrowing experience—she would probably be home, being interviewed by other representatives of the press.
"X" drove toward the address she had given him in the West Eighties. On the way he passed a newsboy crying an extra. He pulled in at the curb, bought a copy.
His hands clenched on the paper, his mouth set grimly as he read the screaming headline:
WOMAN IS LATEST VICTIM OF MURDER MONSTER
Mabel Boling, Actress, Is Burned to Death
in Her Apartment by Mysterious Death Blast
TWO-ALARM FIRE RESULTS
At one A.M. this morning, the Murder Monster struck again. This time his victim was a beautiful woman, Mabel Boling. It will be recalled that she recently broke with "Duke" Marcy—
Secret Agent "X" skipped the rest of the account. He ran his eye to the next column where the heading announced that Deputy Commissioner Pringle, on the job despite the death of his son, had issued a call for every detective on vacation to return to active duty until the murder monster was captured or killed.
It added that the police were seeking "Duke" Marcy for questioning, but that he had disappeared from all his known haunts; a general alarm had been issued for him, and it was expected that he would be apprehended shortly.
The Agent put the paper down, headed his car back the way he had come. The murder monster had acted swiftly. There must be a keen brain, indeed, behind that clumsy automaton; for it had foreseen that Mabel might be possible source of information, had taken immediate, ruthless steps to eliminate her. Every avenue of information that might lead to the murder monster had been blocked. With bitterness in his heart, the Agent drove to an apartment that he maintained near by where he kept copious records of the reports of his far-flung operatives. Here he ensconced himself in solitude, and spent the few remaining hours of the night in studying every angle and manifestation of the case.
He had long ago discovered what few men have learned—that two or three hours of concentrated thought are often worth days of feverish activity.
He checked through his records of every single one of those twenty-five convicts who had escaped from State Prison, familiarizing himself with the habits and recorded peculiarities of each. He consulted voluminous indexes and cross-indexes, searching down every little detail that came to his attention.
It was well on in the morning when he laid sway the last record with an air of decisiveness. Purposefully he picked up the newspaper once more and sought for a certain item. He found it, crowded to the second page by the news of Mabel Boling's death. It announced that the so-called robot killer who had been captured the night before at the bazaar would be arraigned at eleven o'clock in the morning before a judge of the Court of General Sessions.
The reason for this quick arraignment, it was stated, was because of a writ of habeas corpus which had been secured by the defendant's attorney.
And the name of the attorney, which stared up at "X" out of the printed page with a sinister implication, was the name of the man he had talked to at the bazaar—Edward Runkle! Runkle was defending the murder monster's man —Runkle, the shrewdest criminal lawyer in the city, who boasted that no client of his had ever gone to the chair!
Automatically, the Agent read the last few lines of the item, which stated that though the defendant had been grilled intensely by the police and the district attorney, he had refused to make any kind of statement— had, in fact, sat there without opening his mouth, just like the robot he had been previously supposed to be!
The Agent consulted his wrist watch, noted that it was eight-thirty. He left the apartment, drove to a drug store a few blocks away that was just opening for the morning. Here he entered one of the phone booths and dialed a number. It was the number of the Hobart Detective Agency, a new and highly successful inquiry bureau. Its head was a young, red-headed former patrolman; and though he had only been in business for a short time, he employed more than fifty operatives all over the country. Nobody suspected that Hobart, though ostensibly the boss, took his orders from the obscure newspaperman, A. J. Martin. And Hobart himself did not know that A. J. Martin was—Secret Agent "X." 
[12 AUTHOR'S NOTE: As has been mentioned before it was in the role of A.J. Martin that Secret Agent "X" had first befriended Jim Hobart. Jim took his orders, and obeyed them without question. Often he saw from the results of the work he was doing that his employer was a man of unusual capacity. If he was inclined to make any conjectures in that direction, he certainly kept them to himself. In any event, he never doubted that A. J. Martin was the man he represented himself to be. Jim sometimes wondered If the orders he received from Mr. Martin had not originated with someone else who was using Martin as a go-between. If that was so, Jim had a good idea, or thought he had, who that "someone else" was. But he was thoroughly satisfied to continue, because he was in a position to know, the opinion of the police to the contrary, that the "someone else" was emphatically on the side of law and order.]
Though it was only eight-thirty, Hobart was on the job, and his voice came cheerfully over the wire.
When he learned who was on the phone, he said, "Gosh, chief, there's big doings. Did you see the papers?"
"I did. And there's plenty of work for you." "On the murder monster case?"
"Yes. Here's what I want you to do. Get hold of half a dozen of your men. Be sure they are well armed. Have them ready for duty in the corridor at the court of General Sessions by ten o'clock, at the opening of court.
"Don't use any local operatives who might be known to the police— phone out of town, have six or seven outside operatives fly in; they should be able to get here by ten o'clock. By the time they get here, you will receive by messenger written instructions as to what to do. Carry out those instructions to the letter!"
"Depend on me, chief."
"The orders may sound, peculiar, Jim, but it's imperatve that you follow them implicitly. It may even seem to you that you are acting in a way to frustrate the law—but you must carry the orders through. Do you understand?"
"I understand perfectly, chief. I ought to know by this time that anything you do is okay. You figuring to take that killer out of court by force? If you say so, I'll do it."
"Not exactly by force, Jim; but I suspect that the 'Murder Monster,' as you call him, will make an attempt to rescue him—or kill him. He has so far succeeded in murdering everybody who might be able to betray him. There is no doubt that he will try to do the same in court today. We must stop him!"
"Okay, chief. By the way—have you seen Leane recently? I've been so busy I haven't had a chance. And I'm worried about her, working in that fast night club of Marcy's, especially since he's been tied up by the police with this murder monster. Also, I understand that this Mr. Vardis that you recommended her to has been hanging around her a lot. Is he okay?"
"Leane will be all right," the Agent assured him. "She needn't work at the Diamond Club any longer. And Mr. Vardis won't see her any more—he's gone on a long trip. From now on she can work with you, directly under my orders. How's that?" "Swell, chief!"
The Court of General Sessions was a scene of bustling activity that mourning. In Part 1, on the first floor, where the captured robot killer was to be arraigned later that morning, two uniformed guards stood at the door. Nobody was admitted unless he had business in the court room. Spectators were barred because of the dangerous character of the killer.
Inside the court room, though spectators were not admitted, all the seats were filled with attorneys and witnesses in the various cases scheduled on the calendar for the day. The judge had not yet appeared, but Chief Assistant District Attorney Fenton, tall, gaunt, stern, a relentless prosecutor, was already seated at the long table inside the enclosure before the bench. He was going through a sheaf of papers, stopping every few moments to converse with his two clerks who hovered around him.
He looked up, frowning, as the bald-headed, oily Ed Runkle approached him.
"Hello, Joe," Runkle greeted him. "How's tricks?"
Fenton grunted an answer. He had nothing but contempt for Runkle's breed of lawyer, who would accept as a client the most vicious enemy of society, provided a fee accompanied the case. But Runkle's tremendous political connections made it unwise to antagonize him.
"I'm busy, Runkle. Is there anything you want?"
"What time is my client's case coming up this morning?" the lawyer asked.
Fenton ran his finger down the calendar to the line which read: "People vs. John Doe—motion on writ of habeas corpus."
"It should be reached about eleven, Runkle—after the call of the calendar and the sentencing of convicted defendants."
"Can't you move it up a little, Fenton?" Runkle was smiling ingratiatingly now. "I have another case on in Brooklyn, and I'd like to get away early."
The D.A. put down his papers, glared up at the little lawyer, and exclaimed impatiently, "Why should I do anything for you? You know damn well that this man is a murderer—he was caught red-handed at the bazaar. Yet you ask for a writ of habeas corpus! You know damn well that you're only doing it so as to prevent the police from grilling him further. You know he'll never be discharged." Runkle shrugged "I'm only doing my duty as an attorney." He added unctuously, "Every man is entitled to be considered innocent until he is convicted by a jury; and it's his privilege to be brought before a judge within forty-eight hours." "Sure, sure!" Fenton said bitterly. "You know the law inside and out. Of course it's your privilege. But did you consider that, in forcing us to bring him here out of the security of the jail, you make it possible for his associates to rescue him? For all we know, they may be planning to attack us here the way they attacked the bazaar last night!"
"I'm sorry if you feel that way about it," Runkle said, getting ugly. "If you don't like the law, why don't you get yourself elected to the legislature and change it? You don't care if a man is guilty or innocent—all you want is convictions to build up your record!"
Fenton sprang to his feet, face purple. "You know that's a lie, Runkle! For that matter, how about you? You'd use every quirk of the law to get your client out, even if you knew he was as guilty as hell! How about this case? Who hired you? Who paid your fee?" He shook an apoplectic finger under the little lawyer's nose. "I'm going to put you on the stand and make you tell us who hired you! It's birds like you that make it so easy for criminals!"
Everybody in the court was watching with interest now, attracted by the loud words. The scene might perhaps have ended in a fist fight, if the door at the side of the court room had not just then opened. An attendant stepped through, announced in a brittle voice. "His Honor, the Judge. All rise!"
Fenton turned away from Runkle, choking down his rage. The little criminal lawyer, unruffled by the other's burst of irascibility, smiled thinly as he faced the bench, while everybody in the court room stood in deference to the majesty of the law represented here by the black-robed judge who entered behind the attendant and seated himself in the tall chair behind the bench.
Judge Rothmere was one of the oldest of the justices of the court in point of service. He was also the sternest. Criminals and their lawyers tried to avoid him by every possible means, going to extremes to get their cases postponed to times when he was not presiding; for every criminal knew that if he was convicted in Judge Rothmere's court, he would be sentenced to the maximum prescribed by law.
The judge glanced over the court room while the clerk intoned the usual formula for opening the session. His eyes, under the bushy eyebrows, took cognizance of the strained attitudes of Runkle and Fenton.
Runkle was by far the cooler of the two; he owed his great success as a criminal lawyer to the fact that he never lost his head in the court room. Now, as the judge leaned forward over the bench, he stepped up, speaking in a self-contained, calm manner of injured righteousness.
"If Your Honor please, the district attorney just finished some very disparaging remarks about me before you entered the court room. I am here to argue a motion on a writ of habeas corpus for one, John Doe, charged with murder in the first degree. The district attorney has scheduled this motion for eleven o'clock, and has absolutely refused my request to have it called earlier. It is highly important that I leave shortly, as I have a pressing engagement, and I appeal to Your Honor not to permit Mr. Fenton to run this court, but to have the defendant, John Doe, brought here now."
Judge Rothmere, who, ordinarily made no concessions to defendants' lawyers, seemed to feel that Runkle deserved special consideration. He turned to Fenton, asked, "What is your objection, Mr. Fenton, to accommodating Mr. Runkle?"
Fenton spluttered. "If the Court please, I don't think Runkle is entitled to any consideration. This writ is entirely uncalled for. In the ordinary course of events, the defendant would have been indicted some time this week and duly brought to trial. Runkle has taken this action merely to get this killer of his out of the hands of the police before he can be made to talk. It's a shame that any attorney could be got to handle this case, and I intend to question Mr. Runkle as to who retained him!"
The judge nodded, turned to Runkle. He was listening to both sides impartially.
Runkle did not lose his patience. He said, "I am perfectly willing to explain how I was retained. Early this morning, about three A. M., I was awakened by the ringing of the telephone beside my bed. A muffled voice told me that if I went down to my front door I would find ten thousand dollars, and that it was the fee paid to me in advance for defending this man. I was warned that if I did not take the case I would regret it. Then my unknown caller hung up.
"The money was there in front of my door, tied in a neat parcel. I immediately called police headquarters, and the call was traced to a drug store pay station. The bills in the package of ten thousand dollars were checked carefully and found not to correspond to any that were known to have been stolen from the bazaar. Under the circumstances, Your Honor, I felt entirely justified in taking the case, and I at once proceeded to obtain a writ of habeas corpus. It is what any other attorney would do under the circumstances. I co-operated fully with the police, and there should be no fault to find with my actions."
Runkle stopped drew a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his lips. He shook a deep breath and went on. "I once more ask Your Honor to exercise the discretion of the court, and have this defendant produced now instead of at eleven o'clock."
Judge Rothmere had listened closely to Runkle's explanation. Now he addressed Fenton sternly. "I see nothing wrong in Mr. Runkle's conduct, Mr. District Attorney. The defendant is entitled to the services of counsel, and Mr. Runkle is doing the best he can for his client. I will grant the request of defendant's attorney." He raised his voice; "Bailiff! Bring. in the defendant, John Doe. Number—" he glanced down at his copy of the calendar— "Number twenty-seven."
When the bailiff left to obey the order, the judge bent his imposing, bushy eyebrows and looked at the district attorney. "Perhaps this will be a lesson to you, Mr. Fenton, not to attempt, in the future, to assume the prerogatives of the Court. As a matter of fact, for certain other reasons that have been brought to my attention, I had intended having this defendant brought up earlier, even if Mr. Runkle had not requested it."
Fenton gnawed his lower lip, glaring at Runkle, who grinned at him.
There was a stir in the courtroom as the bailiff and two armed guards led in the robot-like killer who was down on the police blotter as John Doe. No trace of emotion or interest showed on his smooth face. Though he had not shaved, his cheeks were still smooth. No beard had grown there. Only his eyes showed a sign of human intelligence. They darted about the courtroom, glittering with expectancy—as if he sought some one he knew should be there. He walked less stiffly now, for he had been divested of his ingeniously contrived bullet-proof under-clothing.
He was lead up to the bar, and the clerk rose, began to intone the usual questions. "Prisoner, what is your name?"
The prisoner remained stolid, did not speak.
The judge leaned forward a little, inspecting him closely, while Runkle stepped to his side, whispered in his ear so that everybody could hear. "I'm your lawyer. It's all right. You can answer the questions."
Still the prisoner said nothing. He stood there like an automaton, or, perhaps, a man in a trance.
Finally the bailiff ventured to say, "If it please Your Honor, that's the way he's been since he was arrested. He was grilled all night but he wouldn't open his mouth. They had to book him as John Doe!"
"All right," the judge snapped. "Enter his name as John Doe. We will leave the other questions till later. Perhaps we can make him realize that he's in real trouble." He turned to Runkle. "Now, sir, what is the purpose of this motion?"
Runkle wiped his lips with his handkerchief—it seemed to be a habit with him whenever he talked—and began a long argument to the effect that his client should be discharged because of lack of evidence. He finished by making the formal request, "I move that this defendant be discharged because there is no evidence that a crime has been committed in this jurisdiction."
It was a motion that is always made as a matter of routine, but never granted. Judge Rothmere, however, seemed to weigh Runkle's argument seriously. He turned to Fenton, asked, "Have the defendant's prints been taken? What is his criminal record?"
The district attorney answered reluctantly, "There is no record at all for him, judge. His fingerprints do not fall into any category on file."
"You see, your honor," Runkle began, "this defendant hasn't even got a record. He's being framed—"
Fenton laughed scornfully. "Framed! That's what Runkle claims about every one of his clients, Your Honor. It's his stock in trade. He'll soon be telling us about this man's poor old mother and father in South Bend, Indiana, or some place!" Fenton gestured eloquently. "Judge, the mere fact that Runkle has been retained here should prove that the defendant has something to worry about. It's common knowledge in the underworld that Runkle can help a criminal to beat any kind of 'rap.' If a defendant can pay Runkle's fee, he can get away with murder!"
Runkle smiled, not deigning to reply. His eyes were on the judge.
And Judge Rothmere suddenly threw a bombshell into the court room. In his august, judicial voice he announced, "Mr. Runkle, I will grant your motion. The defendant is dismissed!"
Nothing that the judge could conceivably have said or done could have caused greater consternation in the courtroom than those four words.
Men stared at each other as if their hearing had suddenly betrayed them. The bailiff and the guards stood speechless. District Attorney, Fenton seemed suddenly to choke, then he waved his hands in the air and rushed up to the bench. "You can't do that!" he shouted. "This man is a murderer! Are you crazy?" The unexpectedness of the decision had deprived him of all sense of discretion.
The killer at the bar remained unmoved, unspeaking, as if none of this concerned him in the least.
Runkle seized him by the elbow, urged him toward the door. "You're free, do you understand? Get out of here before they hold you for something else. Beat it!"
Fenton turned from the bench, ran shouting after them. "Stop! Stop! I'll swear out another warrant for him. He can't go free. He's a murderer!"
Judge Rothmere frowned, called out, "Mr. Fenton! Do you forget where you are? This is a courtroom!"
Fenton paid no attention to him, ran after the prisoner, The judge pounded with his gavel "Bailiff," he shouted. "Seize Mr. Fenton. I declare him in contempt of court!"
The bailiff stared at him uncomprehendingly, too dazed to act.
The judge half rose in his bench, thundered at the unfortunate bailiff, "Did you hear me?"
That official finally came out of his daze, stammered, "Y—yes, Your Honor," and sped after the district attorney, gripping him by the arm. "Sorry, sir, it's the judge's orders!"
Fenton fumed in the bailiff's grip, but the delay was enough to allow the robot killer and his attorney to leave the court room. As the door closed behind them, Fenton turned to the bench. There were tears of rage in his eyes. "Do you know what you've done, Judge? You've released a cold-blooded killer. He'll kill again, as sure as you're sitting there, Why did you do it?" Judge Rothmere rose dignifiedly from the bench, tapped once with the gavel. "Court," he announced quietly, "is adjourned till ten o'clock tomorrow morning! Till then, Mr. Fenton, I will parole you in your own custody to answer to a charge of contempt of this court!"
And the judge turned, left the bench and went out through the side door, leaving the room in a state of seething excitement.
He was out in the corridor now, but before crossing to his chambers across the hall, he walked down a few paces and peered around the bend. He could now see the front door of the court room through which Runkle and the killer had gone.
They stood there now, faced by five men in plain clothes who wore on the lapels of their coats badges of the Department of Justice. One of these men was saying to the baby-faced killer, "We want you, boy. We have a warrant for the arrest of one, John Doe, now held by the state authorities, for questioning in a kidnaping investigation. I guess you're our man." He turned to the others. "Take him, boys!"
Runkle started to protest, but he suddenly found himself looking into the barrel of a revolver. The officer who had spoken before held that gun, and he said, softly, "We don't want you—yet, mister. But we'll take you along if you open your trap once more. Yeah, we'll take you along—feet first!"
Runkle's face went pale. Before he could collect himself, the other men had snapped handcuffs on the now struggling killer, and were leading him out of the building with a gun stuck in the small of his back.
Runkle started to shout after them, "You're no officers—" but he stopped quickly, cowering, as one of them swung around, raised his gun. The man did not fire. He merely laughed, turned around and followed the others. So quickly and quietly had the thing been done that the few people in the corridor had not even noticed it until Runkle began to shout. Then it was too late, for the five men with their prisoner were gone.
Runkle sped after them, stood in the entrance watching the high-powered car into which they had climbed speeding around the corner on two wheels. He cursed, then shrugged, turned to the small crowd that had gathered behind him; "I got my fee, anyway," he said, grinning. "And nobody can say I'm hiding him from the law, because you all saw him snatched from under my eyes."
Around the bend in the corridor, Judge Rothmere had watched the drama with interest. He now turned and directed his steps toward the chambers. An attendant who had followed him from the court room approached, asked, "Can I help you, sir?"
"No. I won't need you any more today. You may go home."
The judge entered his chambers, using a key, and went into an inner room. Here a man lay on the floor, gagged, glaring up in impotent fury. He was dressed in an ordinary business suit, the judge wore a judicial robe, but there the difference ended. For their faces were exactly alike.
The man in the robe said, "I am sorry, Judge Rothmere, if I caused you inconvenience. It was necessary, in the cause of true justice, that I pose as you for a few minutes. I will leave you bound now, and I will also leave my mark before I go, so that it will be known that it wasn't you who just sat on the bench. Otherwise you might have some difficult explaining to do."
Now the man in the judicial robe left the gagged man, stepped into the outer room. Here he doffed the robes, raised long fingers to his face. Swiftly the features of Judge Rothmere disappeared, only to give place in a few moments to the face of A. J. Martin, newspaper man.
The whole transformation took less than six minutes. Now he spoke to the gagged man in the inner room. "If any one asks you who did this, judge, you can tell them I left my card on the table out here."
As he spoke, he deposited on the small table a card, on which there was the reproduction of a glowing "X."
Then he silently opened the door and stepped into the corridor.
When the five men who wore the federal badges sped away in the car with the robot killer in their custody, the large clock on the City Hall building showed the time to be exactly twenty-nine minutes past ten o'clock. The whole thing was over, thirty-one minutes before the scheduled time for the arraignment.
The car swung around the corner and passed out of the sight and ken of the crowd surrounding Runkle and Fenton. But there were others who were interested in that car. Near the corner, a tan-and-gray cab had been parked all morning, with the flag up. The driver smoked cigarette after cigarette, but never took his eyes off the court house. Once in a while he would turn to say a few words to the sole occupant of the cab, or to answer a curt question. The occupant of the cab was a stocky, sullen sort of man, with a long, thin face that contrasted oddly with his squat body.
He chewed on an unlighted cigar, and leaned forward. "What time, is it, Kardos?" he asked the driver.
"Twenty-five after ten," Kardos replied. "The boss ought to be here soon."
The stocky, man with the long face continued to chew nervously on the cigar. "This business is gettin' my goat. Workin' for this guy, Kardos, is dangerous stuff. Linky Teagle works for him an' he didn't show up this morning. I'm wonderin'—"
He stopped, as Kardos stiffened in his seat, cried hoarsely, "Looka that! Some other crowd is takin' that guy away!"
He pointed to the court house steps, down which were coming the five men with the federal badges, dragging along the prisoner known as John Doe.
The stocky man jerked open the door of the cab, leaped to the sidewalk. His hand went to his armpit, but he didn't draw the gun. "What's the use?" he said to the driver. "We can't take the whole five of 'em."
Kardos swung to him, "What'll we do, Brinz? We were told not to let any one take him away."
Brinz shrugged. "Tell you what—you tail them in the cab. See where they go—and for the luva Pete, don't lose them. I'll stick around, an' when this boss of ours gets here, I'll break the sad news to him. You call back when they hole out."
The car with the five federal men swung around the corner, passing close to the cab. Kardos called out, "Okay, Brinz, here I go." He shifted into gear, set off in the wake of the escaping car.
Brinz remained at the curb, still chewing his cigar. He appeared oblivious of the crowd that had swarmed out of the court house. But their voices were raised, loudly, excitedly, and he could hear them plainly. He heard Runkle cry, "I tell you, they were no federal men. Their badges were fakes! But they took me by surprise. By the time I knew what it was all about, they had that fellow out of the building!"
Brinz continued to listen worriedly. He heard District Attorney Fenton say bitterly, "So you say, Runkle! I'm willing to bet that you knew all the time what was going to happen!" Brinz swung his eyes away suddenly from the crowd across the street. For a truck had drawn up quietly at the curb. Its side bore the lettering, "Interstate Express—Deliveries Everywhere."
The driver's compartment of this truck was entirely enclosed so that the man who sat behind the wheel could not be seen. A close inspection of the body would have shown that it was constructed of bullet-proof sheet steel, with a large double door at the back, and a small grilled window on either side.
Brinz stepped close to the grilled window. A deep, metallic voice spoke from the darkness within. "What has happened here? Is everything set?" Brinz shook his head. There was a little awe in his tone, as if he were almost afraid to break the news. "It's all gone haywire, boss. This here John Doe must have been brought up in court ahead of time. Just now he got taken away by five men in a car—practically snatched out of the court room, what it looks like. That crowd across the street is wonderin' what's happened."
The metallic voice carried a note of rage. "Did you find out who those men were?"
"I didn't, boss." Brinz shuddered slightly, for that voice had sounded very ominous to him. He added eagerly, "But I tell you what I did— Kardos was in his cab over at the corner, an' I told him to tail them. Maybe he'll call back an' give us some dope on them." He went on swiftly as there came no answer from the truck, "I done the best I could, boss. I couldn't stop 'em alone, could I? And anyway, Kardos'll probably be calling back pretty soon."
For a moment there was silence. Then the resonant voice said, "Kardos had better call back—for the sake of both of you!"
The side window closed with a snap, and the truck rolled away from the curb, disappeared around the corner.
Brinz wiped his face with the sleeve of his coat. There was a fine sweat on his face and on the back of his hands. He had been close to death just now. His broad nose, which had at some time been flattened by a smashing blow, twitched with the reflexes of relief from fright. He stood a moment undecided, then he suddenly nodded to himself and crossed the street.
He elbowed through the crowd in front of the court room until he was close to Runkle, and tapped him on the shoulder. The little attorney turned, said, "Hello, Brinz, where've you been for the last couple of years?"
"Here an' there," he answered evasively. "Can I talk to you—in private—Mr. Runkle?" "Certainly. Are you in trouble again?"
"Yes. But not with the law. This is something different."
Kunkle regarded him curiously. "All right. Let's go over to my office."
He led the way out of the crowd, and down the street, Brinz walking close beside him, and looking furtively about as if he feared being observed.
One man observed them. That was District Attorney Fenton, who watched them speculatively until they turned into the shabby building past the next corner, where Runkle had his office.
Fenton's eyes were veiled as he turned and re-entered the court house without speaking to anyone.
In the meantime, the car with the five men and the prisoner sped east for two blocks, slowed up and swung into a garage in the middle of one of the East Side slum blocks. The taxi that was following pulled up just beyond the entrance, and waited with its motor running.
Within the garage, the five men bundled their prisoner out. He was handcuffed now, but still silent, though there was growing fear reflected in the black, reptilian eyes.
The men gagged the killer, tied his ankles with wire, and joined the end of the wire to the handcuffs behind his back, rendering him helpless. Then they bundled him into the rear compartment of a showy green coupe that stood in the shadows in the rear.
A young, red-headed man sat at the wheel of this coupe. When the top of the compartment closed over the prisoner, he said to the five men, "All right, boys. You can go now. Get back to your regular jobs and forget all about this. Forget you ever flew to New York this morning!"
They did not notice the figure of Kardos, who had left his cab and stolen to the door, where he peered inside, noting what was taking place.
The pseudo federal men grinned at the red-headed young man. "Don't worry, Mr. Hobart. Our memories are going to be something terrible from now on. As far as we're concerned, we never saw this town in our life!"
Kardos, outside, slipped away from the door as he saw them prepare to leave, and he returned to his taxicab, watched them walking away in different directions.
Inside the garage, the red-headed Jim Hobart issued swift orders to two mechanics, who took the car in which "John Doe" had been brought there, and rolled it on to a circular platform. They set to work upon it at once, removing the license plates first. Within two hours enough work would have been done on that car to make it impossible to recognize it as the one in which Runkle's client had been abducted.
Jim Hobart, in the meantime, locked the rumble compartment of his coupe, in which the killer had been stowed, then drove slowly out of the garage and turned the corner. He headed north. But he did not see the taxicab that followed him at a discreet distance.
When Secret Agent "X" stepped out of Judge Rothmere's chambers into the corridor of the court house, he made his way without stopping down the back staircase and out the rear entrance into Lafayette Street. A small sedan was parked near by and in this he made his way uptown.
On the way he stopped and called the Hobart Detective Agency. Jim Hobart had just got back. "It's okay, Mr. Martin," he reported. "The boys got this John Doe as per orders, and I just delivered him at the apartment on Eighth Avenue at the address you gave me. He's there now, all nicely tied up."
"Good work, Jim," the Agent commended. "I'll get in touch with you later. There'll be more work to do today," he added grimly.
Before leaving the booth, he made one more phone call, to Bates. He ordered Bates to place two men on the task of shadowing Runkle, the lawyer, and of checking up on anybody he might meet.
That done, the Agent returned to his car and drove to the apartment on Eighth Avenue. He could not know that even at that moment, the taxi driver, Kardos, was phoning certain information to a number not listed in any telephone directory.
At the apartment, which was on the third floor of an old, run-down apartment house, the Agent nodded in satisfaction as he saw the bound and blindfolded figure of the robot killer squirming on the floor. Here was his only avenue of approach to the murder monster. By his own daring and ingenuity he had balked the monster in its attempt to rescue this killer; he now had him alone where it might be possible to apply sufficient pressure to draw out certain information. Before removing the blindfold, the Agent stepped to a mirror and worked swiftly on his own face. The features of A. J. Martin disappeared, were replaced by those of a thin, ascetic looking man in the middle forties. The purpose of this was to save the personality of A. J. Martin for future use; he was not ready to discard it, and if this killer should see him as Martin, the personality of Martin would be helpless.
"X" now stepped to the side of the killer, removed the gag. The killer's features were smooth, expressionless. Only his eyes showed emotion, and they stared up at the Agent with mingled defiance and fear.
"X" examined him closely, stooped and touched his face with long, sensitive fingers. The killer shrank from his touch, looked around the room, for the first time became aware of his surroundings. He tried to roll away from "X's" searching fingers on his face, but the Agent held him firmly with one hand.
Suddenly the Agent uttered an exclamation of surprise. His sensitive, probing fingers had found something that it would have been impossible for anyone whose senses were less keenly on the alert to discover. It was a slight ridge under the chin, so infinitesimal as to be invisible to the naked eye.
The Agent's eyes glittered, as he seized the killer under the arms, dragged him, squirming and struggling, to the opposite side of the room where his make-up table stood. He placed him on the floor, and turned on the powerful lamp that stood beside the table.
The lamp, which the Agent used when he fashioned his careful disguises, bathed the helpless killer's face in a merciless light, illuminating every detail of his features.
Now the Agent went to the cabinet in the corner, brought out a peculiarly shaped magnifying glass. This was constructed along the lines of the lenses used by bacteriologists, but more adaptable to being carried about for handy use. There was little that this instrument did not reveal when applied under a strong light.
"X" held the killer in a viselike grip while he examined his face. The glass showed a tiny line that ran under the chin from ear to ear. It was such a line as might have been left by a healing scar that was perfectly tended. The Agent followed that line from the right ear, up along the fringe of the killer's scalp, and around to the other ear.
For a long time he studied it, maintaining utter silence. Then at last he smiled softly.
"I see, my friend," he said.
But his eyes were clouded with a strange emotion—the emotion of discovering something that has hitherto been considered incredible by the mind of man. For that line, indicative of a healed scar, had given him the clue to a momentous discovery. It had given him a glimpse of a thing so weird, so monstrous, as to stagger the imagination.
The Agent's grip tightened; he held the other helpless in the crook of his arm, while the long, sensitive fingers of his right hand probed further, feeling the contours of the man's head. The brownish, nondescript-colored hair was wiry, unnatural. The Agent pressed with his thumb and forefinger, and the whole scalp seemed to move. The man was wearing a cunningly contrived wig!
The killer's eyes betrayed a venomous hatred as "X" removed the wig. It was fitted with a suction cap that clung to his shaven skull. At one spot on that skull, the Agent's magnifying glass revealed another scar, not more than an inch long, and entirely healed.
The Agent did not examine the scar at this time. His mind was occupied with the horrid, monstrous secret he had discovered.
He said, "My friend, the masquerade is over!"
The killer glared up at him, tried to heave himself upright, and emitted a series of inarticulate, horrible grunts.
"X" studied the killer's eyes. He was interested in them, for they seemed to evoke a memory somewhere within him—a memory of another face, of those same eyes peering out of a face that in no way resembled this one. He went on, watching the other intently.
"Your face has been changed, my friend—changed by a marvelous job of plastic surgery. This monster master of yours has had your face changed to resemble the others whom he uses. You acted like robots to fool the public and the police—and why shouldn't they be fooled, when you were all facsimiles of each other!"
"X" knew he was right in his findings, because the killer bared his teeth in a snarl, threw him a venomous glance.
The Agent hardly dared to put into concrete thoughts the revolting conclusion suggested by that line around the rim of the killer's face. But now, as he noted the killer's reaction, he was convinced that he had guessed right —this man had had his face transformed by a highly skilled surgeon!
At the urge of a sudden flash of inspiration, Secret Agent "X" twisted the killer's body around, seized the handcuffed wrists, and examined his fingertips. They were smooth, white, soft. Holding the killer's hand firmly, the Agent directed his magnifying glass on the right thumb. And under that glass, which mercilessly showed every line and mark, the Agent was able to detect a minute scar running across the under side of the thumb. Each finger in turn that he examined showed the same scar. A remarkably skillful surgeon had grafted fresh skin onto each finger-skin that had been miraculously provided with a set of loops and whorls!
The Agent's lips set grimly. "Very clever—very clever indeed!" he remarked. "No wonder the police could discover no record for you!"
Once more he turned the killer around facing him. "Your fingertips have also been changed. You have been made into a different man. I wonder if you knew in advance that you were going to be made into a replica of those others —or did your master have that done to you against your will?"
The killer regarded him sullenly, saying nothing.
"X" arose from his knees, stood over him. "All the world knows now that you and your fellows are not robots. Why continue the pretense? Why don't you talk now? Is it because you are afraid to let me hear your voice? Are you afraid that I will recognize you—Gilly?"
That last sentence, deliberately spoken with sudden intensity, seemed to have the effect of a charge of electricity upon the killer. His whole body shook with an uncontrollable spasm of terror. His mouth opened, but no sound issued except a short series of horrible inarticulate grunting noises. The man seemed to be straining his larynx to utter words that rebelled at being spoken.
The Agent said to him, "You wonder how I guessed who you are, Gilly?" He smiled grimly. "I wasn't quite sure—but now I see that I am right. It was your eyes that gave you away, Gilly. You could change your face a thousand times, but I would always remember your eyes!"
"X" spoke tautly, quickly now. He wanted to follow up his advantage.
"I can send you back to the death house, Gilly—or I can let you escape, give you enough money to go to another country and change your name. All you have to do is give me the name of your master, tell me where your headquarters are. Which do you choose?"
Gilly's eyes lost their glare of hatred. They seemed to be imbued now with a sort of dumb terror. They looked up at "X" with a note of helpless appeal. He opened his mouth, tried to talk, but nothing resulted—only those horrid animal grunts.
The Agent suddenly knelt beside him again. "I wonder—" he muttered. "It can't be possible. It's too fiendish even for the murder monster." Once more he examined Gilly's shaven skull, his fingers passing over the short scar.
Gilly did not draw away from him now. On the contrary, he bent his head, as if anxious for "X" to see that scar.
The Agent drew in his breath sharply as he suddenly understood its significance. Gilly had had more than his face and fingertips changed— some one had operated on his brain, as well. An incision had been made into the brain cells controlling his power of speech. He had been rendered mute!
Secret Agent "X" never allowed emotion to play a part in his life. But now, as he studied his captive, he felt a surge of bitter repugnance against the unholy being that had conceived this diabolical jest of making veritable robots of his men.
The Agent had sought by every means possible to locate those twenty-five convicts who had escaped from the State Prison. And if he had succeeded in finding them, he would not have hesitated at turning them over to the law, for they constituted a menace to the society he devoted his life to protecting. But nothing the law could have done to them even approached in horror and in pure cruelty the things that this murder monster had done.
"X" should have been elated at discovering this important link between the escaped convicts and the murder monster—for he knew now what the police did not as yet suspect—that the so-called robots were in reality the convicts whom every agency of the law was seeking throughout the country.
But he was far from elated. For he realized now what a stupendous task still faced him. No matter how dangerous those convicts might have been while they were free, the Agent now saw the shadow of a menace infinitely greater. What an inhuman monster this must be, that had freed these men only to chain them by a series of hideous operations in a more horrid slavery than any they had ever known in State Prison!
His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden ominous sound from the hallway outside the apartment. Boards creaked under a heavy, ponderous tread, and a resonant, metallic voice called out, "Number Eight! Where are you? Number Eight! Where are you?"
Gilly twisted violently out of the Agent's hands and started to drag himself toward the door in spite of his bound hands. He opened his mouth and uttered a weird, inhuman sound, for all the world like some obscene animal calling to its master.
That sound was heard, for from outside came the mechanical sounding voice of the monster. "Get away from the door, Number Eight. It's going to be smashed in!"
Gilly stopped crawling toward the door. He rested on his back, his face twisted into a grimacing leer of triumph as he stared up at "X." It was difficult to understand how this little gunman of the underworld should be so loyal to a master that had done such inhuman things to him. "X" had offered Gilly freedom, immunity from prosecution, for information. Gilly could not feel that he was in any danger from the Agent. Yet he welcomed the approach of the murder monster, welcomed the prospect of being brought once more under that fiendish domination!
There must be some powerful hold—some powerful attraction— that the monster exerted over these men. "X" wondered if it was possible that the operation on the brains of Gilly and the others—almost certain now that they had all been subjected to the knife—accomplished more than merely depriving them of speech; if it was possible that it had, in fact, converted them all into veritable robots without personal initiative or will of their own.
There came a smashing impact against the door; the monster must have hurled its huge form against it. But the panels were strong, the door was solid, for the Agent always made it a point to provide his retreat with reinforced doors for just such a contingency. Yet, strong as it was, it yielded a little under the impact of that heavy body. "X" saw that it would not stand up long under the attack. If he remained in the room he would become a target for that finger of death. He would go up in flames, leaving his task unfinished, taking with him the secret of the identity of the robots, leaving the city at the mercy of these cohorts of hell.
He never left himself, however, without some means of retreat. Now, he sprang to the window, slid it open while the handcuffed Gilly watched him with narrowed, mad eyes. The Agent counted for escape on the drain pipe which ran up to the roof, close to the window. But the monster had taken care of that, too. For, no sooner had "X" showed himself at the window than there was a wicked spat, and a bullet imbedded itself in the woodwork close to his head. Somewhere outside, a rifleman was stationed with a silenced rifle. Nobody was going to be able to leave that building, by window or otherwise, till the monster had got his man. "X" did not stop to wonder how the monster had learned of the apartment. He immediately set to work.
From a cabinet in the corner, he produced a pot-bellied jar to which was attached a metal hose. This jar was made of dull, burnished metal, and had a sort of stand beneath it, into which was fitted a Bunsen burner.
While the heavy oak door bent under the repeated charges of the monster outside, "X" methodically lit the Bunsen burner and ran the hose close to the window. Then he donned a pair of goggles, and took a hypodermic syringe from the cabinet.
Gilly watched him with a puzzled gaze as he filled the container of the hypodermic with a light-colored liquid. Gilly shrank away from him as he approached, tried to wriggle from his grip. But the Agent held him tight, thrust the needle into his arm, and drove the plunger home.
The whites of Gilly's eyes showed, his lids drooped, he wheezed, and was unconscious within half a minute. The hypodermic had been loaded with a highly potent, quick-acting anaesthetic. The dose was sufficient to keep a man unconscious for at least forty-eight hours. Since the Agent could not take Gilly out of that apartment, he had made sure that the monster would not be able to make use of him for the next two days.
The blows on the door were telling. Splinters were flying. In a moment there would be a large enough opening for the monster to aim his finger through. "X" turned to the window, observed with satisfaction that the hose from the pot-bellied jar was now giving off a vapor that thickened as it rose out of the window into heavy clouds of smoke. As the smoke grew in volume, it became impossible to see through it. To the riflemen stationed outside the house, the window would be invisible. This was the latest development in smoke screens—a chemical which the Agent had developed himself and was using now for the first time.
Under the protection of the smoke screen, the Agent swung himself out of the window, clinging to the drain pipe. But instead of descending as he might have been expected to do, he drew himself up, inch by inch, slowly, painfully. The smoke swirled around him, but his eyes were protected by the goggles. Gripping the pipe with taut fingers and tight knees, he worked himself up toward the roof. It was several minutes before he heard a crash from within the apartment he had just left. He heard heavy, lumbering steps, the crash of furniture. That would be the monster feeling his way around in the room, probably unable to see through the smoke which must be filling the place by this time.
Suddenly from below there came a shower of high-powered slugs, as the riflemen stationed outside realized that "X" must be using the smoke screen to escape. The slugs clanged against the drain pipe below the point where the smoke came out. Soon they would raise their sights on the chance that he was working upward instead of down. He could not hope to reach the roof before that; in fact, if he ascended any higher, he would emerge from the protection of the smoke screen and would be a clear target.
He was now alongside the window on the floor directly above his own. Without hesitation he swung his feet over the sill, crashing the glass. He leaped through the jagged opening into the room. It was unfurnished, vacant. His trousers were cut by the glass, there was a long gash in his right hand, and a jagged scratch on his cheek. But he did not stop; he dashed through the room, out into the hall. Doors were opening everywhere, heads were peering out —heads of people who looked bewildered, frightened by the sudden uproar in their house.
On the landing below "X" heard heavy steps, heard the monster ascending the stairs. The monster was quick-witted, had divined what "X" had done to escape, and was coming after him.
The Agent ran up the stairs. People ducked their heads inside at sight of his bloody face, made no move to hinder him as he raced to the roof. He pushed open the skylight, raised himself up, and sped across to the roof of the adjoining house.
He ducked down through the skylight of the next building, just getting a glimpse of the monster's hideous masked head peering after him out of the opening he had left. The monster was too unwieldy to hoist itself through the skylight after him. "X" sped down four flights of steps to the street. A crowd was milling around, attracted by the strange happenings. "X" mingled with the crowd, listening to comment. "It's the murder monster!" some one said. "He came in that truck across the street and went in this house here. And they're firing out of the truck at the house! "X" noted the truck opposite. He could tell that it was armored, an impregnable fortress. He waited until he saw the murder monster appear in the street again. The horrible gas-masked figure was flanked by several of the robots who were carrying the body of Gilly.
From near-by came the sound of a police siren. The Agent hoped fervently that the monster would leave before the police got there, for he knew that the uniformed men wouldn't stand the ghost of a chance against the horrible weapon of fire that the monster wielded.
He himself had fled from it, for he was not yet ready to meet it on even terms; and a senseless attack at this time would not have served the cause of justice—might even have hindered it by removing the only man in existence who knew the secret of the escaped convicts.
"X" breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the monster and the robots pile into the truck, and the truck pull away before the police car rounded the corner. Then he himself turned and walked away from there swiftly. He had retreated before the monster, had, apparently, lost the first encounter with it. But he was far closer to victory than he had yet been, for he now knew much about the monster and the robots that the monster did not suspect him of knowing.
And he proceeded to act upon that knowledge.
The actions of Secret Agent "X" during the next two or three hours might have appeared highly peculiar to an uninformed observer. He went to another of his apartments and changed back to the disguise of Mr. Vardis. Leaving the apartment, his first stop was at the office of a large theatrical supply firm, where he was closeted with the manager for some twenty minutes before he emerged with a large bundle that he deposited in his car. He then drove to a quiet store in the East Fifties, on the window of which appeared the modest lettering, "Corlear & Son, Custom Tailors." He took his package inside, and spent almost an hour in the fitting room with Mr. Corlear himself. The casual observer would have wondered that a man engaged in so desperate a battle with crime should find time for such apparently frivolous occupations. But Mr. Vardis seemed to have nothing on his mind but securing a perfect fit in the clothing he was ordering. Mr. Corlear finally escorted him to the door personally, saying, "I promise you, Mr. Vardis, that it will be ready for you by tomorrow morning. I will myself work all night on this job." From Corlear's, Mr. Vardis drove to the nearest pay telephone and phoned Bates. He issued careful instructions. "You will hold the two planes in readiness in the field in Brooklyn. At the first alarm they will go up over the city." "The planes will be ready, sir," Bates replied. "How about our other operations— shall we continue them?" "Absolutely. Keep Runkle under constant observation. I will continue to call you every half hour for news. Have you been able to pick up any trace of 'Duke' Marcy as yet?"
"No, sir. I have more than a dozen men on his trail, but no success."
"Keep after him. It's important that he be located within the next twenty- four hours."
When he had completed his call to Bates, the Agent called the office of the Hobart Detective Agency. "This is Mr. Martin," he told the girl who answered the phone. "Please let me talk to Mr. Hobart."
That young man was bubbling with excitement when he got on the wire. "I'm glad you called, Mr. Martin. I've been offered a retainer to work on this robot murder case, and I was wondering if I should accept it!"
"A retainer? By whom?"
"They're in my private office now. Young Jack Larrabie, and Randolph Coulter. It seems they expect to be next on the monster's list. Their friend Pringle—"
"Take the case, Jim! Ask them to wait. I'll send up a man to handle it for you—a Mr. Fearson. Give him every co-operation; follow his orders as if they were my own. He'll be there in a half hour!"
He hung up, leaving Jim Hobart slightly bewildered. Now he wasted no time. He returned to his car, and sitting in the back, he set up his portable mirror, worked on his face. In a short time there appeared once more the features of the thin, ascetic looking, middle-aged man who had questioned Gilly a few hours earlier. That completed, he selected a set of cards and papers from a small portfolio. These papers established that he was a Mr. Arvold Fearson, private investigator. He had a license in that name, and the picture attached to that license was a duplicate of his new face. It was only one of a dozen identities which the Agent had prepared in advance for instant use. Well within the half hour specified, he presented himself to the switchboard girl in the Hobart Detective Agency and gave his name.
The girl flashed him a smile. "Mr. Hobart is expecting you, Mr. Fearson. He has two clients inside, but he told me to let him know the minute you arrived."
"X" nodded and seated himself while the girl called inside, and he surveyed the busy office. There were five girls employed here; one was Jim Hobart's secretary, three were file clerks, and one was the switchboard operator. The office was large, well furnished. Behind the telephone girl was the door of Jim Hobart's sanctum, while to the left was another door leading to a large room where each operative had a desk of his own where he could study material, make out reports, and plan his work.
In the short time that Jim Hobart had been running this agency, he had achieved phenomenal success. This was partly due to the aid which "X" had given him. In his role of Elisha Pond, he had recommended the agency to banks and insurance companies, had helped to secure large and profitable accounts. The Hobart Detective Agency was well known throughout the country now, and it was consulted more and more by people who had heard the name, or seen it mentioned in the papers. This was exactly what "X" wanted, for in this fashion the agency was enabled to build up large files on criminals, on underworld connections, and to keep its pulse on the trend of criminal events.
Sometimes, through cases that came to it, the Agent was apprised of crimes in the making of which the police did not even have an inkling. He had not been surprised, therefore, to learn that young Larrabie and his friend, Ranny Coulter, were consulting the agency.
In a few moments the door of the inner office opened, and Jim Hobart came out. He smiled at "X," and asked, "Mr. Fearson?" The Agent nodded. He arose and produced one of his cards, which he handed over. Jim Hobart read the name, "Arvold Fearson, Private Investigator." In the lower left-hand corner there appeared a queer initial, written in ink. Young Hobart said, "That is Mr. Martin's initial, all right."
"X" said, "I am working on this case of the murder monster for him and have acquired a good deal of information. That is why Mr. Martin sent me. He was sure you would not resent having me take charge, since I have all the facts at my fingertips."
Jim Hobart nodded, appraising "X." He did not pierce the disguise, but he was not yet wholly satisfied. "Did Mr. Martin give you any other message for me?"
"Yes. He said to tell you that there is blood on the moon." 
[13 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Though there was very little likelihood of a stranger working himself into the organization of Secret Agent "X," the Agent considered it one of those things which are "possible but not probable." Therefore he took every precaution to prevent such an occurrence. It was required that his assistants identify themselves doubly when contacting each other—once by their papers, and once more by the password, which was changed every few days. If "X," posing as Fearson, had failed to give the proper password. Jim Hobart would immediately have had him seized and held for questioning.]
Jim smiled. "That's better. Now I'm sure you're okay. We can't be too careful, you know. Now, if you will come inside, Larrabie and Coulter can tell you their story at first hand. I'll introduce you as my chief operative."
The Agent acquiesced, and followed him inside. Jim closed the door carefully, and introduced "X" to the two young men who were waiting with tense, drawn faces. "Doctor Larrabie and Mr. Coulter—this is Mr. Fearson, my best man. I'm giving him charge of your case. Please tell him what you told me."
Young Larrabie was high strung, much more nervous than he had appeared last night when he had seen his friend, Harry Pringle, murdered before his eyes. Ranny Coulter was stouter, more phlegmatic, but he, too, appeared to be laboring under a great strain.
It was young Larrabie who assumed the burden of explaining their difficulty. "You know, of course, about what happened to Harry Pringle last night." At "X's" nod, he continued. "We thought at first that damn monster gave him the works just as an example to the others present. It was bad enough that way, and Ranny here, and Fred Barton and myself decided to work on the thing, try to get that monster. We were all present at the bazaar last night, and we realized it was a tough job. We didn't understand how tough it really was until this morning."
"What happened this morning?" the Agent asked quietly.
Larrabie told him grimly. "Fred Barton's disappeared!"
Ranny Coulter broke in. "It's not just his disappearing—we're sure something's happened to him. We were supposed to get together this morning at Jack's house, but Fred didn't show up. So we phoned, and got no answer. Jack and I drove over to his apartment—he lives alone, you know, away from his family. I have a passkey, and when we got in we found the place had been thoroughly searched, and some of the furniture was upset. An end table had been turned over and smashed—it looked like a struggle had taken place."
Coulter stopped. There was a moment of silence. Jim Hobart, who had been standing behind "X," shifted uneasily. Young Larrabie said slowly, "It looks very much as if this murder monster is after the four of us for some reason —first, Harry Pringle, then Fred. The four of us have always stuck together. It may be our turn next—Ranny's or mine. That's why we've come here."
"Can you think of any reason," the Agent asked, "why this monster should be interested in you four?"
They shook their heads. "Unless," Coulter said, "he figures we'll try to get back at him for murdering Harry that way last night and is eliminating us before we can interfere."
"X" shook his head. "If the murder monster is behind your friend Barton's disappearance, it is not for that reason. The monster has more dangerous enemies whom he would try to eliminate first. Have you notified the police?"
"No," Larrabie told him. "The police have been so helpless in the whole thing, we thought we'd use your agency."
"They will have to be notified soon," said the Agent. "In the meantime I suggest that the first thing to be done is to interview Fred Barton's father. Suppose we do that first, and then decide on the next step in the light of what we may learn from him."
The two young men agreed, placing themselves in the agency's hands. As they were leaving, "X" lagged behind to give Jim Hobart some instructions. "How many operatives have you available in the city now?" he asked.
"I could dig up about fifteen," Jim told him.
"There are a few unimportant cases that I could pull them off."
"All right. Round up as many as you can, keep them ready for instant duty. I'll call you back."
As "X" and the two young men drove downtown to the financial district in Ranny Coulter's car, the Agent was careful to look behind frequently. But they were not followed.
Ranny Coulter drove silently, while Jack Larrabie explained to the Agent, "We ought to catch Fred's father in his office about this time. You've heard of him, of course—Giles Barton, head of the Eastern Steel Institute. That's the clearing house for the eastern branches of all the big steel manufacturing companies." Young Larrabie smiled ruefully. "I hate to break the news to him about Fred; the old man's a terror when he's aroused. I could almost wish we wouldn't find him in."
They did find him in, however, and had no trouble in getting in to see him, for Coulter's and Larrabie's families were quite friendly with the Bartons.
When they were ushered into the old man's luxuriously furnished, richly carpeted office, they found him pacing up and down, his face purple with rage, yet with a hint of apprehension in his eyes.
He was about to burst into a torrent of words at the two young men, but noticed "X," and looked questioningly at them.
"This is Arvold Fearson, Mr. Barton," young Larrabie introduced. "He's all right. We've hired his agency to do some work for us. What's the trouble?"
Barton spluttered. "Trouble! Have you seen Fred today?"
Ranny Coulter lowered his eyes, then glanced at Jack Larrabie. "You tell him."
Young Larrabie said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Barton, but I think— something's happened to Fred."
"You think!" the old man barked. "I damn well know it! You young cubs go chasing around, wasting your lives, and all you can get into is trouble! Here —take a look at this!"
He snatched up a sheet of paper from his desk, thrust it at them. Larrabie took it, read it in silence, and in silence passed it over to the Agent, saying softly, "I'm—sorry, Mr. Barton. You can depend on us to do all we can."
"X" read the note quickly, while young Coulter looked over his shoulder. Then he reread it more carefully. It was worth a second perusal:
Dear Mr. Barton: Your son, Fred, is in my hands. You
need not be alarmed—this is not a kidnaping. I have taken your son
because he is a brilliant student of chemistry and physics, and I need his
services. If your son performs the work I shall order him to do, he will be
allowed to live. The purpose of this letter is to request you, as you value
your son's life, not to do anything that might endanger it—do not
attempt to trace him, or to communicate with the police!
The Master Of The Monster.
Old man Barton was fuming. "The insolence of him! To dare to write me anything like this! I'll have every policeman in the city on the trail of this mountebank within an hour! Nobody can do this to me and get away with it!"
Jack Larrabie said drily, "If you'd been at the bazaar last night, Mr. Barton, you'd think differently. This monster is no mounteback—he's a deadly murderer. The police can't do any good—he kills them like flies!"
Barton strode up and down biting his upper lip. "What are we to do then?" he cried in desperation.
"We've hired the Hobart Agency," Larrabie told him. "Just sit tight, Mr. Barton. The monster says in the letter that Fred isn't going to be killed. I only hope," he added fervently, "that Fred has the sense to play along with him. He's so damn hot-headed, he's liable to tell this murder monster to go to hell!"
"If he's any son of mine," the steel magnate barked, "that's just what he'll do!"
"X" had remained silent, studying the three of them, at the same time trying to analyze the contents of the letter Barton had received, trying to arrive at a mental picture of the man who had written it.
He nodded shortly to Barton when they left, following the two young men in silence, his mind still concentrating on the problem.
Outside, in front of Barton's building, he seemed to return to realities again with a snap. He said firmly to the two young men, "I am convinced that there is a deeper motive behind your friend's disappearance than merely a desire to use his scientific knowledge. Though he may be brilliant, there are still many men who are far more advanced in the intricacies of chemistry and physics than he is—men in the great industrial laboratories of the country, for instance. I feel that perhaps that letter was only written for the purpose of lulling your suspicions. It may be that there is some sort of plan to wipe out you four young men; perhaps you offended this murder master in some way—you may have, for you don't know who he is in private life."
"What do you think we ought to do?" asked Ranny Coulter, nervously.
"I think you each ought to have a bodyguard. I will arrange it with Mr. Hobart right now." He made for a phone booth across the street, disregarding their protests.
"Damn it," Larrabie growled, "we came to Hobart because we wanted him to work with us offensively. We didn't come because we were afraid and wanted protection!"
"Nevertheless, you shall have protection. You have given us this case, and we are going to work it our way!"
The Agent's dynamic personality, the assurance with which he overrode their objections, left them no alternative but to agree.
When he was through phoning, he turned to them. "Wait here. Hobart is sending down a man for each of you. There will be some one with you day and night. It is quite possible that an attempt will be made against one or both of you, and I advise you to keep to your homes. Let the agency work on it from now on."
"All right," Larrabie agreed. "We'll stand for the bodyguards, but I'll be damned if we stay home quietly while you have all the fun. Take it or leave it!"
The Agent sighed. "Well, I guess that's the best I can do with you. But if you must expose yourselves, please be careful. If you don't care about your own hides, remember that our operatives are valuable to us—don't place them in unnecessary danger. Now, if you will excuse me, gentlemen, I have work to do."
He left them before they could ask him where he was going, just as a car deposited two of Jim Hobart'a operatives on the sidewalk. As he walked up the street, he noted with satisfaction that Hobart had obeyed his instructions to the letter. For another car had pulled up behind the first; and from this second car there stepped two more operatives. These two were poorly dressed, and carried sandwich-board signs, back and front, advertising the virtues of some cafeteria.
The two sandwich men proceeded down the street behind the first two operatives, strolling along with an air of casual indifference which concealed their alertness. They were covering the first two men assigned to guarding Larrabie and Coulter. If the murder monster should attack the young physician and his friend, the monster would be due for a surprise. For those sandwich signs were constructed of bullet-proof, fire-proof steel; and underneath each, conveniently placed on a hook so that it could be brought into action at a moment's notice, was a Thompson sub-machine gun!
The Agent was planning an interesting reception for the murder monster!
The next twenty-four hours produced no new crimes, no new wave of terror. It was almost as if some evil prescience had warned the murder monster that traps were being laid, preparations being made for the reception of its cohorts of crime.
Secret Agent "X" kept unceasing vigil. He knew that this was only a lull before the storm. He spent the time in perfecting his arrangements, keeping in constant touch with Bates and Hobart. Under his orders their operatives flocked into the city from every part of the country and were immediately assigned to stations where it was likely that the monster would strike next. They were instructed not to offer resistance in the event of an attack, for that would have been suicide, but to call either Bates or Hobart at once.
Banks, jewelry establishments, even the subtreasury, had these unobtrusive watchers stationed nearby, on the alert every minute of the day.
Young Doctor Larrabie and Ranny Coulter remained together all day at "X's" suggestion in order to make it easier for their bodyguards. And wherever those bodyguards were, there, not far off, could be seen the two sandwich men, shambling along with their innocuous looking signs hanging from their shoulders.
Larrabie and Coulter even slept together that night at the home of Ranny Coulter's family. The two bodyguards prowled in and out of the house all night, while across the street the two sandwich men kept constant vigil from the shelter of a small private park.
In the morning, Secret Agent "X" paid a visit to the tailoring establishment of Corlear & Son, where he had stopped in the day before. Mr. Corlear himself conducted him into the fitting room, and locked the door, arousing a good deal of speculation among the clerks as to the identity of the mysterious customer.
It was twenty minutes before the Agent left Corlear's. He was wearing a gray sack suit that to all outward appearance differed in no way from the hundreds of other suits Corlear's made and sold. The clerks in the store would have been immeasurably more curious had they known that the mysterious customer had paid two hundred and ten dollars for that ordinary appearing suit!
The Agent stopped in at one of his apartments and changed from the disguise of Mr. Vardis to that of Arvold Fearson, but continued to wear the gray suit. Upon leaving the apartment, he drove downtown, stopping on the way to phone Bates for a report.
Bates had been awaiting his call anxiously. "We've finally got something on Runkle!" he announced. "I put two men on him as you ordered. They picked him up a while ago and followed him to a house in Brooklyn. It's a private house —Number Twenty-two Belvidere Road. Fowler and Grace, the two men who are shadowing him, just phoned in again. There's an empty house next door to Number Twenty-two, and they got into it somehow. They can look into the room where Runkle is sitting. He's there with another man, a gangster named Brinz. They seem to be waiting for someone."
"Who is Brinz?" asked the Agent. "What have you got on him?"
"I figured you'd want to know that, sir, so I've got the file handy. Brinz served a term in the Federal Detention House here in the city for transporting and selling liquor. That was before repeal. He got out eight months ago and hasn't been up to much since. During prohibition he worked for 'Duke' Marcy, but there doesn't seem to be any record of his present connections." Bates added a short description of Brinz, so that the Agent could know him if he saw the man.
"All right," said "X," "I'm going out to Belvidere Road. If Runkle or Brinz should leave the house in the meantime, I want to know about it. But I won't be able to stop and phone you. You'll have to use the broadcast." 
[14 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Secret Agent "X" has been very reticent about this broadcasting equipment. The reason for this reticence is that he still finds it very useful and does not wish to reveal anything that might help in locating it. Adjusted to the same wave-length as New York police calls, the Agent is able to pick up messages from it with an ordinary radio which is installed in every one of his cars. Thus, if the car should be found by the police and examined, no suspicion would be aroused. The sending set is fitted with a device perfected by the Agent himself, which nullifies the results of the direction-finders of the police and radio authorities who might wish to locate the station. The Agent has not imparted any information to me about this device, except that he calls it a "disperser"—it disperses the short-waves so that the point of their origin cannot be determined.]
"Right, sir. If there's anything new, I'll shoot it out to you."
"Use code A."
"Code A, sir," Bates repeated.
"X" left the phone booth and got into his car. The broadcast equipment was one that he employed very infrequently, in cases of emergency, or where it was impossible to phone for reports. It was a powerful sending set located in Bates's headquarters, sending on the same wave-length as the New York police calls, and for that reason the Agent did not make frequent use of it. But more than once in the past it had been the means of bringing him to the scene of action in time to thwart well-laid criminal plans.
Now the Agent cut over to the East Side in his car, and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. Everywhere, as he passed, he saw police patrolling the streets, with drawn, taut faces. Squad cars toured the city with riot guns ready. These men were bravely preparing to meet the next onslaught of the monster, knowing in advance what little chance they had of surviving.
The Agent stopped for a moment to buy a newspaper and saw the headline, "Governor to be asked for troops to reinforce police. City in dread of next attack of murder monster!"
The Agent increased his speed a little after crossing the bridge. Suddenly the radio in his car came to life. The voice of Bates came over the air, speaking slowly. "Station 'X' calling! Station X calling!" 
[15 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Since messages from the Agent's broadcast system can be received by the police as well as by himself. It is necessary that they be transmitted in code. These codes are constantly changed, and the Agent has kindly consented to reveal the key of Code A since he no longer uses it. Code A consists of a combination of three languages— French, German, English. Three words are transmitted for each word of the message itself—the other two not counting at all, but serving as camouflage. The first word of the message, for instance, would be a French word, the second a German word, the third an English word. By rotating the order of the languages, the code is farther confused for outside listeners, but is comparatively easy to interpret, especially for one with experience in these matters. As an example here is how the simple message, "I see him." would be transmitted. The capitalized words are those that count. "JE freund monkey SEHE when rein HIM esel ami." It will be observed that the order of the languages rotates in this case, as follows: first: French, German, English; second: German, English, French; third: English, French, German.]
At once the Agent drew a pencil from his pocket, wrote on a pad attached to the dashboard as the voice of Bates continued, speaking in Code A. The Agent drove with one hand, hardly slackening his speed as his pencil wrote down only those words of the message that counted.
Finally the voice of Bates ceased. The message which "X" had written on the pad stared up at him: "Fowler reports 'Duke' Marcy entered house on Belvidere Road. Fowler returning to empty house next door. Expecting you."
As the Agent drove on, he tried to puzzle out why "Duke" Marcy should be calling on Runkle and Brinz in this out-of-the-way section of Brooklyn.
He left his car in front of a drug store a block from Belvidere Road, and started to walk toward the corner. Number Twenty-two, he knew from a directory he had consulted, would be just around the corner to the left, and he did not want to attract undue attention by driving right up to the house.
This was a quiet residential section, with few people about in the streets. When the Agent was halfway up the block, he noted a large green coupé turning the corner from Belvidere on two wheels. The coupé roared down the street, gathering speed as it passed "X."
The driver, who was the sole occupant of the car, had his hands tightly on the wheel and gazed straight ahead without glancing to either side. "X" started as he recognized that driver. It was Ed Runkle!
In a flash the car had sped past and roared down the street out of sight. But in that instant "X's" eyes had been busy. His keen senses, constantly on the alert, had caught the license number of the coupé. He waited a moment to see if Runkle was being followed by Grace or Fowler, who were supposed to be watching the house on Belvidere Road. But when no other car appeared, the Agent acted instantly. It was important that Runkle should not be lost sight of at this time. It would be impossible for "X" to return to his own car in time to take up the chase. Accordingly, he turned and raced back to the drug store. The clerk behind the counter gazed at him curiously as he tore into the telephone booth and dialed Bates' number. When he got the connection, he spoke swiftly.
"Runkle has just left the house on Belvidere Road, driving a green Stutz coupé, license number L 27-2. He is not being followed by Grace or Fowler. He is probably headed back for Manhattan, so send out men in cars to cover all the bridges. If he crosses into Manhattan, they can pick him up and trail him. This is important, Bates!"
Bates repeated, "Green Stutz coupé license number L 27-2. Right, sir. I'll have the bridges covered inside of five minutes." He said anxiously, "wonder what's the matter with Grace and Fowler."
"We'll know soon enough," the Agent told him. "I'm going there now."
"X" walked up the street again, turned the corner into Belvidere. Number Twenty-two was the second house from the corner and seemed peaceful enough. So did the one next to it, which was vacant, with a "For Sale" sign pasted to one of the pillars of the front porch. The Agent walked around to the back of the vacant house and tried the rear door. It was unlocked—probably left that way by the watchers.
He entered the narrow foyer behind the kitchen to which this door opened, and was assailed by the musty atmosphere that is peculiar to houses that have been long untenanted. He pushed through to the kitchen, then stepped into the dim hallway. Little light entered here from outside, but his sharp eyes detected a huddled form close to the wall.
He stopped short, scrutinizing the shadows at the far end of the hall, the deep blobs of blackness that lay under the stairway to his left. He discerned nothing lurking there, and took a quick step forward, knelt beside the prone body. It was a dead man. He had been shot through the head at close range; there were powder marks around the wound. The floor beneath the man's head was sopping wet with blood.
The lips of Secret Agent "X" compressed grimly as he recognized the body. It was Fowler, one of the two men who had been shadowing Runkle. Fowler was still warm; the wound was still bleeding. He had died within the last few minutes.
The Agent's fists clenched involuntarily. These men whom he employed were not just impersonal names to him. He had investigated each one thoroughly, knew them, had met them under one or another of his disguises. Fowler had died in his service—another score to be settled with the murder monster.
Despite the possibility of pressing danger around him, "X" stopped here a moment, paying silent tribute to the man who had died in the performance of his duty. Then, tearing himself back to the business in hand, he stole noiselessly along the hall, seeming to merge with the shadows. His shoes made not the slightest sound as he explored the other rooms on the ground floor, found them empty and deserted.
Still silently, he went up the stairs. At the upper landing he paused, listening intently. No sound greeted his ears. It was lighter here, and he could see that the hallway was empty of life. But an open door at the right drew him toward it. This room was unfurnished, like the rest, but there was another body on the floor.
Brilliant morning sunlight poured into the room, playing upon the face of the dead man, and "X" did not need to kneel beside him to tell how he had met his death. For the gaping, bloody hole in his forehead spoke for itself. And the man was Grace, Fowler's co—watcher.
Fowler and Grace had been killed coldbloodedly, no doubt to allow the killer or killers a free hand in the house next door. The Agent's eyes were bleak as he stepped to the window through which Grace had been watching, and looked across the narrow driveway to Number Twenty-two.
He saw a room there, corresponding to the one he was standing in. It was furnished as a sitting room—evidently Runkle thought that a ground floor sitting room might be too accessible to eavesdroppers.
At first glance it appeared that the room in there was vacant. "X" wondered if Runkle's guests had also departed with the little attorney— but if they had, they certainly had not come in the green coupé with him; for there had been no one else in the car with Runkle.
And suddenly, from that room; across the driveway there came a deep moan as of a man dying in agony.
Almost before that moan was ended, the Agent had swung himself over the sill and leaped to the ground. He landed on his toes, and was in motion at once, running around to the front of Number Twenty-two. The front door was unlocked, and "X" hurled himself through into the dim hallway within. He raced up the stairs to the upper floor, and as he reached the top landing, he saw the bloody, wabbling figure of a man stagger out of the sitting room. In the uncertain light it was impossible to identify him, but the Agent saw that the man held a gun. The gun came up, wavering, pointed at the Agent, and the narrow hallway rocked with the heavy explosions as the man in the doorway fired again and again, keeping his finger down on the trigger.
But "X" had dropped to the floor at first sight of the gun in the man's hand, and the slugs whined over his head harmlessly, burying themselves in the opposite wall. Eight times the gun roared in quick succession; and then, when the Agent knew that the clip was empty, he launched himself from the floor in a flying tackle that brought down the man in the doorway, landed them both in a tangled heap inside the sitting room.
Secret Agent "X" grappled with the man, was surprised to find him offering no resistance; the man lay flat on his back, breathing heavily, gasping, almost sobbing. High above his heart was a bullet wound, and it was miraculous that he had lasted long enough to stagger through the doorway.
It was lighter in here, for the sun came in through the window on the driveway, and "X's" lips compressed as he saw the man's face. It was "Duke" Marcy!
Marcy's eyes were assuming a glassy look. His chest heaved with each breath he took, and he expelled it with a long wheeze. His lips were moving weakly.
The Agent raised his head, demanded, "Who shot you, Marcy?"
The dying man tried to form words, in fact, uttered several faintly, but so low that they were indistinguishable. There was a raucous rattle in his throat, and his head dropped back. He was dead.
From outside now, "X" heard the sound of a police whistle, of excited shouts. There were heavy steps on the stairs, and a uniformed policeman burst in with drawn gun. He covered the Agent, ordering,'"Get up, you, and raise your hands!"
"X" shrugged and obeyed. He knew what the policeman thought—that he had killed Marcy.
He said, "I did not kill this man, officer. I heard him groan and ran into the house. I found him here with a gun in his hand, dying on his feet." The policeman lowered at him. "Yeah?" He kept the revolver steady. "That's a good story. You can tell it to the homicide men!"
Brakes squealed outside, more feet were heard on the stairs. "X" glanced around the room, and for the first time saw another form huddled in a corner where it had been invisible from the window across the street. The man was Brinz—he recognized him from the description Bates had given him.
The Agent's brow wrinkled in thought. Fowler and Grace killed in cold blood; Marcy and Brinz murdered here—and Runkle driving away at breakneck speed. There were puzzling elements here that needed clearing up. Runkle had been in this very room, according to reports; it was inconceivable that he could have gone across to the empty house, shot Fowler and Grace, and returned to do the same to Marcy and Brinz. He must have had assistance, if he were the murderer. In that case, the thing must have been planned in advance —must have been a trap into which Marcy walked unsuspectingly.
Now the room filled with uniformed figures. A precinct sergeant, several plain-clothes men, and in a few moments, Inspector Cleary, in charge of the Brooklyn homicide division. The policeman who had arrived first made his report to Cleary. The inspector heard it, frowning, then said to the Agent, "What's your nime?"
"I am Arvold Fearson, inspector, a private investigator. I did not kill—"
The inspector interrupted him gruffly. "Stow that. You're under arrest, Fearson. The charge is murder. I warn you that anything you say may be used against you!"
Escape was impossible now. The room was filled with police, they were swarming through the house, and more were coming. "X" permitted himself to be handcuffed, maintaining silence. Nothing he could say now would induce Cleary to release him. Later, perhaps, a method of escape would present itself. Now, he remained quiet while a sergeant "frisked" him.
The sergeant felt the texture of the custom-made suit he wore, and frowned, but said nothing. He ran big hands over the Agent's person, and found the gas gun which reposed in an inner pocket built into the lining of the coat. He examined it curiously, and was about to ask a question, when Cleary, who had been phoning headquarters, returned from the phone.
Cleary told the sergeant, "Commissioner Pringle wants to question this man personally, Frazer. This man, Marcy, was wanted as a suspect in the robot murders, and the commissioner thinks this bird ought to know something about them."
Sergeant Frazer saluted. "This gun, sir—"
Cleary waved him away. "Take it down to headquarters with you and give it to the commissioner. I've got nothing more to do with the case. It's been taken out of my hands."
The inspector was plainly peeved that he had been superseded in the investigation. His mood saved "X" the immediate necessity of explaining away the gas gun.
Sergeant Frazer and two plain-clothes men escorted the Agent down to a squad car in front of the door. Frazer sat in front next to the chauffeur, while "X" was placed in the rear seat between the two detectives.
"Over the Brooklyn Bridge."
Frazer directed the chauffeur, "to New York headquarters."
As the car got under way, the Agent saw the medical examiner arrive together with a headquarters photographer. Nobody had mentioned the bodies of Fowler and Grace next door. Apparently they hadn't got to the empty house as yet.
While they traveled toward Manhattan, Frazer leaned forward and turned on the button of the short-wave radio receiver. Several routine calls came over, and then after a few moments these were drowned out by a powerful sending set somewhere. The Agent stiffened as he heard the voice of Bates.
"Station 'X' calling. Station 'X' calling!"
There was a moment of silence after the signal, when the regular police calls became audible again.
Frazer swore. "There's that damn station again! They haven't been able to locate it yet. Some damn amateur. When they locate him, he'll get plenty!"
The detective at the right of the Agent started to say something, but stopped as Bates's voice once more drowned out the police messages.
Slowly the alternate French, German and English words came over the short wave, sounding like nothing but the meaningless jargon of a deranged mind.
Frazer grumbled, "Let him have his fun. They'll let him fix radios in jail when he's caught!"
But Secret Agent "X" paid him no attention. He was concentrating on that message, picking out the words that counted—one French, one German, one English; one German, one English, one French, and so on. Decoding the message mentally required a swift-thinking, keen intellect. "X" could not write the words now; he had to remember each one that counted, and at the same time keep track of the progressive changes from one language to another.
He shut out his surroundings, focused his whole attention on Bates's voice. And while the others in the speeding car made petulant comments, to him those words began to assume significance.
Bates was saying, "Suspicious truck reported opposite home of Randolph Coulter. Have ordered plane number one to go up to circle the neighborhood. Am awaiting further instructions."
Bates began to repeat the message, but "X" had no need to listen. He had decoded the message as he heard it. A truck in front of Ranny Coulter's house —and Coulter and Larrabie both staying there. The truck might be innocent enough, but "X" had a vivid picture of the monster stepping into that other truck when it had nearly caught him in the apartment on Eighth Avenue.
Should he tell Frazer? The sergeant wouldn't believe him, would think "X" was trying some sort of trick. If Coulter and Larrabie were still home, they must be warned against going out, must stay inside the house until the truck had been investigated.
There was no time to be lost. "X" must get away from his captors at once; if the suspicions of Bates's operative were well grounded, then this might be the opportunity that "X" had been waiting for.
In addition, there was another, perhaps more immediate danger looming up. If the Agent were brought to headquarters, he would be thoroughly searched. The things that would be found on him would damn him a thousand times over in the eyes of the police; his bullet-proof vest, his kit of chromium tools, his make-up material. Above all, they must not be allowed to examine Mr. Corlear's suit too closely.
"X" looked up, saw that they were approaching the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge, and reached a swift decision. His manacled hands moved inconspicuously. His fingers flicked to his tie, came away with a small glass capsule that had laid in an ingeniously contrived pocket of the lining.
Too late, the detective at his right saw what he was doing and reached out to grip his hand, exclaiming, "Say! What the—"
He did not complete the sentence, for the Agent had flipped the glass capsule into the air, over the driver's shoulder. The capsule struck the windshield, shattered; and the powerful, pungent odor of concentrated ammonia gas filled the car.
Frazer and the two detectives began to cough as the stinging gas entered their throats; their eyes clouded with burning tears. The driver, in a panic of sudden agony, let go of the wheel to rub at his eyes, and the car swerved, careened into the rail at the side of the bridge. All four of them forgot completely about the presence of their prisoner in the abrupt anguish which attacked their eyes, noses and throats.
Secret Agent "X" had taken a deep breath as he hurled the capsule, and now he held it while his fingers dipped into the vest pocket of the detective at his right, emerged with the key to the handcuffs. In a twinkling the steel links were loosened and dropped to the floorboards.
The impact of the car against the rail sent them all flying in a heap to the floor, but it was the Agent who acted with the precision of a machine. He kept his eyes closed as a protection against the gas, heaved himself up, and twisted the knob of the door. The car had come to a standstill as he leaped out. Brakes screamed as the traffic behind came to an abrupt stop.
The Agent took a deep breath of the clean fresh air, and looked around. Another car had come to a halt beside them, the driver looking over at them with wide eyes. "X" sprang over, wrenched open the rear door, and swung inside.
"Drive ahead!" he ordered with a crisp incisiveness that brooked no opposition.
The driver hesitated only an instant. The Agent gripped his shoulder with hard fingers. "Get going, or I'll throw you out and drive myself!"
The man at the wheel quailed under the quiet threat of that voice. He mumbled something indistinguishable, shifted into first, and put the car in motion.
Behind them came hoarse shouts from Frazer and the other detectives in the squad car. They were not hurt, but they were helpless, blinded for the moment by the gas. An officer was lumbering toward the scene from the Manhattan end of the bridge. He did not even look toward the car that passed him, in which "X" was riding; he had eyes only for the accident farther up.
"X's" unwilling chauffeur slowed up almost imperceptibly, half-turned toward the bluecoat outside. But the Agent divined his purpose at once, pressed the hard end of a fountain pen flashlight into his shoulder blade. "Just keep going," he ordered softly.
The driver obeyed.
As they left the bridge behind, "X" moved over to the right side of the seat so that the man at the wheel could not see him in the rear vision mirror. "Turn left," he instructed. "Drive downtown till I tell you to stop."
The owner of the car did as directed. At the next corner there was a red light. "I'll have to stop for this," he said over his shoulder. "Is it okay for me to—" His voice trailed off, and he braked to a stop with a bewildered expression on his face. Then he pulled over to the curb and swore. For he had been talking to thin air.
As he had slowed up for the light, his passenger had opened the right- hand door and leaped from the car, disappearing into the lunch hour crowd around city hall. The only evidence that he had even been present in the car was a folded twenty-dollar bill which he had placed conspicuously in the slot of the door handle.
The Agent crossed City Hall Park at a fast walk, and entered the drug store at the corner of Broadway and Chambers. He looked up the number of Ranny Coulter's house, and hurried into a phone booth, put in the call, hoping that nothing had happened there yet.
He was relieved to hear Jack Larrabie's voice over the wire.
He said crisply, "This is Fearson, Larrabie. Is young Coulter there with you?"
"Yes," Larrabie answered. "We were just leaving to go down to headquarters. Harry Pringle's father, the deputy commissioner, has offered to deputize us so that we can go after the monster. We're sick and tired of sticking in the house and doing nothing!"
The Agent's voice rang with a sudden note of authority as he said, "Neither of you must leave the house till I get there, Larrabie! There is a truck parked outside which may be waiting for you to come out. Do nothing until I arrive. Is that clear?"
"Well—" young Larrabie said reluctantly.
The Agent interrupted him. "On no condition must you go out. I'll be there in less than a half hour. And stay away from the windows, too!"
He hung up without waiting for an answer, but he did not leave at once. Instead he turned his back to the glass door of the booth, set up his portable mirror on the corner of the small shelf where the telephone rested, and set to work on his face. Within three minutes, Arvold Fearson had disappeared. Mr. Vardis now stood in the booth. Though the gray suit was the same, the Agent's whole bearing was different.
As he stepped out of the booth, he no longer walked with the shuffling slouch of Fearson. Instead, he strode erect, with head held high. So perfect was the transformation, that by the very change in bearing he seemed to be inches taller than Fearson had appeared.
Out on Broadway, he met a scene of wild excitement. The street was a- swarm with police. Frazer and the plain-clothes men must have recovered by this time from the effects of the ammonia gas and given the description of Fearson.
Plain-clothes men were peering into the faces of every passer-by. The office buildings were being combed by a flood of officers that had been thrown into the district. They were apparently determined that the supposed murderer of Marcy should not escape.
But Mr. Vardis passed unquestioned, for he in no wise resembled the fugitive. He hailed a cab, gave directions to drive to the Coulter home. "If you hurry," he said to the cabby, "you can make it in twelve minutes; I want you to do better than that—I want to get there in ten. And there's ten dollars in it for you."
The cabby grinned, and stepped on the gas.
So far, all of "X's" genius had been futile in combatting this dreadful monster that terrorized the city. He had been forced to fight blindly, depending on chance, waiting for the monster to make a mistake. Even now, as he sped uptown, he realized that there was only one chance in a hundred that the truck in front of the Coulter home had anything to do with the monster. But that one chance had to be looked into. In a battle like this, nothing could be passed by lightly. The cab made it in ten minutes. It turned into Madison Avenue two blocks below the Coulter home, and the driver headed north.
Traffic was light at this time of the afternoon, and "X" could see far ahead over the cabby's shoulder. He saw the two sandwich men on the corner in front of the Coulter house, saw the large truck across the street. He consulted his watch, saw that he was well within the twenty-minute time limit and breathed a sigh of relief. He had outlined in his mind a tentative plan for investigating that truck without arousing the suspicions of its occupants, if there were any.
He leaned forward, said to the driver, "When you get up to that corner where the sandwich men are standing, pull up next to them."
The driver nodded, began to slow up. They still had one street intersection between them and the Coulter house. The green traffic light on the avenue turned red, and the cabby braked to a halt at the corner. A block away the sandwich men paced lazily with all the appearance of a couple of down-and-outers working for a day's pay. No one would have suspected them of carrying sub-machine guns concealed under those signs.
Somewhere in the immediate vicinity there would also be the two men assigned as bodyguards to Larrabie and Coulter.
But "X" had eyes only for the truck. At the distance of a whole block, his keen eyes examined it carefully. It was all white, with black lettering on its side, announcing that the "Snow-Cap Laundry Does Your Sheets Like New." It was facing north, away from him, and he could not see the driver's compartment. But he suddenly noted something that caused his whole body to grow tense.
Projecting from the roof of the truck was a short length of metal tube which was curved at the top, so that the opening faced toward the Coulter house. "X" had seen many of these in war times, knew that at the first sight of one of these rising upon the crest of a barren ocean, stark panic had been wont to tread the decks of the proudest ocean liners. It was a periscope such as is used on submarines! Somebody within that truck was watching the house across the street!
It took but a second for the Agent to note this, even while the cab was slowing up for the red light. Now he leaned forward, said tensely, "Don't mind the red light—shoot ahead, quick. If there's a fine, I'll pay it!"
But the driver shook his head. "Nix, mister. It'd be my fourth ticket —I'd lose my license. They're hard on us hackmen."
And then things began to happen.
The Agent saw the door of the Coulter house open, saw Ranny Coulter and Jack Larrabie come out and start to descend the steps to the sidewalk. His eyes smouldered. They had deliberately broken their promise to him, had not waited the full twenty minutes.
And now, almost simultaneously with the appearance of the two young men, the rear doors of the waiting truck were flung open, and a swarm of the stiff-walking, robot-like men deployed into the street. They rushed toward Larrabie and Coulter, silently, purposefully intentful; each carried a silenced automatic.
Secret Agent "X" leaped from the cab. But he was too far away. Things happened too fast.
Coulter and Larrabie had stopped transfixed, at the sudden eruption of attackers. It was the two sandwich men at the corner who stopped the rush of the robots. Even as "X" was leaping from the cab, they swung their sub-machine guns clear of the sandwich boards, and directed a hail of lead at the attackers. The sweep of their slugs bowled over the robot-like men as if they were nine-pins—but did not kill them; their bullet-proof clothing stopped the slugs, though they had the wind knocked out of them by the terrific impacts. Not one was left standing. They littered the gutter, started to crawl back toward the truck. The sandwich board trick had been successful so far.
BUT now there descended from the truck the huge, ungainly shape of the murder monster. Its robots had failed; it was swinging into action itself. It paid no attention at all to the two machine gunners, no attention to the squirming forms of the robots who were creeping back to the shelter of the truck, but lumbered with a dreadful singleness of purpose—straight toward the two stupefied young men on the steps of the house.
The Secret Agent had started to run toward the scene, but he was still almost a block away. A police whistle shrilled near by. Women passers-by screamed, others ran helter-skelter to places of safety.
The two sandwich men frantically shoved fresh clips in their Tommy guns, raised them to their shoulders, and almost as one man they pumped a rapid, steady stream of lead at that horrible figure—to no avail. The slugs buried themselves in the outer, covering of the monster, staggering it a little, but not swerving it from its course. It made a straight line toward its objective.
Larrabie and Coulter turned to run into the house. The monster raised its hand, pointed that deadly finger, and young Coulter, who had been a trifle in the lead, suddenly staggered, and became enveloped in a sheet of flame!
He screamed once, then rolled down the steps to the street, uttering choked cries which quickly changed to incoherent moans, and then died to nothingness as his scorched, crisp body jerked and twitched convulsively and lapsed into pitiful stillness.
Young Larrabie had stopped, aghast, beside his friend. The monster called out in a resonant voice that seemed to rise to the rooftops, "Come here, Larrabie. It's you I want. Come here or die!"
As in a trance, Larrabie approached the monster.
By this time Secret Agent "X" had reached the corner beside the two sandwich men, who were reloading once more, holding their ground regardless of the danger that the monster might turn its dreadful finger of doom upon them too. "X" seized a loaded Tommy from the hands of the nearest, saying, "It's all right. I'm from Jim Hobart!"
He swung the machine-gun toward the monster. His purpose was to wait till the monster got into motion once more, then direct the stream of lead at a spot just above its middle. The bullets could not pierce its protective coating, of course, but if they struck at a point just above the monster's center of gravity, they might topple him over.
But he never pulled the trip of the gun. For the monster suddenly reached out, gripped young Larrabie about the middle, and lifted him off the ground. Then, carrying him under its arm, it returned to the car, not hurrying, turning its massive, hideous head from side to side to survey the situation. To fire the sub-machine gun now would only mean the death of young Larrabie who had slumped in his captor's arms, apparently in a faint.
The injured robots had crawled into the truck, and the monster followed them, unmolested.
"X" watched, helpless to intercede, with bitterness in his heart, as the door swung shut, and the truck got into motion, sped away.
Above, the hum of an airplane motor became audible. The Agent glanced upward, and his eyes glittered as he saw the huge flying machine circling in the air. It kept its altitude, did not dive, but the radius of its circle increased gradually. Bates had been on the job. Now, if those flyers only did their work well...Secret Agent "X" nodded grimly to himself. He said to the two sandwich, men, "Get rid of those signs—drop them right here with the machine guns—and disperse. Here comes the police." The two men obeyed quickly, disappearing around the corner, piling into a car which had been parked there. No one in the fast gathering crowd tried to stop them, or noticed them. Everybody was gathered around the still smouldering body of Ranny Coulter, commiserating with his hysterical parents who had rushed out of the house. Secret Agent "X" effaced himself in the crowd just as the first police car appeared.
That afternoon the papers were devoted almost exclusively to the startling events of the day. The murders in Belvidere Road, the horrible killing of Ranny Coulter, and the abduction of young Larrabie were the subjects of excited comment throughout the city.
The police were still searching ineffectually for the truck in which the murder monster had escaped with Larrabie as his prisoner. A radio car had given it close chase for a while, until a small porthole in the rear of the truck had swung open. Through this porthole had appeared the pointing finger of the monster, and the police car had suddenly burst into flames; the two policemen in the car had been burned to death.
No one had seen the laundry truck after that. Examination of records revealed, of course, that there was no such firm as the "Snow-Cap Laundry." It was not understood how the truck could have made its escape with every exit from the city guarded, with hund reds of plain-clothes and uniformed men searching the streets and garages.
With all this bustle and excitement Secret Agent "X" did not concern himself. He was ensconced in a darkened room in one of his retreats, engaged in doing a peculiar thing.
This room was exceedingly large, some thirty feet in length. At one end a white motion-picture screen was hung on the wall. At the other end, Secret Agent "X" was engaged in threading a reel of film into a motion-picture projection machine. This completed, the Agent threw a switch, and the machine began to hum as the reels turned, the arc-light of the projector throwing a beam of light across the room. The Agent now stood tensely, watching the motion pictures which were flashed on the screen. There appeared a bird's-eye view of a portion of the city, including that section of Madison Avenue where the Coulter home was located. The Agent saw the frantic, running specks which were men and women in panic, he saw a sheet of flame in the street, and his lips compressed grimly as he realized that this was the burning body of Ranny Coulter. But his eyes followed the motions of the object that he knew was the murder truck leaving the scene of the crime. The picture flickered often, darkened sometimes to an indistinguishable blur, but it always cleared, always kept that fleeing truck in view.
These pictures had been taken by an aerial camera built in under the cockpit of the plane which had circled over the scene of the crime. It was one of the two planes which "X" had kept in readiness for just such an emergency. Knowing that the monster used a truck for transportation, the Agent had provided this means of tracing its movements.
He waited tautly, watching the flickering film. The next few minutes would tell whether the camera had been able to follow that truck to its hidden destination—a thing the police had so far failed to do. 
[16 AUTHOR'S NOTE: This method of tracing criminals after a major crime has been committed was devised by Secret Agent "X." He found it of such value, that he has permitted me to mention his use of it in this chronicle. He has also instructed me to offer the idea to the New York Police Department in connection with its air division. If the Police planes were equipped with aerial cameras, the procedure would be as follows: Immediately upon the alarm of a major crime such as a bank holdup, all traffic lights in the vicinity of the crime would flash red thus halting the movement of every vehicle except that in which the criminals were escaping. The police plane, taking off at the first alarm, could be over the city in a few minutes, and the aerial camera would then record the movements of the car in which the gunmen wen fleeing. Thus, if they succeeded in evading pursuit, the camera would show unerringly just where they had holed up, and the forces of the law could then proceed to smoke them out. The Agent has suggested that the aerial camera would work even better in less populous centers, but there is no reason why it should not work in a large city.]
On the screen there appeared the vast network of streets that was New York City, with humans that resembled minute ants scurrying everywhere. And through it all the Agent followed the movements of that blob that was the murder monster's truck, speeding northward, then east to the river front where it stopped at a deserted spot.
From the truck there swarmed a number of specks that were men. They were carrying two large flat objects which they fastened to the sides of the truck, and then they hurried around to back and front for a moment. Their work over, they climbed back inside, and the truck once more resumed its course, this time proceeding much more slowly, threading its way back into the heart of the city.
The Agent stirred at his spot beside the projector. He understood why that truck had not been traced. The license plates had been changed, and the truck itself had been disguised by fastening thin sheets of metal over the sides. These were probably of a different color, with another name. No wonder the police had lost it—they were still looking for a white laundry truck.
Now the disguised truck proceeded sedately through traffic, passing traffic officers, radio cars, driving boldly to its destination under the very eyes of the entire police force.
Its destination was a street on the west side of town, where genteel brownstone houses rubbed elbows with garages and tall apartment houses. The truck turned in to one of these garages, disappeared from view.
The film continued to wind through the projector, flashing further bird's- eye pictures on the screen. But "X" had no more interest in it. He had turned away into a cubbyhole just off the projection room, where a large-scale map of the city hung on the wall. On this map he was engaged in tracing the movements of the truck, which his photographic memory had recorded faithfully from the film.
In a moment his pencil rested on the exact spot where the truck had disappeared. His face was alight with a strange glow. He had traced the monster to its hole!
It was close to dusk when a dignified gentleman in a gray suit drove a large and expensive looking sedan into the street on the west side of town where the monster's truck had disappeared.
The gentleman noted, as he drove down the street, that there were several men loitering near the corner. Among them were two whom he knew as Stegman and Oliver.
On the corner was a large apartment house, and next to it was a row of old, three-story brownstones. On the other side of the street there were several garages. The Agent drove slowly, as if not certain of his destination. Finally he slowed up, swung the car into the driveway of a large garage in the middle of the block.
There were a dozen cars on the floor, here, though the space would have accommodated thirty or forty. Several of these were trucks, though none, of course, bore the name of the Snow Cap Laundry. A single attendant, who was built along the lines of a heavyweight prize-fighter, was in charge.
He approached the sedan, looking inquiringly at the driver.
"What is it, mister?"
The Agent descended leisurely from the car, said affably, "I've just moved into the neighborhood and I was looking for a good garage to store my car. What do you charge in here?"
The attendant cast an appraising glance at the visitor, and said surlily, "The boss ain't in, mister."
"Well, have you any idea what the rates are?"
The attendant had half turned away, as if to return to his duties. He stopped reluctantly. "They run around a hundred a month with service."
"A hundred a month!" the Agent exclaimed. "Why, that's almost twice the prevailing rates!"
"That's what we charge, mister. We only take in high class people."
"That's entirely too much," said "X." "I don't see how you can get any business."
The attendant shrugged. "We get along." He turned away once more. "I think it's cheaper up the block. Why don't you try over there?"
"I will. Oh, by the way—"
The attendant stopped once more, annoyed. "What—"
He never finished. For Secret Agent "X" had stepped close to him and, as he turned, delivered a smashing blow to the point of the attendant's chin. The overalled man staggered backward, his eyes growing glassy, and would have slumped to the floor had "X" not caught him and eased him down slowly. He then dragged the unconscious attendant's body over to a corner, where he deposited it.
Now he proceeded to scan every corner of the garage. There was no place of concealment anywhere. The walls were of brick, bare, without any sort of covering that might hide a secret door.
The Agent stepped to the doorway, looked out at the street. Directly opposite was a brownstone house, one of the long row that ran to the corner. They had once been the homes of comfortable families, quiet and refined. Now they all had "furnished room" signs. All, that is, except Number 346, which was the one directly opposite. This one had no sign, and did not seem to be occupied at all.
Secret Agent "X" frowned, turned away from the entrance, and went into the office of the garage, which was in the corner, facing the street. There was no one in the office, but he noticed that the large window on the street was of frosted glass, making it impossible to look in from outside.
There was a desk against one wall, and a table in the center. The floor was of concrete. There were two closed doors in the wall opposite the desk. The Agent tried them. The first opened into a wash room, the second into a closet. It was quite a roomy closet. A dozen new tires, still in their wrappings, were stacked at one side. The rest of the closet was occupied by boxes of inner tubes, cans of oil, and other innocent appealing accessories of a legitimate garage.
The Agent examined the floor and the walls, but could find no trace of an opening. His face was intent, thoughtful.
Before leaving the closet, he put his hands on the top tire of the stack, tried to lift it. He found that it could not be lifted. It was tied to the others by several lengths of heavy wire. "X" gripped the wire and pulled.
And the whole stack of tires moved outward, toward him!
They had been resting on a metal plate set just above the floor, which moved on a pivot. Below the plate there was disclosed a circular opening leading down into darkness.
Secret Agent "X" peered down into this opening and saw a set of stairs.
He was taut now, all his senses keenly alert. No sound came from the garage outside the office, no sound came from the depths below. Ominous silence lay about the place, and the gathering dusk seemed to creep upon him with damp, stifling fingers. Here then, was the lair where lurked this murder monster that had held the city in terror. Now at last, after unremitting effort, after thrusting himself into danger time and again, he was going to come to grips once more with that horrible specter of death that caused men to turn into a living blaze of torture.
The Agent lowered himself into the opening, descended the short flight of steps. It was pitch black in here, but he did not light his flash. He reached the bottom, felt a wall at his right, and followed it. He put out his left hand, felt another wall.
He was in a narrow passage, and his sense of direction told him that it ran under the street, toward Number 346, opposite. He followed the passage for about thirty feet, and found himself before a closed door.
Now he risked the flashlight, saw that the door was of steel, with a small peephole, closed now, high up at the level of the eyes.
He set the flashlight on its end so that the beam was diffused upward, and knelt before the lock, taking out his kit of tools. In less than three minutes, working with absolute silence, he had the door open, stepped through into a lighted cubbyhole.
One of the robot-men was seated here, apparently a guard. He sprang up, hand streaking for the silenced automatic that lay on a small table beside him. But the Agent was faster. He had provided himself with another gas gun to replace the one he had lost earlier in the day, and he fired this full in the face of the startled robot. The man sank to the floor without a moan.
[17 AUTHOR'S NOTE: It will be recalled that the Agent's gas gun had been taken from him when he was placed under arrest by Inspector Cleary, and he had not had a chance to recover it when he made his escape from the police car. It was not a great loss, however, for, though the gun in itself was an interesting instrument, it was useless to any one without the formula for the gas which it discharged. And the police chemists would certainly not have a chance to analyze it, for the moment the gas chamber was opened, the gas would escape, rendering whoever was present unconscious for several hours. As a matter of fact, this is just what did occur, as the Agent learned some time afterward. The incident was related to him some weeks later by Commissioner Foster on his return from Europe, when they met in the Bankers' Club— which was frequented by the Agent in the personality of the wealthy Elisha Pond.]
The Secret Agent wasted no time. He knelt beside the inert form, set up his portable mirror and laid on the floor his make-up kit.
His fingers worked swiftly, dexterously, as he modeled for himself a face that was the duplicate of the face of the robot who lay before him.
Finally he arose. His gray suit was of the same cut as that of the robots; his face was an exact replica of theirs. He walked stiffly, opened a door at the other side of the cubbyhole, and stepped through, for all the world another one of those merciless killers.
He was in a short hall, musty and dank with the typical cellar smell. This must be the cellar of Number 346. He passed a rickety wooden door, heard a scraping noise behind it.
The door was fastened on the outside by a staple which he removed. He flashed his light into the dark interior, saw a huddled form, tied, with mouth and eyes taped.
He stepped inside, knelt beside the figure, and removed the tape from the mouth, leaving the man's eyes covered. The man was Ed Runkle!
Runkle had not been picked up by Bates' men—in fact he had been lost sight of after "X" had seen him driving away from Belvidere Road. And this was why he had not been picked up again. He was a prisoner of the monster —Runkle, the attorney who had defended the monster's man in court, whom "X" had seen driving away from the slaughter house on Belvidere Road!
With the tape off his mouth, the little attorney wet his lips, ran his tongue around the outside of his mouth where the tape had torn the skin. "What do you want of me?" he asked huskily. He wriggled his head as if he could in that way remove the tape from his eyes. "Are you one of the—robots? Talk, why don't you talk! Let me hear you say something!"
"X" kept his ear cocked for the possible approach of anyone along the corridor. He said, "I am not a robot. Answer my questions, but do not raise your voice. How did you get here?"
Runkle's body seemed to stiffen at the sound of "X's" voice. He exclaimed, "If you're not a robot—who are you?" He had seemed to gain courage from the news that this was not another one of the ruthless mechanical-appearing men of the monster. Even his voice seemed to assume a new tone, a tone with a tinge of cunning in it. He repeated the question—"Who are you?"
"Never mind that," the Agent told him curtly. "There's no time now for explanations. If I'm to help you, you must answer me quickly. How did you get here?"
With the instinct of his profession, Runkle began to hedge. "You want information? Why don't you take the tape off my eyes then? When I see who you are, maybe I'll tell you what you want to know."
"X" arose from beside him. "I have no time," he said shortly. "If you won't talk, I'll leave you here." He went toward the door.
Runkle called out in a low, desperate voice, "Wait! Don't leave me here! I'll talk."
The Agent returned, stood above him. "Go on."
"I don't know how I got here. I was driving, out in Brooklyn. Suddenly a large truck cut in front of me, forced me to the curb. The rear door of the truck opened, and a small army of these robots swarmed out, grabbed me and hustled me into the truck. They tied me up this way, and taped my eyes. Then I passed out, and I don't know what happened after that. I came to in here —I don't know where I am." He raised his voice in a thin whine. "For God's sake, get me out of—"
"X" quickly placed a hand over his mouth. "Silence, you fool! Do you want to attract everybody in the place?"
The Agent removed his hand from the attorney's mouth, asked, "Why did you kill Marcy and Brinz?"
Runkle shifted energetically. "God! I didn't do that! I went down to the kitchen to get some drinks for them, and when I got back I saw two of those robots in the hall upstairs, and they were firing their silenced guns into the room where Marcy and Brinz were sitting. I got scared and ran out. I got in my car and drove away from there as fast as I could go."
The Agent bent closer. "What was your business with Marcy?" he asked
Runkle was silent for a long time. Finally he said, "I don't believe you're here to help me. You're one of that monster's men. You're pumping me!" He lapsed into stubborn silence.
The Agent arose. "You need not answer," he said. "I know what you were meeting Marcy for. Brinz was bringing the two of you together—'Duke' Marcy knew who the Murder Monster is, and he wanted your help to avenge the death of Mabel Boling!" Runkle uttered a gasp of surprise. The Agent turned to the door. "I'm not taping your mouth again—but if you value your life, don't make any outcry or do anything to attract attention. I give you my word that you will be freed before I leave here." Then he added, as Runkle started to protest, "You can rely on it—it is the word of—Secret Agent'X'!"
Runkle's jaw fell open in astonishment. He was too stunned to speak.
"X" stepped out and continued down the hallway. The hall ended in a cross- corridor; at the end of the corridor was a door, and before the door stood one of the robots with an automatic in his hand. It was too late to draw back, for the robot had already seen him.
"X" advanced in his direction, but the robot seemed to take him for granted. Indeed, there was no reason why he shouldn't, for he no doubt took "X" to be one of his fellows.
He raised his hand, however, motioned for "X" to go back. He was apparently on guard at that door, with instructions to allow no one to enter.
But "X" advanced as if he had not noticed the gesture, until he was within two feet of the other. The robot stepped forward, barring his way, motioning angrily, now, for him to go back.
"X" smiled disarmingly, and fired the gas gun, which he had held out of sight, directly into the robot's face. The guard sagged, unconscious, the automatic slipping from nerveless fingers, and the Agent eased him to the floor.
He stepped over him and tried the door. It was unlocked, and he pulled it open gently, a fraction of an inch, without making a sound.
The room within was large, square. The effect of the first glimpse was an effect of whiteness and cleanliness. The walls were tiled, white. A long bench at the opposite wall ran across the full length of the room, except for the spot in the right-hand corner where there was a flat-topped, mahogany, glass-covered desk.
On the bench were retorts, test tubes, microscopes. Racks of tubes containing liquids and gasses were nailed to the wall above the bench. Everything seemed orderly, neat; so neat as to be terrifying—terrifying by the very incongruity of this white-tiled laboratory in the cellar of a run-down house in a run-down district.
The Agent, however, had nothing but a cursory glance for the setting —a glance, though, that embraced everything vital before it rested upon the two characters in the center of the room.
One of those two was young Jack Larrabie. The other was the weird figure of the murder monster.
Larrabie's face was suffused with rare. He was shouting, "Damn you! Why did you kill Coulter?"
The murder monster waddled forward slowly, stopped, facing Larrabie, and standing sideways to the door through which "X" peered. From somewhere in its depths there came the deep metallic voice that the Agent had heard before. It uttered a hideous, inhuman laugh. Then the laughter stopped suddenly, and the voice spoke.
"You seem to forget, Larrabie, that I have the whip hand. Do you know what that means? I will show you!"
Too late, young Larrabie turned, leaped away from in front of that hideous figure. He had not covered three feet before the ponderous, moving finger of the monster rose, pointing at his back. Horrid, sizzling flame burst out around the young man. He screamed once, half-turned, and his face was a mask of hate and dread.
He dropped to the floor, tried ineffectually to beat out the flames by rolling over and over. Now he was enveloped in fire, a screaming, wriggling, sizzling ball of fire.
It had all happened so quickly, almost upon the instant that the Agent had opened the door. Now, "X" flung it wide, launched himself at the monster in a flying leap that caught the gruesome figure amidships. The Agent struck with his shoulder, sent the monster staggering backward so that it would have fallen had it not ended up against the bench. It had gone right through the sheet of flame that enveloped the writhing body of young Larrabie, but had been untouched by it.
Now its dread finger came up, directed itself unerringly at "X."
The monster seemed to be quite at ease, secure in the knowledge that in another instant this intruder would likewise go up in flames. But nothing happened!
From deep within the monster came a rumble of astonishment.
The Agent laughed grimly, and leaped at the monster once more. This time he did not attempt to match his weight against that of the heavily padded and protected form. He seized the pointing arm, twisted around so that his back was to the monster.
He slid his shoulder under the padded arm.
He used the leverage of his shoulder now, heaved and twisted. The monster was carried forward for a moment, off balance. And in that moment the Agent lunged against it sideways. It staggered to one side, and unable to recover its balance, crashed to the floor. The Agent had attacked it in its one weak spot —being so heavily padded and protected, it was easily unbalanced; and once on the floor, it could not rise without great difficulty. It was something like the armored knights of old—invincible while on horseback, but at the mercy of the first attack when thrown.
The monster struggled frantically to swing its deadly finger up once more, but "X" deliberately stepped on the padded arm, pinning it to the floor.
The Agent stared down with somber eyes. "You should have pointed that finger of yours at my face—it's the only vulnerable spot. The clothes I am wearing are made to order, of sheet asbestos, specially treated to soften it so it could be tailored into a suit. It is fire-proof!"
The body of Jack Larrabie lay still, a few feet away, smouldering, scorched, a pitiful thing in death, the face now fleshless and charred. Even now, with the spark of life burned out of it, the body twitched convulsively as if it still lived in agony.
The monster tried to twist itself free of the Agent's foot, which pinned it down. But its very bulk was against it.
The Agent bent swiftly and unbuckled the straps that held the gas mask in place. He jerked it off, and found that the head beneath was nothing but an empty shell of aluminum, covered by the gas-mask. It was held to the metal body by two strong clamps. The Agent undid these, and removed the aluminum shell. Out of an opening in the barrel-like body, where the neck should have been, there stared up at him a pair of venomous eyes, sparkling with hatred.
The occupant of that monster's armor was not as tall as his shell. His head remained within the armor, while the gas-mask and the aluminum head were merely for the purpose of effect. "X" could now see two peepholes, covered with glass, in the padded body. It was through these that the man within had looked at his victims.
The Agent said, "You can crawl out of there now. You're through." His voice was flat, with a strange bitterness. He saw mental pictures of the atrocities at the bazaar, saw the lifeless forms of Fowler and Grace.
The man within the armor spoke, no longer metallically, resonantly, but in a human voice, full of anger. "You fool! What good is this going to do you? You need me. Even if your face is changed, there are enough papers in the safe deposit box to identify you to the police. Wherever you went you'd be recognized as one of the robots—you'd be seized in an hour!" Clearly, he was taken in by the Agent's makeup, believed him to be one of the robots.
At the sound of his voice, Secret Agent "X" had nodded to himself as if in confirmation of a suspicion. He said, "I am not one of your robots, Fred Barton. I am the instrument which brings you to the bar of justice!"
The man within the armor of the monster gasped. "Who are you?"
"X" did not answer. He was unstrapping the padding from the metal armor of the huge figure, still keeping his foot on that arm.
His suspicions were confirmed. The man within that shell was Fred Barton. Fred Barton, who was supposed to have been kidnaped; Fred Barton who had just consigned his friend, Jack Larrabie, to horrible death by fire!
It took fifteen minutes to get him out of that cumbersome suit of combination armor and padding. The Agent was careful to prevent him from using that deadly right arm that controlled the secret of the burning death.
He snapped a pair of handcuffs on young Barton's wrists when he dragged him out of the shell of armor. Barton tried to resist, struggled with maniacal strength. But the Agent twisted his arms in a punishing grip, and tightened the cuffs.
Barton stood there, breathing heavily, his face flushed, while "X" knelt beside the monster's suit, found the tube that ran from the underneath metal finger in the right hand to a compact tank strapped on the inside of the back.
He looked up at Barton. "You were always a clever chemist, Barton. This gas that you use here—it could have made you famous; you would have been hailed as a leader in your field—the discoverer of an invisible gas that ignites upon contact with organic substance. Why did you employ it in this way?"
Barton's youthful face twisted into a leer of malice and hatred. "You've ruined the greatest scheme the world has ever known! In a short time I would have had more power than any king or emperor!" He took an impulsive step forward.
"Whoever you are, you must be clever, ingenious, to have fought me this way. Why not join me? There will be little reward for you in turning me over to the police compared to what I can offer you. With the secret of that gas, two such men as you and I could achieve world empire. What do you say!"
"X" paid no attention to the mad offer of partnership in crime. He gazed speculatively at Barton, reflecting that there were strange motives in the world which impelled men to do mad things. This young man, possessed of wealth, education, culture, had turned to crime because of those very endowments which the world envied; surfeit of good fortune had made life empty—boring for him; and his brilliant mind had sought in crime the thrills that his jaded appetite craved.
"X" said aloud, "You had no regard even for your own father. You permitted him to think you were kidnaped—so that you would be free to appear as the monster!"
Barton waved the comment away impatiently. "What of it!" His voice became wheedling, eager. "Will you join me? You and I—nobody could stop us. We could climb the heights of power together!"
"X" shook his head. "And meet the same fate that your other partners met?"
Barton jerked his head up, eyes startled.
The Agent went on inexorably. "Of course you had partners. You didn't operate on those convicts' faces yourself—it was Jack Larrabie here that did that. And Harry Pringle, too. He planned the jail break because of his intimate knowledge of the layout of the State Prison—his father is the deputy police commissioner."
Barton stared at the Agent, fascinated, as he went on. "And Ranny Coulter —another of your jaded young thrill-seekers. This is his father's house. The whole row belongs to his father. He furnished your headquarters. You were all going to take turns at acting as the monster. But you killed them all, one after the other, when you found you didn't need them any longer."
The Agent spoke bitterly now. He pointed an accusing finger. "Barton, you are the worst of the lot—for you betrayed even your own associates.
"I have no sympathy for you—only for your father, for the fathers of Larrabie, and Coulter, and Pringle. I am thinking of the disgrace, the shame that you four thrill-seeking egomaniacs have brought upon their heads!"
Barton asked fiercely, "Who are you, anyway?" "You may call me— Secret Agent 'X'!"
Barton's body tautened. He raised his manacled hands in the air, leaped at "X" in a furious, desperate, fanatical onslaught. He brought his joined hands down in a chopping blow at the Agent's skull.
But "X" had jumped inside his guard, so that the steel cuffs glanced off his shoulder. The Agent at the same time swung a hard right list to Barton's middle, doubling him up. Barton sagged weakly to the floor. There were tears of defeat in his eyes. His breath, taken away by that blow, came in short gasps. His hands fumbled in his vest pocket, came out with a small pellet. They flashed upward, and the pellet disappeared in his mouth. He gulped, and swallowed.
Now he smiled grotesquely. "I've saved you the trouble of calling the police!" he said. "You win, Sec—"
His whole body stiffened, his face became crimson, and he collapsed.
The Agent stooped beside him. He was dead.
Now Secret Agent "X" worked swiftly, but with purpose. He stepped to the desk, rummaged through drawers, until he found a sealed envelope. He ripped this open, inspected the sheet of paper within. It was headed, "Formula for nitrocetylene." Below it were chemical symbols which the Agent took care not to look at. He did not want the responsibility of possessing the knowledge of that hideous, death-dealing gas.
Slowly, somberly, he ripped the paper to shreds, touched a match to them.
Then he stepped out of that room of horror, into another passage. At the end of this passage was a curtained doorway. "X" parted the curtains, peered through. He saw that the doorway opened upon a platform in a large room. Before the platform, rows of chairs were arranged in a semicircle. And the chairs were occupied—all but two of them, by the figures of the robot-like ex-convicts.
They were evidently awaiting the arrival of their master upon the platform; they must have been summoned for a meeting which would never take place now.
One of the robots noticed the crack in the curtains, started up in his chair. "X" gave him no time to warn the others. He held in his hand three glass capsules, larger than the one he had used in his escape from the police car on Brooklyn Bridge. They were colored red; they contained, not ammonia, but the anaesthetizing gas which the Agent used in his gun. He stepped through the curtains, onto the platform, and hurled the three capsules among the convicts.
He did not wait to see the effects; he knew that within a matter of seconds they would be rendered unconscious by that swiftly vaporizing gas, would remain that way for hours.
He stepped back into the corridor, hurried back to the laboratory. There was a phone here, and he picked it up, dialed the number of Jim Hobart's office. When Jim got on the wire, the Agent gave him the address of the house of death, issued swift instructions.
"This is Fearson," he said. "Come to this address at once. Bring with you a large black bag which Mr. Martin keeps in your office. Ring the outside bell, and I will take the bag from you."
That done, the Agent inspected the room carefully. He was seeking the hiding place of the safe which Barton had said contained the descriptions of all those convicts who were lying unconscious in the meeting hall...
IT was almost midnight when sirens sounded before that house of mystery and death. Headquarters cars, squad cars, radio cars filled the quiet street. Police swarmed in from every direction. They were headed by Deputy Commissioner Pringle in person, and they were there in answer to a mysterious telephone call. The caller had instructed them to go to this address in connection with the robot murders.
Commissioner Pringle was the first up the steps, tried the door and found it open. Burly Inspector Burks, in charge of homicide, shouldered past him. "This is my job, Commissioner," he grumbled. He strode into the dark hallway with drawn gun, flanked by two plain-clothes men with Thompsons.
But they met no opposition. Not until they reached the cellar did they know that they had not been hoaxed.
For there they found the laboratory, and on the floor the empty, monstrous armored shell of the being that had struck terror to the city. And close by lay Fred Barton, youthful and innocent looking in death, beside the scorched body of Jack Larrabie.
Pringle said with a catch in his voice, "Poor boys. They died trying to fight the monster. I hate to be the one to break the news to their families!"
From the laboratory they passed down the hall, found the meeting room. Inspector Burks stepped onto the platform, looked down, and exclaimed, "What the hell is this!" The chairs had been cleared away from the center of the room. Where they had stood, there were now ranged in a long row twenty-five unconscious bodies. And the faces were not the faces of robots, but those of the very men who were being sought all over the country—the twenty-five convicts who had escaped from State Prison!
Inspector Burks leaped from the platform, stooped and examined those heavy-breathing forms. To the chest of each was pinned a typewritten sheet bearing the identifying marks to be found on their bodies—marks which were part of the prison record of each man, and could not be denied.
Burks exclaimed, "These are the robots! Feel their bodies—they're wearing the bullet-proof clothing yet!"
He placed a hand on their faces, cried, "Good God—this is make-up! Somebody's fixed their faces to resemble their old selves. They've been delivered to us on a silver platter!"
He arose, issued orders excitedly. Men hastened in, placed handcuffs on the unconscious convicts. A call was put in for the wagon.
Pringle was trembling with emotion. "I wonder which of these convicts was the ringleader—which of them used the armor of the monster."
"We'll never know," Burks said morosely. "Whoever it was that laid them out here, must have taken out the one in the monster's shell and set him here next to the rest. It makes no difference, though—they'll all burn for murder!"
Pringle sighed. "Well, there'll be no more robot killings. At least Professor Larrabie, and Giles Barton will have the satisfaction of knowing that their sons' deaths were not in vain. They can always be proud that their boys were brave enough to risk their lives against these killers!"
And from somewhere in the distance there sounded the faint notes of an eerie whistle that jerked every man in the room to attention. That whistle was the inimitable signal of the man who was known as Secret Agent "X"—and it seemed to carry through the air the stamp of approval of Commissioner Pringle's words.
The secret of those four young men who had built a tower of terror upon a dream of power would forever be locked in the breast of a single man— Secret Agent "X."
For the sake of their families he had adopted the adage, "De mortuis, nihil nisi bonum!" 
[18 "About the dead let no evil be spoken!"]
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