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Title: The Avenger Author: Emile C. Tepperman * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301501h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2013 Most recent update: Aug 2016 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan. 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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This e-book is a compilation of stories written by Emile C. Tepperman in the "Avenger" series, mostly for publication in Clues Detective Stories in the early 1940's.
THE AVENGER was on the prowl tonight.
Swiftly, the word spread through the slimy alleys and the dark corners of the great city's underworld. Hard men who flaunted the police and scoffed at the law sought hurried cover as the word reached them.
At fly-specked bars, in closed and shuttered rooms, men buzzed in furtive whispers: "What's he after? Has anybody got the dope? Who's The Avenger gunning for?"
Those were the questions which flew around on the wings of fear.
Down at police headquarters, Inspector Cruikshank listened to the whispered voice of a stoolie over the phone and hung up with a worried frown.
"It's The Avenger," he said to Dolson, his chief aid. "He's on the hunt, They say he's out for big game. What the devil can he be after? What's on the books these days?"
Dolson scowled and scratched his right ear. "Who can tell, sir?" he growled. "It might be Gregorio Ruiz, or Nick Frogash—"
Inspector Cruikshank groaned. "I hope it isn't Ruiz. That devil is too big for us to tackle—"
"And for The Avenger, too!" Dolson broke in, "If Dick Benson is going after Gregorio Ruiz, there'll be fireworks in town tonight!"
"I better find out!" said the inspector. He flipped down the switch of the interoffice communication system and spoke into the box. "Get me Justice, Inc.," he ordered.
A moment later he had his connection, and a voice said over the phone, "This is Justice, Inc. Smith speaking."
"Listen, Smitty," said the inspector. "What's this I hear about your boss? What's he on to?"
"On to?" Smitty repeated, in a tone of surprised innocence. "Why, what in the world are you talking about, inspector?"
"Lay off, Smitty," Cruikshank growled. "You know damned well what I'm talking about. Word is traveling on the underworld grapevine that The Avenger is on the prowl. Now listen, I just want you to tell me one thing—is Dick Benson out after Gregorio Ruiz?"
"I'll ask him, the next time I see him, inspector," Smitty said, and hung up.
Inspector Cruikshank swore fluently as he cradled the phone.
"Smitty isn't talking!" he told Dolson. He reached for his hat, "I'm going out and see if I can find The Avenger, before the big guns begin popping. You, Dolson—order out every man in your detail. Have them comb the town. Whoever spots The Avenger, have him phone in. Put it on the shortwave radio. I'll pick it up wherever I am!"
Dolson saluted the inspector's retreating back and got busy on the interoffice phone. Within a matter of minutes, the police department was a bustling beehive of frantic activity.
Two blocks away from headquarters, in the terrace apartment of a twenty-story apartment building that overlooked the East River, a man stood upon the terrace, staring down at the murky waters of the river, far below.
He was a tall man, with the nose of a hawk and the look of a falcon and the eyes of a devil incarnate, His lips were thin and bloodless, and his hands were long and sensitive, like the hands of an artist.
This man was in a black mood indeed. There was a dark unreadable look in his eyes, and his thin lips twitched spasmodically. His hands gripped the terrace railing tightly, as if they would rip it from its moorings.
His eyes, it seemed, were focused upon a single spot down there in the river, a spot near a crumbling and disused dock. But it was strange that his attention should be centered upon that spot, for there was nothing there—no life, no movement.
Suddenly, the man with the hawk face swung around and stepped through the tall French windows into the lighted room beyond.
It was a great room, with costly drapes, rare oil paintings and curios and knicknacks from all parts of the world. Near one corner, under a fluorescent light, was an easel with a canvas resting upon it, Upon the canvas was an unfinished oil painting of a demure girl of nineteen or twenty, technically excellent but tinged with a strangely evil note. There was terror in the girl's eyes and revulsion in her face. The artist who had worked upon that canvas must have been one who gloried in the sight of terror.
The man with the hawk face brushed past the easel and stopped in the middle of the room, where three men stood waiting, their hats in their hands, servile and eager to please. Though they were hardbitten men, there was a lurking tinge of fear in their eyes as they watched this hawk-faced man.
He stood very still, looking at them for a full space of sixty seconds. And then, when he spoke, his voice was almost gentle. He was holding himself in check. He was not permitting the passion within him to burst its bonds.
"I want The Avenger!" he said, between grated teeth. "I want him dead or alive. I want him tonight! Do you understand, you three?"
The three men nodded their heads. The one on the left wet his lips.
"Yes, Mr. Ruiz," he said.
The second one swallowed hard. "Yes, Mr. Ruiz."
The third one spoke quickly, as if he wanted to get it over with. "Yes, Mr. Ruiz."
"Bah!" exclaimed Gregorio Ruiz. His eyes blazed as he mimicked them. "'Yes, Mr. Ruiz; yes, Mr. Ruiz!' Is that all you know how to say?"
His long finger lanced at the first of the three, a husky fellow with close-cropped black hair and a twisted nose. "You, Jasper!" His eyes swung to the next. "And you, Degnan. And you, Lithro. You three have been provided with men and money enough, to accomplish anything at all in this city, not excepting murder. Is it so hard, then, for you to capture or kill one man?"
Jasper was the boldest of the three. "That one man—he's The Avenger, Mr. Ruiz. He's tough, that guy. And so are his pals—that Smitty; even the dame, Nellie Gray. They're tough, and they play for keeps." Then, seeing the terrible wrath rising in the eyes of Gregorio Ruiz, he added hastily, "But we'll get him tonight. Don't worry; we'll get him tonight!"
Ruiz turned away from them. He strode out on to the terrace once more. Again, as if drawn by some terrible fascination, his eyes fixed upon that spot in the river, near the old and rotting dock. He spoke to them over his shoulder.
"Somebody squealed to The Avenger about that thing that's out there in the river. We don't know how much the squealer told. But we can't afford to have The Avenger find that thing out there. Do you all understand?"
Once more there was that chorus of, "Yes, Mr. Ruiz."
Gregorio Ruiz sighed. He came back into the room.
"Come," he said. "I see that I shall have to take charge of this, myself. Listen to me closely, you three. I shall tell you how we will trap The Avenger—"
IF Gregorio Ruiz and Inspector Cruikshank were both worried about The Avenger's activities tonight—each for a different reason—perhaps they both had more cause for concern than they thought. As for Gregorio Ruiz, had he known exactly where The Avenger was at that particular moment, his rage might have burst all bounds.
That terrace apartment of Ruiz's was two blocks east of headquarters. Only a couple of blocks south of headquarters was the Criminal Courts Building. And here, on the third floor, a jury of seven men and five women was deliberating behind locked doors, on the fate of one man. That one man was Barney Dorset.
The trial of Barney Dorset had lasted nineteen days. A procession of sixty witnesses had occupied the witness chair during Dorset's trial for murder in the first degree. Now, the jury was considering all the mass of evidence which had been placed before it. It had been locked in at eleven o'clock that morning. The judge was sleeping on a cot in his chambers, so that he would be on hand the moment a verdict was reached. The district attorney was pacing up and down in his office, and the defense counsel was engaged in a poker game with some reporters and bondsmen in a bonding office across the street from the courthouse.
The defendant himself was under heavy guard in the detention room on the main floor.
And it was just outside the courthouse that The Avenger might have been found, had anyone known where to look for him.
The long, powerful sedan of Dick Benson was parked on the side street, only a dozen feet or so from the north entrance. Dick sat in the back, with Nellie Gray behind the wheel. Tonight, Nellie was acting as chauffeur. But, to look at her, no one would have guessed that Dick's chauffeur was, in reality, a daintily fragile blonde. Her golden-blond hair was piled high on her head, hidden by a chauffeur's cap. The curves of her slim, girlish figure were hidden by a gray whipcord uniform, and her hands were incased in huge leather gauntlets.
Sitting in the rear, Dick Benson—The Avenger—was hardly more recognizable. He was attired in the complete outfit of a city fireman, with hip boots, fireproof coat and helmet, and a gas mask, slung by a strap over his shoulder. He had a long-handled ax at his side, and his face was liberally covered with soot. To look at him, no one would have thought he was other than a hard—working, tired, city employee.
Only his eyes indicated the driving resolve and the iron will which had made of him the one man whom the underworld feared and hated more than anyone or anything else.
It was he—this Dick Benson—who meted out punishment to those malefactors who were too big and powerful for the law to touch.
The long arm of The Avenger reached out where no man with a badge could legally go. And all over the world, men knew that if their cause was just, they could seek out that little street in the heart of New York where a small sign read: "Justice, Inc." There, they could find the help which the duly constituted authorities might be powerless to give.
Tonight, The Avenger was engaged in just such a mission—justice beyond the power of the law.
He sat, apparently at ease, with one eye on his wrist watch. Headphones were adjusted to his ears, and he was speaking into the mouthpiece of the powerful but compact short-wave sending-and-receiving set which was built into the car. A distorting device enabled him to speak in absolute privacy with Algernon Heathcote Smith, at the headquarters of Justice, Inc.
"All set, chief," Smitty was saying. "Inspector Cruikshank phoned, but I gave him the brush-off. He hasn't got the faintest idea what we're up to. He's placed a couple of men outside here, on Bleek Street. But if you use the secret entrance, they'll never spot you."
"Right, Smitty," said Dick Benson, glancing at his watch. "Zero hour is 8:15. Synchronize your time. I have 8:13.5."
"Right, chief. 8:13.5."
"Signing off, Smitty."
"Good luck. Signing off!"
Dick Benson removed the headset, placed it on a hook of the radio set and pressed a button. The set receded under the seat, a panel slid shut, and it was no longer visible.
Nellie Gray was watching him.
"Everything ready?" she asked.
The Avenger nodded. "Go to it, Nellie. Smitty will be phoning the alarm in less than a minute and a half."
Nellie smiled. This diminutive girl, endowed with the courage and skill which many men would have envied, had preferred to work by the side of The Avenger in his constant warfare against crime, rather than to seek one of the many glamorous careers which might have been open to one as beautiful and attractive as she. And she performed the duties assigned to her perhaps better than any man.
She slipped out of the car, walked swiftly to the corner, and threw a hasty glance around to make sure the cop on the beat was not in sight. Their timing had taken the cop's routine into consideration. At this moment, he would be at the other end of the beat, but those who worked with The Avenger had been trained always to be doubly sure. It was one of the many reasons why they, who took such numerous and terrible risks, were still alive and healthy.
As soon as Nellie was sure the cop was not in evidence, she reached up to the firebox and pulled the handle. This would flash the alarm at fire headquarters, which, in turn, would flash it over the fire department's telegraph, to the nearest pumper company.
At the same time, Smitty would be phoning in to say that he was a passer-by who had noted smoke issuing from the top floor of the Criminal Courts Building. This would insure that the dispatcher at fire headquarters would also send hook-and-ladder apparatus in addition to the pumper. Benson wanted as many pieces of fire apparatus as possible at the scene.
After pulling the fire alarm, Nellie Gray strolled back, past the entrance of the building. From the pocket of her whipcord uniform, she took a small round object, about the size of an orange. She hurled this object in through the open doorway.
There was a tinkling sound, as of broken glass, and a moment later, thick smoke began to billow out.
Nellie continued on to the car and slipped in behind the wheel.
Dick Benson's eyes were on his wrist watch.
"Good timing, Nellie," he said. "It took you just a half minute to get to the box and a half minute to walk back and throw the smoke bomb. That brought it to 8:15. The engines from the fire house take ninety seconds to get here, which should bring it to 8:16.5."
They waited till they heard the clang of the engines, around the corner. Then Dick Benson picked up his ax and stepped out of the car. He set off at a run for the side entrance. At the same time, a fireman from the pumper which had arrived at the front came running around the corner. Dick waved him back.
"I'll take this door!" he yelled.
The fireman thought, perhaps, that Dick was one of his own crew, who had gone in the front, come through the building and out this entrance. He was satisfied and turned back.
Dick adjusted his gas mask, covering his face entirely, and plunged into the cloud of smoke emanating from the courthouse.
He had a complete plan of the layout of the building in his mind, so he did not need to see through the smoke to find the detention room where Barney Dorset was being kept under guard.
The smoke was spreading so thickly that it had filled most of the main floor. But when Benson got close to the door of the detention room, he could see two guards milling around in front of it, with their hands at their eyes. The smoke bomb which Nellie had thrown had been especially constructed for this purpose by Fergus MacMurdie, another member of The Avenger's band, who was perhaps the most skilled chemist in the world. In addition to the smoke-producing chemical, the bomb which Nellie had thrown also contained a small quantity of xylil bromide, which is a highly effective, though absolutely harmless, form of tear gas. Those two guards would see nothing for perhaps twenty minutes, but their eyes would be all right again before morning.
The Avenger slipped around behind the two milling guards, and fitted a key to the door of the detention room. He had taken the precaution to prepare this key in advance and knew that it would work.
He pushed open the door of the detention room.
The smoke had not yet penetrated here. Barney Dorset was seated in a chair, handcuffed, with a cigarette between his lips. He was a surly brute of a man, with a stocky chest and a pair of long and powerful arms. He had done many a killing at the order of Gregorio Ruiz. Throughout the trial, he had not been greatly worried, because he knew that Ruiz would take care of him. Twice before, he had been tried for murder, and the case had gone to the jury. But in some strange and unaccountable fashion, the juries had found verdicts of "not guilty," despite the weight of evidence. He was quite sure that this would be the case now, too, and his demeanor indicated this feeling of assurance.
There were two guards on duty inside this room, both armed with sawed-off shotguns. One of them had gone to the window at the arrival of the fire engines, but the other remained at his post, tautly watching the prisoner.
At Dick Benson's entrance, the guard exclaimed, "Say! Is it a bad fire?"
He assumed, of course, that Dick was one of the firemen, and that the guards outside had opened the door for him.
"Not bad," said Dick. The smoke rolled in with him, filling the room swiftly. The guard's eyes began to tear, and he raised a hand to rub them. At the same time, the other guard, at the window, began to rub at his eyes, too.
Dick Benson stepped over to the first one, took a small pellet out of his pocket, and cracked it between his fingers, right under the man's face. The guard got one whiff of the powerful anaesthetic chemical which the pellet contained, and his head drooped.
Swiftly, Dick repeated the procedure with the second guard. In a moment, they were both unconscious.
It was beginning to be difficult to see through the smoke which was pouring in from the corridor, but Barney Dorset hadn't missed a thing.
"Hey," he exclaimed. "What goes on? You ain't a real fireman—"
"No, you fool!" Dick Benson snapped. He had dropped to one knee beside the unconscious guard and was going through his pockets. He found the man's keys, and sprang to Barney Dorset's side. Swiftly, he unlocked and removed the handcuffs.
Dorset's eyes widened. "I get it! Greg Ruiz sent you. He's pulling this phony fire to get me outta here!"
"Follow me," Dick said curtly. "Keep your eyes closed, so the smoke doesn't hurt them. Hold on to my coat. And don't lose me!"
"Don't worry, pal," Barney Dorset said with a wide grin. "I ain't anxious to stay in this hole. If Ruiz is pulling this play to get me out, it means he couldn't reach the jury this time. But I don't get it. He told me everything was fixed. Something must have slipped up."
"Never mind the talk," Dick Benson told him. "Save your breath. You'll need it."
His gas mask afforded him protection against the tear gas and he felt his way out of the building, with Dorset hanging on to his coat.
IN the street, a great crowd had gathered, and the police had established safety lines. Just before emerging, Dick stripped off his fireman's uniform and boots, together with the gas mask, and dropped them on the floor. When he and Dorset emerged, they looked like two civilians who had fought their way out of the smoke.
"Keep your face covered with your arm," Dick whispered to him. "Act as if your eyes hurt."
"I don't have to act," Dorset growled. "I kept them closed, but they sting like the devil, anyway." He chuckled. "Boy! Ruiz is the smartest guy in the world. Imagine walking right out through the police lines like this!"
Uniformed men helped Dick and Dorset to the curb, and they climbed into the waiting car. As soon as they were inside it, Nellie Gray backed it down the street, with policemen waving them on, glad to get the auto out of the way. In a moment, they had backed around the corner, and Nellie headed the car uptown.
Dorset sat back, reclining at ease, his brutish face mirroring triumph. "It's good to work for a guy like Ruiz. He sure takes care of you. No wonder he's got the city eating outta his hand. Take me, for instance. I'd shoot the mayor to death on the steps of city hall, if Greg Ruiz gave the word. Cause why? Because I know Ruiz would get me off!"
He took a deep whiff of his cigarette as the car sped north, and allowed the smoke to dribble luxuriously from his nostrils.
"I swear by Gregorio Ruiz!" he said.
Nellie Gray turned her head slightly and uttered a low, amused laugh.
"Brother," she said, "you'll soon be swearing at Gregorio Ruiz!"
At the sound of the feminine note in her voice, Barney Dorset froze, with the cigarette halfway to his lips, his eyes on her trim, whipcord-clad shoulders.
"Hey," he said. "You're a dame!"
He turned his head slowly and, for the first time, took a good look at Dick Benson. His eyes became wide, and flecked with terror, as he recognized the face of the man in whose car he was riding.
"The Avenger!" he gasped.
Dick Benson nodded. "That's right, Dorset. That jury back at the courthouse wouldn't have convicted you. Your boss got to them. But it will be a little harder for Ruiz to get you out of this!"
With a cry of rage and terror, Dorset flung himself at The Avenger. But Dick Benson's hands moved with uncanny swiftness, and before the killer realized what had happened, he was helpless in a punishing arm lock.
Benson held him so for a moment, then flung him back contemptuously in the seat.
Dorset stared at The Avenger like a caged and helpless animal which has suddenly learned that its keeper's whip has mastered it. He licked his lips. The fight was gone out of him.
Dick took another one of the pellets from his pocket. Holding his own breath, he stretched out his hand and broke it under Dorset's nose. The killer went lax as the powerful drug acted upon him. He slumped down, unconscious.
Nellie Gray tuned in the shortwave radio on the dashboard to get the police calls. The announcer was frantically calling all cars. The escape of Barney Dorset had been discovered. All policemen were cautioned to be on the watch. All exits from the city were being blocked. But The Avenger's name was not mentioned in connection with the escape. Nellie switched off the radio.
"Chief," she said, over her shoulder, "I think you're a wonder!"
"Don't crow, yet, Nellie," The Avenger said soberly. "We haven't licked Ruiz. Our gamble is that this will bring him out in the open; that he'll try something desperate to rescue Dorset and leave himself unguarded. But he's pretty clever. From now on, the watchword is 'constant alert.' We can't tell where or how Ruiz will strike back."
He pressed the button which brought the sending-and-receiving set out and once more got contact with Smitty.
"Operation completed successfully, Smitty," he said. "We're approaching headquarters from the rear. All clear?"
"All clear, Dick," Smitty reported. "You can come in."
Nellie swung the car into the next street behind Bleek, where the headquarters of Justice, Inc., were located. In the middle of the block was a public garage, which appeared innocent enough to the casual observer. But the moment the car rolled in, a service mechanic waved it on, down toward the rear. Nellie swung the car down a ramp which led into the basement. There were many cars parked here, and at one end of the basement was a greasing pit.
Nellie drove the car onto the pit. Immediately, an overhead door came down, shutting them off, in absolute privacy from the rest of the floor. The whole greasing rack began to descend, like an elevator. A moment later, they were in a wide, concrete tunnel, large enough for the car to move through, with room to spare on either side, but with no illumination.
Nellie Gray switched the headlights on, drove down the length of the tunnel, bringing the car to a stop at a blank wall. Immediately, the whole section of floor on which the car rested began to rise. In a moment, they were in the private garage of Justice, Inc., on Bleek Street.
This was the means of ingress and egress which The Avenger used when absolute secrecy was of paramount importance, or when the headquarters were under surveillance. In addition to the buildings on Bleek Street, Dick Benson was the secret owner of all that property on the entire square block. The public garage through which they had come was operated by a man who was in debt to Benson for his life and who was deeply devoted to him, and the employees of the garage were all trusted men who had seen service with The Avenger in many parts of the world.
There was never any danger of betrayal in the ranks of those who worked for Justice, Inc.
Dick Benson lifted the inert form of Barney Dorset out of the car and slung him on his shoulder. With Nellie leading the way, he carried him through the connecting passage, into the main building, and up a flight of stairs.
Smitty was waiting for them there, grinning.
"Inspector Cruikshank is upstairs in the office," he announced. "And is he mad!"
"I'll talk to him now," The Avenger said, "if you'll take this off my hands."
Smitty grinned, and took over the burden of the unconscious Dorset. He didn't bother slinging Dorset over his shoulder. He just carried him under his arm.
Algernon Heathcote Smith, research engineer and electrical wizard, was a giant of a man, looking like some towering Viking god of old, descended fresh from Valhalla to stride among mortal men. When his parents had sent him to Groton and then to Cambridge and Edinburgh, they had never thought that his brilliant and studious mind would ever find interests outside the cloistered halls of some sedate university.
But the crusade which The Avenger waged against crime had attracted Smitty's allegiance, and his greatest happiness was to risk his life daily in the constant war which Justice, Inc., was waging against the forces of evil.
He carried Barney Dorset as if he were a child's stuffed doll, rather than an inert man weighing a hundred and eighty pounds.
"I'll put him in the yellow room," he said. "Cruikshank would never find that room—even if he got a search warrant and went through this place with a hundred men!"
Benson raised his eyebrows. "Is it that bad, Smitty?"
"It's worse than that!" laughed Smitty. "Cruikshank is on the warpath. He threatens to go right out and get a search warrant!"
Smitty left, with Dorset under his arm, and Dick Benson turned to Nellie Gray. He patted her on the shoulder. "That was nice work, tonight," he praised her. "Better go and change. Get rid of that chauffeur's uniform."
He hurried upstairs, to the waiting room, where Inspector Cruikshank was champing at the bit, pacing up and down and listening to the radio. The announcer was babbling excitedly about the escape of Barney Dorset and hazarding a number of theories as to who had planned and arranged it.
Cruikshank shook an angry finger at Dick. "Look here, Benson—I know damned well that you're the one who got Dorset out. Where is he? What've you done with him?"
"My dear inspector!" protested The Avenger, "are you accusing me of helping a murderer beat the law?"
"I know how you'll help him beat the law, Benson. You won't kill him yourself. But you'll arrange it somehow, so that he'll be found floating in the river some morning. Mind you, I'm not saying that isn't justice. Dorset wouldn't have been convicted. I know, and you know, that Ruiz is back of him, and nobody that Ruiz backs ever goes to the chair. But, man, you've set the city on its ear. I was afraid you'd do something fantastic, but I never guessed at this. When the word came in that you were prowling all the dives, I sent men out to find you—"
"Yes, I know," The Avenger said. "But you should have come straight here if you wanted me, Cruikshank. You see, I'm here now. And you've had men watching this place since eight o'clock. They didn't see me come in, did they?"
Cruikshank nodded bitterly. "You've got half a dozen ways of getting in and out of here, Benson. I swear I'm going to take this joint apart one of these days."
"But not tonight, inspector. You'll excuse me? I'm busy—"
"Now wait, Benson. Don't give me the bum's rush. I want Dorset. You've got to turn him back!"
"Why?" The Avenger's voice cracked like a whip.
"You violated the law, Benson. Do you realize you could get twenty years for what you did tonight?"
"How do you know Gregorio Ruiz didn't do it?"
"Ha! Because Ruiz called me up the minute the escape was flashed. He's burning up. He's afraid you'll make Dorset talk. He didn't say so, but anybody can guess that's why he's so hot about it. He was hot before, when he found out you were gunning for him. There's something he's afraid you'll discover—"
"That's right," The Avenger said quietly. "And I mean to discover it tonight!"
Cruikshank looked at him queerly. "What do you mean?"
"Come," said The Avenger. "I'll show you!"
DICK led the inspector out of the room, down a corridor, then up a short half flight of stairs. He rapped lightly at a door, and an elderly, high-pitched voice said, "Come in, please."
The Avenger pushed open the door, and they entered.
Cruikshank stared at the single occupant of the tastefully furnished guest room. It was a little old lady, with gray hair neatly combed and her wrinkled face alight with eagerness. She put down her knitting and stretched forth a hand to Dick.
"Mr. Benson!" she exclaimed, almost pathetically. "Have...have you any word of my Laura?"
Dick went over to the chair and touched her hair lightly.
"Not yet, Mrs. Trent," he said in a voice that was surprisingly gentle. "But I hope to have something definite—tonight."
There were tears in Mrs. Trent's eyes. She tried to take Dick's hand and kiss it, but he withdrew it gently.
"I wanted you to meet Inspector Cruikshank," Dick said.
The old lady peered at him through her spectacles. "We've met before," she said dryly.
Cruikshank was embarrassed. "Why...er...yes. I believe Mrs. Trent came to see me yesterday, about her daughter who had disappeared."
"She didn't just disappear!" Mrs. Trent snapped. "She was taken. Taken by those devils who work for Gregorio Ruiz. I told the inspector the whole story—how Laura came home that night from work. She's a waitress in a restaurant, and she works till 9:30. She walks home along the River Drive, and she saw the boat out in the river, and she saw how they lifted the poor man up in the boat. He was tied and gagged, and he had something heavy around his feet. They threw him overboard, and he sank!
"It was raining hard that night, and Laura was hurrying, but she was so shocked she stopped in the rain, unable to move. Then there was a flash of lightning, and she saw the face of one of the men in the boat. The men saw her at the same time, and they turned the boat toward shore. Laura ran all the way home. She told me what she had seen, and I said she should go to the police."
Old Mrs. Trent stopped, and ran a finger under her glasses, to wipe away the tears. Then she went on: "But Laura never got to the station house. Those men must have followed her home, and waited outside for her. She didn't come back. Those men must have taken her away!"
Inspector Cruikshank coughed. He looked shame-facedly at The Avenger. "Mrs. Trent told me the story. We dragged the river at the spot she mentioned, but we didn't find any body. So we didn't believe her story. We merely filed Laura Trent's name with the missing-persons bureau."
"I know," The Avenger said. "But wasn't that the night that Lou Marconi disappeared? He was the bookmaker who was trying to buck Gregorio Ruiz."
"Yes, that's right. But just the same, we didn't find the body."
"Isn't it possible that those men dived for the body, after they learned that Laura had seen them, and brought it up and dropped it somewhere else?"
"Of course it's possible," Cruikshank admitted. "But what can we do about it? If we arrested Ruiz on a charge like that, he'd be out in ten minutes, And he'd sue the city for false arrest!"
"Maybe you can't do anything about it, Cruikshank," The Avenger said softly. "But I intend to do something! I'm going to see if I can save Laura Trent"—he lowered his voice so that even the inspector barely heard him—"if it isn't too late!"
He took Cruikshank by the arm and led him out of that room, nodding to Mrs. Trent as he closed the door behind them.
In the corridor, his grip tightened on the inspector's arm. "I'm keeping that old lady here," he said tightly. "It's the only place in the city where she'll be safe from Ruiz. And, in case you're interested, that's the reason why Ruiz was so burned up when he heard I was out after him. He guesses where Mrs. Trent is. And he guesses what she's told me."
Cruikshank looked at him queerly. "You think it was Ruiz himself whom Laura Trent saw in that boat?"
The Avenger nodded.
"Ruiz's ace killer, Barney Dorset, was in jail. I happen to know that two of his other top killers were in Chicago on a little job. He had Jasper and Degnan and Lithro, of course, but he wouldn't trust them alone on a piece of business like that. So it's quite likely that he supervised it in person."
The inspector's eyes were very thoughtful.
"Jove! If that's true, Benson, you're on the track of something!"
The Avenger said quietly, "And do you still want me to turn Barney Dorset over to you?"
Cruikshank avoided his gaze. "Er...suppose you forget that I've seen you, Benson. Let's just imagine that I didn't find you in. And the best of luck to you!"
The hands of the two men met in a tight grip. Then Inspector Cruikshank turned and hurried out.
The Avenger went swiftly to his office on the top floor. Smitty and Nellie were already there, waiting for him.
"I've got Dorset nice and cozy in the yellow room," Smitty chuckled. "He came to, but he's as jittery as a Jap in a Chinese laundry. I think we can make that baby talk!"
"What about Mrs. Trent?" Nellie asked. "Is she all right?"
The Avenger nodded. "I promised her that we'd have some word about her daughter tonight."
He picked up a phone from the battery of instruments on his desk, consulted a notebook, and dialed a number.
Smitty and Nellie watched him tensely.
"I hope this works!" Nellie said fervently, and added: "For Mrs. Trent's sake!" Dressed in feminine clothing, with her blond hair falling to her shoulders, Nellie Gray reminded one of a dainty and fragile Dresden doll, which one might hesitate to touch for fear of shattering it. But many a hardened criminal had discovered, to his sorrow, that Nellie's looks were entirely deceiving, when it came to a good fight.
The Avenger got his connection. "Hello," he said. "I want to talk to Arnie Jasper."
In a moment, he was talking to one of the three men who had been present in Gregorio Ruiz's terrace apartment, earlier that evening.
"Jasper," he said coldly, "this is Richard Benson. No, don't say anything. You needn't deny that you're connected with Ruiz. I want you to deliver a message to him. Tell him that I'm ready to make a trade with him. Understand? If he wants to do business, have him call me immediately, at Lakeside 7-7777. Good-by!"
And he hung up.
The three of them waited tensely, for perhaps four minutes. Then the phone rang.
"Ah!" said Smitty.
Nellie Gray's eyes were shining. "Then Laura Trent is still alive!" she whispered. "Otherwise Ruiz would not have anything to trade for Barney Dorset!"
The Avenger picked up the phone slowly.
"Benson? This is Gregorio Ruiz. You wanted to talk to me?"
"Yes," said The Avenger. "I believe you have something I want. On the other hand, I have something you want. I suggest we make a trade."
"I don't know what you're talking about!" Ruiz said carefully. "But I'm interested. Just what do you mean?"
The Avenger's voice was stern. "Let's not beat around the bush, Ruiz. I'd like very much to keep Dorset. I can make him talk and get enough out of him to finish you. But I'm willing to give up that chance, to save the life of Laura Trent. If she's still alive, we can trade. If she's dead—Heaven help you!"
There was a moment's silence. Then Ruiz's voice, low but clear. "I'll trade, Benson. Where can we discuss the details?"
"Anywhere you say."
"I'll meet you at the information booth in Grand Central Station in fifteen minutes. That's the best place to talk. There are no walls to listen. I'll bring one man with me, and you bring one man. I want your word that you won't attempt anything against my personal safety during our talk."
"You have my word," Benson said coldly.
"Good. And I give you my word that—"
"You don't have to give me your word, Ruiz. It's no good. I'll take care of myself!"
"All right then," the other snapped. "I'll meet you in fifteen minutes!"
Dick Benson hung up. He looked at his two friends. "Well," he said, "we have still to find out if Laura is alive. Ruiz may be lying. He may have killed her already. But we'll find out soon enough. Come on, Smitty!"
Nellie saw them to the elevator. Smitty chucked her under the chin, "Hold the fort, baby. And don't make eyes at that Barney Dorset. He's a killer-diller!"
"Get going, you big lug!" Nellie told him. "And don't take any wooden slugs!"
Smitty chuckled. "Not me. Or lead ones, either!"
Nellie watched through the nickel-steel slats of the Venetian blinds at the top-floor windows while they got into one of the cars parked at the curb. Then she went to the teletype machine to get the latest police releases on the search for Barney Dorset.
But she had hardly been there five minutes, before a red panel light showed that she had a visitor.
Frowning, Nellie switched on the small television unit, which threw on a screen a picture of the downstairs vestibule.
There was a dark-haired girl standing there, a girl about nineteen or twenty, dressed in a cheap blue coat. She seemed quite nervous and agitated and kept looking around as if afraid she was being followed.
Nellie swiftly pressed the button which opened the door. She was alone now in the building, for The Avenger's other assistants were away on various missions, and she had the full responsibility of the place upon her slim shoulders.
She watched the screen, and saw the dark-haired girl enter. Immediately, Nellie pressed the button which closed and locked the front door. Then she pressed a switch which transferred the image on the screen from the outside of the building, to the interior. Now, she could watch the dark-haired girl in the vestibule. Nellie placed her mouth to a speaking arrangement, and said, "Come upstairs, miss."
She watched the visitor step into the waiting elevator; then she pressed another button which opened the office door, admitting the visitor.
The girl entered, and looked around the strangely equipped room in a shy and frightened manner.
"What can I do for you?" Nellie asked in a kindly tone.
The girl's dark eyes met those of Nellie. She advanced a timid step into the room.
"My n-name is Dora Hayes," she said. "I...I want to s-see Richard Benson."
"I'm sorry," said Nellie, "but Mr. Benson isn't in. Perhaps I can help you? I'm Nellie Gray, his assistant."
"I...I have something to tell him. It...it's about Laura Trent." Instantly, Nellie was alert. "What about Laura Trent?"
"I think I know where to find her. I shouldn't be doing this. It...it's as much as my life is worth. But Laura is my friend. We worked in the same restaurant."
Nellie took her by the arm and led her to a chair. "Now, tell me all about it."
Dora Hayes looked up at her pathetically. "If The Avenger were only here! There's no time to lose. I overheard two men talking. They were just starting to have dinner in the restaurant, and they didn't know I was clearing the booth behind them. One of them mentioned Laura's name. He told the other to order some sandwiches to take out, because the Trent girl would starve if they didn't send food down to her at least once a day. The other one laughed. He wondered why they didn't let her starve to death, and the first one said maybe they'd need her alive. And then when I brought the water to their table, they told me to make up two ham sandwiches to take out."
Nellie was watching the girl closely as she talked. "Do you know either of those two men?"
"One of them comes in regularly. His name is Arnie Jasper. He runs a numbers racket, I think. They're still in the restaurant. I asked another girl to take my place and hurried over here, because I knew that The Avenger had been looking for information about Laura Trent."
Nellie Gray made her mind up swiftly.
"Wait here, miss!" she said.
She hurried out of the room, and got an extra automatic. She put it in a special silk holster, which was strapped around her thigh. She had a gun in her bag, but she was not overlooking the possibility that this might be a trap of some kind. And if she should find herself in a tight spot, deprived of her purse, she could always get at this extra gun. She went into the next room, and looked through a peephole at Dora Hayes. The girl was sitting exactly where Nellie had left her, her hands clasping and unclasping nervously.
Satisfied, Nellie came back into the room.
"Let's go, Dora!" she said.
"What...what are you going to do?"
"I'll get a car, and we'll go right over there. In the absence of The Avenger, I'll handle this—"
"Please!" said Dora Hayes. "Let's not use one of The Avenger's cars. I don't ever want to be seen in one of them. If it's ever known that I tipped off The Avenger, my life won't be worth a cent!"
"All right," Nellie conceded. "We'll take a cab."
She hustled Dora Hayes downstairs, and they hurried up Bleek Street to the corner. They found a taxicab cruising down the street, and just as they were getting into it, Dora Hayes dropped her purse.
"Come on," said Nellie. "Hurry!" And she stepped into the cab first.
The moment she was inside, she realized she had stepped into a trap. For she saw Dora Hayes spring up and slam the door shut.
Nellie reached out for the door handle, and found there was none. She was locked in. At the same time, a sickeningly sweet smell began to pervade the interior of the taxi. Nellie's senses began to reel. She struggled forward, in a vain endeavor to slide open the connecting window at the front. She saw the face of the cab driver, grinning sardonically in at her. Then every thing swam before her eyes, and she collapsed!
IN Grand Central Station, the crowds of hurrying men and women were oblivious of the tense drama which was being played at the information booth. True, they did cast a glance or two at the towering figure of Smitty, who loomed head and shoulders above anyone in the vast vaulted concourse.
But it was not Smitty who was carrying the ball at the moment. He was merely standing at The Avenger's side, ready to run the interference when and if it became necessary.
They were facing the tall and saturnine Gregorio Ruiz, who was accompanied by Arnie Jasper. It was like a duel at dawn, where each man brings his second. But there were no rules of honor to this duel, for Dick Benson well knew that no honor was to be found in the black and evil heart of Gregorio Ruiz.
"All right, Ruiz," he said. "We understand each other thoroughly. If Laura Trent is alive, we can do business."
"She's alive all right, Benson." Ruiz seemed to be preoccupied. His gaze was constantly wandering to the far side of the station, where the telephone booths were located. "And I'm willing to trade. I can't afford to have Barney Dorset grilled—by you. He can take anything the police hand him. But you'd know how to break him down."
"We wouldn't use force," Benson said. "We have drugs. Rest assured that he'd talk. But as I told you, I'll give him up, to save Laura Trent's life. That isn't the end, though. I'm going after you, Ruiz, when this deal is over. You have fair warning."
"I understand," said Ruiz. His eyes wandered once more to the telephone booths, "Now what about Laura Trent? If I set her free, she can identify...er...the man she saw in the boat that night."
"I'll guarantee that she keeps silent on that," The Avenger assured him. "You'll have nothing to fear from her. I'll get you on something else."
"Then I suppose it's a deal," Ruiz began. Suddenly, a bitterly vindictive smile twisted his lips. A man had come out of one of the phone booths at the far side, and had raised a hand in the air. He waved the hand once, then disappeared in the crowd.
The eyes of Gregorio Ruiz gleamed with vicious hatred as he swung his gaze back to Dick.
"I've changed my mind, Benson!" he snapped. "It's no deal. If you want to do business with me, you'll have to do it on my terms, now!"
The Avenger had noticed that signal. His eyes narrowed. "What are your terms, Ruiz?" he asked softly.
Ruiz turned and winked at Arnie Jasper, who grinned insolently. "You tell him, Arnie. I want to watch his dead-pan face while he hears the news."
Jasper licked his lips. "It's a pleasure, boss!" He looked at Smitty. "It's your girl friend, pal—Nellie Gray. How would you like to see her body floating face up in the river tonight? She's a cute trick, that dame. But she won't look so good when she's dead!"
The Avenger became tense and wary. But Smitty growled deep in his throat. "Why, you two slimy rats. If you so much as scratch her, I'll twist your heads off your necks!"
He took a threatening step toward them, and Arnie Jasper became pale and backed up. But Gregorio Ruiz did not retreat. He wiggled a finger at Smitty.
"Tut, tut, my overgrown friend. No violence, please. Don't forget that golden-haired young lady of yours." He looked up at Smitty, giving him a sour smile. "I have no doubt that you could kill me easily with those two hands of yours. Or that Benson could do it, too, for that matter. You see. I don't depend on strength for my success. I depend on the gray matter up here." He tapped his forehead. "That's why I selected this busy place for our interview. It isn't so easy for you to use violence here, with all these people passing. So I'm afraid you'll have to accept my terms."
Smitty turned and looked helplessly at The Avenger.
Dick Benson's gaze had never left Ruiz's face.
"What's your proposition?" he asked harshly.
"That's better!" said Gregorio. "You'll forget about the Trent girl, Benson. She's out of this deal altogether. If you ever thought I'd turn her loose—with what she knows—you must have been crazy! We'll make an exchange—Nellie Gray for Barney Dorset. And you pay me a hundred thousand dollars to boot! Take it or leave it. I want your answer now. If you refuse, you'll never see Nellie Gray alive again."
"But we'll get you, you rat!" Smitty growled. "We'll make Dorset talk, and send you to the chair!"
Ruiz shrugged. "I don't think you'd sacrifice Nellie Gray in order to get me. I think you'll do every thing in your power to save her life."
"You want me to sacrifice Laura Trent for Nellie?" The Avenger asked.
"Sure," said Ruiz. "What's she to you?"
"She has a mother who trusts me," The Avenger said.
Ruiz looked at him incredulously. "Then you refuse?"
Arnie Jasper broke in. "You're crazy, Benson! That dame has been with you a long time. She's your friend—"
"I'm sorry," said The Avenger. "Nellie wouldn't want to live at that price. I refuse!"
He glanced at Smitty. "I think we need a little interference at this time, Smitty," he said mildly.
"Ah!" said Smitty.
He took a single step forward. One huge hand darted out and seized the neck of Gregorio Ruiz. The other moved equally fast, and seized the neck of Arnie Jasper. Then, with a quick, powerful motion, be slammed the two heads together.
For all his size and bulk, Algernon Heathcote Smith was capable of moving with the concentrated speed of chain lightning. Else, he would not have been able to survive so long in the service of Justice, Inc.
He moved so swiftly now that no one in the crowded station noticed that quick, sharp contact of the two heads. Bone cracked against bone, and the two men sagged!
Swiftly, Dick Benson stepped around and put an arm about Gregorio Ruiz's waist. He raised Ruiz's right arm, and draped it around his own shoulder, thus supporting Ruiz on his feet, though the latter was semiconscious from the blow. At the same time, Smitty put an arm around Arnie Jasper, and supported him in similar fashion.
Smitty had put just enough force behind that smashing together of the two heads to make the men groggy, but not enough to knock them out completely. There were two reasons for this: First, they had to have Ruiz and Jasper in a condition to talk; second, they didn't want to carry two unconscious men through the crowd in Grand Central Station.
It was characteristic of the way The Avenger and Smitty worked. It had not been necessary for Dick to tell his giant companion any of this. They had operated together for so long that they could almost read each other's minds, and when they were in a tight spot, they functioned with smooth precision.
So, now, they needed no lengthy conference to decide what to do. Smitty knew what The Avenger had in mind, and Dick knew that Smitty understood his plan of action.
They began to walk the two semiconscious men out through the crowded station, moving close together. And they both raised their voices in close harmony, singing "Auld Lang Syne." Smitty sang bass, and then switched every once in a while to treble, while Dick Benson took the baritone, changing occasionally to a high key.
As they sang, they headed for the exit.
A woman looked at them in disgust, and said, "Imagine—grown men allowing themselves to get in such a drunken condition!"
The woman's companion sniffed, disgustedly. "If they were my husbands, I'd know what to do with them!"
Smitty, who was nearest her, turned and looked at her owlishly. "Oh, lady," he said, making his voice thick and drunken, "what would you be doing with four husbands?"
They kept going, dancing Ruiz and Jasper out into the street. A station policeman said grimly, "Better get out of here, you fellows, or we'll run you in!"
"Sure, sure," said Smitty.
Jasper, who was just beginning to regain his senses, started to shout something at the policeman. Smitty lurched against him and, at the same time, pinched his arm so hard that he uttered a yell of pain.
The policeman watched them for a moment, and then turned away in disgust.
The four "drunks" lurched into The Avenger's car, which was parked at the curb. Smitty slid in behind the wheel. He was grim and sober as he tooled the car away from the curb and headed downtown to the headquarters of Justice, Inc.
In the back, The Avenger was seated between Ruiz and Jasper. He had one arm of each twisted behind their backs, and pushed up almost to the breaking point. He said no word to either of them. But, as he saw them coming to their senses and preparing to cry out, he put just a little more pressure on each of them. The pain drained all the breath out of them, leaving them powerless to cry out.
Smitty drove like a mad genius, cutting lights by a hair, swerving in and out, but never taking his foot off the gas. It was a testimony to his superb driving skill that he reached Bleek Street in twelve minutes without once stopping for a light, and without once scraping a fender.
They drove in through the garage, and five minutes later they had their two captives upstairs.
Ruiz was pale and shaken, but stubbornly silent. Smitty picked him up, kicking and fighting, and carried him away to the blue room, which was next to the yellow room, where Barney Dorset was being detained.
Then Smitty came down and joined The Avenger in the office, with Arnie Jasper.
Jasper had fully regained consciousness, by now, but he had a lump on the right side of his head. He was sitting in a chair where The Avenger had thrust him, after frisking him for weapons. His little rat eyes were watching every move which The Avenger made, at the little experiment table in the corner.
Smitty took one look at the vial which The Avenger was handling and gasped.
"Dick! You're not going to give him that!"
The Avenger turned around. His eyes were almost expressionless.
"Why not?" he asked bleakly.
Smitty put on a good act. "But that will eat his insides out."
"That's right," said Dick.
He came toward Arnie Jasper, with the vial in his hand.
Jasper's eyes were big and round, and his lips were trembling.
"What...what you doing—"
"Hold him, Smitty." said The Avenger.
Jasper leaped up, in a frantic effort to escape, but Smitty put a big paw on him, got Jasper's legs between his knees, and twisted his arms behind him. Arnie Jasper was helpless in Smitty's massive grip.
"No, no!" he shrieked, as The Avenger bent over him, with the oily, colorless liquid lying heavy in the vial.
"You know what this is," The Avenger said tonelessly. "It's sulphuric acid. You've heard of cases where jealous women throw it at other women. You know what it does to their faces."
He paused. "Well, Jasper, I'm going to feed this to you— internally!"
"Have mercy!" Jasper whimpered. "In the name of pity—"
"Pity?" The Avenger said harshly. "Do you ask for pity? You who have done Ruiz's dirty work for him? What kind of pity do you expect when Nellie's life is at stake?"
He reached over with one hand and clamped Jasper's nostrils shut in a cruel grip.
"When you can't breathe through your nose any more, you'll open your mouth to get some air. Then I'll pour the sulphuric acid in!"
"Give me a break!" Jasper screamed. "I'll tell you where to find Nellie Gray!"
The Avenger paused, with the vial hovering above Jasper's mouth. "What do you think, Smitty?" he asked. "Can we believe him?"
"Well, we can try," Smitty said. "Let him give us the dope. If we get Nellie out safely, all right. If we don't, we'll come back and give him the acid."
"I'll tell you the truth. I swear I will!" Jasper screamed. "They took her to the Loomis Apartments, on the river. Ruiz owns the whole place. He's got a terrace apartment on the top floor, and he's got the subcellar fixed up for prisoners. You'll find her there, I swear!"
"Hm-m-m," said The Avenger. "Do you think he's telling the truth. Smitty?"
"It's true!" Jasper whined. "She's there. And that Trent girl is there, too. She saw Ruiz and me and Degnan dropping Lou Marconi's body in the river, uptown. Degnan followed her and picked her up, while Ruiz and I got a diving suit and fished the body up and moved it down the river. It's right near the Loomis Apartments now. I can even show the cops where to drag for it—"
The Avenger nodded slowly. Smitty relaxed his grip on Jasper. The frightened man got to his feet, still shrinking away from the vial.
"I'd do anything not to get that stuff spilled into me. I once seen a dame who got it thrown in her face—"
"This?" said The Avenger, holding up the vial. "Why should you be afraid of this?" He turned the vial upside down, and poured the thick, oily liquid over his own hand. Nothing happened.
"You see," Smitty explained, laughing, "if you knew The Avenger better, you'd know he'd never do a thing like that to anybody, not even a rat like you. That stuff in the vial happens to be mineral oil!"
"You dirty crooks!" Jasper shrieked. "You tricked me!"
Smitty picked him up bodily and carried him away. In a moment, he was back. The Avenger was waiting for him.
"I've phoned Cruikshank," he said grimly. "The inspector is going to meet us at the Loomis Apartments with the riot squad!"
Just twenty minutes later, the Loomis Apartments were in the hands of the police, without a shot having been fired. All those hard killers in the pay of Gregorio Ruiz permitted themselves to be taken like lambs when they saw the submachine guns in the hands of grim-faced policemen who welcomed this opportunity to clean up.
And in the subcellar, they found Nellie Gray, recovered from the effects of the drug and none the worse for wear. Laura Trent was there, too, just as Jasper had said.
When Nellie crawled out of the camouflaged coal bin in which she had been confined, she wiped soot from her face and grinned at Smitty and Dick.
"I didn't think you boys would make it in time," she said, brushing the golden hair back from her face. "They were going to dump ten tons of coal into the bin, on top of Laura and me. My next view of the river would have been when I passed up in smoke, out of the Loomis furnace!"
The girl who had lured Nellie into the cab was in custody, as well as every one of the hirelings in the service of Gregorio Ruiz.
Ruiz lanced looks of murderous hatred at The Avenger, when, a half-hour later, he was turned over into the custody of Inspector Cruikshank, together with Barney Dorset and Arnie Jasper.
"Damn you!" he said. "I don't know how you did this—"
"It's easy when you know how," Smitty told him. "Just grease the skids with a little mineral oil!"
IT is not strange that Dick Benson, as he paced impatiently up and down the lobby of the cozy little hotel, was unaware of the existence of Emma Puglese. For Emma lived eighty miles away in the heart of one of the slum sections of New York City, and Benson had never met her.
Yet his fate and hers—and perhaps the fate of a nation—were inextricably bound together, by threads which the Fates had begun to weave a long time ago.
At the moment, however, Benson's thoughts were far removed from Emma Puglese, whom he did not even know. They were upon a man named Crawford. He had driven eight miles from New York with Nellie Gray to meet this George Crawford, and now the man was forty-five minutes late.
As Benson paced up and down, Nellie Gray, demure in her slim young beauty, stood at the window looking out at Main Street.
It was a pretty little colonial hotel that Crawford had chosen for his appointment. It catered mainly to tourists, for Main Street was part of Linden Highway, which ran right through the town of Postville. But now, with gasoline being rationed, there were hardly any tourists. There were only two or three patrons in the dining room, and the clerk behind the desk at the rear was dozing fitfully.
At the window, Nellie Gray kept watch. The hotel was situated right where Main Street curved. From here the highway ran due west, up a hill into the setting sun. And the road was as straight as a ruler. To Nellie it looked like a broad ribbon laid carefully up the side of the hill, disappearing over the top.
She brushed the blond hair from her face and said, "I'm hungry, Dick. Why can't we eat while we wait?"
"I'm afraid we won't have time," he told her. "I've never known Crawford to be late. If he isn't here in five minutes, we'll drive up to his estate."
"But he particularly asked you not to. He was insistent when he phoned."
"I know. But I'm afraid something's happened to him."
"He only said his chauffeur had been kidnaped. Why should anyone want to kidnap a chauffeur?"
"I don't know, Nellie. He said he'd explain when he met us."
"But if that's all—"
"It's not quite all, Nellie. He also said something about not knowing where to turn; that the only man he could have looked to for help had been killed today in a plane crash."
"Ah!" Nellie's eyes narrowed. They were pretty blue eyes, but they were keenly intelligent. Indeed, she had to be intelligent to be able to work with a man like Benson.
"The teletype!" she exclaimed. "I saw it on the teletype before we left. Admiral Miles, of Naval Intelligence, was killed in a plane crash at Pensacola this afternoon!"
In their headquarters in New York they had a teletype machine which received, in addition to all the news services, the latest flashes from the police departments of nine States, and the confidential releases of the F.B.I.
For that headquarters, located not far from New York's East Side, was known throughout the world as Justice, Inc. And Dick Benson, its guiding genius, was known as The Avenger. To that building on Bleek Street in New York, came men and women from all the far corners of the world—men and women who could not find justice anywhere else; men and women who found themselves beaten in a hopeless fight against criminals in high places, beyond the reach of the law. Those men and women The Avenger helped. For he could go where the police dared not. His justice was neither blind nor shackled.
And so it was that the poor man came to Justice, Inc., when he had not the funds to hire a lawyer in a ten-dollar case, while the millionaire came when it was his only hope.
Of all these Benson selected those matters which plainly demanded his peculiar kind of justice. With untold wealth at his command, and ably assisted by a close-knit circle of assistants, he had made the name of The Avenger a synonym for ruthless war upon injustice.
He had chosen to answer Crawford's call tonight, because he had known Crawford well in other years; and though the man was wealthy, he had mentioned over the phone that this was a matter which might well involve the country's safety.
But now he was late, and Benson knew that the web of the Fates was being tightly spun.
Nellie Gray stiffened as she glimpsed a car which appeared over the rim of the hill, heading down toward town, with the sun splashing golden behind it.
"Dick!" she exclaimed. "There's a car. It's a Rolls-Royce. It must be Crawford!"
As they both watched the car, Nellie spoke over her shoulder. "When Crawford called, you told me to listen in on the extension, but I had to leave it for a moment to answer another phone. I just caught part of something he said to you about—it sounded like a black tulip."
"Yes," said Dick. "He did say something about a black tulip. But he was excited, and he jumped from one thing to another. He said something about looking out for the black tulip."
"I've never heard of such a thing," Nellie said. "It must be horrid. Imagine a tulip being all black!"
"During the last war," Benson said slowly, "there was a vicious German spy who passed himself off in this country as a Dutchman. He went by the name of Pieter van der Heusen. He killed without compunction, and he had no mercy for men or women or children. But he had an abnormal love of flowers. He spent all his spare time in horticulture. It was said that his greatest ambition in life was to develop a black species of tulip!"
Nellie's eyes were on the Rolls-Royce, which was tearing down the road at a terrific rate of speed.
"Crawford's in an awful hurry," she said. "But tell me about this Pieter van der Heusen. Was he caught?"
Benson shook his head. "No. He operated in this country all through the war, and then he went back to Germany and retired to grow tulips. No one knows whether he is still alive. If he is—"
Benson left the thought unfinished, and Nellie said slowly, "I wonder—"
She broke off, gasping, and pointed to the big Rolls-Royce. It was nearing the bottom of the hill, but instead of slowing down for the curve, its pace was increasing.
Nellie frowned. "He must have plenty of confidence in his brakes."
She uttered a short cry as the car leveled off at the foot of the hill and headed directly for the hotel, never slackening its speed. Now, with the Rolls less than a hundred feet away, they could clearly see George Crawford seated behind the wheel. He was upright, and seemed to be leaning backward, and his mouth was working spasmodically as if he were trying to shout to them. He seemed to be wearing a voluminous white coat of some sort, which was on backward. The car was so close to the hotel now that they could see the coat had no lapels or buttons.
"It's Crawford!" Nellie exclaimed. "He must have lost control—"
She had no chance to finish for she was suddenly seized around the waist from behind by Dick Benson. He fairly lifted her off the floor, and leaped backward toward the desk at the rear of the lobby.
Benson didn't move a fraction of a second too soon, for he had hardly carried Nellie to the safety of the desk at the rear of the lobby before the heavy Rolls-Royce, traveling straight as an arrow, jumped the curb and crashed head-on into the front of the hotel.
The smashing impact of the immense juggernaut tore away part of the wall and the doorway and sent chunks of plaster, brick and glass flying in all directions. The car crashed into the lobby, its front tires blowing out with cracking explosions like pistol shots. The hood became a mass of bent and twisted metal. Debris came piling down upon the car as one of the rafters in the lobby ceiling gave way. For a moment the whole building shook as if it might come tumbling down.
Then the tremor ceased, the plaster stopped falling, and the wrecked car came to rest, half in and half out of the lobby.
For the space of a couple of minutes neither the clerk nor the people in the restaurant moved. They were stunned by the sudden catastrophe.
But Dick Benson released his hold upon Nellie Gray and leaped to the side of the car.
Nellie shouted, "Look out, Dick, it may explode!"
He disregarded the warning and sprang to the door of the Rolls, wrenching at the handle. But the door would not open.
The figure of George Crawford sat erect and unmoving behind the wheel. The wheel was jammed into his chest, and the top of the car was crushed down upon his skull. He was dead, of course, but his body was still sitting upright.
Nellie Gray came up alongside of Benson and uttered a low gasp of horror.
"Dick! He's...he's wearing, a strait jacket!"
Benson nodded grimly.
Crawford's torso was incased in a white strait jacket, with the arms lashed across his chest so that he had been powerless to move as the heavy car hurtled down the hill, carrying him to destruction.
"It must have taken a fiendish imagination to conceive a thing like this!" Benson said. He pointed to two heavy wires, running from the steering wheel down to eye screws in the floor board. That was what had kept the car straight and true on its coarse. Crawford's body was also lashed to the seat so that he had remained erect all through the wild ride. Incased in the strait jacket, he had been helpless to do a single thing to save himself.
"Who could have done it?" Nellie demanded.
Benson was already reaching in through the shattered window. Pinned to Crawford's strait jacket there was a white card, perhaps five inches long and three inches wide.
"This may answer your question, Nellie." he said. He removed the card and held it so that she could read it. The message was written in indelible ink in a bold and striking longhand:
To the Avenger:
Here is your friend, Crawford, with my compliments. He signed his death warrant when he sent for you. Will you take a bit of advice, Mr. Avenger? Go home. Go back at once, and forget what Crawford told you. Otherwise, I shall wipe you out—and all those associated with you in Justice, Inc. Believe me, Mr. Richard Benson alias The Avenger, I can destroy you as easily as I destroyed Crawford.
There was no signature to the note. But attached to the card by its stem, just below the message, there was a single dwarf tulip. It had just begun to open. Its petals were of the deepest black, flecked here and there with blobs of red, which resembled nothing so much as drops of blood.
Somehow, though the flower was in itself satanically beautiful, its appearance afforded no sensation of pleasure, but rather one of horror. For no tulip had ever been grown so small, or with black leaves.
Some monstrous horticulturist must have taken a keen and evil joy in thus producing a horrid perversion of nature; perhaps the same kind of twisted mind which had devised the hellish scheme of sending Crawford hurtling to his death in a strait jacket.
Nellie Gray stared wide-eyed at the strange and startling flower which comprised the only signature to the note.
"The Black Tulip!" she said in a low, tense voice.
IN the squalor of one of New York's few remaining slums a truck moved through the night. Of itself the vehicle was not worthy of a second glance, for it was merely a truck with slatted sides.
But its freight consisted of seven coffins.
The lettering on the side said:
BRODERICK CASKET CO.
The business of the Broderick Casket Co. was ostensibly the sale and delivery of coffins to undertakers.
The truck moved quietly through the streets, and if people noticed it at all it was to comment on its depressing cargo.
But as the truck swung into Pelham Street, a girl of about eleven, with long black braids, ran out into the street after a small mongrel dog.
"Come back, Tony!" she cried.
Tony was a brown mongrel, a little more than a year old, and quite playful. He wanted the girl to chase him, and he yelped and ran in front of the truck.
There was room for the truck to swerve if the driver had wanted to make a sudden twist of the wheel. But he only muttered a curse and let the heavy wheels roll over the little dog's body.
It seemed that he took a certain amount of satisfaction in doing that. But when he stopped the truck and descended he managed to so control his expression that nothing of the sadistic pleasure showed in his face. He spread his hands as he spoke to the small crowd which had gathered there over the dog's broken carcass.
"You see how it is," he explained. "The dog ran right in front of me. It's a good thing the girl didn't follow him."
"That's right," someone said. "It wasn't the driver's fault. Look at that heavy truck, loaded with coffins. How could he have stopped?"
But the little girl with the long black braids was weeping unrestrainedly.
"You could have swung out!" she cried through her tears. "You could have tried to miss him. You didn't even try!"
The driver shrugged and looked for sympathy to the crowd. "She shouldn't be out playing with her dog this late, anyway. She should be in bed. It wouldn't have happened if she had been asleep in bed where she belongs."
"Yes," said the same woman who had spoken before. "That Emma Puglese is always picking up stray dogs. She'll cause a real accident with them yet. Go on home, Emma Puglese. Your mother shouldn't let you out so late."
Emma Puglese wiped the tears from her eyes. "You're a bad man," she said to the truck driver. "You didn't have to kill my dog. You did it on purpose. I'll find some way to get even. Yes, I will!"
She cast a glance at the name on the truck, and then sat down on the curb, covered her face with her hands, and gave way to unrestrained sobs.
The driver, seeing that the sympathy of the crowd was veering to the girl, dug into his pocket and drew out some money.
"Here, girl," he said. "Here's three dollars. Go buy yourself another dog. It wasn't my fault, but I don't like that you should cry."
Emma Puglese thrust the bills away. "I don't want your money. You're a bad man. I won't touch your money!"
The driver shrugged, looked at the crowd as if to say, "What can I do about it?" and climbed back into his truck after moving the body of the dog over to the curb.
The crowd dispersed as he drove away, but Emma Puglese sat there, sobbing, angry and hurt.
The truck with the seven coffins continued down Pelham Street for a block, and then turned into Farr Street. It stopped before the undertaking establishment of Sylvester Strake Son, Inc.
It was rather late for a delivery, but there was a light in the undertaking parlor. And strangely enough, a man stood in front of the door, who looked up and down the street, and nodded swiftly to the driver of the truck.
The driver thereupon descended, and with the help of the man from the doorway he removed one coffin from the load. Between them they carried it inside.
Now an empty coffin does not require great exertion from two strong men. Yet these two were sweating when they set the coffin down on the floor.
The man who had been standing in the doorway glanced inquiringly at the truck driver.
"Did you have any trouble, Lambertini?"
"No," said Lambertini. "It went off like clockwork. But I'm kind of worried. The Avenger won't lay off just on account of what we did to Crawford. It'll only make him tougher."
The other shrugged. "We can handle anything. The Avenger is only a man. Better go down with your load and report to the boss. I'll give you a hand with the coffin and then I'll take over the truck."
He helped Lambertini move the coffin onto a low dolly, and they rolled it into the back room, then onto a small elevator platform.
Lambertini returned to the front, let the other man out, watched him get into the truck and drive away, and then locked the door. He closed the Venetian blinds over the windows and turned out the lights. Then he went back into the rear, stepped onto the elevator platform beside the coffin and pressed a button.
The platform descended to the basement.
The basement was no different from that of any other undertaker's establishment, and a minute search would have revealed nothing of a suspicious nature.
But Lambertini rolled the dolly off the platform, pushed it across to the opposite wall and pressed a button.
Immediately, a portion of the wall began to swing slowly outward on well-oiled hinges, revealing a long, narrow passage, dimly lighted at the far end.
Lambertini pushed the coffin along to the far end, and the opening in the basement wall swung shut behind him. As he approached the far end another section of wall opened and he went through with his load.
A strange new world was revealed. But it was a queer and perverted world, as if some weird magician had rubbed Aladdin's magic lamp the wrong way.
The subterranean chamber was low-ceilinged and damp, but it was huge in expanse. At the left there was a long row of glassed-in rooms, in which men and women sat and worked at typewriters, radio sending and receiving sets, and teletype machines. There were other offices in which women filed papers and operated multigraph machines.
In all there must have been fifty or sixty people working down here underneath the surface of the city. It might have been a busy newspaper office from the speed and efficiency with which everybody was working.
But on the left-hand side of the chamber was the truly amazing spectacle. For here a space perhaps twenty feet wide and fifty feet long had been set apart and fenced off with a neat white picket fence and made into a garden!
It was as weird and ghastly a garden as anyone might have dreamed of in a tortured nightmare. It consisted of neat rows of dwarf tulips, all black, and flecked with blobs of red.
They stood in ranks, like miniature soldiers of Satan—abnormally small, yet pregnant with a horrid sort of evil.
How those tulips could have grown at all in that underground cavern was impossible to tell.
Lambertini trundled the coffin along a cement walk between the glassed-in offices and the tulip bed. And a man arose from among the tulips to meet him.
The man had been stooping over one of the rows, weeding it carefully. But now, as he arose, it became evident that he was as abnormal as the outlandish bulbs he was cultivating.
His torso was huge, his shoulders broad and powerful. His arms were longer than average. But his legs were so short that he looked like a dwarf. His head was large and entirely bald, and a pair of cruel, clever eyes peered out from under thin and stringy eyebrows.
"Well, Lambertini?" he asked.
Lambertini stood stiffly, as if he were at attention. "Orders executed, colonel," he said. "Mission successful."
The tulip man nodded. "Follow me."
He turned and led the way along the cement path, along the row of glassed-in offices, never looking to the right or the left. Lambertini followed, pushing the dolly along.
At the rear of the low-ceilinged chamber the tulip man pressed a button and a section of the wall swung open, revealing a private office.
They entered and the door closed silently behind them.
On one wall of this office there was a rack of automatic pistols. Below it was a rack of .38-caliber revolvers, all carefully oiled, shining and bright. And on the floor there were a dozen wooden cases. One of these cases was open, revealing the contents. They were packages of ammunition for the weapons.
There were no windows in the room, but—as in the outer chamber—the air was not stale. On the wall behind the desk there was a large picture of Adolf Hitler, flanked by two swastika banners. Other than that the room contained no decoration except for a single black tulip in a glass on the desk.
The tulip man seated himself at the desk. He motioned toward the coffin.
"You have him in there?"
"Yes, Colonel Strake," Lambertini said.
Lambertini took a small screwdriver from his pocket and knelt beside the coffin. He loosened four bolts at the corners and removed the lid, which was perforated at intervals with air holes to permit its occupant to breathe.
The man who lay in the coffin was incased in a strait jacket, just as Crawford had been. In addition his feet were bound at the ankles and he was gagged. He was unable to move but his eyes stared upward in a terrible sort of fascination.
Lambertini reached down and cut the cords that held the prisoner's ankles. Then he lifted him by the shoulders, helping him to his feet. Roughly, he led the helpless man to a chair and pushed him into it. He stepped around behind him and undid the gag.
The prisoner was about forty-five, with a thin and scholarly face, a high forehead and wide-spaced blue eyes. He found it difficult to sit in the chair, for his arms were wrapped around him in the sleeves of the strait jacket, which was pulled cruelly tight. He was able to breathe only in short, quick gasps.
The tulip man's great bald dome shone brightly under the electric light as he smiled at the prisoner.
"My dear Forsythe! It is four months since we last met, is it not?"
"Damn you'" Forsythe gasped, trying to breathe against the constricting pressure of the strait jacket. "Damn you, Strake, you won't get away with this!"
The bald-headed Strake continued to smile. "You're a fool, Forsythe. Don't you know by this time that there is nothing"—Strake's face suddenly congealed with a swift rush of rage—"nothing, I tell you, that The Black Tulip can't get away with!"
He sprang up from behind the desk and came around on his absurdly short legs until he stood squarely in front of Forsythe, "Four months ago I offered you half a million dollars for your depth charge formula. I offered to smuggle you aboard a U-boat and take you to Germany where you would have been rewarded even beyond the money I offered—"
"Sure," Forsythe said bitterly. "I'd have been rewarded in a concentration camp!"
Strake proceeded as if Forsythe had not spoken. He shook a finger in his prisoner's face. "But you saw fit to reject my offer. You knew my power, however, so you arranged with the Intelligence Service to go into hiding while you worked out the formula for the Forsythe Down-draft Depth Charge. You went to live on Crawford's estate and posed as his chauffeur. You set up a laboratory in the garage, didn't you? And you thought that The Black Tulip would never find you, eh?"
Forsythe's glance dropped before the intensity of passion in the other's eyes.
"Well, Forsythe, we found you!"
"You'll never get away with this, Strake. Crawford saw your men carry the coffin away to the truck. When he misses me he'll guess I was in it—"
He stopped as Strake began to laugh softly.
"What...what are you laughing at?"
"I'm laughing, my dear Forsythe, at your stupidity. Did you think we'd leave Crawford alive?"
"You...you've killed him?"
"Draw your own conclusions."
"Is that all you can say, Forsythe?"
"No, no! That's not all I can say. I tell you that it won't help you to have killed Crawford. Admiral Miles of Naval Intelligence, arranged with Crawford to let me live on his estate. They arranged that Admiral Miles was to phone once a day. The admiral must have phoned already. He'll know there's something wrong. They'll scour the country. They'll not leave a stone unturned—"
"Wait, Forsythe. Don't be misled by false hope. I want you to realize the full futility of your situation. Suppose you think back. Who else besides Admiral Miles knew where you were and what you were doing?"
Forsythe clamped his lips shut.
"Ha!" said Strake. "You refuse to answer. Well, you needn't worry. You needn't be afraid of giving me any information which might help me. You see, I'm remarkably well informed. I happen to know that Admiral Miles was the only man in Washington who knew of the arrangement with Crawford. They kept it such a dark secret that it wasn't even placed in the files."
"All right," said Forsythe. "Suppose you're right. Admiral Miles must already have phoned—"
"Wrong again, my dear sir. It may interest you to know that Admiral Miles was killed in a seaplane crash today at five o'clock!"
Forsythe's eyes bulged. "You...you're lying!"
Strake chuckled. He picked up a newspaper from the desk and held it before the helpless man's eyes.
The headline stared back at Forsythe with the ineluctable surety of doom:
FOUR DIE IN SEAPLANE CRASH!
Admiral Miles, Head Of Naval Intelligence, Among Those Killed
Crash Attributed To Sabotage.
Strake chuckled again.
"We made sure, Forsythe, that no one would remain alive who knew about you and your invention. If the Forsythe Down-draft Depth Charge should ever be perfected for the American Navy it would mean that a destroyer could drop a canister of explosive over the side which could detonate immediately, without danger to the destroyer itself."
"That's right," said Forsythe. "We could wipe your damned U-boats off the face of the seven seas in a month!"
"Exactly, my dear Forsythe. And it is just to prevent such a contingency that we have sought you high and low for four months and have at last found you. Do you think, Forsythe, that we will allow anything—anything, I say I—to stand in the way of our acquiring the secret of your depth charge?"
"You'll never get it out of me," said Forsythe.
Strake smiled. "Within twenty-four hours, my friend, you will be begging to be allowed to tell your secret!"
He motioned to Lambertini. "When I leave," he ordered softly, "tighten his strait jacket one notch. Continue to tighten it one notch each hour for the rest of the night!"
Forsythe's face whitened as he heard the order.
"You're a devil!" he gasped.
Strake nodded his big, oversized bald head. His eyes were bright and cruel. "You understand what will happen, don't you, Forsythe? Each notch is about a quarter of an inch. By morning your strait jacket will have been tightened by almost three inches. Your ribs will be constricted to the edge of the breaking point. You will barely have room to take enough breath into your body to support life. Your heart will pump faster and faster, but not strongly enough to propel the blood to your extremities. Your hands and feet will become numb first. Then your legs and arms. You will be able to watch yourself die by inches, so to speak. There will be a fiery pressure in your chest. You will be fighting, every moment, for breath."
He paused and smiled a terrible, twisted smile. "At nine o'clock in the morning I will return and sit here at the desk, and watch you fight for your life. It will be a losing fight, Forsythe. Believe me, I know. I have sat here and watched many a man like that. Not one has refused to talk. They have begged for one thing, only—a quick death. You, too, will beg for that, Forsythe!"
"Damn you." the inventor whispered. "Damn you down to the lowest cellar of hell! You can't get away with this. Something will happen. Something unforeseen. Something you've overlooked. Something you didn't plan on. God won't let you get away with it!"
Strake's cruel eyes flickered. It was almost as if he winced at the mention of the Deity. Almost, in that fleeting instant, it seemed to the bound and desperate prisoner that he was looking at the Prince of Darkness himself—and that the name of God had caused Satan to squirm.
But Strake turned away from him to the desk, hiding that look in his face. He picked the black tulip out of the water glass and raised it to his nostrils. He looked at the prisoner in the chair and spoke slowly.
"They call me The Black Tulip, Forsythe. And they say that The Black Tulip has never failed. It is true. And it is true because I overlook nothing. Nothing unforeseen can happen, Forsythe. I have planned well and I have taken everything into consideration. That is why I always succeed. With me there is no such thing as the unforeseen circumstance. You will beg to talk tomorrow. I have said it. It is a certainty."
He turned and walked out of the room on his queer, ungainly legs.
And Lambertini stepped behind Forsythe's chair, undid the laces, and tightened the strait jacket one notch.
EMMA PUGLESE didn't go home. She sat on the curb after the crowd had melted away and she sobbed.
After a while she took out a handkerchief and dried her eyes. She avoided looking at Tony's body because she was afraid that if she did she'd begin to cry all over again, and she didn't want to waste time crying now. She had made up her mind what she wanted to do, and she meant to do it quickly.
She crossed Pelham Street, walked to the corner, and then hurried three blocks west. When she came to Bleek Street she turned left into the dead end and walked down until she came to the building with the modest bronze plaque over the door:
Resolutely, she pressed the button and waited.
She didn't know it, but a cunningly concealed television device was transmitting a picture of her to a watcher inside.
After a moment or two the front door began to swing open automatically, and Emma's eyes widened in wonder.
A voice said, "Come in, please."
It was a kindly voice, and though she couldn't see where it came from, she entered.
The door closed behind her.
"Don't be afraid," the voice said. "We have a lot of gadgets around that work automatically. It's just some tricks that we've worked out. No one will hurt you."
"I know," said Emma, speaking to the empty air. "I know no one will hurt me here. This is where The Avenger lives. I want to talk to him."
"The Avenger isn't here right now, but maybe I can help you," the voice said with quiet amusement. "Are you in trouble?"
"Not exactly. But something has happened that needs to be avenged. That's why I came to The Avenger. I heard my daddy talk about The Avenger, and I know he helps little people get even with big people for bad things they do to them."
"Aha!" said the kindly voice. "And did a big person do a bad thing to you?"
"Yes, he did. A man in a truck just ran over my dog."
The voice was full of regret. "I'm terribly sorry to hear that. Did you love him a great deal?"
Emma's eyes filled with tears. "He could stand up and beg. And he carried small bundles for me. We played every day when I came home from school."
"Maybe we can get you another dog."
"That isn't what I came for," Emma said firmly. "I came because the man ran my dog over on purpose and I think he should be punished."
"Are you sure he did it on purpose?"
"Yes, I'm sure. I looked up at the driver just when the truck came near Tony. I wanted to shout to the driver to look out. But then I saw that man's face. It...it was terrible. He was enjoying himself. Then I knew it was no use shouting. I knew he wanted to kill things. I could see it in his face. So when he offered me money I wouldn't take it."
"Well," said the voice, apparently impressed. "I'm sure The Avenger will want to help you. Did you get the man's name?"
"I saw the name on the truck. It was the Broderick Casket Co."
"And what is your name?"
"I'm Emma Puglese, and I live at 13 Pelham Street. There was no address on the truck, but I can tell you where it was going. It was going to Strake, the undertaker. It comes every night and delivers coffins to Strake. Sometimes one, sometimes two. But I noticed that the coffins on the bottom of the load are always the same. It's just the two top coffins that are different."
"Now wait just a minute, Emma," the voice said, suddenly serious. "Wait there. I'm coming down."
Emma waited, fidgeting, until a door suddenly opened almost alongside her where she had not thought there was any door. A man emerged and smiled down at her.
Emma gaped at him. She had never seen such a big man. Like some great viking god he towered over her, but somehow she wasn't at all afraid of him, for she saw the kindness written in his face.
"My name is Smith," he told her. "Algernon Smith. Smitty to you. I'm one of The Avenger's assistants."
"I know about you," Emma said. "I heard daddy talk about you, too. You're an electrician."
Smitty smiled. His reputation as an electrical engineer had spread to the four corners of the globe. But he had preferred to give up the emoluments of a career of research and invention for the more precarious one of fighting against crime by the side of Dick Benson.
"Now suppose you tell me about that truck with the coffins. Tell me everything you can think of about it."
"That's all I know," Emma said. "Us kids used to follow it when it went down the street, and we would watch them unload the coffins. That's how we came to notice that the bottom ones were always the same. We used to sneak up and make chalk marks on the bottom coffins when the driver was inside. And then, a few days later, when we'd want to do it again, we saw that the same chalk marks were still on the bottom coffins. That meant they were the same, didn't it?"
"It surely did," Smitty told her. "And I'm glad you came. I'm going to look into it right away!"
"Will you go over and punish that bad man?"
Smitty put a hand on her head. It was a huge, powerful hand. But its touch was as gentle as the breeze.
"I'll investigate him, Emma. And whatever is necessary shall be done. Now come on I'll walk you back to Pelham Street. You go home and I'll look up that undertaker!"
He raised his voice slightly, speaking to thin air, just as Emma had done.
"Take over, will you, Cole?" he said.
"Now listen, Smitty," said the voice of Cole Wilson, from somewhere in the building. "This is no time to, go gallivanting after coffins. Dick will be here in twenty minutes. I just had him on the short wave. He's completed his investigation up at Crawford's estate and he hasn't found a thing. We're up against a blank wall on this case and it might be better if you stick around. Can't Emma wait till tomorrow to get her man punished?"
Smitty winked at Emma.
He spoke to Cole Wilson, who was another one of the brilliant young men The Avenger had gathered around him.
"Now don't get excited, Cole. It won't take me but ten or fifteen minutes to look this up. I'm intrigued by the coffins that never get delivered. I just want to look around that undertaking establishment. I'll be back before Dick and Nellie arrive."
"All right," Cole Wilson said. "I suppose you won't sleep tonight if you don't look into it. I'm busy as the deuce, but I'll take over for you."
Smitty grinned and took Emma's arm, and led her out into the street. He stopped off with her and bought her a banana split with three balls of ice cream, and he had one himself, too. Then he saw her safely to her house on Pelham Street, and continued on around the corner to Farr Street.
SMITTY saw the undertaker's establishment halfway down the block, but before going there he stepped into a drugstore on the corner and consulted the telephone directory. He found that the Broderick Casket Co. was located in Brooklyn. He dialed the number and frowned when someone answered the phone. It was after nine o'clock, long past business hours.
"Hello," he said. "Is this the Broderick Casket Co.?"
"Well, I want to order a coffin."
"We're all out of coffins, mister. Shipped the last one today."
"But how can I die without a coffin?" Smitty demanded.
"Who are you?" the man at the other end asked, suddenly suspicious. "Have you ever done business with us before?"
"No," said Smitty. "You see, I've never died before!" And he hung up.
Thoughtfully, he went out of the drugstore and walked down the street toward the undertaking parlor.
There was a light in the store as he approached, but he couldn't look in, for the Venetian blinds were drawn all the way down, behind both the door and the plate-glass window.
Smitty approached the door and a man standing near it said, "Were you looking for someone, mister?"
"Why, yes," said Smitty. He glanced at the name on the window. "I'm looking for Mr. Strake."
"What did you want to see him about?"
"About a coffin that was delivered today by the Broderick Casket Co."
The man stiffened. One hand stole into his coat pocket.
"What about the coffin that was delivered today?"
"I thought I'd like to buy it. It was a pretty coffin. It might be nice to be buried in."
The man grinned. "You getting ready to die?"
"I'm afraid so," Smitty said, looking at the bulge in the man's pocket.
"Well, mister," said the man, "I'm sure Colonel Strake will be glad to see you. Very glad."
He stepped up close to Smitty, and with his left hand he rang a bell alongside the door. Almost at once the door was opened.
"Go right in!"
Smitty obeyed. As soon as he was inside the gunman stepped in, too. The man who admitted them shut the door and locked it.
"Who's this, Otto?" he demanded of the gunman.
Otto grinned. "He's a customer. He's looking for a coffin to be buried in, Carl. What do you think of that?"
Carl chuckled. "He has certainly come to the right place!"
"This way," said Otto, showing Smitty the suggestive bulge in his pocket.
Smitty went in the direction indicated.
Otto did not take him through the secret door in the rear wall. Instead he led him to a small office, which was apparently used for making funeral arrangements. He pressed a button on the desk in a peculiar manner. And then they waited, not speaking.
Perhaps four minutes later another door at the back of the office was opened and Colonel Strake entered, shuffling on his queer short legs. His shrewd, cruel eyes darted to the great bulk of Smitty's figure and he sucked his breath in sharply. But he made no comment.
He looked at the gunman and said, "What is it, Otto? Why did you signal me?"
Otto jerked his head toward Smitty. "I found him snooping around the front of the store. He was trying the door. Claims he wants to buy a coffin."
"Hm-m-m," said Strake. "I think we can accommodate the gentleman. I really think we can!"
He directed his sharp glance at Smitty. "Who are you, sir?"
Smitty grinned. "The name is Smith."
"—Ah, yes. You're the one who just phoned the Broderick Casket Co."
Smitty became taut. The Broderick Casket Co. was in Brooklyn. They must have called here the moment Smitty hung up. There was, then, a very much stronger connection between the Broderick Casket Co. and the Strake establishment than just the sale of coffins.
But his thoughts were interrupted as Strake began to talk softly.
"I recognize you, Mr. Algernon Heathcote Smith. Once having seen you it would be impossible to forget you. You are The Avenger's assistant, are you not?"
"The Avenger?" Smitty repeated. "Who's he?"
Strake raised a hand. "Please, Mr. Smith. Let's skip the play acting. You know very well who The Avenger is. Your presence in front of this establishment can mean only one thing—that The Avenger has found some clue directing his attention to us. Please tell me what that clue is!"
Smitty's eyes became narrow. He had come here on a whim, an impulse. He had been affected by Emma's story, and intrigued by the idea of coffins on a truck which were never delivered. No thought had entered his mind that this place might be connected with the Crawford murder, which The Avenger was working on. But now he had something to chew on.
He began to laugh. It was ironical that the killing of a little dog and the hurt anger of a small girl should have led to the first break in the Crawford case. The murder of Crawford and the abduction of the chauffeur had been so carefully planned and well executed that not a single clue had offered itself for The Avenger to work on. Benson had told Smitty over the two-way radio only a little while ago that he was up against a blank wall.
And now this!
Smitty didn't know it at the time, but Forsythe's prophetic words were coming true with a vengeance. The unforeseen circumstance which no man can plan for had upset Strake's careful calculations.
But if Smitty was in ignorance of the main angles of this mystery, Strake was no less mystified as to what sort of clue had brought him here. And he was grimly determined that Smitty should talk.
"I asked you," he repeated softly! "what was the clue which turned your attention to me!"
Smitty grinned. He chanced a shot in the dark. "It was the black tulip." he said.
"The Black Tulip!" Strake exclaimed. "How? How did that lead you here?"
"The odor," said Smitty. "I followed the scent."
Strake smiled grimly. He pressed a button on the desk, and before Smitty could move the room was suddenly filled with grim and husky men. There were more than a dozen of them, streaming in from three doors, all armed with short clubs and blackjacks, and they swarmed over Smitty like a small avalanche.
IT was nine thirty when Dick Benson and Nellie Gray got back to Justice, Inc. They had missed Emma Puglese by less than twenty minutes.
"Smitty's gone on a wild-goose chase," Cole Wilson told them glumly. "Something about a dead dog and a coffin that's being delivered over and over again to the same place."
"Hm-m-m," said Benson. "Sounds intriguing. I don't blame him for going out on it."
"But not at a time like this!" Nellie Gray said hotly. "He knows we're up against one of the cleverest criminals of the century, and that we have to concentrate all our energies on fighting The Black Tulip. He has no right to go out on side issues!"
"That's what I say," Cole agreed. Then he added, "You have a visitor, Dick. A man from Naval Intelligence. He just came a couple of minutes ago, and I asked him to wait in Room One. He said it was extremely important. His name is Lieutenant Commander Anderson."
"I'll see him at once!" Benson exclaimed.
Lieutenant Commander Anderson was a quiet, soft-spoken man, who looked anything but what he was. He showed Benson his credentials and got down to business at once.
"As you know, Mr. Benson, Admiral Miles was killed in a plane crash today. I was his chief assistant, and he had left in my safe-keeping a packet of confidential papers in code, which he considered too dangerous to be placed in the navy files. They were papers relating to matters which he handled personally, and which would be left at loose ends in the event of his death."
"Ah!" said Benson. "Was there anything in those papers about Crawford?"
Anderson nodded. "How did you guess?"
"Crawford mentioned something that led me to believe he had been working with Admiral Miles."
"That is true. After decoding the papers, I learn that Stanton Forsythe, the inventor, had almost succeeded in perfecting a depth charge which would explode wholly downward, thus preventing injury to the ship which dropped it."
"I see!" said Benson. "Such an invention would revolutionize anti-submarine warfare!"
"Exactly. It would enable us to clear the seas of submarines within a couple of months. But there was reason to believe that the notorious spy—The Black Tulip—was seeking to get hold of the secret principle behind the theory of the Forsythe Down-draft Depth Charge. There was still several weeks of work to be done on the plans of the invention, and Forsythe feared for his life. Admiral Miles therefore arranged for Forsythe to go to work for Crawford, ostensibly as a chauffeur. Crawford had a completely equipped experimental laboratory in the back of his garage, and it was the ideal arrangement for Forsythe."
"It was ideal," Nellie Gray broke in bitterly, "until The Black Tulip discovered where he was!"
Commander Anderson nodded. "You're quite right, Miss Gray. The reason I have flown in from Washington to see you, Mr. Benson, is because in Admiral Miles' notes I find a reference to you. He says that Crawford knows The Avenger well, and has said that if anything arose in the nature of an emergency, he would call upon you."
"He did," said Benson. "But The Black Tulip was too clever and too fast for him, as you know. Here"—he took from an envelope the card with the tulip attached—"I kept this from the local police. I didn't want them messing the case up."
"You did right, Mr. Benson," Commander Anderson said, studying the card. "Do you know who The Black Tulip is?"
Benson nodded. "I think he's Pieter van der Heusen."
"Ah! You remember Van der Heusen, then?"
"I've studied the records minutely. I was quite interested in the man. He was a clever spy."
"So clever that he escaped after the last war. He's back here now, we're certain. But we haven't the faintest idea where he is, or what name he's using."
Anderson paused and added emphatically, "We must find The Black Tulip quickly, Benson—before he tortures the secret of the Down-draft Depth Charge out of Forsythe!"
It was just then that Cole Wilson stepped into the room, looking anxiously at his watch.
"I heard the conversation over the recording system," he said. "I don't like to bother you at a time like this, Dick, but Smitty hasn't come back. He said he'd return in twenty minutes, and you know our rule—always make contact by phone or radio if unable to keep an appointment."
"It means Smitty's in trouble!" Nellie exclaimed. Gone was her former anger at him for having gone off on a tangent. Now she was full of concern. "He must be killed or captured—otherwise, he'd have phoned!"
"Evidently he's run into something bigger than he expected," Benson said. He glanced at Cole Wilson. "Where did he go?"
Wilson went out and came hack in a moment with a cylindrical record. Every conversation that took place with a visitor to Justice, Inc. was automatically recorded for future reference. Now, Wilson played the record back and they heard Emma Puglese telling Smitty about the dog, and about the coffins, and that they were usually delivered to Strake's.
When the record was finished. Benson's lips were tight. He glanced at Lieutenant Commander Anderson. "Will you do me the honor to use this place as your headquarters while working on the Forsythe case? We'll co-operate with you to the fullest, of course. But I must beg you to excuse me while I go look after Smitty."
It was one of the inviolable rules of Justice, Inc., that when one member of the organization was in trouble or in danger, the others would drop everything and pile in to his help. Otherwise, the underworld would long ago have succeeded in whittling them down, one by one. Each knew that in the event of peril he could count on the others to fight through hell or high water to his side. And this knowledge contributed greatly to the compact efficiency of Justice, Inc.
And thus, ten minutes later, Dick Benson was walking slowly down Farr Street, toward the undertaking parlor of Sylvester Strake.
BENSON paused at the door just as Smitty had done before, and Otto, who was once more standing outside, stepped over to him.
"You looking for some one, mister?"
"Why, yes," Benson said mildly. "I'm looking for a rather big man. I believe he came here a little while ago."
"Sure, mister," said Otto. "He's inside. We were sort of expecting you to come looking for him." He put his hand in his coat pocket and with his left hand he rang the bell.
The door was immediately opened by Carl.
"Go right in, mister," said Otto, showing Benson the bulge in his coat. "It'll be a pleasure to entertain you!"
The one great mistake that Otto made was not to look behind him. He had not, therefore, seen the long, sleek car which had crept along the street in Benson's wake, nor had he seen the trim figure of Nellie Gray descend and move toward them like some lissome princess of fairyland—with this difference, that no fairy princess ever carried a .32-caliber pistol!
Nellie pushed the muzzle of the pistol against Otto's spine.
"Don't forget me, young man," she said. "I'm in this party, too!"
Otto stiffened. For a fraction of a second his attention was pulled away from Benson.
That was all The Avenger needed. He gripped Otto's gun wrist in fingers of steel, drew it out of his pocket without apparent effort, and twisted his arm behind his back, all in one swift, fluid motion.
Otto cried out at the pressure on his arm, and let go of the gun he had been holding. Nellie Gray caught it as it fell.
Benson swung Otto around and gave him a stiff shove that sent him stumbling through the open doorway, into Carl.
Then, before either of them could regain his balance, Benson and Nellie stepped inside and Nellie closed the door. She leaned against it, smiling winsomely, and covering both Carl and Otto, her own pistol in her right hand, and Otto's in her left.
"And now, gentlemen," Dick Benson said mildly, "I'll thank you to take me to where you're holding Mr. Algernon Smith!"
His eyes were cold and hard as he spoke. And he added softly, "I hope—for your sakes—that he hasn't been harmed!"
"To hell with you!" growled Otto.
Benson sighed. He stepped in with a motion so fast that Otto did not know what was happening until both his wrists were twisted behind him.
Benson gripped both of those wrists in one hand, and though Otto struggled and fought, he was powerless to break that hold.
With his left thumb, Benson pressed against a certain point under Otto's armpit. He increased the pressure, and Otto uttered an involuntary cry of pain.
He tried to squirm away, but the pressure increased inexorably. The gunman tried to scream, but the sound died in his throat and changed to a moan of agony as Benson dug his thumb deep into that spot. Sweat sprang out on Otto's face and on the back of his neck. The pain was so sharp and so intense that he could barely catch his breath.
Benson's face was grim and hard.
"My friend's life is in the balance," he said tightly. "Do you think The Avenger fights with kid gloves when his friends' lives are in danger? Talk fast or I'll increase the pressure till you die of the agony!"
"Stop! Stop!" Otto gasped, his face running with perspiration.
Benson nodded grimly and relaxed the pressure a bit.
"Smith...is down...below. The headquarters...of...The Black Tulip—"
Nellie uttered an exclamation. Benson's eyes glittered.
Otto nodded his head feebly toward the wall at the rear.
Benson spoke swiftly to Nellie over his shoulder.
"Smitty must have blundered into something. We mustn't miss on this. It means even more than Smitty's life!"
"Right, Dick!" she said. She kept Carl covered while Otto led The Avenger to the secret door at the rear and pressed the concealed button that opened it.
"What lies beyond here?" Benson demanded.
Otto was no longer defiant. All the fight had gone out of him. He was pathetically eager to please, lest he be subjected to the terrible agony of that pressure beneath his armpit.
"It's the headquarters of The Black Tulip," he said, the words fairly spilling out of his mouth. "Down there, more than fifty people work. They are the home-office organization. From here the orders go out which direct the work of German spies all over the United States. It's the heart of The Black Tulip's organization!"
"All right," said Benson. He motioned for Otto to move back next to Carl, where Nellie could cover him. From his pocket he took a small box that resembled a snuff box. From the box he took a wad of something that looked like cotton, about a quarter inch in diameter, and put it in his mouth. Then he took two small glass ampules from the box and returned the box to his pocket. He nodded to Nellie and stepped through the secret doorway.
"Don't take any lead slugs when you're not looking, Dick!" Nellie called after him. "And see if you can bring Smitty back all in one piece!"
Benson didn't answer. But the smile upon his face was almost that of an avenging angel as he strode down the length of the corridor toward the secret door at the other end.
He pressed that button as Otto had directed, and stepped through into that strange and hellish underground world which was ruled over by the man who called himself The Black Tulip.
He saw the bed of tulips, flecked with blood-red blobs, and he remembered the flower he had found upon the strait-jacketed body of George Crawford, and his mouth tightened into a straight, thin line. He saw the glassed-in booths where men and women worked all day and all night to destroy America, and his eyes flickered with a strange and unholy light.
At the rear, Dick Benson stopped before a door. He turned the knob and stepped inside.
Swiftly, his eyes scanned the contents of the room, noted the single tulip in the glass of water, the picture of Hitler on the wall, the strait-jacketed figure of Stanton Forsythe, breathing with difficulty against the tight-notched torture corset, and then, on the floor, the bound figure of Algernon Heathcote Smith, face cut and bruised, but grinning nevertheless.
"Hi, Smitty!" he said.
"Hi, Dick!" Smitty said through his cut lips. "They couldn't find a strait-jacket big enough for me. What do you think of that?"
Dick Benson glanced over to the desk where Strake sat, his big bald head gleaming, his small, cruel eyes flickering with quick doubt.
"Smitty wears a size 52, Colonel Strake," Benson said in a conversational tone.
Lambertini was standing behind Forsythe's chair, getting ready to tighten the strait jacket another notch, and the sweat was standing out on the inventor's forehead.
Forsythe groaned. "Why did you have to come here, Avenger? Now they'll get you, too!"
Strake arose from behind the desk.
"I see you are unarmed, Avenger," he said smoothly. "Have you come to make terms with me?"
"Yes," Dick Benson said slowly. "I've come to make terms. I'll accept unconditional surrender—nothing less!"
Strake smiled queerly and put his hand in the drawer of the desk.
"It would seem," he said slowly, "that I am the one to make the terms—"
"That's where you're wrong!" Benson said.
He flipped one of the glass ampules over on the desk. It fell on the glass top and broke. At the same time he flipped the other ampule over toward Lambertini. It struck the back of Forsythe's chair and broke there.
The effect of those two glass ampules was startling, to say the least.
They contained a highly concentrated ether compound which had been developed by Fergus MacMurtrie, the chemical wizard who worked for The Avenger. The properties of this secret—formula ether compound were such that unconsciousness could be induced by one cc. in a hundred thousand cubic meters of free air within a period of one half second.
MacMurtrie had developed the ether compound for the United States Secret Service, and Dick Benson was, perhaps, the only person in civilian life who had access to it, for he had lent MacMurtrie's services to the army for this purpose.
Sylvester Strake fell over on the desk in the act of reaching for the gun in the drawer. Lambertini just folded up and lay down to sleep on the floor against Forsythe's chair.
Benson himself was chewing upon the wad of cotton, impregnated with a special solution which made him immune to the effects of the drug by energizing certain salivary glands in his mouth. But Smitty and Forsythe enjoyed no such immunity, and they went out like a light, just as fast as Strake and Lambertini. Benson smiled grimly. He crossed to the desk and picked up the phone.
A switchboard operator somewhere in the building said. "Yes, Colonel Strake?"
"Give me Liberty 1-1111," Benson said, mumbling his words so that the operator should not recognize that it was not Colonel Strake.
Liberty 1-1111 was the number of Justice, Inc. In a moment, Cole Wilson answered.
Swiftly, Benson switched from English to Hindustani. That, he was sure, was a language which The Black Tulip's switchboard operator would not understand, even if she were listening in.
Concisely, he told Cole Wilson what had happened, and instructed him to inform Commander Anderson.
"Have Anderson raid this place at once," he ordered. "I'll break a master capsule outside in the main room and that will render them all unconscious—sort of set them all in Anderson's lap when he comes with the raiding squad. We don't want to give them a chance to destroy a single paper!"
Cole Wilson acknowledged the orders, still speaking in Hindustani, which he had learned during his five years as a surveyor for the British government in India. He rang off, and Benson opened his snuff box again, and took from it a large glass ampule, about the size of a four-ounce bottle. There was enough concentrated anaesthetic in there to render a whole town unconscious. He opened the door of the office, stepped out and hurled the capsule out onto the concrete walk. Then he stepped back inside, confident that MacMurtrie's solution would do its work well. He had instructed Cole Wilson to prepare wads of cotton saturated with the antidote, for the use of Commander Anderson's raiding squad, so that they would not succumb to the fumes.
Smiling a little, he set about the task of releasing the unconscious Forsythe from the strait jacket, and of untying Smitty's bonds.
Half an hour later the raid was complete, affording the Intelligence Service the greatest haul of spies since the beginning of the war, and including the spy master himself—Pieter van der Heusen, known as The Black Tulip.
Smitty was sitting up, half groggy, and rubbing his eyes. He looked up to see Benson and Nellie watching him amusedly.
"Wake up, big boy," said Nellie. "You done noble—even if you didn't know what you were doing. Justice, Inc. is going to give you a wooden medal!"
"Gosh!" exclaimed Smitty, suddenly coming to his full senses. He began to scramble up to his feet.
"Take it easy, big boy," said Nellie. "What's your hurry? You haven't any place to go—"
"That's what you think, beautiful!" Smitty told her with a grin. "I hope to tell you I have some place to go!"
"To see my girl friend!"
"Girl friend!" Nellie exclaimed with a sudden tinge of jealousy. "Since when—"
Smitty grinned. "Her name is Emma Puglese, and she's ten years old, and I have to go and tell her that the bad man who killed her dog is being punished!"
"Oh!" said Nellie Gray.
The minutes of the hour ticked rapidly away—only one hour to save friends from death and an innocent man from being framed on a murder charge!
DICK BENSON emerged from the gloomy train platform into the comparative brightness of the Deerchester station. Before he had taken half a dozen steps along with the rest of the thronging passengers, he heard his name being paged by a Western Union messenger girl.
"Mr. Benson!" the girl was calling in a high-pitched voice. "Telegram for Mr. Richard Benson!"
She was standing just outside the platform where the passengers from the New York train were emerging.
Benson's eyes narrowed. He did not at once respond. Instead, he glanced swiftly around the station. He noted that two men were standing a little way from the platform gate, near one of the soft drink stands, and that though they held glasses of orange juice in their hands, they were not drinking, but were eying the incoming passengers like hawks poised for the kill.
Benson's face remained expressionless. He moved around in such a way that he could see those two men and approached the messenger girl.
"I'm Benson," he said.
The girl smiled and gave him a yellow envelope. It was addressed to: "Mr. Richard Benson, arriving Deerchester, six eighteen from New York."
"Sign here, please," said the girl.
He signed for the telegram, gave the girl a tip, and waited for her to go away. Then he opened the envelope.
The telegram said:
SUGGEST YOU TAKE NEXT TRAIN BACK. THE AVENGER MAY BE A BIG SHOT IN NEW YORK BUT HE'S A BAD INSURANCE RISK IN DEERCHESTER. JUNIUS JONES.
Benson folded the telegram carefully and put it in his pocket. Then he headed across the broad expanse of the station toward the telephone booths. He entered one of the booths, inserted a nickel and spun the dial half a dozen times at random as if he were calling a number. He did this with his right hand, holding the telephone receiver against his ear by resting it on his shoulder. In this way he kept his left hand free. With this hand he dipped into his coat pocket and produced a small automatic pistol and snicked off the safety catch. He had left the door of the booth open so that the light did not go on. Therefore the barrel of the gun did not glint as he held it close against his stomach, pointing outward.
He turned his head slightly and saw the two men who had been watching him. They had left the orange juice counter and were now close to the phone booth. The nearest one was holding something wrapped in a handkerchief in his right hand, while the other was standing behind him in such a way as to shield his companion's actions from anyone who might be passing.
The fellow with the handkerchief-wrapped object moved up so that he was squarely in front of the open booth door. His face was grim and murderous as he thrust the object forward into the booth against Benson's side.
"Take it now, Avenger!" he grated. "Regards from Junius Jones—"
His voice was punctuated by the spiteful bark of Benson's automatic. The little gun kicked ever so slightly as Benson pulled the trigger, and a slug smashed into the killer's chest, just above the heart.
At the same time Benson's right arm came down in a sweeping swing that knocked the handkerchief-wrapped gun aside. That was unnecessary, however, for the other's gun did not even explode by reflex action. The man was dead on his feet. His eyes snapped wide open like those of a china sleeping-doll when one sits it up. He swung slowly around against the adjoining booth and then slid down to the floor.
Deftly, Benson flipped the automatic out of the booth and it went slithering along the tiles. Almost in the same motion he kicked the door of the phone booth shut.
The single shot, though not very loud, had attracted plenty of attention from the passing crowd. Heads swung around and people stopped abruptly at sight of the dead man and the sliding gun. The dead man's companion, his face contorted with surprise and mystification, turned to run.
Benson yanked open the door of the phone booth.
"Get that man!" he shouted, pointing at the fleeing man's back.
A cry of anger went up from the crowd and half a dozen men threw themselves upon the fugitive, carrying him down to the floor. A railroad guard came running up from one direction and a uniformed patrolman from the other. They lit into the crowd and collared the captive, dragging him to his feet.
"He shot the man!" someone exclaimed indignantly, pointing to the slumped body against the phone booth. "Killed him in cold blood!"
"And then he threw the gun away and started to run!" another added.
"Hah!" said the uniformed cop, shaking the captive like a rat. "London Louis." He glanced across at the body of the dead man and his lips curled in contempt. "And that's Benny Slocum, the guy you've been palling around with. Why, you rat!"
"No, no!" shrieked London Louis. "I didn't do it! I swear I didn't kill him. The Avenger killed him. I tell you it was The Avenger! He's in there—"
London Louis' eyes widened as his finger pointed toward the empty telephone booth, out of which Benson had slipped in the confusion.
The cop laughed unsympathetically. "The Avenger, eh? A likely story. What would The Avenger be doing in Deerchester? He's in New York—"
"I tell you it was The Avenger—"
"Tell it to the Judge!" Deftly the cop snapped handcuffs on him. "This time, you rat, you'll fry. You can't squirm out of this murder!"
OUTSIDE the railroad station, Dick Benson was moving serenely through the crowded street without looking back even once. To look at him no one would have thought that he was The Avenger—for whose body on a slab in the morgue the overlords of the underworld would have paid a fabulous reward. For he was the one instrument of justice which they feared more than the law. It was he who meted out unofficial punishment to those criminals who considered themselves above the law. He was bound neither by the entangling strands of red tape nor by the intricate trickery of clever lawyers.
Whenever The Avenger appeared, the overlords of the criminal underworld got the jitters. That was why this desperate attack had been made upon him tonight.
But as he made his way up Broad Street from the railroad station, he was not as serene and composed as he outwardly appeared. The attack at the station meant much more than a mere attempt upon his life. Two days ago, Nellie Gray and Algy Smith had come here to Deerchester upon a mission that had seemed of minor importance.
But since then there had been no single word from them. It seemed that they had been swallowed up by the maw of the great unknown.
Petite, demure, golden-haired Nellie Gray, and big, powerful Smitty were the right and left hands of The Avenger. Himself a veteran crimefighter, he had taught them much of what he knew. They were capable, clever, shrewd campaigners and dangerous fighters. It could be no ordinary antagonist who had brought about their disappearance.
In the organization known as Justice, Inc., of which The Avenger was the head, there was a standing rule that all members operating in the field must report in by telephone, telegraph, cable, radio, or any other means at their command at regular intervals. Failure to make such regular report could mean only one of two things—death or capture.
It was for this reason that Benson had boarded the first train for Deerchester—only to find that the enemy had anticipated his arrival and arranged a lethal reception that had missed its goal by a small margin.
The name signed to that decoy telegram meant a good deal to Benson. Ten years ago he had held this Junius Jones at the point of a gun with his finger grimly ready to pull the trigger. That man, known as Junius Jones, had groveled for his miserable life and though his life was forfeit. Benson had spared it. He had let the man go, knowing full well that Junius Jones would never forget that moment of abject pleading—and would someday return to wipe off the score.
Here then was the day of reckoning that Junius Jones must have planned for with careful diligence and cunning.
Two blocks from the railroad station, Broad Street was intersected by Main Street. Benson turned west and stopped before a small store which was only dimly illuminated from within, with no lights in the windows. The lettering on the plate-glass window said:
DOBERMANN — ANTIQUES
In the window was an old, high-backed Empire chair. Flanking the chair on either side were two small easels, upon which were displayed twin miniature, gilt-framed oil paintings, also of the Empire period.
But it was not at these that Benson glanced. His eyes were fixed upon the one incongruous thing in the window display—a modern book, which stood open upon the seat of the chair. There were rubber bands around the first and second portions of the book, in such a way that it remained open at page 276, which was facing outward. The name of the book, which Benson discerned by peering around at the opposite page, was Main Street.
It was strange indeed that the proprietor of Dobermann's Antique Store should have chosen to embellish his display of antique period furniture with a copy of a book written and published in the twentieth century. But if anyone's curiosity had been aroused to the point of making inquiries he would have found it impossible to do so for the store was closed.
But The Avenger, it seemed, had no desire to make any inquiries at all. In fact, he hardly stopped in front of the window display for long enough to make his interest noticeable. Yet when he moved on there was a certain grim purpose in his aspect that had not been there before. And if he had been on guard before he was doubly so now.
He was not taken by surprise, therefore, when the car pulled up alongside the curb, pacing him as he walked swiftly up Main Street. He stopped abruptly in midstride and swung around, facing the car. His right hand was in his coat pocket gripping something bulky there, and his eyes were twin pinpoints of fire as they lanced into the interior of that car.
The driver was apparently paying no attention to Benson for his hands were on the wheel and he was staring straight ahead as he tooled the car forward at a snail's pace. Within the automobile the face of a man was discernible, leaning forward at the window. The window was closed almost up to the top, leaving only a crack open.
The moment Benson spotted that white face in the window he became taut, his features hardening into stern and uncompromising lines. He stood facing the car, regardless of the occasional passersby in the street. With his hand still gripping the gun in his pocket he stepped closer to the car. The face inside became clearer: the pinched nose; the lips, almost too red to belong to a man, twisted in a smile, the small, quick, malicious eyes which were filled with a glittering light of hatred; and the bald and gleaming head which shone like a polished stone in the gloomy light of the dimmed-out street.
"We meet again, Avenger!" said the man. "We meet again after ten years. Do you remember the last time we met?"
"Yes," said Benson. "I remember it very well, Junius Jones. I had a gun on you that time. And now, too."
Junius Jones laughed softly. "Ah, yes. I see that thing in your pocket. But this time I shan't beg for my life. This time I'm sitting in a bulletproof car, behind bulletproof glass. This time you're the one who'll do the begging!"
"For my life?" The Avenger asked scornfully.
"Perhaps not. But for the lives of your friends. Will you beg for their lives, Avenger? I can kill them any time I want to. How would you like that, Avenger? Think of that big ox, Smitty. And the beautiful girl, Nellie Gray. Would you like to see them alive and breathing again? Then beg!"
"You lie!" said Benson.
The face of the other became twisted with rage. "I hold them prisoner, I tell you! I can kill them in five minutes!"
"If I prove it what'll you pay for their lives?"
"Any price you name."
"Even your own life?" Junius Jones' eyes were glittering as he asked that question with indecent eagerness. "Will you give up even your life for theirs?"
"Even that," The Avenger said evenly.
"AH!" The other's breath was exhaled in a long deep sigh. "I would like that. I would like to see you put your own gun in your mouth and pull the trigger!"
"Show me your proof," said Benson. "Prove to me that Nellie Gray and Smitty are in your hands."
"You shall have the proof in an hour, Avenger!"
Benson smiled grimly. A load seemed suddenly to have been removed from his mind. "In an hour? Then you're bluffing, Jones! You haven't got them yet. You're going to try to get them!"
"What of it? You're helpless. You don't know where to go first, or where to look for them. You've had no word from them for two days. You haven't spoken to anyone since you got here. You haven't the slightest clue to work on and you don't dare to go to the police!"
The Avenger's eyes flickered. "Nevertheless, I've had a message from them."
"You're mad. It can't be. I've played my hand too carefully. For ten years I've planned this; planned and studied every move. It's like a game that I've played a thousand times. I know it by heart. I knew you'd come to Deerchester if Toby Dobermann got in trouble. So I framed him for a murder and I even fixed it up in New York, so you'd have to send your friends instead of coming yourself."
"Ah!" said Benson. "I see!"
"And when your friends came," Jones hurried on, "I fixed it so they'd find a clue to the real murderer. I led them on a chase into the trap I'd prepared for them. Right now, Mr. Avenger, your friends are barricaded in a certain place, with my men on the outside. They've got their murderer. All they have to do is bring him out of there and turn him over to the police, and they'll clear Toby Dobermann. But," his pinched features became satanically sardonic "but they'll never get out of that place alive!"
Benson suddenly smiled. "Thanks, Jones. You've taken a load off my mind. Now I know there's a fighting chance for Nellie and Smitty!"
"Never believe it, Avenger! My men can storm that place and kill them at will. I was only waiting for you to come. It's you I want, Avenger. I've planned well, believe me. Those two who tried for you at the railroad station just now were merely the first shock troops. In a way I'm glad they failed. I'd much rather see you die by your own hand!"
"I'm sure it would be a pleasure to you," said Benson.
"In an hour!" Jones barked through the window. "In an hour I'll send you proof that I can kill your friends at will. Where will you be?"
"At Toby Dobermann's," said Benson.
Jones smiled craftily. "You don't know where Toby Dobermann is hiding out. You'll never find him, I know. I've had him watched ever since he escaped. The police are searching everywhere for him. When I'm ready, I'll have him killed, too. But you—you'll never find him. Your friends had no chance to communicate with you. They couldn't have told you where he went."
The Avenger smiled. He said nothing.
Junius Jones smiled, too—a vicious little smile, framed by those red, almost womanish lips of his.
"In an hour, Avenger," he murmured. "I give you an hour to find out you're beaten. When you give up, phone me. You'll find my name in the phone book. I'll have the proof you want. And I'll ask for your life!"
He spoke a word to his driver and the car moved away.
BENSON made no attempt to follow it or to fire through the window at that vindictive face. No slug could have pierced the protection of that bulletproof glass.
As soon as the car was gone he resumed his course down Main Street. In the next block he came abreast of No. 276.
No. 276 Main Street—the address indicated by the page number and title of the book displayed in Dobermann's window, was an unpretentious brownstone house with a high stoop. A modest sign in the door announced:
Benson made no attempt to ascertain whether he was being followed. He stopped before the house for just a moment, then ascended the steps of the high stoop and rang the bell.
After a moment the door was opened by a dark-haired girl of about twenty-two. Her face was drawn and tense, and there was a pallor in her cheeks, which spoke of sleepless nights and long vigils.
"Yes?" she said.
"You're Sally Dobermann? Toby's wife?"
Suddenly she seemed to congeal within herself. "I...you must be mistaken—" she started to close the door. Benson made no attempt to stop her physically. He only said, "I'm Benson."
Her eyes widened. "The...The Avenger?"
She looked at him with doubt and suspicion struggling perceptibly in her eyes. "Prove it!"
Benson smiled. "Nellie Gray and Smitty were here two days ago. Before they left they told you I might come if anything happened to them. They told you to set up the book in the window display at the store—knowing that I'd go there first, and if it was closed that I'd look for some message."
"And you found the message!"
"It was very easy. I'm surprised that Junius Jones didn't spot it."
There was still a bit of doubt in her eyes. "How...how do I know he didn't spot it? How do I know you're not one of his...his killers?"
"Ask me anything you like. But do it quickly. Time is short."
"All right. If you're really The Avenger you must have known Toby's father."
"Yes. I knew him."
"Jan Dobermann. He was a South African. I met him in Johannesburg many years before the war. He was a curio dealer. There was a bandit out there in those days who went by the name of Junius Jones. Jan Dobermann and I tracked him down and fought it out with his gang and captured Jones. The mistake we made was in sparing his life."
Sally Dobermann nodded. "All you say is true. But you haven't told me anything that Junius Jones doesn't know as well. I must be sure—absolutely sure—that you're The Avenger."
"When Jan Dobermann died," Benson said slowly, "I promised him on his deathbed that I'd always be ready to help his son, Toby, in trouble. Jan had two watches which he had brought with him from South Africa. They were twin watches, eighteen-carat gold, and no larger than a dime. He gave me one of them and the other to Toby. Here's mine."
From his fob pocket he produced a little glistening golden watch so small that there was no room for the numbers to be inscribed on the face. They were indicated merely by dots.
The moment she saw that watch all doubt and suspicion vanished from Sally's face.
"Come in, please," she said. "And thank God it's you. I...I couldn't have stood it much longer!"
BENSON entered and Sally quickly closed the door. They were in a narrow hallway with a sitting room opening off to the left and a staircase up ahead.
"This is my aunt's home," Sally Dobermann explained breathlessly. "My aunt converted it to a rooming house this Fall when the airplane factory went on a twenty-four-hour schedule and hired a lot of new night men. The tenants are on the late shift and they won't be home till after midnight. For two days we've been hiding Toby in the hall bedroom on the top floor, but the police are sure to think of this place sooner or later. Junius Jones knows about it. His men keep a constant watch."
She shuddered. "It...it's dreadful, seeing those men always outside and knowing that they could give us away to the police any time they want!"
"You needn't worry about that for another hour," Benson told her quietly. "I've talked to Jones. He's given me an ultimatum. It expires in a hour."
"How can you do anything in a hour? Your young lady with the golden hair has disappeared, and so has that big tall man who came with her. Junius Jones holds the whip hand. He's playing with Toby and me like a cat with a pair of helpless mice. An hour is so short—"
"Then let's not waste a minute of it," Benson said.
"I'm sorry!" she exclaimed contritely and led the way up the stairs. At the top floor she stopped before the door of the hall bedroom at the front. Very gently she turned a key in the lock and pushed the door open.
The room within was in darkness except for a feeble little seven-watt blackout light which was plugged into a wall outlet in the baseboard, close to the floor. It afforded just enough illumination to discern the figure of Toby Dobermann, lying on a mattress on the floor. His face was gaunt and unshaven, and stricken with the pallor of one who is close to death. He lay on his back with a thin blanket covering him from the hips down. There was a bandage swathed tightly across his chest and another around his right shoulder. Both of them were saturated with blood. The wounded man turned his head at the sound of the opening door. He looked at them out of deep-sunk, bloodshot eyes. He saw his wife and croaked, "Sally—"
Then his glance jerked to Benson. A spasmodic twinge contorted his features. He drew his left hand out from under the blanket. It was gripping a square-cut, short-barreled automatic pistol. He pointed it at Benson.
"Stand still!" he ordered hoarsely. "Who are you?"
"It's all night, Toby!" Sally exclaimed swiftly. "It—it's The Avenger!"
"Ah!" said Toby Dobermann. His whole body seemed to relax, as if a terrific tension had been removed. He let his hand drop to the floor and laid the automatic on the mattress.
Benson came and knelt beside him. He inspected the two bandages.
"Sally had to fix them," Toby Dobermann said, speaking with difficulty. "We didn't dare to call a doctor. I broke two ribs jumping from the courthouse window, and a bullet caught me in the shoulder just as I was turning the corner. But I managed to get away..."
"They accused him of murdering one of his wealthy customers," Sally broke in hurriedly. "A Mr. Pelton. The police saw a light in the back of the store one evening and tried the door and found it open. Mr. Pelton's body was in the office at the rear. He'd been shot at close range and it turned out that the gun that killed him belonged to Toby. At the preliminary hearing, two men testified that Toby and Mr. Pelton had had a violent quarrel that evening. Both those men lied, of course. They're in the pay of Junius Jones."
BENSON nodded impatiently. "I know the facts. You were arraigned the next morning. You had wired me for help and I had sent Nellie Gray and Smitty, but when they got here you had already made your escape. They contacted Sally and got some kind of clue and went to follow it up."
"It was a trap," Toby Dobernann gasped. "Someone tipped them off where to find the murderer. They went out on that tip and that's the last we heard of them!"
Sally knelt beside Dick Benson and bent over to arrange her husband's bandages, speaking quickly as she worked over them. "Miss Gray was clever, though. She told me that you were out of New York on some other matter, and she couldn't reach you because your headquarters in New York, Justice, Inc., wasn't manned by anyone. She couldn't get in touch with you to tell you where Toby was hiding out, and she didn't dare to leave a message anywhere, so she arranged to leave that book in the store window. She said you'd understand."
Benson got to his feet and stood over the wounded man. His thoughts were winging swiftly to that unknown spot where Nellie Gray and Smitty were probably fighting for their lives at this very moment. He had made a promise to this wounded man's father to help him; but he also owed a duty to Nellie and Algy Smith. He must find out where they had gone, where this trap was, into which they had walked in search of a murderer. Never had any member of Justice, Inc. needed the help of the others without receiving it. And this one time—when their lives were in the balance—he must not fail them. He had less than an hour now; minutes of precious time in which he must trace their steps, follow the course they had taken and reach their side. But, also, he must consider Toby Dobermann, who lay here, wounded and helpless, at the mercy of Junius Jones.
Something of the cruel problem which faced him must have been communicated to Toby and his wife, for they watched him in silence, as if awaiting his decision. Toby reached up a hand and said impulsively, "Go after your friends, Avenger. Leave me here. The chances are that I'll be all right. Junius Jones has left me alone so far."
Benson smiled bitterly. "He left you alone, only because he hoped I'd come looking for you. You were bait, by which he hoped to snare me. Now that I've come he has nothing more to gain by leaving you free. He may be notifying the police right now—"
Sally uttered a cry of despair. "We can't let Toby be arrested. The police are being goaded on by the newspapers to obtain a conviction. The district attorney is ambitious and ruthless. They'll give Toby the third degree in spite of his wounds. Junius Jones has tremendous power in the city, and he'll exert all his influence to see to it that they force a confession out of Toby—or else kill him in the process. Please—you can't let them take Toby in!"
Benson looked down at the wounded man. "Can you walk?"
"Yes—with a little help. I'd have to lean on someone."
Benson turned to Sally. "Is there a way out of this house—besides the front door?"
She nodded swiftly. "There's a basement exit in the rear. And I have a car in the back street. I...I had thought of getting Toby out that way, but Junius Jones has a man watching in the backyard—"
"All right," said Benson, making a swift decision. "We'll have to chance it!"
Between them they helped Toby to his feet. Sally got a topcoat and wrapped it around him. Then they helped him out of the room and down the stairs.
Toby's face was drained of all color and he was grimly biting his lip by the time they reached the main floor.
The cellar door was at the back of the stairs, and they worked their way down, slowly and laboriously. There was no light down here and they felt their way toward the back door. Benson put his face close to the grimy glass and peered out into the night. He caught the glow of a cigarette and discerned the figure of a man standing in the yard, half a dozen feet from the door.
He heard the rasping breathing of Toby Dobermann at his side, and the swiftly caught breath of Sally as she realized that if this man gave the alarm the watchers out in front would come hurrying to his assistance.
"IT...it can't be done!" she gasped. "We need time. Toby can't run. If you shoot that man the others will come and the fight will bring the police—"
"Wait here!" Benson whispered. He inched the door open and squeezed out into the yard.
The man on watch stiffened and his hand darted to his shoulder bolster. It emerged, gripping a gun.
That was all the man got a chance to say, for Benson stepped in swiftly, swinging downward with his left hand. He seized the man's gun wrist, twisting sideways as he did so. His fingers clamped like iron on the man's wrist while with his right hand he gripped the gun barrel and bent it upward and back with his thumb under the fellow's trigger finger so that he couldn't pull the trigger.
Benson thrust powerfully against the upraised barrel, still retaining his grip upon the other's wrist with his left hand. In this way the man's own gun became a fulcrum upon which his wrist broke under Benson's inexorable pressure.
The snapping of the bone made a crunching, brittle sound, and the man uttered a little moan and slumped down in a faint.
Swiftly, Benson caught him and dragged him into the cellar. He laid him on the floor and picked up his gun. He straightened up to see Toby Dobermann and his wife watching him with wide and fascinated eyes.
"God!" said Toby Dobermann. "I never saw anything as neat as that! I...I'm beginning to hope again. With you helping me—"
Benson thrust the gun into Toby's left hand. "Let's get started—"
He was interrupted by the sudden harsh jangling of the doorbell at the front of the house. It was followed almost immediately by a loud, authoritative shout: "Open up in there! In the name of the law!"
"The police!" gasped Sally. "Jones sent them. We haven't a chance. There's nobody home now. The police will break the door in—"
"Get going!" Benson ordered harshly. "I'll hold them!"
"There's no time to argue. If you get Toby out of here, get in the car and drive over to Broad Street and park at one of the park-o-meters. Let Toby lie down in the bottom and cover him with a robe. The police will never think of looking for him on Broad Street. Wait there till you hear from me. If I don't come by midnight start out and try to drive out of the state!"
"No, no!" Sally exclaimed. "We can't let you do it—"
But he didn't wait to hear her protests. He was already racing up the cellar stairs, taking them three at a time. As he reached the top he heard a fervent, "God bless you, Avenger!" And then he was running down the hall toward the front door just as the authoritative voice out there shouted, "All right, boys, we'll break the door down!"
"Just a minute!" Benson shouted. "'Here I come!"
He reached the door and undid the lock. Then he yanked the door open with his left hand, at the same time slipping his right hand into his coat pocket.
A UNIFORMED policeman and a plainclothes detective shouldered their way into the hall. Behind them, Benson caught a glimpse of the thin, malicious face of Junius Jones. But Jones refrained from entering.
Benson barred the way of the two police officers. "What do you want here?" he demanded.
The plainclothes detective exhibited a badge in the palm of his hand. "Sergeant Fletcher, Headquarters Squad," he rasped. "We're searching this house. We have reason to believe that Toby Dobermann, wanted for murder, is hiding in here. Get out of our way."
He tried to elbow his way past, but Benson effectually barred his progress. "Do you mind showing me your search warrant, sergeant?" he asked mildly.
"Search warrant!" Fletcher exploded. "We don't need any search warrant. We're looking for a murderer—a fugitive from justice. There's no search warrant needed in such a case—"
"A warrant is unnecessary," Benson interrupted suavely, "only in the event that a police officer has substantial information, furnished by a reliable authority, which convinces him that a fugitive from justice is in hiding, and may escape before a search warrant can be issued."
Sergeant Fletcher's eyes narrowed. "Just who are you?" he demanded. "Are you a lawyer?"
Benson smiled. "Not exactly."
"You seem to know a lot about the law."
That was all the man got a chance to say, for Benson stepped in swiftly, swinging downward with his left hand.
"Enough to insist upon your observance of it."
"All right," said Fletcher. "If you want to be technical, I can be technical, too. It so happens that I have substantial information which convinces me that Toby Dobermann is hiding in this house and—"
"Did Junius Jones give you that information?"
"Then I'm sorry, but it doesn't come from a reliable source. In case you don't know it, Junius Jones has a record that stretches all the way back to the Transvaal, Johannesburg and Cape Town."
"You're crazy!" said Fletcher. "Jones is the biggest insurance broker in Deerchester. He couldn't have gotten a license if he had a criminal record."
"His fingerprints aren't on record," Benson said calmly, "because his gang raided the Cape Town Bureau of Criminal Investigation ten years ago and destroyed the records."
Junius Jones thrust himself forward, his face livid with anger. "It's a lie! A damned lie! Go ahead, sergeant. Don't let this man stop you. He's only trying to bluff—"
Fletcher nodded. He motioned to the uniformed patrolman who drew the revolver from the holster at his side. Then he said to Benson, "Whoever you are, mister, I now order you to stand aside. Otherwise, I'll arrest you for interfering with the police in the course of making an arrest!"
Swiftly, Benson calculated that about five minutes had elapsed since he had left Toby and Sally at the cellar door. He hoped that they had made it to the car by this time.
"All right, sergeant," he said, shrugging resignedly. "If you put it that way, I yield. But in the name of the owner of this house, I reserve the right to bring an action against you personally, and the city of Deerchester, for illegal entry. I warn you that if you step into this house and search it, and then fail to find Toby Dobermann here, you will have to face a court action for fifty thousand dollars!"
He stepped aside and bowed. "Enter, sergeant—at your own risk!"
Fletcher looked at him in puzzled fashion. He was manifestly impressed by the threat of the heavy lawsuit. There had been many instances in which over-zealous police officers had violated the constitutional rights of private citizens and had thereafter been compelled to pay large sums of money in damages, in addition to losing their jobs.
BUT it was Junius Jones who solved the problem for him.
"Go ahead, Fletcher," he urged. "I'll guarantee to pay any judgment they get against you. And besides, I give you my personal word that Toby Dobermann is in this house—"
"If he hasn't gotten away through the back door by this time!" the uniformed policeman growled.
Junius Jones smiled twistedly. "I assure you he couldn't have gotten away through the back. The minute I heard that Dobermann was hiding here I put one of my own boys on guard at the rear, as well as a couple to cover the front. Dobermann hasn't left this house!"
"That's all I want to know!" Fletcher barked. He barged past Benson, shouting over his shoulder, "All right, boys! Let's go!"
Two more uniformed policemen shouldered in, following Fletcher, and leaving the first patrolman on guard at the front door with his revolver naked in his hand.
Benson watched them spread out over the ground floor and a curious smile tugged at his lips. He turned around and found that Junius Jones had not waited. He was gone.
Benson saw that the uniformed patrolman was watching him with a frown.
"Well, officer," he said suavely, "now that everything is settled I think I'll be running along, too—"
"Nix!" growled the policeman, raising the revolver slightly. "You stick right here, mister. I'm thinking the sergeant will have plenty to say to you when he's through!"
Benson shrugged. He put a hand into his breast pocket. The cop stiffened and thrust the revolver forward so that the muzzle was only a few inches from Benson's side. But The Avenger brought his hand out, containing nothing more dangerous than a sterling silver cigarette case.
The cop grunted and lowered the revolver a bit. Benson smiled at his discomfiture and offered him a cigarette, holding the case high up in front of the officer.
"No, thanks!" the other growled.
Benson shrugged again and selected a cigarette for himself. He snapped the case shut and reversed it. There was an ingenious lighter built into the base, and Benson lit the cigarette, inhaling deeply. He heard Fletcher and his men moving around on the floor, banging closet doors and tramping from room to room. Then they came out into the hall.
"You, MacAleer," Fletcher ordered one of the men, "take the cellar. Keep your gun handy." He turned to the other. "You come upstairs with me, Adams!"
He headed up the stairs with Adams in tow while MacAleer's heavy tread sounded, descending the cellar stairs.
Benson tensed, waiting for MacAleer to discover the body of the guard with the broken wrist.
From the upper landing Sergeant Fletcher looked down and spoke to the patrolman at the door. "Hold that guy down there, Parsons. Don't let him leave. We'll take him down to the station house with us. There's a little unfinished business I got to take up with him—sort of teach him a few fine points about the law!"
He was interrupted by an excited yell from the cellar. "Hey! There's a guy down here!" MacAleer shouted.
PARSONS tensed, swinging his eyes away from Benson for an instant. It was the precise split second for which The Avenger had been waiting and for which he was set. Almost as if his reflexes had been connected to MacAleer's voice by an electric circuit, his right fist shot upward in a short, terrific blow to Parsons' jaw.
The smack, as bone thudded against bone, was like the cracking of a huge pane of glass. Parsons rose up from his heels as if he were standing on tiptoe and craning his neck to see something. Then he teetered slowly forward. He bent first at the knees, then at the waist, and tumbled slowly down to the floor like a double-jointed acrobat about to do a somersault. Only he never completed the somersault, for he remained where he fell, on his face, without moving.
Benson rubbed his knuckles. He heard MacAleer still shouting down below, and Fletcher's pounding feet from up above as he hurried to answer the call.
But Benson didn't wait. He stepped lithely over Parsons, opened the front door and made his exit.
A small crowd had gathered in the street and they stared at him as he came down the stoop. They took him for one of the detectives and made way for him. He heard a yell of fury from within, and knew that Fletcher had reached the ground floor and discovered his escape. He strode through the crowd to the police squad car that was parked at the curb and stepped into it. A single swift glance showed him the ignition key still the wheel and he put his foot on the accelerator. The motor had been left running. He had expected this, for it is a practice of police everywhere never to turn off their engines so that they can make a quick start whenever necessary.
He shifted into first, gave her gas, and pulled away fast. He threw one last glance back at the house and saw the crowd dispersing wildly in every direction as Sergeant Fletcher came racing a deep purple, and yelling at the top of his lungs.
Benson was about to duck his head low for the volley he knew would come in a moment, but he saw Fletcher reach the next-to-the-last step of the stoop and trip in his furious haste. The last glimpse Benson had was of the sergeant sprawling at full length on the sidewalk and his revolver slithering out into the gutter.
BENSON made a right turn at the corner, then another right turn at the very next corner. This brought him heading back toward Broad Street. He drove two more blocks, pulled in to the curb and abandoned the police car. He walked swiftly over to Broad Street, his thoughts grim and bleak. True, he had succeeded in getting Toby Dobermann out of danger temporarily. But the most urgent task remained yet to be done: he must trace the steps of Nellie Gray and Smitty, and find the place where they were fighting for their lives.
They must surely be counting on him, he knew. Never in the past had he failed them. If they went down to their death in battle they would be convinced that he must be dead—otherwise he would have gotten to them somehow.
So closely did those three work together that they could almost read each other's thoughts. In any given situation, each of them could predict accurately what the others would do. And Benson was certain that neither Nellie nor Smitty would have gone off on the trail of the murderer without leaving him some mark along the road they had taken. When he had seen the copy of Main Street in Dobermann's window he had recognized it at once as the kind of trail marking that the members of Justice, Inc. liked to leave. He had thought it would lead him to Nellie and Algy. But he knew now that it led only to a dead end, for neither Toby Dobermann, nor his wife, could give him the information he needed.
He was troubled—badly troubled—by the gnawing thought that he had overlooked something along the line; some other trail marking which they had left for him somewhere.
He turned into Broad Street and immediately spotted the car in which Toby Dobermann had escaped from the rooming house. It was parked in one of the park-o-meter spaces, and Sally was sitting at the wheel, her face buried in a newspaper. But she was peeking out of the corner of her eye and she saw Benson. She moved over to the window as he came abreast of the car.
"This is a wonderful place to hide!" she said. "The police cars keep passing us time and again, but they never even give us a second glance!"
She nodded toward the rear of the car where a bundle under a robe stirred impatiently. "It's tough on Toby, though. I'm afraid his wounds will open again. We have to get him some medical attention before—"
"Listen to me," Benson cut in harshly. "I'm going to ask you a question and I want you to think hard when you answer, because the lives of my two dearest friends may depend upon it."
Sally looked up at him, wide-eyed. "I'm sorry, Mr. Benson. I... I'd forgotten about them. I...I'll do my very best."'
"When Miss Gray arranged that display in the window, were you with her?"
"Was it after they had received the tip about where to find Pelton's murderer?"
"Ah!" Benson's eyes were glittering. "Now think carefully—what was in the window display before Miss Gray rearranged it?"
"Why, there were three Empire chairs. Miss Gray took out two of the chairs, and sent me out to buy a copy of Main Street. When I returned she had the two pictures on the easels, on either side of the chair. They're very old pictures of London, you know—-anonymous pictures that we picked up at an auction. I told Miss Gray that they were Victorian and didn't go with the Empire chair, but she waved me aside and finished the job in a hurry because they had to get away and follow up on the tip."
Benson breathed a deep sigh. He opened the door of the car and slid in beside Sally.
"Drive!" he ordered, "Past the store!"
"But...but that's on Main Street! They'll be looking for you on—"
THERE was that in his voice which made her swallow hard and clutch the wheel. She started the car and in a moment they were around the corner on Main Street. As they came abreast of the antique store they could see a huge crowd gathered in front of the rooming house down in the next block, with half a dozen squad cars in the middle of the street.
"Stop here!" Benson ordered. He opened the door and stepped out and hurried over to the window display. His eyes fastened hungrily on the two pictures. He had passed them over without attention the last time, but now be looked at them as a shipwrecked man eyes a distant smudge of smoke.
The picture on the left-hand easel was an old print of Westminster Abbey. The name, "Westminster Abbey" was printed underneath in Gothic type.
On the right-hand easel there was a similar print of the Tower of London. The name, "Tower of London," appeared underneath in Gothic type, but something had been done to it—the first two words had been blocked out with a pencil so that the only word remaining was "London." And in the lower right-hand corner of the picture there was a signature.
Benson pressed his face close to the window, trying to decipher that signature in the dark. And his eyes blazed suddenly as he made it out. It was a single scrawled name: Louis!
With fists clenched, Benson swung back to the car and climbed in. Sally was watching him, her lips parted, one hand at her breast. "You...you've found something?"
Benson gripped her wrist. "Are you sure those two pictures were anonymous? There was no signature on either of them?"
"Positive. They were both unsigned—"
"All right, get going. Where's the county jail?"
"Back on Broad Street, at the corner of Meridian."
"Take me there!"
"You're mad, Avenger! The county jail is right next door to police headquarters—"
"Do as I say!"
Silently, Sally started the car, made a U turn and headed back to Broad Street, then turned left. "Meridian is four blocks—"
She threw a sidelong glance at Benson and her eyes became wide with wonder. He had taken out a flat silver case, almost a duplicate of the cigarette case. But this one contained no cigarettes. He had it open on his lap, revealing several neat little compartments containing pigments of various shades. There were miniature artist's brushes in the case and wads of other makeup material. Wonderingly, she watched his long and supple fingers work deftly, applying a bit of makeup to cheekbones, a touch of shading to his upper lip, and a bit of darkish color underneath the eyes.
So engrossed was she that she almost sideswiped a car alongside her. She uttered a gasp, twisted the wheel and averted catastrophe. Thereafter she drove with her eyes straight ahead until they reached the county jail.
"Here it is," she said. "The county jail—"
She broke off, gasping, as she saw the face beside her. She had heard, of course, along with other stories, that The Avenger was a master hand in the art of disguise. But she had always imagined disguise as being associated with false mustaches, wigs, beards, and other mysterious and cumbersome paraphernalia.
But she had seen with her own eyes that the only equipment The Avenger had used was that small flat case of makeup. She had seen that he had only applied a dab here and a touch there. Yet here sat a different man, a new personality. The cheekbones were higher, the upper lip seemed longer, the jaw seemed less square and instead of the sense of innate strength which he had formerly conveyed, he now appeared to be a man perhaps ten years older who had dissipated much in earlier years and whose face showed it now in all the cruelty of baggy eyes and flabby cheeks and unwelcome wrinkles.
The Avenger's eyes flickered as he noted her reaction. He nodded as if satisfied. "I guess I'll pass," he said.
"But...but how could you do it—"
"It's the little things that change a man," he told her. "If I put on a false beard, and a pair of eyeglasses, they'd see through it in a minute. But when they look at my face now they'll see only what I have put on it, plus the way I walk and talk."
He pressed her hand. "Park across the street, I notice there's a parking space over there. Wait twenty minutes. If I don't come out by then, get out of town."
He leaned over into the back and lifted the robe. Toby Dobermann was asleep.
"The sleep will do him good. Good luck, Sally."
"Good luck to you!" she gulped. Then Benson was gone.
HE mounted the broad stone steps of the county jail with quick, nervous steps instead of his usual lithe, free-swinging stride. And his shoulders were suddenly sloping, his head cocked a bit to one side, his whole attitude that of another man. It was as if a new person had been born with the makeup. And this was the secret of The Avenger's success at impersonation, the thing that had baffled his enemies time after time.
In the office of the jail he stepped to the desk and spoke in a high, nervous voice. "I am an attorney—Ira Pinkney. I wish to see a client of mine who is under arrest."
"Prisoner's name?" the clerk demanded.
The clerk raised his eyebrows. "How come? I thought Percy Gilbie was going to defend him."
Benson leaned over the desk and lowered his voice, but still speaking in a rasping tone. "Confidentially, I've been retained by Junius Jones. It—er—it's a rather ticklish case."
"Hm-m-m," said the clerk. "Ticklish is right. London Louis was caught with the goods." He frowned at Benson. "You a Deerchester lawyer? I don't think I've seen you before."
Benson shook his head. "I'm from the state capital."
Satisfied, the clerk made out an order slip and a few minutes later, Benson—alias Ira Pinkney—was seated in a small cubbyhole of a room at a table opposite London Louis.
For a moment he sat tensely, while London Louis looked him over without enthusiasm. London Louis had seen him at the station for only the briefest of time, but there was always a chance that he might detect some faint resemblance that would arouse his suspicions. But London Louis apparently had other things on his mind.
"How come Gilbie ain't taking care of me?" he demanded.
The bogus lawyer smiled shiftily. "Frankly speaking, Louis, Junius Jones is very dissatisfied with you. You certainly messed things up."
"It wasn't my fault," whined Louis. "I was only supposed to cover up. It was Benny Slocum who messed things up. He didn't shoot quick enough. That Avenger is poison."
"It's not about the business at the station that Jones is sore," Benson told him.
Louis licked his lips. "Not about that? What else? Did I do something wrong?"
Benson nodded jerkily. "It's about that business of tipping the girl off—Neillie Gray."
He waited tautly for the reaction. He was gambling everything on this moment.
Nellie Gray had managed to place that message in the picture, London and Louis. It could only mean that the tip-off which had sent her and Smitty into the trap had come from London Louis. He waited with bated breath, watching the other's face.
"Whadda you mean? What did I do wrong about the tip-off? I told her just what the boss said I should!"
"You sent her to the wrong place, you fool!"
"The wrong place? No, no. I swear I didn't. I sent her to the gas station up in the hills. The one that's closed."
"You mean the one on Highway 9?"
"Hell, no. The one on the Corlear road, four miles out of town; the one where they got the single cabin way back off the road. Wasn't that right? The boss said he wanted them there so the shooting wouldn't be heard. No one uses that road anymore since the landslide on the other side of the hill."
"Hm-m-m," said Benson. His blood was racing so fast that he had difficulty maintaining his new personality. "That seems to be the right—"
"Sure, it's right. It's what the boss told me. Didn't that girl and the big guy get there?"
"I think there's been some mistake," Benson said, rising. "I'll talk to Jones again and see if we can't straighten it out."
"For Gawd's sake don't leave me out in the cold!" London Louis choked. "Don't leave me to take this rap. You tell the boss if he does I'll squawk my head off."
"Don't worry," said Benson. "I'll be back later. If any other lawyers come to see you, even Gilbie, you're to refuse to see them. Understand? Refuse to see everybody till I return. It's the safest way."
"OK, counselor, whatever you say. Only convince the boss, will you? I ain't taking no rap. He has ways of getting me outta this."
Benson left as quickly as possible. He hurried indecently on the way out.
THE old Corlear road climbed steeply from the city limits, with half a dozen hairpin turns in half a mile. Dick Benson tooled the car ahead, without perceptibly slowing up for those curves. In the rear sat Toby Dobermann, wan and weak, with his head resting on Sally's shoulder.
Benson drove for almost a mile thus, silently, tautly, before the road straightened out, and began to climb at a less pronounced angle. Suddenly he clamped down hard on the footbrake before the barrier in the road. It consisted of two long wooden horses, against which rested a signboard. The sign said:
An arrow pointed off to the right, toward a dirt road.
As The Avenger brought the car to a stop, Toby Dobermann said weakly, "They closed this road to the public six months ago. The overhanging rocks keep crumbling, and sliding down. One car was crushed—"
But Benson had already descended. He stopped near the detour sign and turned his flashlight on the ground. There were fresh tire tracks here. Several cars had come through, not so long ago. And there were marks on the ground to indicate that the wooden horses had been moved and then swung back into place again. His eyes glittered. London Louis' story was thus far borne out by the evidence. He was banking on the truth of that story.
He removed the detour sign and pushed the wooden horses out of the way. Then he returned and got in behind the wheel.
"Better watch out from here on," Toby Dobermann warned.
Benson nodded silently, and sent the car ahead. Now, as they proceeded through the night, they heard faint, crackling sounds somewhere in the distance, and The Avenger stiffened. His hands tightened on the wheel, and he pressed down a bit farther on the gas.
"That's gunfire!" Toby Dobermann exclaimed. "It's a couple of miles away. The mountains carry the echoes—"
Sally uttered a little gasp. "Junius Jones' men must have opened the attack on your friends."
Under the spur of those distant sounds of battle, The Avenger urged the car along even faster.
THE gunfire was closer now, and it suddenly mounted into a fresh crescendo of staccato bursts. Someone was using a machine gun, up ahead, around the next curve!
Benson brought the car to a swift stop and leaped out. "Wait here!" he shouted to Sally and her husband. Then he was running with long, space-consuming strides, around the sharp curve.
He came around the curve and saw the old, abandoned gas station which London Louis had mentioned. It was a one-story structure, and it had at some time in its history been painted red. The windows were boarded up, the gas tanks dismantled. A couple of old, stripped wrecks of automobiles lay in the graveled semicircular driveway behind the pumps. And two other cars were pulled up in the road. One of those cars was that in which Junius Jones had been sitting when he spoke to Benson in the street. Benson recognized its license number.
But he spared only a quick, all-embracing glance for all of that. His attention became immediately centered upon the man who was kneeling on the roof of the gas station and firing the submachine gun. He was sending burst after burst up toward a cabin about a hundred yards behind the gas station.
From where he stood, Benson saw that it was one of a semicircular group of eight or ten cabins of the type once used to accommodate the tourist trade. Both the parked cars had their headlights focused upon that single cabin—the third from the left—making it a shining target for the snipers. In addition, the man on the gas station roof was using tracer bullets, and Benson was able to watch the luminous trail of each burst as it smashed through the flimsy walls of the shack. The gunner was spraying his barrage slowly from left to right, and then back again.
At the same time, Benson noted that tracer bullets were driving into the cabin from two other directions. That meant three machine guns in all. Swiftly, he located one of them over to the left, behind a rusty oil drum; and the third on the right, behind a pile of rocks.
Benson's eyes became agate-hard as he moved lithely forward, gun in hand. His mouth was dry and parched, and there was a deep and empty feeling high up in his chest. For he knew that nobody could be left alive in that cabin. Those gunners of Junius Jones were doing their murderous work in thorough and deadly fashion. Nellie Gray and Smitty must be dead. He had come too late to save them—but not too late to make the killers pay a high price for their victory.
He raised his gun for a snap shot at the machine gunner on the roof, but held his fire as a loud, shrill whistle sounded from somewhere close at hand. Immediately, the barrage from the three machine guns ceased. The grim and merciless headlights of the two cars continued to pierce the darkness, holding the riddled cabin in ruthless silhouette against the background of the night.
The piercing whistle signal had come from Junius Jones' car. Benson was now able to discern Jones' pinched and cadaverous countenance behind the bulletproof glass. The window was drawn halfway down, but Jones' face was still well protected, for he did not lift his head above the top of the open pane.
"All right!" he called, in a harsh and strident voice. "I guess that did it. Go in, Stengle and Gore and Brower, and get their bodies out." He chuckled horridly. "We'll take them back to Deerchester and present them to The Avenger. We'll let him see his dead friends—before we send him to join them!"
The man on the roof slung his machine gun over his shoulder and slid down to the ground, while the other two gunmen emerged from their places of concealment and converged upon it from the right and the left.
IT was just then that a great, deep-throated gust of laughter seemed to spring from nowhere out of the night. It was powerful, glorious laughter, vivid with the color of battle and bravery. And when Benson heard that laughter, he heaved a great sigh, and some of the tautness went out of him, and he almost smiled for there was only one man in all the world who laughed like that—the big Viking of a man who was known as Algernon Heathcote Smith.
Smitty was alive then! And Nellie Gray couldn't be dead, else Smitty could never have laughed that way.
The three gunmen came to an abrupt halt in the clearing before the semicircle of cabins. The headlights still pointed at their cabin from the left; but it was not from there that the laughter issued. It was from one of the other cabins in that group—one that was in comparative darkness. And those machine gunners crouched, suddenly stiff, and frightened, swinging their weapons' noses around in vague motions, not sure just where to aim them or where to shoot.
Abruptly, the deep-toned laughter ceased; and a mocking voice called out: "All right, you rats. Let's see if you can take it now!"
A heavy revolver began to thunder; orange flashes flamed at the window of the end cabin on the right. And the foremost of the machine gunners uttered a wild scream and threw up his arms and pitched forward. The other two dropped flat on the ground. One of them began to pull the trip of his machine gun, sending a wild burst high above that end cabin. The third gunner rolled over and over till he reached the protection of a stone wall which stood perhaps fifty feet from the end cabin. Then he, too, trained his machine gun on the target.
The two guns chattered for perhaps half a minute before Smitty, firing from the window of the cabin, got the second gunner. And almost at the same instant, Dick Benson, who had leaped forward as soon as Smitty began to shoot, reached the stone wall.
Unnoticed in the darkness, Benson rose up behind the machine gunner, clubbing his revolver, and brought it down hard on the man's skull. The fellow's weapon dropped from his hands, he grunted once, and slumped down behind the wall. All became silent as the machine guns ceased their chatter.
Crouching behind the wall, Dick Benson puckered his lips and hooted like an owl. Almost immediately, the hoot was returned from the cabin—twice.
Benson smiled. One signal for Smitty, one for Nellie Gray. They were both alive, then. They had outsmarted Junius Jones' killers by exchanging cabins at the last moment. Those machine gunners had poured burst after burst into an empty trap!
Benson rose to his feet beside the wall, and peered over to where Junius Jones' car was parked. Jones had opened the door cautiously, to investigate the sudden silence.
"Stengle!" he called in a low voice. "Gore! Brower!"
Benson remained silent. From the cabin where Smitty and Nellie Gray were, there came no sound. It was as if they both understood what was in The Avenger's mind, and were leaving the play in his hands.
Another moment passed, and the door of the car opened just a bit wider. Junius Jones' voice came in a higher key.
"Stengle! What's happened? Where are you? Answer me!"
Slowly, silently, The Avenger picked up the machine gun that the dead gunman had dropped. His finger found the trip in the darkness. He stepped away from the wall, but kept out of the streaking beams of light from the headlamps of the two cars. He raised his voice, deep and sonorous, and suddenly fraught with all the dread solemnity of justice and retribution.
"This is The Avenger," he said. "Your time has come, Junius Jones. Prepare to die!"
"Avenger!" The name came from Jones' lips like a gust of hot wind laden with terror and hate. "How did you get here?"
Benson's voice was hard, unyielding, uncompromising. "Are you ready to die, Jones?"
"Damn you—" Jones shrieked. And then the door of the car slammed shut.
Benson waited, bleak and grim. From the cabin, Smitty came running, his huge bulk looming vast and giant-like in the dark. He was carrying the inert body of a man slung over his shoulder; and behind came the trim figure of Nellie Gray, slim and blonde and graceful. But the automatic in her hand was no less dangerous than it would have been in the hand of any fighting man twice her size.
Smitty deposited the unconscious man at the wall.
"Hi, Dick," he whispered. "You sure showed up at the right time. I lost a bet with Nellie. I bet you wouldn't spot the message in the picture on the easel!"
"I almost didn't," said Benson. He glanced down at the unconscious man. "Who's this?"
"The murderer," said Smitty. "This is the guy for whom Toby Dobermann was supposed to take the rap. He works for Jones. I've got his written confession."
Benson nodded. His eyes were fixed upon Junius Jones' car. Jones was behind the wheel now, and he had kicked the starter over. He was backing the car frantically out of the graveled driveway now, in an attempt to escape from the doom which The Avenger had promised.
Nellie Gray put a hand on Benson's arm. "Dick! Are you going to let him get away?"
Benson shook his head. He held the submachine gun ready, his gaze following the progress of the car as it raced out into the road, narrowly skimming the edge of the precipice. They heard its motor race as Jones accelerated, heading for the curve.
"It's a bulletproof car!" Smitty exclaimed. "He's safe—"
Smitty choked off the words as Benson raised the submachine gun and sent a burst of tracer bullets fanning out across the road directly in front of the racing car. He held his finger on the trip, and the hail of steel-jacketed tracer slugs formed a fiery barrier into which the front wheels churned. There was a popping explosion which mingled with the chatter of the machine gun as the front tire went.
The car swerved crazily, and they had a momentary view of Jones' face above the wheel, as his white hands struggled with it. But the car was out of control. It veered far over toward the edge of the road, teetered for an instant on the brink, and then disappeared.
Benson took his finger from the trip, and the machine gun became silent. In the sudden stillness rose the terror-laden scream of Junius Jones, torn from the very bowels of his frightened consciousness, as he went hurtling down to his death over the precipice.
Moments later they heard a crashing explosion as the car struck almost a mile below. Benson ran to the edge, followed by Smitty and Nellie. Far down flame was rising from the burning car.
"Come," said The Avenger. "We've got to tell Toby Dobermann that the law doesn't want him any more. That confession you got ought to clear him, Smitty."
The big man nodded absently. He was still looking down at the funeral pyre of Junius Jones.
"That guy sure came a long way, looking for death!" he said in a low voice.
Then he turned away and took Nellie Gray's hand, and they followed The Avenger around the bend of the road to carry the news of deliverance and freedom to Toby and his wife.
THE plump little man with the frightened eyes boarded the bus at Jacksonville and selected the aisle seat next to Nellie Gray. He mumbled a quick apology, laid his black leather briefcase across his knees, and immediately opened a newspaper. He spread it in front of him, effectively hiding his face, and did not move for an hour. Nellie knew he was only pretending to read, for he never turned the page. Twice she caught him furtively peering past her, out of the window, just as passing cars overtook the bus. Each time he did this he threw a swift glance at the car, then buried his nose in the paper once more.
When the bus stopped for refreshments at St. Augustine the plump little man did not get out with the rest of the passengers, but continued his pretense of reading. Nellie squeezed past him into the aisle and went out to the refreshment stand where she bought a hot dog and a bottle of pop. While she was eating, surrounded by the other passengers, she saw a long green convertible coupe come flashing down the road and pull to a stop. It swung into the parking space beside the bus and a man emerged from the rear. This man wore a tan sport coat and his face was long and wooden. He said something to his driver who remained at the wheel, and then he swung his dark eyes upon the passengers. He scanned them with the attitude of one who seeks a particular person. Nellie got a cold feeling when she saw his eyes. They were almost fish-like in their expressionless stare.
The man evidently did not find what he was looking for because he turned and stared at the bus for a moment. Then he stepped over to the open door and poked his head in. At the same time that he did this he put his right hand in the pocket of his coat.
Nellie Gray's glance swept to the window of the bus where she had seen the plump little man only a moment before the coupe arrived, but now he was not visible.
Nellie knew that the plump little man had not left the bus. He was still in there. But he couldn't be seen; therefore he must be crouching down behind the seat. Hiding—from what?
She experienced a distinct sense of relief when the long-faced man in the tan sport coat took his head out of the bus doorway and returned to the green coupe. She knew with the sure instinct which had made her The Avenger's right-hand "man" that the occupants of the green coupe were the hunters, and the plump little man was the quarry.
The long-faced man stepped back into the green coupe and it backed out of the parking space. Its powerful eight-cylinder motor rumbled throatily as the driver accelerated, and the coupe flashed down the road toward Miami.
With the characteristic thoroughness which The Avenger had instilled into all those who worked with him, Nellie Gray made a mental note of the license number of that green coupe—it was an Illinois plate, number TQ323. She filed that number in the back of her mind and glanced at the bus window. The plump little man was once more in evidence. He no longer had the newspaper in front of his face. He was lighting a cigarette, and Nellie thought she detected a flicker of a smile upon his lips—though she couldn't tell for sure at this distance.
The bus driver blew his whistle and called out, "All aboard." The passengers trooped back, eager to start on the last lap of the long ride. There were several vacant seats, but Nellie passed them up. Prompted by some curious motive which she could not herself analyze, she resumed the same seat, slipping past the plump little man.
He seemed to feel much better now and immediately engaged her in conversation. "Going to meet your parents in Miami?" he asked.
Nellie Gray repressed a giggle. Clad in a white blouse and a pair of navy-blue slacks, she looked as simple and unassuming as a freshly graduated high-school girl. Her traveling companion probably took her for a kid of seventeen or eighteen.
"Oh, I've traveled by myself for quite a while," she said airily. She wondered what he would have said if he learned that she was a veteran member of Justice, Inc.—that efficient fighting organization headed by The Avenger, and devoted to championing the rights of the little man against the overlords of crime in every corner of the globe. The fact was that Nellie Gray had traveled to many parts of the world which the plump man had never even heard of. But he went on, blissfully unaware of the identity of the girl at his side.
"Are you going to get a job in Miami? It must be easy to get a job these days, what with all the defense work. What do you do for a living? Waitress? Manicurist?"
Nellie lowered her eyes. "Well, I guess I could wait on tables—"
"Look here, miss," he said suddenly. "Maybe I have a job for you. What's your name?"
"Elsie Jones," Nellie lied.
"Well, look here, Elsie." He lowered his voice. "I'm a lawyer. Joplin is the name. Frederick Joplin. I'm going to Miami to handle an important case for a client of mine. See this briefcase? It's crammed with evidence. Evidence that will win the case for my client!"
Nellie kept her hands in her lap and let her long lashes cover her eyes. She waited for him to continue.
"Now the trouble is that my client's enemies may try to destroy this evidence. They may try to take it away from me."
Nellie opened her eyes wide. "You don't say! Do you mean they might try to do it by force?"
"Exactly!" He leaned closer to her, dropping his voice even lower. "Now see here. I can put you in the way of making a little money. Say two hundred dollars. How does that sound to you?"
"Why, that...that's wonderful, Mr. Joplin!"
He beamed at her. "Ah! That's fine. Now here—" He produced a roll of bills from his pocket and peeled off ten tens. "Here's a hundred dollars in advance. Take it!" He practically forced the money into her hand.
"But...but what do I have to do to earn this, Mr. Joplin?"
"I'll tell you." He took the briefcase off his knees and laid it on her lap. "I want you to take charge of this evidence. When the bus stops at Daytona, I'm getting off. I have a bit of business in Daytona—one more bit of evidence to get. It'll take me an hour or two, but unfortunately the bus won't wait."
"I see," Nellie said demurely, fingering the money in one hand and touching the smooth leather of the briefcase with the other. It was not a large briefcase—just comfortable enough to carry under one arm. But it was rather heavy. And there was a small lock which kept the brass snapper shut.
"It's locked, naturally," said Mr. Joplin. "Now listen carefully, Elsie. I want you to remain on the bus when I leave you at Daytona. You go on to Miami. There, you will go to the Sunset Hotel and register. Go up to your room and wait until you hear from me. I'll be there later in the day. When I pick up the briefcase I'll give you the other hundred dollars. Is that clear?"
"Yes," said Nellie. "It's clear."
If anyone had asked her she wouldn't have been able to say just why she was doing this. She certainly wasn't doing it to help the self-styled "Mr. Joplin" out of a jam, because he was lying from the word go. Nellie, herself, was on a vacation, and The Avenger had made her promise not to stick her pretty little nose into anything that didn't concern her while she was resting in Florida. But she'd never have been happy if she hadn't tried to solve this puzzle of why Mr. Joplin was being hunted by the long-faced man in the green convertible.
"Then everything is settled," Mr. Joplin was saying heartily. "It's all arranged!" He patted her arm. "Don't forget now—the Sunset Hotel!"
"But Mr. Joplin, you don't know anything about me. How can you trust me with all this evidence—"
He laughed that off with a wave of his hand. "My dear, I'm an excellent judge of human nature. I would trust you with my life! Now listen carefully, Elsie. If anyone should approach you and ask if you know me; if they should describe me—"
Nellie smiled. "I'd tell them nothing."
"Excellent, my dear girl, excellent! I see you are wise beyond your years. Perhaps I can give you a permanent job later. Do this piece of work well, and perhaps I'll make you my secretary!"
"Wouldn't that be wonderful, Mr. Joplin!" Nellie murmured, veiling her eyes.
When the bus pulled in to Daytona Beach the driver announced a ten-minute stop-over. Everybody descended. Some of the passengers trooped into the Coffee Pot next door, while others strolled across to the beach. Mr. Joplin beamed at Nellie as he helped her down from the bus. He took her arm and led her out of the bus terminal to the street.
"I'll leave you now, my dear—"
Suddenly he stopped short, sucking his breath in with an audible sound.
Nellie glanced in the direction in which he was staring, and saw the familiar green convertible, parked about fifty feet away.
"Excuse me," Mr. Joplin said hastily. "I think I'll go out the back way. It's nearer to where I have to go. Good-by, my dear. And remember—the Sunset Hotel!"
That furtive, frightened look was back in his eyes as he let go of her arm and hastily retreated toward the rear of the bus terminal.
Nellie watched him, saw him go out through a door at the rear and disappear into the alley behind the terminal.
Nellie turned and looked down the street. The green convertible was still there. But the long-faced man in the tan sport coat was nowhere in evidence. Neither was the driver of that car.
Nellie held the briefcase tight under her arm and went into the Coffee Pot. She barely had time for a cup of tea before the driver announced that it was time to leave. When the bus pulled out the green convertible was gone. And Nellie Gray was alone in her seat. Mr. Joplin had not returned.
IT was evening by the time the bus reached the Flagler Street Terminal in Miami. Nellie had reservations in the swanky Coronado Hotel, but she went to the Sunset instead. She was intensely eager to delve into the mystery of Mr. Joplin and his briefcase. She registered at the Sunset Hotel as Elsie Jones and got Room 301, which was a corner room. As part of the service, the bellboy left a copy of the local evening paper with her, and Nellie idly glanced at the headlines. Suddenly she stiffened. She read:
MAN MURDERED AT DAYTONA
An unknown man was found, stabbed to death, in an alley behind the Fleetwood Bus terminal at Daytona Beach. Police state that the object of the murder was doubtless robbery, for the victim had been searched with special thoroughness, even to the extent of ripping the lining of his coat. The killers removed everything they found on the victim's body, even to his keys. There was nothing left by which to identify him immediately. The dead man was recognized by terminal employees as a passenger on the Miami bus, which had stopped at Daytona for ten minutes—
Slowly, Nellie Gray put the paper down. She glanced at the briefcase which lay on the desk. Its owner was dead. She was sure that the killer was the man in the tan sport coat. But that killer hadn't gotten what he sought. The thing for which Mr. Joplin had been murdered was lying here on the desk.
Grimly, Nellie went to her bag and took out a small set of keys. The lock on the briefcase was a simple one and it yielded to her typewriter-case key. She raised the flap and began to draw out the contents. And her blood began to race swiftly as she saw what the briefcase contained. Mr. Joplin's "evidence" was queer indeed.
There were half a dozen plushlined boxes in the briefcase. The first box contained a jeweled horseshoe about six inches long. At conservative estimate it could not be worth less than a quarter of a million dollars. It was made of platinum and it was studded with diamonds—large diamonds, brilliant and blue-white, and all matched in size from two carats at the ends, to a huge ten-carat stone at the apex of the arch. The thing glittered in her hand like something alive and dynamic!
Nellie put it down and opened the next box. Upon the plush cushion in that box there rested a diadem of diamonds which was breathtakingly beautiful. The stones sparkled and shone in the electric light with almost unholy beauty. She opened the other boxes and as the untold wealth of their contents was exposed, Nellie Gray began to understand that this must be some royal or imperial collection, pilfered from some royal vaults. For the value in dollars of these jewels was beyond estimate.
Mr. Joplin must have been desperate indeed to have intrusted this treasure to a girl he had never seen before. Desperate? Or clever, perhaps? But not quite clever enough. For now he was dead. But if his enemies knew where this treasure was—
Suddenly, on an impulse, Nellie stepped over to the window. She turned one of the slats of the Venetian blind so that she could look out into the street. And, immediately, her blood began to race. For there, on the opposite side of the street, stood the green convertible!
That man in the tan sport coat had traced her here! How he had done it she couldn't understand. Even as she watched through the blind she saw the now-familiar tan sport coat. The man was crossing the street toward the car. He was apparently coming from the hotel. He must have been downstairs at the desk, inquiring about her.
Nellie saw him lean in at the window and talk to the driver of the car. The convertible immediately pulled away, and the long-faced man remained at the curb. He lit a cigarette and stood there, watching the hotel.
Nellie stepped away from the window. She switched on the radio, tuned it to a local Miami station, and then went over to the desk and looked down at the fabulous fortune in jewels which lay spread before her. There was enough wealth here to tempt anyone to commit murder. She was sure that the man who had called himself Joplin had not been the rightful owner. It should not be difficult to ascertain who owned them. It must indeed be a famous collection.
Nellie made her decision swiftly. She had gone far enough in this matter on her own. Her duty was clear. She must phone the police and turn these jewels over to them. At the same time she must tell them of the man in the tan sport coat. They could pick him up and they'd have their murderer, and at the same time a solution of the entire case. That course of action, she felt, was what The Avenger would have taken. This was no case for Justice, Inc. Here was not involved any matter of injustice to some unfortunate who could not fight back against the overwhelming power of the overlords of the underworld. It was a matter of murder and theft, purely a police-routine case.
That was the way she saw it at the moment. She reached for the telephone, and already had the receiver off the hook when she stopped abruptly. A news announcer had cut in on the radio program:
"In connection with the murder of the unknown bus passenger at Daytona Beach, the police have narrowed down their search to one suspect, whom they expect to apprehend within the next hour. It has been established that the murdered man was accompanied by an auburn-haired girl dressed in a white blouse and navy-blue slacks. She was seen in his company at the Terminal and the victim was found stabbed to death immediately after the bus left Daytona. Furthermore, the auburn-haired girl was seen to be carrying a black leather briefcase which had belonged to the victim. With utter callousness, this auburn-haired girl rode the bus into Miami, carrying the briefcase, and left the Miami Terminal with the other passengers. Police have her fingerprints taken from the seat she occupied in the bus, and they are conducting a fine-tooth comb search of all Miami hotels and of all busses and trains leaving the city. She cannot hope to escape..."
Nellie gulped hard and put the receiver down. If the police found her here, with these treasures in her possession, she'd have a hard time clearing herself of the murder charge. She could just imagine a district attorney laughing with hard incredulity at her story that the plump Mr. Joplin had given her a briefcase worth an emperor's ransom—and had trusted her to deliver it to him at the Sunset Hotel.
Acting swiftly she swept the Jewels back into the briefcase. She had only a small overnight bag with her, for her trunk was coming by express and would arrive tomorrow at the Coronado Hotel. She stuffed the briefcase into the overnight bag and went to the window for a last look before departing.
She peered out into the street and her heart sank. The green convertible was just returning. Four men emerged. Long-face spoke to them swiftly for a moment, indicating the hotel with a nod of his head. Immediately, two of them disappeared around the corner and two crossed over toward the hotel entrance.
And even as she watched a second car drew up behind the green convertible. This was a black limousine. More men emerged from it and she saw the man in the tan sport coat giving them swift orders, then saw them cross toward the hotel.
Her eyes flickered. The sober truth was that she was trapped here in the Sunset Hotel; trapped until the man in the tan sport coat decided to launch his attack—or until the police came.
Swiftly, she picked up the overnight bag. Then she opened her door and darted out into the corridor. Far down the hall she spied a broom closet. She ran to it, pulled the door open, and peered inside. There were several pails in there, a couple of mops, and a laundry hamper. She opened the hamper, lifted out a pile of the soiled linen and pushed the overnight bag into it. Then she piled the linen on top of it. She closed the door of the broom closet and sped back to her room. Just as she reached it she heard the elevator cage stop at her floor, saw the door begin to slide open. Without waiting to see who was coming up, she stepped into her room and closed the door. She heard the elevator door clang shut, but could not hear any footsteps on the carpeted floor out there.
With a sinking sensation at her heart she went back to the telephone. There was only one thing to do—a thing she hated to be reduced to: she had to call The Avenger for help. Dick Benson—The Avenger—would of course drop everything and fly down here. So would Smitty—Algernon Heathcote Smith—who called himself The Avenger's left-hand man, and who could go berserk at the mere hint of anyone's harming a hair of Nellie's head. But Nellie squirmed at the thought of the big razzberry Smitty would give her when it was all over. She would just imagine his great, hearty, booming laughter. "Hereafter, we'll have to send a nursemaid along with you, half-pint!" he'd chuckle. And then he'd probably add: "Can't trust you out alone till you grow up!"
Nellie shuddered. It would be humiliating. But it couldn't be helped. She had to make the call. She lifted the receiver.
And it was only then that she realized the full extent of the trap in which she was snared. For there was no reply from the switchboard.
The line was dead.
She had been mistaken in thinking that the enemy only intended to watch her. She had misjudged the man in the tan sport coat. And she realized that she should have known better. With a huge fortune in jewels at stake, this enemy would not be content to await developments. He would strike and strike quickly. His men must have taken over the switchboard downstairs. She had committed the unpardonable blunder of underestimating her enemy—and the penalty might be swift death. She was cut off now from all aid. She was alone and on her own.
Slowly, she put down the receiver. With her senses keyed up to acute pitch by the imminence of danger, she heard the faint scraping sound as a key was cautiously inserted into the lock of the old-fashioned door. Someone on the outside was using a pass key.
She sprang to the door, reached it just as the key was turning in the lock, and her fingers found the catch. She twisted it fiercely, double-locking the door just in the nick of time. The turning key on the other side caught as the double-locked tumblers snapped. The man in the corridor must have realized at once had happened, for she heard the key being withdrawn. Then a voice spoke, close to the door: "Better open up quietly! You haven't got a chance!"
Nellie's answer was to flick off the electric-light switch, plunging the room in darkness. An oblong panel of light shafted in through the transom above, from the hall. Her face was set, her lips clamped tight as she realized that the enemy could reach her through that transom.
Deliberately, she took the pistol out of the waistband of her slacks. She stood to one side of the door.
"Who are you?" she asked. "What do you want?"
"Never mind who we are. You know what we want. Are you going to open up?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Then we're coming in."
"Better not. I warn you, I'm armed."
"We're ten to one. Whoever you are, you must be clever enough to understand that we mean business. Your only chance is to hand over that stuff. Pass it out through the transom and we'll go away."
Nellie laughed. "First you tell me I'm clever, then you take me for a fool."
There was a moment's silence, then the same voice. "All right, you know the score. We can't let you live. It's too bad. I understand you're a good-looking girl. It's too bad you have to die."
"Before you start," Nellie said calmly, "don't forget that there'll be something of a fight. There'll be shooting. Every guest in the hotel will hear it—"
The man outside chuckled. "We've taken over the hotel. The management and the guests think we're F.B.I. agents. They're co-operating with us!"
"I see," Nellie said quietly. "Well, I have one more ace up my sleeve. Would you care to hear it before you start your attack?"
"Certainly. We can spare you another minute."
"All right. The stuff you're looking for—"
"It's not here!"
"Ah!" There was another moment of silence. Then, "You've cached the stuff somewhere?"
"I don't believe you, miss. You came directly here from the bus terminal. We know because we checked with your cab driver. You didn't stop anywhere."
"You can believe me or not, as you choose," Nellie said. "But if I'm killed when you attack, and you don't find the stuff here, I imagine you'll feel pretty bad."
"Indeed, yes. Hm-m-m. I wonder if you're bluffing. The chances are that you are bluffing. But I can't afford to gamble. We shall have to take you alive."
"That may be a little difficult, don't you think?"
"Difficult? Yes. But not impossible. I shall have to send for some additional equipment." His voice took on a queer, sardonic edge. "Please wait till I return. Don't go away!"
Tensely, Nellie listened at the door. She heard the murmur of voices, then that same voice, raised a bit louder. "Sturm and Corbey, you will remain here. If she attempts to break out, shoot to disable her, but not to kill. Do you understand?"
She heard grunts of acknowledgment and then, a moment later, the clang of the elevator door as the man who had spoken to her departed. In the dark, she moved over to the window. She waited, and then saw the man in the tan sport coat crossing the street toward the convertible. It was he, then, with whom she had fenced verbally. She watched while he talked for a moment with the driver. Then the convertible drove off, leaving him at the curb.
She stood at the window and watched the street, waiting. After twenty minutes the green convertible reappeared. Two men came over to assist the one in the tan sport jacket. The chauffeur handed each of them several small, round black objects which they put quickly into their pockets. Then they all crossed the street toward the hotel.
NELLIE GRAY knew now that she was beaten. Those small round objects were tear-gas bombs.
But she wasn't going to remain on the defensive, to let herself be smoked out of here like a hunted animal. She hurriedly moved toward the dresser. By dint of pushing and pulling at it she finally managed to jockey it over to the door. Just as she got it in place she heard the elevator door opening, then the voice of the man in the tan jacket.
"All right, let's not waste any more time. Lob one in!"
Nellie scrambled up on the dresser and got a clear view of the corridor. She saw two of the men, each with a tear-gas bomb, their arms raised to hurl.
Nellie's face was tense and set. She smashed out the pane and thrust the pistol's snout out. She pulled the trigger twice, swiftly, and both of those men went down as the little weapon barked spitefully. She hadn't had time to aim with too much care, but she got one of those men just over the heart, and the other in the shoulder. The tear-gas bombs rolled away down the corridor and exploded, one after the other. A dense cloud of acrid smoke rose from them.
The wounded man screamed out, "Get me out of here, Haggard! It's choking me—"
And the voice of the man in the tan jacket cut sharply into that cry for help: "Shut up, you fool, I told you never to use that name!"
Standing on the dresser with her face back from the transom, Nellie Gray felt a sudden wild thrill course through her body. Haggard! She should have known it before! Only Royce Haggard could be so ruthless, so deadly swift in action. It was barely four months since Royce Haggard had brought off the most daring jail break in the history of the country. Together with nine other lifers, he had made a clean getaway from a Midwest penitentiary. They had shot their way across the country into hiding, leaving a pitiful trail of corpses behind. Huge rewards were posted. But the Haggard gang had seemed to disappear from the face of the earth. Here, then, was where they had turned up. But Nellie had seen pictures of Haggard. His face must have been changed by plastic surgery. That was why his expression was so wooden, so fish-like.
The acrid smoke spread in the corridor and some of it seeped in through the transom. Nellie's eyes began to smart. She stepped down from the dresser, pulled a blanket off the bed and climbed up again. She began to stuff it into the opening. She heard sounds of commotion in the corridor as guests came out of their rooms and Haggard's suave voice as he reassured them: "It's all right, folks, we're Federal agents. We have a dangerous criminal trapped in there. Get back in your rooms and lock your door and you'll be safe—"
Nellie yanked the blanket away from the transom and put her face close to the jagged hole in the glass. She kept it there in spite of the stinging gas and raised her voice as loud as possible: "He lies! They're not Federal agents. That's the Haggard gang! Call the police!"
But even as she shouted that warning she knew it was useless. Haggard's men controlled the switchboard. They'd not allow anyone to leave, or to phone till they had accomplished their purpose.
She drew her head in and just at that moment a third tear-gas bomb came lobbing up through the transom. It shattered the rest of the glass in the frame, struck the edge of the dresser on the way down, and exploded. Immediately, Nellie was engulfed in a cloud of pungent, choking gas. Her eyes began to burn and smart and fill with tears.
She closed them, held her breath, and jumped down off the dresser. Blindly she pawed her way to the bathroom, and pulled the door shut behind her, locking it. But the gas was already in there, and she got only a little relief.
She felt her way to the window and thrust her head out, but her eyes were so inflamed that the relief was negligible. Behind her she heard a shattering crash as someone hurled himself against the door. They had broken in! Blindly, she fired at the sound, but she knew she had missed when she saw a huge, weird shape loom up in front of her. It was Haggard, and his face was covered by a gas mask. She thrust the pistol at him, her finger on the trigger, but her hand was struck down viciously, and the gun exploded into the floor. Then something struck her on the side of the head and she fell forward, semi-conscious. Her hands were twisted behind her back, and a pair of handcuffs was snapped on. In her ear was the voice of Haggard, muffled by his gas mask: "Where is that stuff?"
Nellie laughed, almost hysterically. "Kill me, Royce Haggard! Why don't you kill me?"
"Not yet, you'll talk first."
"Never! I'll never talk!"
"Never is a long time. Maybe too long for you!"
She felt herself lifted helplessly across his shoulder, like a sack of flour, and carried through the smoke. She must have lost consciousness for a few moments, because the next thing she knew, a gust of cold, clean air revived her, and she was being carried across the street to the green convertible. Half a dozen men with machine guns were posted around to guard against the arrival of the police. Haggard was leaving nothing to chance. The stakes were high and these men were desperate and resourceful criminals.
Nellie opened her mouth to shout, but a brutal hand thrust a wadded handkerchief between her teeth, effectively gagging her. She was roughly dumped on to the floor of the convertible and it was moving smoothly away, with Royce and another man sitting in the seat above her.
As they cleared the outskirts of the city Nellie writhed with helpless rage. Haggard stooped down and made sure the gag was tight in her mouth, so that she could not make a last appeal for help. And then they were out on the Tamiami Trail accelerating to a swift pace, racing away from Miami.
After a while Haggard took the handkerchief away from her mouth, sat up and lit a cigarette. He looked down at her, allowing the smoke to trickle from his nostrils.
"Well, miss," he said suavely, "are you thinking of talking? It might be better for you. We're going to have a long time to spend in coaxing you."
He bent down deliberately and placed the glowing tip of his cigarette against Nellie's forearm. With his free hand he gripped her handcuffed wrist so that she could not twist away.
The excruciating agony of that fiery burn was almost unbearable. But Nellie clamped her teeth hard and held herself rigid.
Haggard grunted and removed the cigarette tip from her arm. Nellie felt herself about to faint as the agony coursed through her body, but she fought it off. Haggard looked down at her and said softly, "You're very brave, my dear girl. But it won't help. Just think—will you be able to stand a continuous treatment like that? For hours on end? Perhaps for days? Believe me, you'll beg to tell me where the Zaharoff jewels are hidden. If you're wise you'll save yourself a good deal of torture and speak now."
Nellie's eyes opened wide. The Zaharoff jewels! She forgot the fiery agony which was almost numbing her arm. Of course! The Zaharoff jewels! It was Cornelius Zaharoff who had established a private empire fifty years ago on one of the islands of the East Indies. Trading in copra and rubber, he had amassed a gigantic fortune which he transmuted into costly jewels for the Armenian wife he had brought with him to share his empire. He had called her the queen of the island and bedecked her with jewels. For two generations the Zaharoffs had ruled their island with an iron hand, until the war had brought the swarming Japanese barbarians. Zaharoff's son had fled with the fortune in jewels, had brought them to the United States, only to have them stolen in a ruthless holdup by the Haggard gang. Haggard had locked the entire family, including their retainers, in the refrigerator to die. Haggard had been caught subsequently, but there had been no survivors of that crime who could identify him. Young Zaharoff had been away at the time. So Haggard had gotten a life sentence for another crime, and no one had ever been sure that it had been the Haggard gang which had perpetrated the Zaharoff atrocity.
Now here was the proof. But Nellie thought bitterly as she lay on the floor of the racing car that she, too, would never live to identify Royce Haggard.
The car swung off the highway and bumped along what must have been a dirt road, then came to a stop. Nellie was lifted out and carried over someone's shoulder into a shack of some sort and dumped on the floor in an inner room. A few minutes later Haggard entered with two men. At a curt order from him, Nellie was roughly lifted and seated in a rickety chair with her arms forced backward over the top, still handcuffed so that she could not move an inch.
Haggard stood over her, puffing a cigarette to glowing life. His eyes were small, veiled, fish-like; his face woodenly expressionless. He got the cigarette glowing and held it before her face. "Your eyes, my dear," he said softly. "They're beautiful eyes. I shall take the left one first." He moved the glowing end closer. "You'll naturally close your eye as the cigarette approaches, my dear. Consequently, it will burn through the eyelid."
Staring up at him, Nellie knew that this was the end. She knew that this man meant exactly what he said. He was going to do the thing that he threatened. He wasn't bluffing. There was nothing to stop him, not even a bit of human feeling. He wanted the Zaharoff treasure and he was going to get it.
Nellie could almost feel the searing agony that would come in a moment when the cigarette end touched her lid. Her eyes were still inflamed by the tear gas. But that had been nothing to this. She felt her knees trembling. She strained every muscle of her lithe body to break free—without avail. She stared in fascination at that glowing tip of fire inching closer with the expressionless face of Royce Haggard behind it.
"We waited five years in jail for this chance," Haggard was saying softly. "We had the Zaharoff treasure cached away and we planned carefully so as not to muff the prison break. We sent Procter—that's your plump friend on the bus—to get the stuff, but he thought he could cross us and make his getaway. You know what happened to him." Haggard's face moved closer with the cigarette. "Do you think we'll let anything stand in the way now? Not even your pretty eyes, my dear!"
In a desperate, frantic effort to gain time, Nellie exclaimed, "But you'll kill me anyway—even if I tell you!"
"That's right, my dear. But at least you'll look beautiful in your coffin. And the pain. It's better to die without pain, believe me."
He moved the cigarette up so close that Nellie involuntarily blinked. She thought her eyelids were being singed.
"Wait!" she gasped.
Haggard did not move the cigarette. "I'm waiting," he said impassively.
"I checked the stuff," Nellie lied swiftly. "In the hotel safe!"
"Ah!" said Haggard. He stood up to his full height, removing the cigarette. "The hotel safe! So simple! And I never thought of it!" He chuckled and spoke to one of the two men who had remained stonily silent throughout the ordeal. "You see, Corbey, how impossible it is to foresee everything? To think of everything? We were looking for clever tricks, and this girl used the simplest one of all. The hotel safe!"
Corbey said glumly, "We can't go for it now. The cops'll be swarming all over the place. By this time the hotel people will know we aren't F.B.I."
"Naturally," said Haggard. "We'll have to wait till just before dawn. We'll take five men. That'll be plenty. There'll be no more than one policeman on guard by then. We shouldn't have any trouble at all with one policeman, eh? And the clerk will be glad to oblige us by opening the safe!"
Corbey grinned. "You bet he will! Just show him the lighted butt!"
Haggard nodded. He turned to Nellie. "Maybe you're lying. Maybe not. If you've lied about checking the stuff in the hotel safe, you've gained yourself five or six hours. You're welcome to them. But believe me, if the stuff isn't in the safe, you'll wish you hadn't talked at all!"
ON BLEEK STREET in the city of New York there is a modest building upon the front of which appears a small plaque bearing the cryptic inscription: Justice, Inc. Bleek Street is no thoroughfare. It is a dead-end street and there are no pedestrians who pass by chance. Only those enter Bleek Street who are bound for the building of Justice, Inc. And those are people in deadly need of help. For this is the headquarters of Dick Benson—The Avenger. Having himself passed through a baptism of fire, his life and his huge fortune have since been devoted to saving others from the ordeal to which he was subjected. No person who seeks his protection from the overlords of crime—in whatever part of the world it may be—is denied assistance. The organization which The Avenger has built-up is small, but compact and deadly efficient. Operating like the well-greased fighting machine that it is, it clicks on all eight once it rolls into action.
But this evening there was no action at Justice, Inc.
Benson was fiddling idly with the dials of a powerful receiving set while the huge figure of Smitty, his powerful aid, was cramped into a chair, his huge hand gripping a telephone. Upon the foreheads of both of them there was a frown of worry.
At last Smitty finished his telephone conversation and racked the phone. He stood up, towering, big and powerful, like some viking god of old, a great figure of a man, with a deep and rumbling voice.
"There's something wrong, Dick." he said. "The Fleetwood people say that the bus arrived at Miami fifty minutes ago, If Nellie had been on it she should have phoned by this time. She knows our standing rule!"
The standing rule was that whenever any one member of Justice Inc., was away from headquarters—whether on business or pleasure, he or she must keep in constant touch by phone, radio or wire. There was good and sufficient reason for that rule; Justice, Inc. had made itself many terrible enemies in the course of its constant battle against crime. And every member of the organization walked always in the shadow of death. Therefore, the precaution of constant communication. If headquarters failed to hear from a missing member on time, the others immediately swung into action.
"Did anyone leave the bus along the route?" Benson asked, still fiddling with the radio.
"The clerk didn't say," Smitty grumbled. "In fact he was damned close-mouthed. I gave him Nellie's description and I thought he was going to say something, but he changed his mind and asked for my number. Then there was trouble on the line and we were disconnected."
"I don't like it," said Benson. "Nellie must be in a jam. Phone Holloway. Tell him I want the fastest plane in the hangar. That converted Beaufort fighter will do—the one the British government sent us, when we designed the gun assembly for the wings. It'll do three hundred cruising."
Smitty nodded and got on the phone, swiftly gave instructions. "Warm it up fast," he ordered. "We'll be taking off in twenty minutes!"
Just as he hung up, Dick Benson got a hairline tuning on a Miami station. They both became tense as they heard a news announcer:
"...that the police are not sure whether the incredible battle of the Sunset Hotel is linked with the auburn-haired girl who is being sought as the murderer of the unknown man at the Daytona Beach bus terminal. There is reason to believe that the men who boldly posed as F.B.I. agents in that battle were in reality a contingent of the Royce Haggard gang. It boils down to the fact that they abducted a girl from the Sunset Hotel—a girl who may or may not be the one wanted for murder."
With a muttered oath, Dick Benson snapped off the radio and sprang up.
Smitty uttered an ejaculation of dismay. "She's tangled up with the Haggard crowd! And all alone! Good Lord, she hasn't a chance!"
They both sprang to a desk in a far corner of the room and each took an extra gun—a heavy .45 caliber automatic. In addition they helped themselves to several other accessories which had been developed in The Avenger's laboratories for the specific purpose of fighting fire with fire.
"Let's go!" Dick Benson said. "And God grant that we aren't too late!"
As they hurried down the back way to their secret garage, Smitty groaned. "It'll take us almost five hours to make Miami. If she's in Haggard's hands she won't live that long—unless she's got an ace up her sleeve!"
It was exactly four hours and seven minutes later that Dick Benson put the Beaufort down on the airfield just outside Miami. He had pushed the ship as she had never been pushed before—even by test pilots. She was whining in every strut and for the last hundred miles they had thought that the port wing would tear itself off. But the ship held together by a miracle and they hopped out of it and raced to the waiting car for which they had radioed. Sixteen minutes later they were outside the Sunset Hotel. Over the radio, while flying south, they had caught further news reports, and they now had most of the story pieced together. Benson had decided to start from the Sunset Hotel on the theory that it was Nellie who had been kidnaped by the men posing as Federal agents. They left their hired car a block away and walked past the Sunset Hotel on the opposite side of the street. It was almost four a.m. and the city was as quiet as a tomb, with the heat hanging heavy in the air. The semitropical dawn would break in a short while but now the moon was overcast and the night was dark.
It was just as they were almost abreast of the hotel that Benson suddenly seized Smitty's arm and dragged him in under the shelter of an overhanging balcony. He was not a moment too soon, for a black limousine which had swung into the street with dimmed-out lights stopped at the entrance of the hotel. Three men emerged and a uniformed patrolman who was evidently on guard, came forward to meet them, half drawing a revolver from his holster. But he had no chance to get it all the way out for there was a spurt of flame from a silenced gun in the car and the policeman went down, dead before he hit the sidewalk. Then three more men came out of the car. One of them dragged the policeman's body over against the wall where it would be out of the way. Then all six entered the hotel, leaving one man at the wheel.
Smitty's face became flushed. "Damn them! That must be the Haggard gang. That's the way they operate—cold-blooded fish. Come on, Dick, let's take them—"
But Benson put a hand on his arm.
"Not so fast, Smitty. Follow me!" Smitty followed him, both men edging carefully back, hugging the shadow of the overhanging balcony, till they turned the corner. Benson climbed into their car and Smitty crowded in beside him.
"If this outfit has Nellie," Benson explained swiftly, "it'll do her no good for us to tackle them here!"
Smitty's eyes glittered, He nodded. "You're right, Dick!"
He put his big hands on the wheel, tooled it around in a complete turn and switched the lights off. He pulled up just far enough so that they could see the front of the hotel. They had only a few minutes to wait before the six men emerged from the hotel. In the clear night air their voices carried, sharp and distinct.
"She lied, Corbey," said a suave voice. "The stuff isn't in the safe!"
"She'll be damned, all right! Wait till we get back!"
The men piled into the limousine and it pulled away.
Smitty eased the car around the corner, still without lights, and fell in behind, keeping about a hundred yards in the rear.
"This," he said viciously to Dick Benson, "is going to be a party!"
Benson said nothing. He only sat grimly, staring after the car they were following.
Nellie's position was extremely uncomfortable. Her arms were still handcuffed around the back of the chair and she was unable to move to any extent. And the cigarette burn on her forearm hurt excruciatingly. In the other room she heard two or three of the men moving about, waiting for the return of the rest. She estimated that forty minutes had passed before she heard the car outside, and then the voices of the returning killers. She steeled herself for the ordeal that was to come. There would be no more delay now. They would stop at nothing now to drag the truth from her. And she knew enough about Haggard to understand that he would not cease the torture when she finally talked. He would want to make sure she was telling the truth this time.
But her head was high when the door opened and Haggard walked in, followed by Corbey and Sturm. He said not a word. He only stood in front of her and deliberately took a cigarette from his pocket. Just as deliberately he lit it and puffed it into a vicious glow. Then he reached out and seized her hair in one hand and thrust the cigarette at her eyes.
But the glowing end of the cigarette never reached its goal, for, suddenly, the lights blinked out and the room was plunged into total darkness. Only the cigarette glowed in the black void.
Someone cursed and Haggard raised his voice, calling to the men in the outer room. "Gurko! Put a fuse in—"
But someone called to him. "It ain't the fuse. Haggard. Someone snipped the power line outside—"
A window smashed somewhere in the room and a powerful searchlight played on the occupants, rested a split second on Nellie, then swung to cover Haggard and the other two. Almost as if the beam of light were a signal, a heavy automatic began to bark, following the searchlight around the room from one man to another. The gun barked only three times, each shot a bull's-eye. Haggard went down with a bullet in his lung, the other two with slugs in their stomachs.
Nellie's eyes lighted with relief and a sudden surge of hope. "Dick!" she shouted. "The Avenger!"
From the other room came a frightened shout: "The Avenger!"
It was drowned by the thunderous roar of another gun out there. Meanwhile, Dick Benson leaped in through the window and helped Nellie up from the chair.
"Thank God!" he said fervently.
The shooting was still going on in the next room, but, by the time Benson reached the door it had stopped. He shouted, "O.K., Smitty," and yanked the door open. His flashlight beam crossed Smitty, illuminating the shambles which the room had become. In the door the huge, powerful figure of Algernon Heathcote Smith stood, like an avenging god out of the Norse tales, a smoking gun in his hand. And on the floor was the evidence of his shooting.
"What about Nellie?" he demanded.
"Safe!" said Benson.
He swung around and Nellie nodded toward the figure of Haggard, lying on his back, with blood frothing at his mouth. "That's Royce Haggard," she said. "He has the key to these handcuffs."
Benson knelt beside him, went through his pockets and found the key. Swiftly he released Nellie Gray, and Smitty came over and patted her on the shoulder, speechless with relief at seeing her alive and unharmed.
Haggard was dying fast. He spat blood and tried to speak. "Before I die...tell me...where you hid...the Zaharoff treasure!"
Nellie knelt beside him. She felt no resentment now, only a coldness. "In the clothes hamper in the broom closet," she told him. "It was the simplest place I could find."
Royce Haggard groaned. "It was...too damned simple. I'm always...looking for clever...tricks...that's what...tripped me—"
And he died.
Smitty turned and took Nellie by the shoulder and shook her. He had recovered some of his poise. "Good Lord, Nellie," he chided, "when will you learn how to take care of yourself? We can't let you go out alone any more till you grow up—"
But Nellie silenced him very effectively. She stood up on tiptoe, stretched as far as possible and kissed him.
"That's how glad I am to see you. Smitty!" she said.
SMITTY was away in Washington when the phone call came in at Justice, Inc., and the other members of The Avenger's staff were dispersed over the four parts of the world, so that only Benson himself and Nellie Gray were on hand. The voice over the phone was that of a child. Benson, as he answered the call, estimated that she was barely more than nine or ten. She talked with a Scandinavian accent in which was mingled the training of a good English private school.
"Are you Mr. Benson, sir, please?" she asked anxiously. She seemed to be hurried and perhaps frightened.
"Yes, my child," Richard Benson replied in a kindly voice.
"You are the one they call The Avenger, sir?"
There was a tinge of sudden relief in that lost, childish voice. "Then everything is all right. Mamma was worried and afraid that I wouldn't be able to get you. She was afraid I might not be able to use the American telephone. Please, Mr. Avenger, will you help my mamma and me?"
"Then you must go at once to the Suydenville Hotel. Mamma is afraid they will kill her—and me, too. Please say that you are Mr. Foster, and ask for a message at the desk. Mamma has gone out, but she dares not ring you up herself for fear that she is followed. I must ring up now because those men are coming back. I hear them in the hall." The child's voice became more hurried. "Good-by now, and may God bless you for helping us!"
There was a click and the line went dead.
Richard Benson hung up with a frown, and looked at Nellie Gray, Nellie was shutting off the automatic recorder, which she had turned on at a signal from him. It had recorded the conversation, a thing that was always done at Justice, Inc., whenever a call came in that was out of the routine.
"What do you think of it, Nellie?" Benson asked.
Nellie Gray, slight, diminutive, was as efficient and as daring as any of the male assistants of The Avenger. "It might be a trap, of course, Dick!" she said thoughtfully. "Your enemies are not above using a child to bait a death trap for you."
Benson shrugged and arose. He put on his hat and coat.
Watching him. Nellie smiled. "You'll go, of course?"
"Naturally. I hardly think that child could have been coached to put on such a performance over the phone."
"Be sure to call in regularly. Dick," she said.
He nodded and went out.
Ten minutes later a taxi deposited him at the Suydenville Hotel, in the East Fifties, not far from the Queensboro Bridge. It was a neat little place, but rather old, and was patronized now almost exclusively by a clientele of refugees from the Scandinavian countries.
Benson entered and looked around swiftly. There were two or three groups of people sitting around in the lobby, all talking earnestly, doubtless about the war situation. No one seemed to pay him any particular attention as he crossed to the desk, The clerk looked up and nodded, and Benson said, "Excuse me, has anyone left a message for Mr. Foster?"
"Foster?" repeated the clerk. "I'm sorry, sir, but no message has been left for you."
Benson frowned. He thanked the clerk and turned away. One of the phones in the booths at the other side of the lobby was ringing and a bellboy answered it. The boy emerged from the booth and called out, "Phone call for a Mr. Foster!"
"Right here," said Benson. He gave the boy a coin and entered the phone booth closing the door behind him. He picked up the receiver. "You are calling Mr. Foster?" he asked.
It was a woman's voice at the other end, muffled and low, and tinged with a note of hysteria. "Thank God! I was afraid you wouldn't come. I was afraid Hilda might not be able to get you!"
"You are Hilda's mother?" Benson asked.
"Yes, yes. Please—every second is precious. Just to make sure you are the right man, will you tell me your real name?"
"I am Richard Benson."
"You must help me. Mr. Benson! You must help me to save Hilda! For myself I do not care. They are following me, but I had to phone now, or it would have been too late. Listen carefully. At exactly nine thirty, one of their men is to be at the foot of Edge Street, along the Marabout Creek. From there he will be guided by a flickering flashlight. But I have arranged it so that their man will not keep the appointment. You must be there instead. It is the only way. But go armed and be ever watchful for a knife in the back, for they will betray each other without compunction—"
"Hold on just a minute," Benson said. "Will you please tell me what you're talking about? Why should I go to the foot of Edge Street?"
"Didn't Hilda tell you?"
"No. She only asked me to come here to the Suydenville Hotel."
"Then she must have been interrupted. O merciful Lord, I hope they haven't harmed her—"
"Look here, madam. Whoever you are, if your daughter is in danger I think you'd better call the police!"
There was a gasp of sheer terror at the other end. "I ask you, in the name of everything you hold dear, not to bring the police into this. You are The Avenger, the man who helps those who are in terrible trouble, who have no more hope and no chance. If that is so, then I ask you to help me now, and never breathe a word of this to the police!"
"I'm sorry, madam. You're asking too much."
"Then...then you won't help?"
"Not unless you explain—"
"God help me, I cannot explain now. Each minute that passes is like a drop of blood spilling from my Hilda's veins. If you will come back to the Suydenville Hotel at midnight I will explain all, I will tell you everything you wish to know. But now—"
Suddenly, her voice ended in an agonized gasp as a crash sounded through the receiver. Then there was silence for a moment.
Benson tensed, his hand tightening on the instrument. "Hello—"
He was interrupted by a click as someone carefully hung up the receiver at the other end.
Benson raised his hand to Jiggle the hook and call the police; but he refrained, recalling the woman's passionate plea for secrecy. Slowly, he replaced the receiver on the hook and stepped out of the booth.
None of the people in the lobby seemed to be any more interested in him now than they had been upon his arrival. He made his way out to the street. He found a taxicab and told the driver to across the bridge into Queens, toward Marabout Creek. It was all he could do—to carry out the woman's request.
It was thirteen minutes after nine when he left the cab a block from Edge Street and walked the rest of the way through the dimly lit, unpopulated section out here at the God-forsaken edge of Queens. He had hardly reached Edge Street before he spotted a small, flickering flashlight almost a hundred yards away, along the bank of the dank, ill-smelling Marabout Creek. He smiled grimly in the dark. Thus far the unknown woman's arrangements were working out with the accuracy of a timetable. He shrugged and set out after that moving light, toward the blind appointment that had been made for him along the dark and forbidding margin of Marabout Creek.
THERE were no residences here and no factories; only a few ancient warehouses, long ago abandoned, boarded up and crumbling with desuetude. There had been a time when the creek had been an important waterway for barges bound for the East River; but the creek had dried considerably over the years; and with the development of rail and truck traffic it was abandoned now, except for stray cats whose eyes gleamed like twin points of opal in the dark, and for fat water rats which scampered boldly almost under Benson's feet as he walked, following the flickering light that led him he knew not whither.
Suddenly, the light ceased moving.
Whoever was carrying that flashlight had stopped walking. The figure of that person—whether it was the woman who had phoned, or someone else—was utterly indistinguishable in the dark.
When that guiding light stopped, Benson stopped. It flickered three times quickly, then went out altogether. Benson waited, frowning, for some further signal; but there was none.
After a moment he moved on toward the spot where the light had disappeared. He judged that it was about two hundred paces away, and when he reached that place he stopped and looked about him in the dark.
At this point, the creek widened somewhat and the murky waters became deeper, for soon it would empty into the river. It was deep enough here to accommodate small craft; and, sure enough, Benson's eyes discerned the outline of a small cabin cruiser tied up at the crumbling embankment. He moved over to the edge and peered down at it. The boat was secured by a single hawser, made fast to a stanchion on the bank. It was tied up so close that one might step aboard without difficulty.
Benson frowned. He produced a small flashlight and allowed its beam to play for a moment along the lines of the craft. He saw now that it was no pleasure cruiser, but a ship's launch of some kind, equipped with a small cabin. Upon the bow was painted a name: S.S. Brunhilda, Copenhagen.
There was no light aboard, no sign of life or motion. It appeared to be utterly deserted. Yet this was the only place where the person carrying the flickering flashlight could have gone. There was no other shelter in the immediate vicinity.
It might be that this was a trap; that the mysterious telephone call was a cunning bit of bait calculated to lure Richard Benson to his death. There were many who hated The Avenger with a deep and abiding hatred that would grow cool only with his death; for The Avenger's name was anathema in the slimy byways of the underworld. And those who feared and hated him would be more likely to try to drive a knife into his back in the dark than to face him in open battle.
Benson smiled grimly and stepped off the bank, down onto the deck of the launch, playing the flashlight before him. He stooped at the door of the low cabin and turned the knob. It was unlocked and it came open. He sent the beam of light lancing into the interior and he sucked his breath in sharply at what he saw.
A man lay dead on the floor, in the cramped space between the two longitudinal seats. He lay on his back with his arms outstretched. He was naked to the waist. His face and his hairy torso were covered with blood, for his throat had been slit from ear to ear.
For sixty seconds Benson stood still and taut, listening for sounds in the night. But there were none. Whoever had led him here, like a will-o-the-wisp, had either gone or was hiding close by.
Benson's gaze swept over the cramped cabin. There was a closet at the forward end, a brass-bound chest opposite. Both were open, thoroughly ransacked. Papers and clothing were disarranged in evidence of hasty search. But there was no sign of the weapon which the killer had used.
The Avenger stepped into the cabin' skirting the bloody corpse. The man had been dead for about an hour, as near as he could judge without a careful examination. He must have been a seafaring man, for there was an intricately tattooed design upon his chest, done in three colors, amazingly brilliant and clear.
It showed up startlingly beneath the thick black hair. It was a picture of a submarine sinking by the stern with the bow high up out of the water. It had been done with great attention to detail, for it showed a man with a mustache and black hair parted in the middle' leaping from the conning tower into the water; and it showed the number of the submarine, lettered alongside the prow—U-777.
The features of the man were clearly distinguishable. The tattooer must have been an artist of great talent for the face of that jumping man was done with so much feeling and skill that one might have thought he was looking at the face of the devil himself. The face was gaunt, and the lips thin and merciless, and the man's features were contorted into a grimace of such sheer hatred and vicious evil as could not have been imagined to exist upon this earth.
For all his vast experience with the forces of evil and crime, Richard Benson shuddered at sight of that diabolical face, depicted in all its depravity upon the chest of the dead sailor. He could not understand why this murdered man, who lay here with his throat slit, could have allowed such a hideous scene to be depicted upon his chest. What dark and unhallowed reason had impelled him to allow the tattooer to burn indelibly upon his flesh the record of that devil's disciple leaping from the conning tower of a sinking submarine?
At the lower right-hand corner of the tattooed design, just above the dead man's breastbone, there appeared a small, almost indecipherable signature, as if the artist had been desirous of registering with posterity the record of his satanic creation. Stooping low and holding the flashlight close, Benson read that signature.
It was at that precise moment that he heard the stealthy scrape of a shoe upon the deck outside the cabin door.
SWIFTLY, Benson doused the flashlight, plunging the cabin into darkness. At the same time he shifted his position, stepping across the dead man's body to the other side.
He acted not a moment too soon, for something whirred through the cabin doorway and embedded itself in the far wall with a thud. He could not see it, of course, but he knew that it was a knife, and that it had been aimed at the spot where he had been standing. It had missed its mark only because Benson had acted with the instinctive speed of a fighting man to whom danger is a familiar neighbor.
Out in the darkness of the deck, someone uttered a short, sharp curse. Then there was silence.
Benson's automatic was in his hand now. He stood on the balls of his feet, ready to fire at the slightest sound. He knew that this was to be a duel to the death in the dark, but the unknown assassin out there had the advantage for he could wait for Benson to come through the doorway.
The Avenger put out his foot and took a step toward the door. His foot slipped in a pool of blood and he put out a hand to steady himself against the bunk. His shoe scraped the floor, and out on the deck a gun blasted three times in swift succession. The assassin had switched from knife to gun. Evidently he considered it more important to eliminate Richard Benson than to maintain silence.
Benson dropped low beside the body on the floor as the slugs smashed into the bunk close beside his head. He spotted the orange flashes of the gun. Grimly he thrust his automatic out and pulled the trigger. The deep thunder of his own gun mingled with the spiteful crack of the weapon in the assassin's hand as he fired five times, just to the right of those orange flashes. The night was split with the dreadful threnody of the blasting guns.
Three times more the other fired, and then the orange flashes ceased and the night became black. Benson couldn't tell whether he had hit his enemy or not. But he leaped up and dashed out through the doorway onto the deck. In the dark he hurtled against a heavy body. The next moment he was grappling with a powerful antagonist in a vicious, silent battle in which no quarter was given or asked.
One huge bony hand seized his right wrist in a grasp of steel, attempting to twist the automatic's muzzle upward, while a clubbed gun in the other bony hand descended upon his head. But Benson, well-versed in the lore of rough-and-tumble fighting, sensed his enemy's intention and twisted away, hard. The gun butt descended harmlessly grazing his shoulder, and the invisible assailant grunted, but held like death to his grip on Benson's gun wrist.
The Avenger drove a hard left upward and his knuckles smashed against bone, drawing another grunt. But the unknown assassin seemed to have a jaw of iron. He came in, wrapping his arms around Benson's supple figure in a crushing bear hug, at the same time twisting Benson's gun arm behind his back. The Avenger countered with a judo trick he had learned years ago in the Orient, he let his knees buckle and his body sag, arching his spine backward. The effect was to carry him back, down onto the deck, with the other on top of him. Instinctively, the enemy let go his grip to put out his hands and break the fall.
Benson hit the deck rolling, and his shoulder struck the other's arm aside. The man toppled down on top of him, and Benson, already turned around on hands and knees, caught the other's arm over his shoulder and came to his feet with a heave. He sent the man flying through the air, heels over head, and a dreadful shriek escaped from the fellow as he went catapulting far over the side of the launch into the black and murky waters alongside.
It was only then that Richard Benson became aware of the presence of another craft in the creek. It was a power boat, and it had managed to come up within ten feet without sound, only because the engine had not been used. Instead, there were four oarsmen stroking it, two on each side, while a fifth man held the tiller.
Just as Benson glimpsed the boat a powerful searchlight flashed blindingly from the boat, its beam sweeping past the face of the man at the tiller, illuminating it clearly. And Benson uttered a deep and startled gasp, for that face was the original of the face tattooed on the chest of the murdered sailor! It was the cruel face of the man pictured as jumping from submarine No. U-777!
But Benson had only a moment to realize that, for the beam of the searchlight swung across the water where the bony-handed assassin struggled, swimming laboriously.
The cruel-faced man at the tiller uttered a swift, sharp order, and the oarsmen stroked powerfully while he veered the craft toward the swimming man. With one hand he held the tiller, and with the other he threw out a line which the assassin grasped.
Immediately, the man at the tiller shouted another order; in response the oarsmen shipped their oars. One sprang to the engine and whipped the crank cord, and the motor sprang into life. Two of the oarsmen hurried to the stern and pulled in the swimming assassin, while the fourth rose up to his feet with a machine gun in his hand. He opened up with the rapid-firer, sweeping the deck where Richard Benson stood.
But Benson, at the first sight of that machine gun, had known what to do. He leaped off the deck of the launch, landing on the embankment and dropping flat on his face, just as the lethal barrage swept over him. He had lost his automatic somewhere in that fight on the deck of the launch and he had no weapon with which to reply to the fire from the power boat. He could only lie still, hugging the ground, while the hot bursts searched him out. But the power boat was fast sweeping down creek toward the river under the propulsion of its stuttering engine. In a moment it was out of range.
Whether they thought they had killed him, or whether they were anxious to leave the scene, Benson could not tell. But suddenly the machine-gun bursts ceased, and the searchlight was snuffed out. A blanket of blackness descended over the creek and the embankment. In another moment even the chugging of the engine became too faint to hear.
Benson started to get to his feet, but suddenly there was a terrific, flashing explosion, and the S.S. Brunhilda's launch seemed to disintegrate into thin air before his very eyes. A time bomb of some kind must have exploded in its entrails.
For a flashing second of time the whole of Marabout Creek seemed to be illuminated by the very fires of hell. Bits of wood and metal catapulted through the air, and fiery streams of flame licked out in all directions. What was left of the hulk of the launch began to burn with vicious intensity as the metal scraps began to rain down from the air.
Benson stood up, wiping a gash on his cheek where a jagged bit of metal had struck him. He looked with somber eyes upon the burning wreck.
The murdered body of that dead seaman would never be found now, by the police or anybody else. And the strange tattooed picture of that cruel and evil man leaping from submarine No. U-777 would never be seen by any other living eyes. The secret of the murder was consumed in its own ashes.
Benson heard a police siren in the distance and he turned and hurried away from that fiery holocaust. The flames sent an eerie glow over all of Marabout Creek, and Benson swung into a side street as quickly as he could before the police should arrive.
The mystery of that strange woman's phone call was now darker than ever. There had been a time bomb aboard that launch. Had it been meant for The Avenger? Had the whole set-up been an elaborate trap—as Nellie Gray had feared—to lure The Avenger to death? Benson could hardly bring himself to believe it. That little girl's voice had been too fresh and too innocent; and the mother had surely sounded sincerely frightened.
As Benson hurried in search of a cab he thought of that ghastly tattooed picture on the dead sailor's chest; of the cruel visage of that man, leaping from the U-777. He wondered if it could have any connection with Hilda, or Hilda's mother, or with the murder of the sailor. Or was it merely one of those weird coincidences, which must be disregarded? He made a mental note of the name signed to that gruesome work of art—Miguel Fatuma. Perhaps if he could find the artist—
A police car came tearing down the street and he hugged the wall, not wishing to be seen. After it passed he made his way again for half a dozen blocks until he reached the subway line.
But even before he got there he knew that he was being followed.
Benson was too old a hand at work like this to be mistaken about such a thing. He couldn't spot the man who was tailing him, if it was a man; but he was as sure of it as of his name.
He made no attempt to lose his shadow, but calmly entered a bar and grill and stepped into the phone booth at the rear. He dialed Liberty 1-1111, the number of Justice, Inc., and a moment later he was listening to the buzz of the phone. It rang for sixty seconds and there was no answer. Benson frowned. Nellie Gray must have gone out, leaving headquarters without coverage. Only something of the most vital importance could have induced her to do that.
But there was a way for Benson to find out. He hung up, got his nickel back, and dialed Liberty 2-2222. It was the auxiliary line at Justice, Inc., installed for just such an occasion. He let it ring five times, then clicked down the receiver, breaking the connection. Once more he inserted the nickel, dialed the number over again, and let it ring seven times. He broke the connection again, and then dialed the number a third time.
The five-seven ring was a code call which actuated an electric cell installed at Justice, Inc. This electric cell broke a circuit in the auxiliary phone, releasing a spring that raised the receiver hook, just as if a living being had answered the phone. So that when he dialed the number for the third time, instead of getting the no-answer buzz, he heard the characteristic click which takes place when a phone is answered. Then, a moment later, the voice of Nellie Gray came to him, clearly and distinctly. It was coming off a record-player which had been automatically put into operation when the receiver was raised. Before leaving headquarters, Nellie had spoken her message onto the record and left it hooked up.
As Benson held the receiver to his ear he heard Nellie's voice:
"Dick: I have just received a phone call from a person named Miguel Fatuma, of Thirteen Aberdeen Lane. He claims he has important information concerning the child, Hilda, and her mother. He was desperately urgent, and insisted that I come at once. I'll be back as soon as possible. Good luck!"
The record ceased playing and there was a click as the automatic mechanism set the receiver hook back down again.
Benson hung up in his phone booth with a sudden sense of lightening peril. The name of Miguel Fatuma struck him hard like a hammer blow. It was the name signed to that grim tattooed picture on the murdered sailor's chest. Miguel Fatuma was the one who had done the tattooing. But how had this Fatuma guessed that Hilda's mother had called upon The Avenger for assistance?
Benson glanced at his watch. It was nineteen minutes before eleven. At midnight he must be at the Suydenville Hotel in the hope that Hilda's mother would be able to contact him there. In the meantime he had planned to seek out the S.S. Brunhilda—the ship from which the launch had come. But now he had to change his plans and go to 13 Aberdeen Lane.
He glanced out through the glass panel of the booth door and saw that a man had come into the bar while he had been phoning. The man had not glanced at the phone booth, but had stepped up to the bar and ordered beer. He was a stocky man with a harsh-featured, ruddy face, and he was attired in a pea jacket and a visored cap. Upon his sleeve there was a strand of gold braid, indicating that he was a ship's captain.
Benson knew instinctively that this was the man who had followed him from Marabout Creek. He stepped out of the phone booth and moved down the length of the bar toward the front door. He passed the ship's captain at the bar, but the man did not turn around.
Benson stepped out of the warm barroom into the frigid night, he did not move away, but flattened himself against the wall and waited. It was only a moment later that the sea captain came hurrying out.
If he was surprised to see Dick Benson waiting here he did not show it. In fact he did not even seem to notice him. His harsh features did not relax as he turned up the street, moving toward Benson and looking straight ahead.
But when he had just come abreast of him the ship's captain swung, lithe as a panther, bringing his hand out of his pocket with a small, snub-nosed pistol. He thrust the pistol at Benson's stomach with his finger wrapped around the trigger.
THE AVENGER was not unprepared for such action. Aware that he walked constantly in the shadow of death he had trained himself and his assistants to be ever watchful and ready always for surprise attack. He was already side-stepping as the seafaring man whirled, and his left hand descended, steel-strong fingers clamping themselves around the man's wrist, and twisting it away with a quick, powerful motion. Then he brought the edge of his left hand down in a slicing cut upon the bone of the man's forearm, and the ship's captain grunted and let go of the pistol. It clattered on the pavement and lay there unheeding at their feet as the two men faced each other, eye to eye.
"Damn you!" the ship's captain whispered. "I should have shot you first. What have you and your rats done with Esther Wagstrom?"
Dick Benson's eyes narrowed. "Esther Wagstrom? Would she be Hilda's mother?"
"Aye, and well you know it! You and that devil you work for—that devil, von Richter!"
Dick Benson's eyes narrowed. He retained his grip on the other's wrist. "Just a minute now. What's this about von Richter?"
"As if you didn't know! You are one of von Richter's devils, who have hounded Esther Wagstrom and her little Hilda over three continents!"
Dick Benson drew a deep breath. "Now wait. If I let go of your wrist will you promise to talk quietly for a minute? There's something you and I must get straight!"
The other was impressed by Dick's tone of voice. "Aye, you have my promise. But what is the good of talk—"
Benson let go of his wrist. "Now let's start from the beginning. Would you care to tell me your name?"
The other looked disgusted. "My name? You know my name well enough. I am Captain Helmut Walsingen, in command of the freighter Brunhilda, out of Copenhagen!"
"You're docked in New York now?"
"At the Royal Danish Pier, on the East River."
"And that launch with the dead sailor—it was from your ship?"
"Certainly. But why do we waste time. You know all this. Was it not you and your fellows who murdered poor Eric Skoljes, my first mate? Did you not set off the time bomb to destroy his body so that the tattooed picture of von Richter would forever be destroyed?"
Dick Benson studied the man keenly. Then he said slowly, "If you're telling the truth, Captain Walsingen, then you and I need not fight. We're on the same side."
The other peered at him suspiciously. "On the same side? Or the same side with one who does von Richter's devil's work?"
Dick smiled. "I do not work for von Richter. My name is Benson. Richard Benson."
Captain Walsingen's eyes widened. "The Avenger?"
Walsingen looked doubtful. "Esther spoke to me of The Avenger. But I did not believe that there was such a person. It was I who found the launch with Eric's body, and when I told Esther she said that only The Avenger could help her. She said she would call upon him for aid. But I did not believe in The Avenger. I went myself. But then I saw the light which you followed to the boat, and I thought you were one of von Richter's men, coming to destroy the body."
"You saw the fight on the launch's deck?" Benson asked.
"I saw it. I was hiding in the shadow of the warehouse."
"Do you know who those people were on the power boat?"
Captain Walsingen pursed his lips, his keen eyes searching Dick Benson's features. "I did not know then. But if it is true that you are The Avenger, then those must have been von Richter's men. The one who came aboard must have planted the bomb, for I saw him carrying something bulky."
Dick Benson nodded bleakly. "And the man at the tiller was von Richter! No wonder they hurried away so fast! They were expecting that bomb to go off!"
He stooped and picked up the snub-nosed pistol. "Let's be going, captain. We have work to do tonight!" As he was raising the pistol his arm struck the wall of the building and there was a slight cracking sound. "There goes my watch crystal!" he said ruefully. He picked the bits of broken glass out of the watch, then took out his handkerchief and wiped the face. When he was through he smiled at the other. "I always resolve that I'll buy unbreakable crystals, but somehow or other I like glass better."
Walsingen shrugged the comment off. "You Americans!" he exclaimed. "You pay attention to odd, unimportant things when lives are at stake!"
Benson smiled again. "Sometimes it's the unimportant little things that make the difference between life and death, captain!" He handed over the pistol, butt first.
"Here, captain. Take it. Where we're going tonight you'll be needing this!"
Walsingen looked unbelievingly at the extended butt. "You...you trust me with this weapon—after I tried to kill you with it?"
Benson nodded. "I'm staking my life on my judgment."
The ship's captain blinked and put the pistol back in his pocket. "You must indeed be The Avenger!" he whispered.
Benson guided the captain across the street, under the elevated line, to a cab stand and pushed him into a taxi. "Thirteen Aberdeen Lane," he ordered. "And stop for a minute at No. 1 Bleek Street!"
On Bleek Street was the headquarters of Justice, Inc., and Dick could get himself another gun there. He knew that before the night was over he would have need of a weapon.
As the cab sped Across the Queensboro Bridge. Captain Walsingen demanded, "Why do we go to Aberdeen Lane?"
"To see a tattoo artist," Dick told him. "We're going to visit Miguel Fatuma."
Walsingen's eyes widened. "Fatuma! It was he who tattooed the picture of von Richter on Eric Skolje's chest!"
"Why?" Benson demanded.
"Both Fatuma and Eric Skoljes had reason to hate von Richter. Eric Skoljes was Esther Wagstrom's brother. She was Esther Skoljes before she was married. Her husband was an anti-Nazi, and when the Germans moved into Denmark he was executed with thirty others. But he was a great shipbuilder and he had hidden a fortune in gold, and the Germans wanted it. They tortured Esther's husband, but he would not reveal the hiding place of the gold. It was this von Richter who tortured him, for three days, and when Wagstrom would not speak at the end of those three days, von Richter ordered him shot.
"Esther and her daughter Hilda had fled from Copenhagen with her brother Eric, and they had taken the gold with them. They brought it to a little seaport on the Danish coast where my vessel, the Brunhilda, was berthed. Esther's husband owned the Brunhilda. He had been good to me when he lived, and I was determined to help his wife and child. I loaded the gold on board and we set sail, Eric acting as my first mate. We cleared the Baltic before the Germans closed it, but they learned that the gold was aboard my ship and set their submarines to watching for us. We dared not make for an English port for von Richter had set a cordon of submarines to cut us off. So I sailed for Spain. We put in at Barcelona with ninety million dollars of gold aboard, but we could not stay for von Richter had traced us. His agents were ready to pounce on us when I set sail again."
"You had ninety million dollars aboard?" Benson asked incredulously. Walsingen nodded. "It was gold which had been entrusted to Esther's husband by the great industrialists of Denmark, as well as by the Bank of Copenhagen. The Nazis were frantic to get their hands on that store of gold, for they could have—and still can—use it in some neutral countries. But we were determined that they should not get it."
"You came to New York?" Benson demanded.
"Not directly. We stopped first at Buenos Aires, then at Montevideo, and later at Rio. But everywhere that we went the devils of von Richter hounded us. We could not get landing papers, we could not get visas. And if we had been able to land we would have been murdered. They attempted to hold us by court actions, and twice we slipped out of harbors just before the authorities. For fourteen months we have sailed over the face of the earth. But at last we have come to New York, and when we were granted permission to enter the harbor, we thought that our troubles were over." Captain Walsingen sighed. "But they were only beginning!"
Benson looked at him sympathetically. "Von Richter again?"
"Yes. He reached New York a day before us. What name he uses here, I do not know. But he has men to do his killing, and money and power. He will stop at nothing to seize hold of our gold."
"But what have you to fear now?" Benson asked. "In this country you have only to go to the authorities. Tell them of von Richter—"
"No, no," Walsingen interrupted. "Esther and Hilda are not quota emigrants. They may not enter the country. If the police learn of their presence they will be arrested."
"I see," said Dick Benson. "So that's why Esther didn't want me to talk to the police!"
"Exactly! And von Richter knows this, too. Tonight, Eric brought Esther and Hilda ashore in the launch, and let them off at Marabout Creek. They went to the Suydenville Hotel, but they had no sooner checked in than Esther realized that von Richter's men were on her trail. They called her on the phone and told her that she must meet them, or that a bomb would be thrown into their window. Fearful and frightened, she had to leave her Hilda there and go to the meeting."
"She must have told Hilda to phone me," Dick said.
"Yes, for she dared not use the telephone herself. She was watched. But she reasoned that once she left they would not bother about what Hilda did. They had men in the hall and Hilda was able to phone you. This, I guess, for I do not know surely. I was on board the Brunhilda, myself. When it became late and Eric did not return with the launch, I went in search of him and found —you know what!"
The cab had reached Bleek Street and Benson went up for a moment and got himself a Savage .38, with an extra handful of cartridges. He also took with him an emergency kit which looked like an innocent platinum cigarette case, but which contained material more concentrated and more powerful than TNT.
He returned to the cab and they sped east toward Aberdeen Lane.
Captain Walsingen was nervous and taut. "I...I have a feeling," he said tensely, "that tonight we approach the end of our journey on three continents. I am afraid that tonight we come to grips with von Richter!"
"We shall see!" Dick Benson said grimly, thinking of Nellie Gray.
ABERDEEN LANE was an ill-smelling bit of an alley, barely a hundred yards long, which ended up against the rotting fence of a refuse dump which faced the East River.
Benson and Walsingen left the cab a block or two away and walked the rest of the distance.
"See!" exclaimed Captain Walsingen. "This is quite near the Royal Danish Pier. There! You can see the Brunhilda!" He pointed down a side street and Benson saw the freighter, a dark hulk in the night.
"And you say there's ninety million dollars of gold aboard her?"
"Aye," said the captain. "My manifest reads Argentine beef. It is not admitted to this country and I am only supposed to stop, en route to Newfoundland. But the gold is there, and von Richter is bound to have it. The hatches are sealed and I have a guard of ten stalwart Danish men aboard who will fight to the death to protect the golden cargo. But von Richter may yet get it by other means. If he threatens Esther or Hilda, what choice will I have but to give up the gold?"
They reached the mouth of Aberdeen Lane, and Benson suddenly lost all interest in the Brunhilda; for, peering down, he distinguished a mark on the sidewalk in the shape of a Maltese cross. It was pointing diagonally away from Aberdeen Lane, straight in the direction in which the Brunhilda lay at her pier!
Walsingen hadn't noticed that Maltese cross. It was made with yellow chalk and it was so small that one would not have seen it without looking for it. Benson had been looking for it because it was part of the communication system of those associated with Justice, Inc. It told him two things—first, that Nellie Gray had been here and gone; second, that what he sought was not here, but in the direction in which the stem of the cross pointed!
Captain Walsingen was saying eagerly, "I did not know that Miguel Fatuma was here in New York. We met him in Buenos Aires. He is half Greek, half Spanish. He was in Crete when the Germans took it. There he met von Richter, who killed his mother and his sister. He hates von Richter as much as I do. And since he was one of the few who have seen von Richter's face, he tattooed it on Eric Skoljes' chest. Eric wanted it that way, so that he would have a picture of the man he hated as long as he lived."
They had already entered the mouth of the alley. Suddenly, Dick Benson stopped short. He turned to look at the other. "You say your name is Helmut Walsingen?" he asked softly.
The captain's hand was in the pocket of his pea jacket. He looked queerly at Dick. "Yes. That is the name I gave you."
"That's queer," said Benson.
"Queer? What is queer?"
"You say that this Miguel Fatuma met von Richter in Crete. But Crete was conquered after Denmark. Yet you told me that von Richter has hounded you over three continents; therefore, he could not also have been in Crete!"
"Ah, so!" the other said softly. "You have found the little things in my story which do not jibe, eh? Perhaps I talked somewhat too fast!"
"You did," said Benson. "You tried to twist the truth to suit your impersonation, and you got stuck on the details. Just who are you?"
The other smiled viciously. He brought his hand out of his pocket, gripping the pistol which Dick had returned to him. "Stand still, Mr. Avenger. In a moment you shall die! I thank you for returning my weapon to me!"
"Don't mention it," Dick said dryly, looking down at the muzzle of the gun which was pressed against his stomach. "At a guess, I'd say that the real Captain Walsingen is that dead sailor back there on the launch, eh? And you, You're probably a Nazi sea captain who's been smuggled in here by submarine to take Walsingen's place. Your job is probably to sail the Brunhilda out of here, with the gold aboard—after von Richter captures it!"
"It is too bad," the other said viciously, "that a man as clever as you must die. What you have guessed is the truth. I am Captain Hans Mueller of the German navy. With von Richter, I landed here yesterday from a submarine."
"You killed the real Walsingen." Benson accused, "and then you set the bomb so that the picture of von Richter would be destroyed. That was when Esther Wagstrom called me. She wanted to guide me to that murder without revealing herself. But you were there, waiting. You seized her while I was aboard the launch and put her on the power boat."
The eyes of Hans Mueller sparkled, "Exactly, my dear Mr. Avenger. And we have Hilda, too. And your beautiful young lady. And tonight we sail. It was our man who phoned to your young lady. There is no Miguel Fatuma. He was liquidated two months ago in Buenos Aires!"
"So you think you're sailing with ninety millions of dollars, eh?" Benson said. "To use to spread Nazi propaganda in South America!"
"And for you, Mr. Avenger—death! Here is the end!" His finger, curled around the trigger, contracted viciously.
But there was no explosion. Not even a click.
Mueller swore and stepped back, squeezing the trigger again. Once more nothing happened.
Dick Benson chuckled. "You see, my dear Mueller, I'm not quite the fool you took me for. When I picked up your gun I wedged a bit of broken glass from my watch crystal under the hammer. It won't shoot till the glass is removed!"
As he spoke he drew his own Savage. "You and I, my dear Mueller," he said, "are going on board the Brunhilda!"
A few minutes later, two figures approached the gangplank of the S.S. Brunhilda. In the dark it would have been difficult for anyone to tell that the taller of the two, slightly behind the other, was holding a Savage automatic at his companion's back. A guard at the rail saluted and spoke in German. "Steam is up, Herr Captain. We are ready to sail. Major von Richter instructs me to inform you that he awaits you in the smoking lounge with the prisoners."
The Herr Captain Mueller only grunted and stepped past the guard. But Dick Benson stopped for a moment and smiled pleasantly at the fellow. "Surprise!" he said.
Too late, the guard's hand went to the revolver at his belt. Benson's Savage swiped upward, the muzzle caught him under the chin and he went down—and out.
Benson stepped over to Mueller. "You, too, my friend," he said. His left fist crashed upward in a beautiful uppercut, and knuckles thudded against bone. Mueller went backward and his skull cracked against the deck. He lay still.
Grimly, Richard Benson moved aft toward the lounge. The deck was deserted. Evidently the ship was short-handed, and the muted throbbing from the bowels told him that the engines were going, requiring all hands below.
He made his way along a companionway and found the smoking lounge. It was a small room, probably used by the ship's officers and the half dozen passengers they carried, in addition to freight. Benson stopped for a moment in the doorway, gun in hand, and surveyed the scene. Nellie Gray was sitting in a straight-backed chair, her hands raised in the air. Beside her were a woman and a girl of about nine, both fair-haired and blue-eyed, also with their hands in the air. At the other side of the cabin nine seamen stood with their faces to the wall, hands clasped over their heads. Covering them was a single bullet-headed man with a submachine gun. This, then, was the Danish crew of the Brunhilda, no doubt slated for a watery death as soon as the ship cleared the river.
But it was not at these that Benson looked. His gaze fastened upon the single man who stood in the center of the lounge, with a pistol held carelessly in his hand.
This was von Richter! This was the man who had commanded the power boat; this was the man whose picture had been tattooed upon the chest of the murdered seaman!
Von Richter was half turned away from the doorway and he therefore did not see Benson. But the bullet-headed man with the machine gun saw him and uttered a sharp oath, and swung his weapon around.
Grimly, Benson shot that fellow between the eyes, and the thunder of the shot re-echoed through the cabin. Von Richter spun around, raising his pistol; but he never had a chance to fire, for with a roar like a cage full of angry beasts, the Danish seamen twisted around from their positions against the wall and sprang upon him.
This was their vengeance, this the chance for which they had prayed without hope. In a split second von Richter's body was buried under that avalanche of vengeful men. A single piercing shriek escaped from his lips and then no more.
Benson hurried into the lounge and tried to push through that throng. But by the time he reached the inner circle it was too late. The body of von Richter was not a pretty thing to look upon.
The leader of the Danes seized Benson's hand and wrung it hard. Then he snatched up a machine gun and called to the others. "Come! We will take care of the rest of the Germans!"
Benson didn't stop them. He turned to Nellie Gray, who patted his arm, "Always on schedule, Dick! Did you see my mark?"
He nodded. "How did you manage to get it on the sidewalk?"
"I pretended to trip as they led me here. It only took a second to make the Maltese cross." She turned to the woman and the little girl, "This is Esther Wagstrom and Hilda. They're millionaires, Dick, many times over. There's—"
"Ninety million dollars in the hold!" Benson finished for her, smiling.
"But how did you know?"
He winked. "I got it from the enemy."
There were sounds of scuffling outside and a few shouts, but no shots. Nellie shuddered. "I hate to think what's happening to those Nazi seamen!"
"And I," exclaimed Esther Wagstrom, "shudder to think what is happening to my countrymen. Our king is no longer able to protect them from the brutality of the Nazis!"
Benson patted Hilda's glorious golden hair as he led her out of the lounge, keeping between her and the body of von Richter. Out on deck, the Danish seamen lined up and their captain stepped forward. "We must sail tonight for, otherwise, the authorities will hold us and interne our gold."
"But your gold will be restored to you after the war," Benson objected.
The captain smiled bitterly. "We do not care for the gold itself. It is the things that the gold makes it possible for us to do. In Europe we have many friends. Our gold will set up underground agencies will pay for arms and secret newspapers and propaganda. We will spend every dollar of it to bring nearer the day when we can be free of Nazi tyranny!"
"I don't know," said The Avenger. "I should report this to the police, and—"
"No, no!" Esther Wagstrom begged. "Give us our chance to fight the Nazis!"
Benson sighed. He glanced at Nellie Gray, whose eyes were shining and eager. "Let them go, Dick!" she whispered.
Richard Benson nodded. He took Nellie's arm and led her down the gangplank.
Five minutes later, the S.S. Brunhilda was moving down the river. Thanks to Nazi efficiency, her papers were all in order, her sailing arranged for through forged documents. No one would stop her on the way down the bay.
As the ship moved off, Esther and her daughter waved from the bridge. And a low cheer broke from the Danish seamen. A voice called out, "We will meet again, Avenger—when our people are free. Till then, God bless and keep you!"
Nellie's hand was tight upon Dick Benson's arm, her eyes moist. "God bless and keep you all!" she whispered.
DICK BENSON turned into Chatham Street from Summer, and a woman in a window somewhere above him screamed, "Look out!"
Reacting instinctively to that high-pitched shriek of warning, Benson threw himself forward and to the right, landing up against the building wall, just as something struck the pavement with a ghastly, sickening plop.
Benson was on his feet instantly. A single glance was enough to tell him what it was that had come hurtling down from above. It was not a pretty thing to see the crushed body of the man lying in ghastly stillness upon the sidewalk. Benson wiped a bit of blood from his spattered cheek. His face was grim and hard as he leaped out to the curb and turned his gaze upward.
The woman who had screamed the warning to him was lying limp across the windowsill of a second—story room in a dead faint. Above her, the cheap hotel rose for five more stories. The windows in the entire line from which the man's body might have come were dark. There was no way of telling from which one he had fallen. It might even have been the roof.
A buzzing crowd of shocked spectators had already gathered around the grisly body, and a patrolman was pushing through. For the moment, Benson was forgotten. He edged away from the fringe of the crowd, and made for the entrance of the hotel.
Several people had come running out of the lobby, white-faced and trembling. One of them stopped Benson, "Who was it?"
Benson shrugged. "If he has no papers on him, it'll be hard to tell!" he disengaged himself from the man's shaky grip, and pushed through the fly-specked door into the hotel lobby. His eyes were bleak, his lips tight. If his hunch was right, he knew very well who that dead man was. But he didn't intend to impart that knowledge to anyone—just yet.
Within the lobby, the desk was deserted. The clerk must have been one of those who had run out. Benson turned grimly toward the elevators. One cage was down, but there was no operator. He, too, must have hurried out into the street. Benson shrugged, and started to enter the cage.
But just then, he heard the swift patter of feet on the stairs, and a girl appeared, stumbling down, clutching at the railing with one hand and holding together a flimsy negligee with the other. There was blood on her face coming from a cut on the side of her head. Her short, dark hair was clotted with it, and there was more upon the front of the negligee. Her eyes were wild and glassy, and her lower lip was trembling.
She stumbled on the last step, and settled in a frightened heap on the floor. She let her head drop on one arm. "Murder!" she gasped. "He murdered my father! He pushed him out the window. Then he tried to kill me—"
Dick Benson was already hurrying toward her, when a gust of air flowed through the lobby as the door was pushed open, and the patrolman entered. "Here, what's this—"
Benson was stooping beside the girl, and the patrolman came running over. He looked suspiciously at Benson. "Who is she?"
"The dead man's daughter, I think," Benson told him.
The girl lifted up her head and repeated her accusation.
"Good Lord!" gasped the patrolman. He took the girl's arm. "You poor little thing! Just tell us who did it, and we'll get him. Who pushed your father out the window? Who tried to kill you?"
The girl's frightened sobs were still racking her body. She turned her head and looked at Benson. She thrust her finger out at him, accusingly. "He did! He's the one who pushed my father out the window!"
"Now just a minute, my child," said Dick Benson. "Get hold of yourself. You don't know what you're saying." He threw a side glance at the patrolman and said to him, "The girl is hysterical—"
"Hysterical, is it?" growled the patrolman. "Maybe she is, and maybe she isn't. But don't you move!" He pulled out his service revolver and covered Benson. "Stand away from that girl, and keep your hands where I can see them!"
He called over his shoulder to the mob which had surged in from the street: "One of you, please call the station house. Tell the sergeant I've got a murderer here!"
"Don't be a blithering idiot!" Benson said angrily. "I just came in off the street. I couldn't have killed her father. And while you're wasting time here, the real murderer is making his escape!"
The hotel clerk was already telephoning to the precinct house, and the crowd was jabbering excitedly, casting nasty glances at Benson. Some one said, "We ought to lynch the dirty murderer!"
Benson turned to the girl, who was still huddled on the floor. "Look here! You're Elsa Hammond. I'm Richard Benson. I had an appointment with your father for eight o'clock this evening. I was just coming to keep that appointment, when it happened—"
"No, no!" the girl exclaimed.
"You had already come. You came into the room, and I saw you. I was right there. I saw your face, and I remember your clothes. Even that green necktie. You were supposed to help my father. You're Richard Benson—the detective. Dad called you for help—and you murdered him!"
The patrolman began to look puzzled. "A detective?" he said. "Are you a detective?"
Benson nodded. "Matthew Hammond—this girl's father—phoned me this afternoon. He had gotten hold of some information which might mean his death. He didn't dare to leave the hotel. He asked me to come here this evening, after dark. But some one else must have got to him first—"
"Not someone else," Elsa Hammond said stubbornly. "You! You came in and talked to dad for five minutes, while I sat in the corner reading. Then you suddenly jumped up and took out a gun and hit dad on the head, and pushed him out the window. Then you jumped for me, and you hit me with the gun, but it only grazed my head. I screamed, and ran into the next room and locked the door, and you went out. When I heard the door slam, I came out in the hall and ran downstairs. When I got down here, you were right where you're standing now. You must have come down just ahead of me!"
Frowning, Benson studied the girl. She was about eighteen. There was a strange air of unsophisticated innocence about her which did not jibe with the deadly lie she was telling. It was hard to guess whether she really believed the lie, or whether she had been coached by one of Benson's many enemies.
It was a ghastly thing to think that she could act so—with her father's crushed body lying on the pavement outside!
But in the meantime, the real murderer of Matthew Hammond must have made good his escape through the back entrance. The killer would surely not have remained in the hotel. There would be no use in searching the place now. Benson shrugged, and resigned himself to await the arrival of the homicide men.
They had not long to wait. Within a very few minutes, a small, tight knot of men pushed in through the crowded lobby. At their head was Captain Dolson.
Dolson knew Dick Benson very well. He frowned when he saw that the patrolman was covering Benson with the revolver. "What's this, McClure?" he demanded. "Don't tell me that Mr. Benson is your murderer."
"Yes, sir," Patrolman McClure said. "This girl here accuses him!"
It took just a few moments after the lobby had been cleared for Captain Dolson to get the girl's story. When she finished, he looked at Benson. "Can you clear yourself easily enough?"
"Why, yes. I think so. All I need to do is prove that I was in the street when the body landed. It would have hit me if a woman upstairs hadn't screamed a warning. She was leaning out of the second-floor window. We can go up there, and she can tell you that she saw me in the street."
"Let's go up," said the captain.
He motioned to one of the plain-clothesmen and the three of them entered the elevator. As they ascended, Dolson said, "What was this information that Hammond wanted to give you?"
There was a faraway look in Dick Benson's eyes. "It was about a dead man," he said.
"A dead man!" Dolson exclaimed. "You mean, about some one else who was murdered?"
"No. It was about a man named Egon Black."
"Egon Black! That was the chap you ran down, about a year ago—the fellow who operated the Death Syndicate!"
"It was you who caught him. You turned him over to the police, and he escaped. He had a powerful organization, and he was able to obtain a plane for his escape. But the plane crashed, and he was burned to death in the wreck."
"Exactly," said Benson.
"But what could Hammond have had to tell you? What kind of information could Hammond have had which might mean his death?"
"He told me that Egon Black was still alive!"
Benson shrugged. "That's what I thought, too. But Hammond gave me certain details—details which were known to nobody but Egon Black and to my agency."
"And you came here believing that Egon Black was still alive?"
"I didn't know. I came to find out. Now, after seeing Hammond's body, I'm inclined to believe it."
They had reached the second floor, and they made their way down the corridor to the door of the front room from which the woman had screamed her warning. The hotel clerk, who had accompanied them, said, "The lady who lives here is a Mrs. Linton. She's been here a couple of weeks."
Dolson nodded, rapping at the door. "All we'll need, Mr. Benson, is her statement that she saw you in the street when the body fell. That should clear you—"
He frowned, rapping a second time. "Funny she doesn't answer. She must know we'll want to question her—"
"She fainted when the body hit," Benson said. "Maybe she hasn't come out of it yet." He glanced at the clerk. "Better open the door."
The clerk nodded nervously, and produced his passkey. In a moment they were pushing into the room.
Sure enough, the woman's body was lying against the window, with her head on the sill.
"That's a long time to be in a faint!" said Dolson. He stepped over to her, saying to the clerk, "Get some water, please—"
Then he stopped short, looking down at her. "Never mind the water," he said in a queer voice.
Dick Benson felt a sudden, cold chill in his veins. He moved over alongside the captain. And he saw what Dolson was looking at.
The woman was dead. There was a small, clean bullet wound in her right temple. She hadn't fainted at all. She had been shot from across the street, probably with a silenced rifle!
"Well," said Captain Dolson, "that sort of puts a hole in your alibi!" He was just a mite less cordial than before. There was a growing glimmer of suspicion in his eyes.
Benson frowned, looking down at the body of the woman. "Poor thing," he said. "She was an innocent victim. It was her misfortune to be looking out of the window when Hammond's body fell. She must have been shot when she screamed the warning to me."
"Shot?" Dolson repeated. "By whom?"
"By one of Egon Black's men."
"Why? Why should they want to kill her?"
"Don't you see? They wanted to remove any alibi I might have."
"Do you mean to say that this Egon Black—granting that he's still alive—planned to frame you for Hammond's murder?"
"Maybe he didn't plan it in advance," Benson said thoughtfully. "Maybe that marksman was stationed across the street to pick me off when I got here. But then, when Hammond's body came hurtling down just at that minute, the sniper must have thought fast. He must have figured that I'd hurry into the hotel, and that Elsa would accuse me of the murder—"
"Now wait," the homicide captain said. "How would that sniper know that Elsa was going to accuse you of the murder?" He was openly suspicious now. "The only way Elsa Hammond could accuse you of the murder, was if she saw you do it."
"Of course," said Benson. "She saw me do it."
"What—who—?" Dolson began to splutter. "First, you say you were in the street; then, you say Elsa saw you murder her father—"
Benson smiled grimly. "She thinks she saw me do it. The man who murdered her father must have been made up to look like me!"
"Egon Black must have learned of my appointment with Hammond. He may have listened in on the telephone conversation. So he got one of his men to make up like me, and came five minutes earlier. Don't forget that Hammond had never met me in person, so the deception would be fairly easy. The object, of course, was to get Hammond to reveal his information to the impostor, and then to kill him. That's just what they did. They were going to kill me, too, in the street; but when the body fell out of the window just at that moment, they decided to try framing me for the murder."
Captain Dolson was far from being convinced. "That's a lot of theory, Mr. Benson; but I'm sorry to say that it's not evidence. The only evidence we have so far is Elsa Hammond's statement that you murdered her father."
"Let's go downstairs," Benson said. "There were several people from the lobby who met me in the street right after Hammond's body struck. Perhaps they can identify me."
But downstairs in the lobby, the breaks were once more against Richard Benson. The only one who could remember having stopped someone to ask what had happened, was the hotel clerk, and he only looked hazily at Benson. He said:
"I'm sorry, but I can't say if this was the man or not. With the dim-out and all, it's pretty dark out there in the street, and my eyes were blinded by coming out of the lighted lobby. Besides, I was too excited to notice the man's face. In fact, I don't think it was this man at all!"
Elsa Hammond was seated in one of the easy chairs, under the care of a police matron. She pointed a shaking finger at Benson and exclaimed, "Don't let him talk his way out of this. He's the murderer! He killed my dad!" Then she buried her face in her arms and began to sob all over again.
Captain Dolson's face was hard and grim. "Richard Henry Benson," he said, "I arrest you on the charge of wilful murder. I warn you that anything you say may be used against you!"
Dick Benson smiled bitterly. Against the damning identification by Elsa Hammond he could advance only a guess. To clear himself, he must produce the real murderer—Egon Black.
But he had only the whispered hint from a murdered man that Egon Black was still alive. Legally, Egon Black was dead. So, in order to prove his own innocence—he had to find a dead man!
But before he could do that, he must free himself. As a prisoner, held for the grand jury on a charge of murder, he would have no chance at all to find Egon Black.
"Come along," Captain Dolson said, taking his arm and motioning for the detectives to close in around them. "We'll go down to the district attorney's office—"
It was at that precise moment that Nellie Gray entered the lobby.
Nellie Gray was small and blond and pretty and demure. She looked no older than a high-school senior. But in her case, looks were deceiving. Behind that wide-eyed innocence of hers, there was a mind as trigger-keen as that of any hard-bitten fighting man; and the training which Benson had given her as his assistant had equipped her to hold her own—and more—in any kind of battle.
In the lobby, everyone was so engrossed with the drama of the arrest, that no one noticed her appearance; no one, that is, except Benson himself.
Benson's eyes flickered. He shook his head almost imperceptibly, and Nellie took the hint. She ducked around behind one of the easy chairs, where she was completely hidden from view.
Benson allowed Captain Dolson to lead him by the arm toward the door. Dolson called back to the matron, "Bring Elsa Hammond along, Mrs. Merkle. We'll take her downtown with us. The D.A. will want to get a written statement from her, to hold Benson on."
Benson went out into the street with him, and Dolson led the way to a police sedan at the curb. The two detectives with them kept close on either side of Benson, each with a hand on his arm; and the matron followed, with Elsa Hammond. Dolson opened the door of the car, and motioned for his prisoner to step in. As soon as Benson was inside, he nodded to Elsa Hammond, who also stepped into the car. Benson sat tautly on the edge of the seat, his muscles tight, as if waiting for something to happen. Dolson started to enter the car. He put his foot on the running board.
And as if that had been a signal of some sort, four sharp pistol shots sounded, coming from inside the hotel lobby, in quick, spiteful succession. They were immediately followed by a girl's high-pitched scream, filled with what sounded convincingly like agony and terror. Immediately after the scream, there came terrified words: "Help! Murder! Police—"
The last word was drowned by two more sharp pistol reports.
Benson sat quite still beside the frightened Elsa Hammond, suppressing a smile. He recognized the voice, of course, as that of Nellie Gray. She was doing an excellent bit of histrionics, with the assistance of her automatic as a sort of orchestration.
Captain Dolson and the detectives were galvanized into frantic action. Snatching out their revolvers, they swung about and rushed back into the hotel, momentarily forgetting about their prisoner.
Benson sat still, watching them for the two seconds it took them to barge through the door into the lobby. Then he chuckled, reached across Elsa Hammond and pulled the door shut.
Elsa looked at him with large, frightened eyes. "What—what are you going to do?"
Benson did not answer. He swung his legs over the top of the front seat, and slid in behind the driver's wheel. He turned the ignition key, yanked the starter button and shifted into first. He thrust down on the accelerator and let up on the clutch, and the car leaped away from the curb like a hunted antelope.
Elsa Hammond had opened her mouth to scream, but she was jarred back into the seat, and the breath jolted out of her body.
Benson turned the corner on two wheels, sent the car whistling down the side street and turned the next corner to the right, coming into the street at the rear of the hotel.
He braked down to ten miles, peering into the darkness of the dimmed-out street, and spotted the slender figure of Nellie Gray coming out through the back entrance on the run. He blinked his lights twice, and she headed for the car, wrenched the door open and sprang inside.
"Nice timing, Dick!" she gasped, as she sprawled over against the frightened Elsa Hammond.
Benson smiled tightly, and stepped on the gas and the car shot away, just as Dolson and his two detectives came racing out of the hotel. But by that time, Benson was already turning the next corner, and the shots they sent after him went wild.
Benson raced two blocks more, then turned another corner, and slowed up a bit. He glanced over his shoulder and said, "Nice timing to you, too, Nellie. You worked it perfectly!"
Nellie gave him a demure smile. "It worked beautifully. As soon as I did my screaming and shooting act, I scrammed past the clerk and out the back way. For a minute I was afraid you wouldn't think of the back door."
Elsa Hammond had stopped her sobbing. She started to get up, shouting, "Let me out of here—"
Nellie Gray wrapped strong, competent fingers around the girl's arm. "Take it easy, sister," she said. "You're coming with us. And no place else!"
Elsa tried to struggle, but Nellie got her in a deft arm-lock. "Stay put, sister. You little fool, you're among friends!"
The girl suddenly wilted, and gave way to sobs. "Y-you'll k-kill me—the way you k-killed my f-fa-ther—"
"Tut, tut," said Nellie. She thrust the girl back into a corner of the seat, and calmly proceeded to insert fresh cartridges in the clip of her automatic.
"Where are we heading for, Dick?" she asked. "This car will be awful hot in five minutes, when they get it on the short wave."
"The first thing we've got to do," Benson said, "is to get to some quiet place where we can talk to our guest, here, and convince her that I didn't murder her father."
"Never!" exclaimed Elsa Hammond. "You'll never convince me. I saw you! I saw you with my own eyes!"
"And the next thing," Benson went on imperturbably, as he drove north, "is to find Egon Black."
"Egon Black!" Nellie Gray repeated. "How are we going to find a dead man?"
Benson chuckled. "Maybe it'll be easier than you think. Take a look out the rear window at that taxi cab. It's been tailing us ever since we left the hotel. I think that perhaps Mr. Egon Black is going to assist us to find him!"
Nellie Gray glanced behind at the shrouded headlights of the taxi which was tailing them. It remained about two hundred feet behind them, slowing when they did, and speeding up when Benson stepped harder on the gas.
"Well," said Nellie, "we can't go anywhere till we lose them."
"We don't want to lose them," Benson told her. "In fact, I'm more anxious to keep contact than they are. That taxicab is our only hope of ever finding Egon Black. Elsa's father told me very little over the phone. He was a disbarred lawyer. At one time, he used to handle legal matters for Egon Black, and he was disbarred after we broke up Black's death syndicate. If you recall, Egon Black used to insure men for large sums of money payable to some phony charity, and then they would die shortly afterward. When Black was finally caught—"
"You mean, when you caught him!" Nellie interrupted. "If it hadn't been for you, Egon Black would have gone on forever with his death syndicate!"
Benson waved that aside. "It was known that Black had made several millions out of his murder scheme, but the money was never found. It was thought that the secret of its whereabouts had perished with Egon Black in the crash of that plane. But Hammond phoned me tonight out of a clear sky that Egon Black was still alive. He said that Black had contacted him, because he needed Hammond's help in getting to the hidden money."
"But did he explain how it was that a dead man was still alive?" Nellie asked, peering out through the back window, with her pistol ready, in case the cab should speed up to overtake them.
Benson nodded. "Yes. Hammond said that Black had a fellow named Dimitroff in his gang, who had once been an actor. Dimitroff made up some stooge to look like Black, and it was the stooge who went aboard the plane in Black's place. It was the stooge who died when the plane crashed. The body was so badly burned that it was unidentifiable, but several people at the airport identified pictures of Egon Black as the man who had boarded the plane—so the police marked Black down as dead."
"I see," said Nellie. "And it must have been this Dimitroff who made up the impostor who came to Hammond's room tonight, posing as you!"
"Exactly! It seems from what Hammond told me on the phone, that Black had hidden the money under the planking of a cabin cruiser he had owned, but which had been registered in Hammond's name. At the time, Hammond didn't know that the money was there. Black lay low for two years after the plane crash, and he had just now contacted Hammond. He wanted to know where the cabin cruiser was tied up. Hammond was cagey, and refused to tell him until Black divulged the reason why he wanted to know. Hammond stalled him off, and phoned me."
Benson glanced into the rear-view mirror, then went on:
"He had been earning an honest living for the last two years, trying to live down his disgrace for the sake of Elsa, here. He didn't want to become involved with Black again, but at the same time he was afraid to go to the police. That's why he called me, and made the appointment for tonight. He must have told that impostor where the cabin cruiser is located, and it was then that the murderer killed him. They didn't want him to reveal that Egon Black is still alive!"
Elsa Hammond had been listening carefully to everything Benson said. She, too, was glancing nervously behind, at the pursuing taxicab. Now she asked shakily, "W-why are they following us? If you really aren't the one who murdered my dad—and if you're telling the truth about someone else posing as you—then why are they still after us? Dad told that man where the boat was tied up—"
"Ah!" said Benson. His hands tightened on the wheel as he drove. "And it was right after your father told him, that he pulled his gun and struck him?"
"Then don't you see why they're following us? They've got to kill both you and me—and Nellie, too, for that matter. They're going after the money hidden in the cabin cruiser—but they also have to make sure that no one remains alive who knows that Egon Black isn't dead!"
"Then—then those men in the taxicab intend to kill us?"
"Of course they do. And they're taking their own sweet time about it, because they know I'm wanted for murder, and that I don't dare seek help from the police!"
Elsa Hammond's eyes were wide, and her lower lip was trembling. She appeared to be still unconvinced that Benson wasn't the one who had killed her father.
But Nellie Gray put a hand on her arm. "You must trust us, my dear," she said softly. "Your life—the lives of all of us—may depend on your trusting us."
Elsa uttered a choked sob. "I—I don't know what to think anymore!"
Benson continued to tool the car north, peering constantly in the rear-vision mirror.
Nellie Gray patted Elsa's shoulder. "You see, my dear, Mr. Benson didn't kill your father. You must believe that. You—"
Suddenly, Nellie broke off, uttering a cry of warning. "The cab is closing up on us, Dick!"
Benson had seen it, too. The cab had spurted ahead, cutting the intervening distance in half. They had reached a secluded portion of the East River Drive, and there were few other cars in sight. The road just ahead was clear of traffic for the moment, and the killers in the cab were going to take advantage of the opportunity.
The taxi gained on them with a rush now, and Nellie Gray exclaimed, "They're going to pass us, Dick! And there's a machine gun poking out of the window!"
Benson's hands remained steady on the wheel, and he did not accelerate, nor did he try to swerve in either direction. The cab came hurtling abreast of them, and the face of the man behind the machine gun was clearly visible. Elsa, in spite of her fright, uttered a gasp. "That face! It—it's the same as Mr. Benson's!"
Indeed, the face of the man who peered at them over the ugly muzzle of the machine gun was almost a replica of Benson's. This then, was the murderer who had impersonated Benson.
It was evident that the fellow was holding his fire until the very last moment, when the cab would be pulling ahead of the police sedan, so that he could rake the occupants with his first burst.
"Hold on!" Benson shouted over his shoulder to Nellie and Elsa. He kept the pace steady, his hands hard on the wheel, his eyes glued on the cab. He gauged his timing with uncanny accuracy. He waited until the cab was just barely about to pull ahead. That was the moment when the gunner chose to pull the trip of his machine gun. But it was also the moment when Dick Benson stepped down hard on the brake!
The sedan rocked to a grinding stand-still, as if it had come up against an invisible and impassable barrier. The cab slid ahead, just as the first burst of lead spat from the muzzle of the machine gun.
But the gunner had been calculating without the sedan's stopping short. His burst was directed at the spot where the sedan should have been in the next split second. But it wasn't there, and the zinging bullets smashed through empty air only inches ahead of the sedan's radiator.
The cab, which had been traveling much faster than Benson's sedan; rolled on for perhaps thirty feet before the driver braked frantically to a stop, while the gunner leaned far out of the window and swung the muzzle of his machine gun around to bear on the sedan.
But by that time, Dick Benson had ripped open the door and was out in the road with an automatic in his hand. He ran forward shooting, straight toward the cab, his slugs smashing into the face of the machine-gunner. The man's countenance disintegrated under the impact of those bullets, and the machine gun fell back off the window ledge, into the cab.
Someone inside the cab uttered a shout, and the driver set the taxi in motion once more. It pulled away swiftly from Benson.
He held his fire, sending no more shots after it. There was not a second to waste now, not even for a single shot. For he knew that the shooting would bring radio cars converging upon the spot—radio cars which must already have received orders to capture him. He swung around and called to Nellie and Elsa:
Nellie sprang out of the sedan, dragging Elsa after her by the hand. The frightened girl made no further objection now, as they followed Benson across the road and into the obscure shadows of a side street. The sight of that impostor's face in the cab must have convinced as nothing else could have done, that someone other than Dick Benson had murdered her father.
Just as they reached the shelter of a doorway, a squad car came screaming down the street, and swung into the Drive. The policemen piled out with guns in their hands, and advanced upon the sedan.
But Benson did not wait to see their disappointment at finding it abandoned. He broke out of cover and led the way down the street at a lope, away from the Drive, with the two girls following him. At Second Avenue he slowed to a walk, and said to Nellie, "You and Elsa cross the street and walk parallel with me. They'll be looking for the three of us together. We'll stand a better chance of getting through if we separate."
Nellie nodded and took Elsa's arm. "Let's go—"
"Wait!" said Elsa Hammond. She came up close to Benson. There was no longer any fear in her eyes. "I was a fool," she said. "I know, now, that you never killed my father. Lets go to the police. I'll tell them it wasn't you—"
Benson shook his head. "It's no good, Elsa. You can only tell them what you saw. And no matter what you believe at this moment, the fact remains that you saw a man who looked like me murder your father."
"But—but isn't there any way we can prove—"
"Prove that someone else killed him? Yes. By finding the body of that machine-gunner I just shot. By exhibiting his body, with the face—what's left of it—made up like mine. The only trouble is, that there won't be much left of that face. I put four bullet into it!"
"Then there isn't any way?"
"I'm afraid the only way is to produce Egon Black. I don't think he was in that cab. I think he must have left others to do this work, while he, himself, went to the cabin cruiser to retrieve the hidden money. If we only knew where the boat is tied up—"
"But I know!" Elsa Hammond said quickly. "I was there when dad told that impostor—"
Nellie seized hold of Elsa's shoulder. "Talk, kid—and quick!"
"It—it's at Follan's Pier, at City Island. Dad never used it after Black's crash in the plane. He tried to sell it, but the market for pleasure boats was dead, and it was too small for war use—"
"Never mind the rest!" Dick Benson said hurriedly. "We've got to get up there before Egon Black leaves. If we miss him, we'll never find him again!"
He swung into Second Avenue, and Nellie said, "Hadn't we better separate—"
But he shook his head. "No time for caution. Every minute counts now. We've got to take chances!"
He found a cab parked at a hack stand at the next corner, and he hurried the girls into it. "City Island!" he said to the cab driver.
Just as they got started, a second police car came racing up Second Avenue, made a right turn directly in front of them, and disappeared down the side street heading for the Drive. The two policemen in it didn't even glance toward the occupants of the taxi.
"Gee," said the taxi driver. "There must have been a shooting over on the Drive. That's the second police car that's hightailed over there."
"A shooting?" Dick Benson said in a horrified voice. "How terrible! Isn't there enough shooting going on all over the world?"
He leaned forward and passed a twenty-dollar bill to the driver. "It's very important that we reach City Island quickly. I know there are rules against driving fast in the dimout, but if you'll break them tonight, I'll pay any fine, and give you a hundred dollars more if we reach City Island in thirty-five minutes."
"Brother," said the driver, "consider yourself there!"
The long stretch of water front at City Island was as black as the nethermost pit. If the dimout was bad in the city proper, it was much more drastic here, close to the shore. They left the cab about five hundred feet from Follan's Pier, and Benson gave the driver the promised hundred dollars, telling him to wait for a possible return ride.
Fortunately, both Benson and Nellie Gray were familiar with City Island, for Benson had once kept a boat here which they had used for emergency runs up the Sound. They walked swiftly but soundlessly along the shore, past darkened piers cluttered with gear, and with the saltwater spray whipping their faces. As they walked, Benson reloaded his gun.
"Keep about ten feet behind us," he whispered to Elsa Hammond. "If that cab full of gunmen has come here, there may be a lively few minutes!"
As they came close to Follan's Pier, Nellie pointed excitedly to a tiny pin point of light from a boat which was tied up close to the dock. It emanated from a crack in a cabin window.
Benson tapped Nellie on the shoulder, for they dared not speak now, even in a whisper. He motioned for her to cover him, and she nodded in swift understanding, and dropped back a couple of paces. It was so dark here that they could not even see Elsa Hammond, who had remained behind, in obedience to Benson's order.
Benson moved forward as silently as a cat, and stepped out onto the pier. But he had hardly taken a step before a figure rose suddenly out of the darkness, thrusting a gun into his face.
"This is it, Benson—"
Benson acted even before the man finished. His pistol came up hard, cracking against the underside of the man's wrist, driving his gun muzzle up. The weapon exploded in the air, shattering the stillness of the water front. Benson swiped sideways with the barrel of his gun, catching the man in the temple. The gun struck with a thud, and the fellow crumpled and went down.
The door of the cabin was thrust violently open, and at the same time the light inside was doused. A gun barked six times in quick succession, and bullets swept the pier where Benson had been standing. But Benson had already leaped to the deck of the boat. The thud of his landing was drowned by the blasting of the gun.
The man who had fired grunted, and said to someone behind him, "Give me the flashlight, Egon. I think I got him."
Benson smiled tightly. He stepped around the deck on his soft-soled shoes, and swung into the doorway, smashing down with his gun barrel. He struck bone, and there was a horrible crunching sound, and the man gasped and fell forward. Benson caught his collar and pulled him out on the deck, and let his limp figure sag to the planking.
Inside the cabin, Egon Black cursed softly. "Are you out there, Benson?" he called.
"Yes," said Benson. "I'm here."
"Are you alone?"
"I'm alone on the deck of this boat."
"I have three million dollars in here, Benson. I'll split it with you."
Benson laughed harshly. "I'm coming in after you, Egon Black!"
"All right!" screamed Black. "I've tried to get you killed a dozen times. But this time, I won't fail. I'll kill you this time. Nothing will stop me now—with three million dollars!"
A machine gun began to clatter inside the cabin, and a hail of slugs swept out through the cabin door. Benson crouched, waiting until the first burst was over. Then his legs straightened. Powerful muscles sent him hurtling in through that door-way, his pistol spitting lead as he fanned it around the interior of the cabin.
He expected another hail of lead from the machine gun, and dropped flat on the floor, with his gun empty. He lay still in the pitch-blackness, waiting for some sound to tell him whether he had missed, or whether he had got his man.
At last, there came a faint scraping sound; a foot dragging against the floor. Then, the wheezing breath of a wounded man. Benson knew he had hit Egon Black, but hadn't killed him. His own gun was empty now. He lay quiet, waiting.
A moment later, a flashlight winked on, the beam traveling upward. Benson saw Egon Black. He was on the floor, with his legs stretched out in front of him, and blood oozed from a wound in his side. Black had the flashlight in one hand, and the machine gun cradled under the other arm, with his finger on the trigger. He swung the beam of the light around to center upon Benson.
Benson pushed up, and got to his feet, the flashlight sticking to him like glue.
Egon Black's face was a mask of hatred. "I'm not done yet, you cheap snooper. I'm going to give it to you now!" He raised the snout of the machine gun so that it centered upon Benson's stomach. "A belly full of hot lead, Benson! How do you like the idea? Here goes—"
There was a single, spiteful crack from somewhere outside. Something whined past Benson's ear, and a small round hole miraculously appeared in Egon Black's forehead. His body twitched, and the machine gun jerked upward. A single short burst spattered into the ceiling as his dead finger contracted upon the trip, and then the gun dropped to the floor as his body slumped over.
Nellie Gray hurried into the cabin, breathless. Benson turned and nodded to her. "That was nice shooting, Nellie," he said. "But I was afraid you were going to wait too long."
"I had to make sure," she gasped. Benson stooped and picked up the flashlight from the cabin floor. He directed it first at a trunk near the wall, which stood with the lid up, and the keys in the lock. It was filled almost to the brim with money of all denominations, jammed into it helter-skelter.
"That's what Egon Black did murder for," he said.
"And look what it got him!" Nellie whispered.
Benson swung the flashlight around to cover the body of a man which had been dumped onto one of the bunks. It was a ghastly thing to see, for there was little left of the face. Nellie turned away, sick.
"That's the fellow I shot," Benson said. "The one who impersonated me. I think there'll be enough of the makeup left to convince Captain Dolson, don't you?"
He swung toward the door as a light step sounded on the deck. Elsa Hammond appeared in the doorway, her eyes two great pools of horror in a white and ghastly face. She saw Benson and Nellie Gray alive and unharmed, and her whole body seemed to relax. "Oh! I—I thought you'd both been killed!" Her gaze went to the body of Egon Black, with the hole in his forehead showing up like a black badge of dishonor.
"I—I see you found the dead man!"
Benson smiled bitterly. "Yes. And this time he'll stay dead!"
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