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Title: The Spy Who Sold Death
Author: Arthur Leo Zagat
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1400981h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Feb 2014
Most recent update: Oct 2015

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The Spy Who Sold Death


Arthur Leo Zagat

Cover Image


First published in Secret Service Operator #5, September 1937

Cover Image

Secret Service Operator #5, September 1937

EVEN the brilliance of the morning sun and the crisp, tangy morning breeze, could not make the bookstall-lined Fourth Avenue block other than a sluggish back-eddy of the city's flood. Grey men dwelt sleepily here among their grey books; men and books equally withdrawn from life. Elsewhere, the eager day was beginning for thousands of school children, stenographers and clerks, laborers and brokers, shopkeepers and mechanics. Here the night's sleep yawned only into a waking drowse, a desultory dealing in tattered volumes, a browsing among out-dated magazines.

Elsewhere, life was vibrant, earnest; here it was a quiet flow of featureless days. The booksellers of Fourth Avenue want only to be left alone by a troubled world less real to them than printed words on yellow, crumbling leaves. These Keepers of the Port of Missing Books were, for the most part, grey old men.

Ford Duane, tall and gaunt, stooped under the weight of a lassitude dreary as his dog-eared stock-in-trade, was not old, but he was grey and droop-lidded and musty as the rest. He lounged in the doorway of his store, his shabby alpaca smock hanging loose from his lank frame, and to the chance observer he seemed affected by a vast disinterest in anything save the flicker of shadows on the sidewalk at his feet.

It would have taken a close observer, indeed, to have noted that beneath their veiling curtains his grey eyes were sharply keen, that they flicked to every passer-by with a swift, almost terror-inspired sizing up.

It was impossible to see that within his enveloping smock muscles were coiled like steel springs, ready for any call, and that in its pocket was an unobtrusive weapon on whose instant availability Duane's very life might depend.

His life and, perhaps, far more than his life. Ford Duane was far other than he seemed. The quiet that lay about him was the brooding quiet of perpetual peril, that with which he dwelt was the eternal threat of death.

BEYOND this quiet street, beyond the hurly-burly of the awakening city, beyond the billowing ocean at the confluence of whose trackless highways it stands, the peoples of two Continents are arming and armed and trembling on the brink of war. Incident after incident, challenge after challenge occur, strife seems at last inevitable, yet at the final moment, at many final moments, it is averted. Strange that not one of these hot sparks sets the tinderbox of the Old World aflame? Yes, strange indeed, unless one comprehends that the balance of power and strength is equal balanced to a hairsbreadth, that there can be no hope of victory for either side, unless...

Unless the Giant of the West can somehow be induced to place its weight in one or the other scale. Unless unwilling America can, somehow, be drawn into the conflict.

To this end, an unseen army wages an invisible, continuous war between these far-flung coasts of ours, a war one against the other but both against our integrity, our reluctance to be embroiled in a strife that concerns us not. Against this end, a small but gallant company wages a secret defence. Unknown, unhonored, unacknowledged, devoted men toil to prevent the holocaust and disaster those other secret ones would bring upon us.

Of this invisible company Ford Duane was one.

Perhaps he was thinking of this. Perhaps he was recalling that in a dozen chancelleries there was a price posted on his head. Perhaps he was thinking only that it had been a month or more since a summons had come to him to prepare for special action against his country's secret enemies.

A SMALL boy went whistling along the sidewalk. A spate of traffic, released by the signal light's flick from red to green, surged between the curbs. A postman, blue-grey shoulder tugged down by his laden bag, trudged slowly toward Duane.

The postman turned in between the trestled boxes wherein were displayed Bargains in Books and nodded a good morning to the youth. He delved into his bag, handed Ford Duane a small package and retreated.

Duane turned the paper-wrapped bundle in his long, tapering fingers till the address was uppermost. Printed in a childish, unformed hand the return card told a message which only he knew—

Patricia Ann Thomas
Austin Co., Texas

A muscle twitched at the corner of Duane's sharp jaw. There was no other sign that what he read had any meaning. But the initials, P-A-T, of the putative sender; the initials, P-A-T, repeated in her address, told him that there was a message contained in the package—perchance the very summons for which he had been waiting.

He tore the paper from it, there in full view of any who might be watching. He held up, plain in the sunlight, a belt woven from white beads, utterly without design.

Duane examined the belt in the sunlight, tried it about his waist. It was much too big. He pretended to laugh, turned and went into the gloomy interior of his shop. He went straight back between the high, dark bookstacks to a curtained opening in a partition at the rear, hooked the curtain back as he went through so that anyone who might happen to come in could see the unpainted wooden table within and the rumpled cot that marked the space as his living quarters. He tossed the belt on the table, carelessly, and it seemed only by accident that it fell flat. It was shadowy here and so only natural that he should turn on a two-socketed reading-lamp standing on the table. He did it quietly.

He threw himself on the cot, picked up a book that lay face down on it. He appeared to be reading the book but his look slid over its top and to the seemingly unregarded belt.

In the light from the lamp some of the beads glowed with a violet radiance of their own. Those which were thus fluorescent made an unsymmetrical pattern, thus:

. . _ . _ _ _ . _ . . . . _ _ . _ . . _ _ _ . . _ . _ . _ .
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ . . . _ _ . _ . . _ . . . . _ _ _ _ _ . . .
. . _ _ _ _ . . _ . . _ . . . _ . . _ . _ _ . . _ . . . . _
. . . _ . _ . . _ . _ _ _

The dots and dashes were in the Morse code, and Duane read them as fluently as though they were in the common alphabet. He read; "Foreign agent Room 3 Winston Hotel Determine identity T."

He reached out and twitched the strap from the table-top. A thread broke and the whole thing unravelled, the beads spilling to the floor. Duane heaved from his couch, looked ruefully down at the mess he had made, scratching his head.

A quarter hour later he was out on the sidewalk in front of his shop, was speaking to Otto Rumpf, the bearded, skull-capped owner of the bookstore next to him on the left. "I'm feeling rotten today," he said. "If you'll watch my place for me I'll go in back and lie down."

The man peered at him with bleared eyes magnified by thick lenses. "Ja," he growled. "Your lips are cracked und dere iss no color in your face. Go und rest. I vill tage care uff your shtore like mein own."

Duane returned to the small room in the rear and lay down again, pulling the blankets up over his shoulders and his head. The long form tossed for a while and then was still.

Ford Duane crawled out from behind the cot, glanced backward to it. The lumped sheets under the blanket looked very realistic. No one glancing through the half-curtained opening would have any reason to doubt that he still lay there. He crawled to a side wall that could not be seen from outside and lifted to his feet. A touch of his finger on an excrescence in the plaster—and a panel slid noiselessly open to reveal a recessed niche. Duane went into the niche and the panel closed silently behind him.

THE Winston Hotel's cheap facade leared at the crowded Bowery block, each shuttered window a separate, significant wink. A creaking sign over the shabby entrance said: Transients. Rooms $1.50.

There were no questions asked of the 'transients' who patronized the Winston. They paid their buck and a half at the desk, strictly in advance, took their keys and climbed uncarpeted stairs to rooms indicated by the numbered tags. If they chose to have slinking, furtive visitors of either sex no one cared. If they didn't pay another buck and a half before nine in the morning they were requested to leave, none too politely. If they did pay, they were permitted to remain.

Stores on the ground floor left space only for the narrow lobby and the stairs, so Room 3 was one flight up level with the "El" station platform. Its shutters were tightly closed and the black shades drawn down, so that there was scarcely any light in it—and its three occupants were vague, shadowy figures.

Two of these figures, short, possessed of a curious litheness, were standing. The third was in a chair, bold upright with a strange rigidity, and his outlines showed him to be far bulkier than the others. The muffled sound he made was distinctly that of a throat trying to force words past a gag.

"Our friend seems to be not quite comfortable," one of the standing men said. "Perhaps you have bound him too tightly, Kusai, and the cords cut into his flesh." The words were precisely enunciated—too precisely to be pronounced by one to whom English was a native tongue—and an odd sibilance ran through them.

"He will not be troubled by it long," the one addressed as Kusai replied. "We will release him in just a minute." They were speaking to one another, these two, but each remark they made was patently a cruel taunt intended for their helpless prisoner. "Yet, he will remain here much longer than he expected."

"Yes. His precautions to hide himself will unfortunately be in vain. He will be found here by the police."

"But he will not know it, Hoan." Kusai's laugh was an inhalation of breath between tight lips. He turned to a scarred dresser against the wall, pulled one of the topped drawers completely out. There were papers in the hand he reached into the space from which the drawer had come, and there were none when it came out. "Do you think the police will surely find the documents where apparently he concealed them?" he asked as he replaced the drawer.

"Let it remain a little open, the papers preventing its shutting." Hoan was placing some objects on the rumpled bed—a tiny vial, a hypodermic syringe. "Are you certain that you have placed everything there?"

"Yes. His commission as agent of the Ogpu, genuine. A letter in Russian, forged, directing him to destroy the New York Subway. Giving the details, even to the time, of what we intend. Making certain that his nation will be blamed for the catastrophe."

"Very good. These cigarettes, with the damning circulars within their tubes, printed on rice paper, and calling upon the slaves of the Subway barons to rise, we shall place in his pocket, one broken so that its contents will be noted."

Again that hissing laugh from Kusai. He came back to the bound man and there was now a wadded rag in his hand, a rag from which came a queerly pungent odor. "You will feel no pain, my friend," he whispered, "and in a little while you will feel nothing at all." He placed the wad gently, almost tenderly, over the dimly seen nose and mouth.

The great body in the chair quivered. Biceps swelled against the tight cords, but they did not give. The chair creaked, but did not break. Hoan sighed. The big man slumped and was very still.

"In truth," Kusai remarked, "his name should be inscribed on the Tablet of the Honored Dead. Living, he was the Empire's enemy; dead, he will be its friend. But thanks to this invention of our honorable chemists he will not be gathered to his ancestors for another hour."

"Enough," the other snapped. "We have work to do. Unbind him."

It was done, deftly and swiftly. The two small men took a last look about the room, moved to the window.

Kusai lifted the shade, slowly, careful to make no sound. White light dotted the shutter beyond the open sash, probed through its chinks. Hoan felt of his pocket and a sly smile crossed his hairless, saffron countenance as a brass tag clinked against a key. Outside, there was the roar of a train coming into the station, the rattle of opening gates. The two killers waited.

Gates slammed and starting bells tinkled. Hoan touched Kusai's elbow, and the Oriental moved the shutter outward. The train was pounding into renewed motion. The upper half of a store sign jutted up across the cornice outside the window, so that Hoan could not be observed from below as he climbed out. The "El" platform's railing was only two feet from the sign, and the departing train had emptied it. Hoan leaped the space, was over the railing in a twinkling, was signaling to Kusai that the way was clear.

The latter went out on the cornice and squirmed around the shutter edge. It closed and the room was shadowed once more. Shadowed and very silent, for the space of thirty heart-beats. Then there was sound again in it, the scrape of metal against metal from the door, the click of a lock. The door slid open and a new form slipped in through the slitted aperture.

THIS man was tall, gaunt, slightly stooped. He wore a black hat whose wide brim turned down to conceal his face. He glanced swiftly around the room, seemed startled at sight of the inert body in the chair, crossed to it. Long, tapering fingers propped the chin of the moribund man, turning his face up to view. The intruder whirled, took in all of the room in a single darting glance, noted the jutting bureau drawer. He was at it, pulling it out, and fishing out the papers Kusai had placed there with a clumsy imitation of concealment.

Breath hissed between his teeth and the man was at the window, back to it, reading that damning letter. There was abruptly on the page a blaze of white light let in by the opening shutter. A saffron arm, muscular, steel-strong, whipped about the lean man's neck, and the shutter slammed closed again as Kusai leaped in to make his garroting hold good.

A storm of combat broke loose in that dim room, a savage battle the more weird because of the silence in which it was fought. There was no sound except the muted gasp of choked breath, the pad of rubber-soled feet on the carpeted floor.

Kusai's hold did not slip, but the lank man's elbow was driven back into the Oriental's belly so that the Mongol could not gain the leverage necessary to entirely cut off his antagonist's breath. The latter managed to half-twist and bring the pressure of that hold against the side of his neck instead of the larynx. His free hand dived into a pocket, flashed out with a strangely thick-barreled, flare-muzzled pistol.

The queer gun reached up to his shoulder, sprayed a fine mist over it. Kusai's grip relaxed, and suddenly he was a lax, inanimate bundle on the floor. The tall man loosed another burst of spray at him, pocketed the odd weapon, dropped to his side. The long fingers made a rapid search of the fallen Mongol's pockets, came out empty. It bothered him a bit.

"No evidence of who and what he is," the man muttered. "If they find him here, he will be imprisoned as a sneak thief. He will not come to in time to warn his comrades."

He stood up, glanced hurriedly at the letter again. A grey horror filled his face at what he read. He darted out of the room and locked it once more with the skeleton key that had afforded him entrance.

A SQUAT, saffron-complexioned man paced the platform of the Bowling Green station of the New York Subway. He was inconspicuous in a navy blue Homburg and an oxford-grey Chesterfield topcoat that might have been tailored on Fifth Avenue. He carried a small black bag, like a physician's, and he seemed to have an appointment with someone here, so frequently did he glance at his wrist watch.

With each stride up the platform he came nearer its downtown end, where the tracks curved into a tunnel whose roof was already rounding for the long passage under the East River. The rails pitched steeply downward for the curve was very deep.

Hoan reached the very end of the station just at the moment of ten. He slipped a key out of his pocket and dropped it there. The key's tag was stamped: Winston Hotel, Room 3. The Oriental glanced around, saw no sign of being watched, hopped down a set of four iron steps to the roadbed and was running at once down that steep incline into the depths of the river tube.

Ten is the time of change-over from the morning rush-hour schedule to the more leisurely time-table of the middle of the day. There would be only one train through the tube for thirteen minutes, and thirteen minutes was ample for what he had to accomplish.

The white tile of the station environs gave place to drab, whitewashed walls. The passage narrowed to a single-tracked tube. Hoan ignored the red and green signal bull's-eyes but he counted very carefully the spaced blue lights that mark off distances in the Subway. He knew exactly his objective, the point where the shoreline ends and there is over the tunnel only a hundred yards of silt and the—river.

Here it was, a niche in the side-wall making a place of refuge for a trackwalker trapped between trains. Hoan knelt in the recess, placed his bag on the ground, opened it very carefully. It was almost filled by an oblong steel box and within this there was enough of a certain explosive to smash the tube and let the river into the tunnel.

Hoan fished two coils of wire out of the bag, one end of each attached to opposite ends of the steel bomb. The free end of one he wrapped around the nearest rail, making sure that the contact was firm. From the lining of his coat, he drew a slender bamboo rod and fastened to its tip the free end of the second wire.

The rails were humming now, with the sound of an approaching train. Hoan shrank back into the recess, waiting for it to pass. When it had gone by he would reach out and touch the tip of the rod he held to the third rail.

The oncoming train sent its thunder before it. There would be nothing left of Hoan after the explosion. That was unavoidable. The whole carefully worked out scheme could not be left to the vagaries of any mechanism. Only the human hand was sure not to fail—only the hand of Hoan. Hoan had been very glad when that was decided. It was such an honor as few men merit, this opportunity to die in the service of the Emperor.

Kusai had been jealous. A banal role had been assigned to him, to remain behind to make certain that nothing interfered with the plant that would place blame for the disaster on the representative of the Ogpu.

This last moment of waiting was hard to bear, however, with sound deafening Hoan, with the gale of that rushing train a tornado screaming across his niche. Moment? It was eternal. Something must have happened to the train. Hoan dared to peer out past the corner of the recess.

It was a juggernaut, red-eyed and green-eyed, roaring down upon him. A juggernaut he would destroy, hurling a tidal wave of waters after its thunderbolt when it had passed. A black splotch blotted its front—a monstrous black form on the little shelf projecting beyond the train's closed front door, a thing of black, swirling draperies clinging to the little chains across the door with one black gloved hand, while another stretched out before it, clenching a queerly thick-barreled, flaring-muzzled pistol!

Hoan saw this great black man-bat in a flash, saw that the finger curled on the trigger of that weird gun was not black but scarlet. His own hand darted under his lapel, snapped out with a gun, and he was firing at the grotesque Thing.

The crack of Hoan's gun was lost in the thunder but he saw the black draperies jump to the bullet. Once more! Fine spray spat at him from Red Finger's weapon, spat into his brain. He went down, down into oblivion, but just as darkness claimed him he saw that black bat swoop from the front of the train—

"It didn't work, Hoan," a voice came from the grotesque shape. "There will be no torrent of indignation sweeping this land against the nation upon whom you planned to foist the blame for the outrage you schemed, sweeping it into war allied with your Empire and making certain the defeat of your Empire's enemy."

"Kill me, Red Finger," Hoan begged.

"No, Hoan. I shall not kill you. I shall let you go, and the secret of what you tried to do shall remain with me."

The Oriental rose to his feet. He turned and went totteringly off up the long slope of the Subway's tunnel. He went to death, despite the forebearance of him who had defeated him. To death by the sword of a samurai, inserted into the bowels in accordance with the proper ritual, in accordance with the immemorial rites of the hari-kari.

DUSK was creeping into Fourth Avenue when Ford Duane came sleepily to the door of his shop. Weariness lined his face, but under his drooped eyelids there was a glint of content.

Otto Rumpf peered near-sightedly at him. "Ach," he quavered. "You look better."

"Yes," Ford Duane sighed. "I enjoyed my sleep. It was very restful. For sometime I should feel—at peace."


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