Authors: G. Wayman Jones
THE PHANTOM DETECTIVE #1:
THE EMPEROR OF DEATH
by G. WAYMAN JONES
Wildside Press, LLC
The Emperor of Death
originally appeared in the February, 1933 issue of
magazine, copyright © 1933 by Standard Magazines, Inc.
This edition copyright © 2007 by Wildside Press LLC.
All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER I: TREASON!
CHAPTER II: THE EYE OF DEATH
CHAPTER III: THE PHANTOM MEETS THE FOE
CHAPTER IV: PAPERS OF DEATH
CHAPTER V: THE MEETING
CHAPTER VI: ENTER THE DOPE
CHAPTER VII: THE CRIPPLE
CHAPTER VIII: THE MAD RED STRIKES
CHAPTER IX: HESTERBERG’S WORD
CHAPTER X: HEARING BUT NOT SEEING
CHAPTER XI: A BARGAIN FOR LIFE
CHAPTER XII: THE VIGIL
CHAPTER XIII: “I CAN’T TALK”
CHAPTER XIV: RUBY
CHAPTER XV: JUDGE PINELLI
CHAPTER XVI: HESTERBERG STAKES ALL
CHAPTER XVII: THE PHANTOM TAKES THE TRAIL
CHAPTER XVIII: EDGETOWN
CHAPTER XIX: AN OLD TRICK
CHAPTER XX: THE GAMBLE OF LIFE
RICHARD CURTIS VAN LOAN stood in the friendly darkness of a tenement doorway, his face buried in the ample collar of his overcoat. From time to time, his alert eyes swept the dimly lit street as if in impatient search of something.
A big black town car slowly wended its way through the traffic toward him. Van Loan sighed with the air of a man who has relieved his fears, and stepped out on the edge of the curb. His slouch hat was pulled down over his eyes, his chin still buried in his coat. The driver of the car could not have recognized him even if he had turned his well-trained head, which he didn’t. Van Loan entered the car without raising his head. He picked up the speaking tube and said:
“I think you know where.”
The chauffeur nodded, and the purring car started forward silently through the streets of Baltimore.
As they passed through the town, Van Loan thrust his hand in his coat pocket, and, pushing back his head, hastily adjusted a black silk mask across his eyes. Now satisfied that he was beyond recognition, he no longer sank his firm, square chin in his collar.
He leaned back in the seat and lit a cigarette, secure in the knowledge that he had not been observed, quite confident that this esoteric mission of his was not known to his enemies. He smoked placidly, utterly unaware that peril, in the form of a black Lincoln sedan, followed close behind him.
They were but twenty miles out of Washington when the Lincoln swept in to the attack. A motor pounded somewhere behind them. A horn blared raucously. A blackness, darker than the darkness of the night, swept along the road, swerved inward forcing Van Loan’s car to the dangerous soft shoulders of the Number One Highway.
Brakes locked, screamed, and threw an acrid stench into the air. A man’s voice shouted. Both cars stopped dead, the hood of Van Loan’s car touching the Lincoln’s mudguard.
Cursing the false sense of security which had paralyzed his normal alertness, Van Loan sprang to the door of the car, a snub-nosed automatic in his hand. His mouth was set in a grim white line as he stepped out onto the running board to challenge his enemies of the night.
But those enemies, apparently, were more than willing to meet him. Three black shapes whirled through the darkness. Van Loan’s gun spat twice. Red streaked black. He heard a cry of pain. Then the trio of flying shapes completed their journey. They landed upon him, knocking the breath from his body, seizing the wrist that held the weapon. A fist sank deep in the pit of his stomach. He went down as if an avalanche had struck him.
Yet he retained his consciousness. He heard a harsh voice cry: “Get the cars out on the road. Hurry. There’s little time to waste.”
Van Loan lay on the ground held there by one man now. The others had gone in answer to the orders of the harsh voice. In Van Loan’s consciousness there remained a single salient thought, a command which every living nerve in his body knew that it must obey.
He must not let them take his mask from his face!
Already his captor was bending over him, an evil grin on his face, his hand outstretched. He assumed evidently, that his victim was already knocked out. His fingers touched the edge of the black silk mask, for the retention of which Dick Van Loan had already resolved to give his life.
He summoned up every ounce of his energy, every tithe of his strength. His clenched fist came up from the ground. His knuckles crashed into flesh. The other man yelled, and fell backward. Van Loan sprang to his feet fighting for the wind that had been knocked from his body a moment before. He heard an alarmed voice from the car say: “What the hell —?”
Then he waited no longer. He ran from the road — ran as if all the hounds of hell were at his heels, and disappeared into the friendly foliage whose concealing qualities were enhanced by the heavy blanket of the night.
Their voices followed him, though their feet could not. A string of oaths ripped through the night. “You fools. He’s gone. We’ve lost him. Get that car out. Tie up that chauffeur. There’s one thing we can do before he gets to Washington. Hurry!”
Van Loan ran on. He turned, essaying to keep a course parallel to the road. A root suddenly snaked across his instep. He fought desperately to keep his balance. Then he fell. His head struck something hard and metallic. Blackness which put the night to shame flooded his brain. He lay there quietly, silent as the woods which surrounded him.
A half an hour ticked past. Thirty minutes of time of which Dick Van Loan would never be conscious. Then he stirred, groaned. His eyes opened. For a moment he lay perfectly still, orienting himself, collecting his faculties. Then his hand shot to his face.
His mask was still there!
But the momentary exultation that followed the realization of that fact was short-lived. In a single mental picture he abruptly recalled the events of the evening. He sprang to his feet, disregarding the dull twinging pain in his head. Then he plunged through the underbrush toward the road again.
His automatic had been lost in the brawl of half an hour ago. But nestling comfortably in his snug shoulder holster was another. He reached for it as the white line in the center of the highway became visible through the trees.
Half a dozen big cars whizzed by him. Then he saw the Ford. It was a dilapidated affair, though capable of forty miles an hour. As it came nearer he stepped into the center of the road and waved his hands, taking care that the headlights should play upon his weapon.
The Ford stopped and an alarmed black face thrust its head from the open window.
“Listen, mister, I ain’t got nothin’. It ain’t no use holding me up.”
Van Loan took no notice of his words. Instead, he climbed into the car beside the black man. He brandished his gun menacingly.
“I’m not holding you up,” he said. “I want you to drive me to Washington as fast as you can. Do it and you’ll make twenty dollars. Stall and you’ll get into trouble.”
The black man became affable. “Twenty bucks? Sure, boss. I’ll take you to Florida for that. What part of Washington does you want to go to?”
Van Loan’s eyes twinkled behind the mask. In a low tone he whispered the address of his destination.
The driver’s eyes popped, and the fear that had been upon him now evolved to amazement — and a tremendous respect. The car rattled on toward the capital.
The black limousine that Van Loan had left Baltimore in rolled silently down Pennsylvania Avenue. It slithered to a stop. A man of Van Loan’s height and build got out. On his face was a black silk mask. He and the limousine moved in opposite directions.
The masked man walked along beside a grilled fence until he came to a sentry in a marine’s uniform. The man approached the gate that the sailor guarded. A rifle barred his way.
The masked man met the sentry’s inquiring gaze.
“Andrew Jackson,” he said quietly.
The rifle was replaced on the marine’s shoulder.
“Pass,” he said.
The masked man walked through the gate along a gravel path that apparently led to the rear of a large house. He climbed four steps to a small porch at the back of the house. A burly man in evening clothes put a hand on his wrist.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
The masked man’s lips smiled ever so faintly.
“Andrew Jackson,” he said again.
The burly man’s hand left his wrist and respectfully touched his forehead. “Go ahead,” he said. “He’s waiting.”
The masked man entered the house. It was a large house with mazes of stairways and doors. Yet the nocturnal visitor did not falter. He walked with the air of a man who knew every vagary of the mansion’s architecture.
On the third floor, he left the stairs and walked down a long corridor. Before a closed door stood a hard-faced man wearing a derby. The masked man approached him.
“Andrew Jackson,” he said confidently.
The man in the derby nodded, then tapped deferentially upon the door. A tired voice said: “Come in.”
The masked man disappeared and the door closed behind him.
He stood just inside the doorway. It was a large well-lighted room with drawn curtains. In the far corner was an enormous desk, behind which sat a kindly-faced elderly gentleman, with weary, very tired eyes. The man in the mask bowed, walked across the room and took the proffered hand of the other.
“It is an honor to meet such a courageous gentleman as the Phantom,” said the man behind the desk. “I am glad you have come.”
The masked man bowed again. “If you think I can serve my country, I am only too glad to put myself at your service.”
The other nodded, then lapsed into a thoughtful silence. Then he cleared his throat and spoke.
“You have been called in,” he said, “at the suggestion of Elmer Havens, who is the only man in the world knowing your true identity. I know your reputation, and it is my belief that you are the one man who can aid us in our fight.”
The masked man said simply, “I shall do my best.”
The other nodded. He continued: “Two things beset our country today. One is the world-wide financial depression, the other, the dominance of the criminal and gangster. The power of the underworld must be broken. Recently, a man has risen to combine all the nefarious forces of crime. Thus far the one point in the favor of the law has been the jealousy, the lack of organization of the criminal. But now this man — this genius, has come to rally all the armies of crime to his banner.
“I called him genius. He is. I have here the reports from our agents. I can give you no further information than these reports. I cannot help you officially. I place my trust in you. I place the trust of the country in you. You must do your best with little information against terrific odds. Here are the papers. Are there any questions?”
The masked man took the leather despatch case which the elderly gentleman with the very tired eyes handed to him.
“No questions,” he said. “However I pledge you all my resources. My life, if need be.”
The elderly gentleman rose and extended his hand. The masked man accepted it. For a moment they stood there gazing into each other’s eyes.
“Well, good luck, Mr. Phantom,” said the man behind the desk. “May God be with you. Good-by.”
The masked man bowed. “Good-by,” he said. He half turned toward the door, then suddenly catching himself, he faced his host once more and backed slowly from the room, opening the door behind his own back.
It was not an empty gesture, rather an adherence to ordinary etiquette. For no citizen may turn his back on the President of the United States!
The gentleman with the weary eyes watched the door close, then with a sigh turned back to the affairs of state.
The man in the mask retraced his steps through the White House, down the gravel path, until at last he came into the street again from the gate at which the marine kept his untiring vigil.
He walked slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue which was now deserted. The only sign of life he saw was the burly figure of a traffic cop some two blocks away.He started suddenly as he saw a movement behind one of the stretching trees that lined the avenue. His hand fell to his hip pocket. But too late. A figure took shape in the gloom. Sprang. Something black and heavy hurtled through the air and came down on the masked man’s head. A hand snatched the leather dispatch case from under his arm. Two blocks away, the policeman’s whistle blew.
And Dick Van Loan, regretting that he did not have time to search the man further, took a hasty glance at the policeman who raced toward him, then started off almost twice as fast in the opposite direction. As he went he thanked his lucky stars that he had been in time; and also that the reputation of the President of the United States was not one of loquaciousness.
THE EYE OF DEATH
VAN LOAN ceased his contemplation of the documents on his desk and lighted an Egyptian cigarette. A frown wrinkled his brow, and for a moment he stared blankly into space. He was frankly worried. Apparently there was more in this affair than he had thought at first.
When Havens first suggested he take this job, he had done it in the spirit of a lark, the same spirit that had prompted him to handle other cases which had made his name a byword among decent people and a Nemesis to the underworld.
It was Havens, the publisher of a dozen newspapers, who had suggested that he become the Phantom and attempt to solve certain cases for the papers that the police had failed upon; and it was Havens who had suggested this latest undertaking.
Yet Van Loan was positive that only three living men had known of his appointment with the President — the latter, Havens and himself. Yet he had been waylaid by someone who seemed to know as much of his plans as he did himself.
If this super-intelligence, regarding whom the meager documents on his desk concerned themselves, had so easily discovered what he had regarded as a secret impossible of transpiration, the task he had so lightly assumed would probably prove to be the most dangerous adventure in his checkered, perilous career.
However, if he was worried he was most certainly not afraid. Richard Curtis Van Loan had stood shoulder to shoulder with the reaper too often to fear anything living — or for that matter, dead.
Born to society and wealth, the War had taught him the utter futility of the pampered life he had led in his youth. On the flaming Eastern front he had learned to grapple with death daily. Further, he had learned to like it.
Peace-time adjustment was hard — impossible. That was the reason he had so eagerly jumped at his best friend’s suggestion to combat crime in the role of the Phantom. And as the underworld would attest vehemently, he had been thoroughly successful.
To alleviate the boredom that attacked him he had thoroughly studied and no less thoroughly mastered the various arts which would render his war on crime more effective. His knowledge of criminology vas perhaps equaled by only one man — the incomparable Lombroso.
His histrionic ability, and his talent for make-up were not surpassed by any actor that ever trod the boards. He had cultivated a gift of mimicry and ventriloquism which had stood him in good stead on more than one occasion. He had but to hear a voice once, in order to be able to imitate it perfectly.
Thus it was that the Phantom had been signally successful when lesser sleuths had failed. Van Loan had perfected his chosen art to such a point that beside him the average professional detective was a lumbering tyro.
Yet, despite the fact that he had risen to the top of his chosen profession, he was not altogether happy. In order to pursue the hazardous career of the Phantom, which he created, he was compelled to forego the things which any normal man may have for the asking. Love, romance, children, a home — these things were not for Richard Van Loan. These tranquil joys were not for a man who faced death daily, who gambled his life with criminals every moment. No, all life is a compromise and the compromises which he had been compelled to make in order to create the Phantom were no small things.
Yet, he would rather have it this way. Though at times when he thought of Muriel, his heart lay heavy within him. Muriel was Frank Havens’s daughter, and under other circumstances, Van often thought of her as his bride. She possessed all the charms and virtues that he would have asked in his wife. But he realized he could never realize that dream. For the Phantom had been born from the ashes of romance.
He sighed and glanced impatiently at the clock. Havens should be here by now, and he was eager to report the events of the night before to his friend, the only man who knew the true identity of him who the world called the Phantom.
He lit his third cigarette from the butt of its predecessor, when the phone jangled impatiently and the operator announced:
“Mr. Havens is calling Mr. Smith.”
“Havens? Good. Send him in.”
He hung up and a few minutes later the door opened to admit a tall gray-haired man of about forty-two. Van sprang to his feet and greeted his visitor cordially, with an extended hand. Rather, to his surprise, Havens made no move to take it. Instead the publisher sat down on the couch, and said in a low, hoarse, tone:
“What’s the time?”
Van glanced at his watch.
“Ten to twelve,” he said casually. But his eyes studied the other’s face with concern. Havens did not look like his usual self. His normally keen eyes were dull and glazed. His voice, usually alive and animated, was sodden, expressionless. Further, he who had yesterday been so excited about the Phantom’s latest adventure seemed to have little concern with it today.
Van puffed at his cigarette slowly. “Feeling a bit under the weather?” he asked.
Havens raised his eyes and stared at the speaker. As Van met his gaze he felt a little chill run down his spine. For if ever hate and murder were written in a human face they were indelibly stamped on the features of Havens at that moment.
Van Loan was puzzled and his worry increased.
“Well,” he said with a nonchalance he did not feel, “I had something of an adventure last night.”
“Yes,” said Havens in a horrible monotone. “What time is it?”
That made the second time he had asked that question in five minutes. Van decided to humor him until he found out what the trouble was.
“Five to twelve,” he said quietly. Then he crossed the room and dropped a fraternal hand on the publisher’s shoulder.
“Listen, Frank,” he said. “We’ve been pals a long time. Now tell me what’s the matter with you? You look all in.”
Again that chill ran down his spine as Havens looked up at him. A cruel smile distorted the publisher’s lips. He rose slowly to his feet. His hands trembled. He seemed in the grip of some terrible emotion.
“It’s nearly twelve o’clock,” he said thickly.
For the third time Van glanced at his watch. Then there came to his ears the slow tolling of the sonorous bell in the Metropolitan Tower.
Havens stood stock still listening. For twelve long seconds he did not move, save for the slight tremble in his hands. Then, at last, as the final note reverberated and died away, he uttered a shrill cry. His hand flashed to his pocket in a lightning-like gesture. It came into view again holding a slim pearl-handled revolver.
He whipped it up and, aiming point blank at his best friend, he pulled the trigger.
“There,” he cried, in a mad frenzy, “you die at noon. Master, I have obeyed.”
But Van Loan was not taken unawares. He had been expecting something to happen, and the fact that he did not know what it would be did not render him any the less ready for it.
He leaped aside with the speed and grace of a panther. The steel slug from Havens’s revolver whizzed over his head and buried itself in the wall. Then, in a flying tackle, Van crashed against the other’s knees and brought him to the floor.
And in that second, in that instant when his life had hung in the balance, he knew the answer. In a single swift illuminating flash, his brain saw the only possible explanation.
Havens lay on the floor with Van’s strong arms still about his thighs. The revolver had slithered underneath the couch. Havens stared blankly up at the ceiling. Then suddenly Van released him. He bent over the publisher, staring steadily into his eyes.
“Listen, Frank,” he said. “Listen to me. It’s Van. Van. Do you understand?”
He bent closer and struck Havens twice on the cheek with the flat of his hand. Then he snapped his fingers in front of the other’s eyes. During this peculiar process, he kept up a steady stream of words.
“Frank! It’s Van! Van! Come out of it. Out of it.”
He accompanied the last word with another stinging blow on the check. Then he breathed easier as he saw the dull glaze suddenly leave the other’s eyes. Life seemed to return to his dead irises. His face lost cruel relentlessness. Van helped him up and sat him in a chair.
Normal once more, Havens stared at his friend in a bewildered manner.
“Van,” he said in a questioning, puzzled voice, “where did you come from?” He looked around the room, recognized it, and went on: “How did I get here. What —”
“Take it easy,” said Van gravely. “I’ll explain everything to you. You see that?”
He pointed to the revolver on the floor. Havens’s eyes followed his hand. The publisher nodded.
“Well,” said Van, “you just tried to kill me with that.”
Horror shone in Havens’s face.
Van nodded. “It wasn’t your fault, though. You were hypnotized.”
“My God,” said Havens, now thoroughly comprehending. “Go on, man. Tell me what happened.”
Briefly Van told him of his own deeds since he had arrived in the apartment. When he finished, Havens stared at him aghast.
“But, good heavens,” he exclaimed. “Why? Why should anyone hypnotize me? Why should anyone want to make me kill you?”
“Because,” said Van gravely, “you are the only living person who knows the identity of the Phantom. They can’t kill the Phantom, because they don’t know who he is. But they could hypnotize you and while under the influence tell you to kill the Phantom, because you knew what they did not. You knew that I am the Phantom!”
Havens nodded slowly as the reason of Van’s explanation came to him.
“But who?” he said. “I appreciate the fact that you’ve made enemies among crooks. But who is so diabolically clever to be able to conceive and carry out a scheme of this sort?”
“The same person that waylaid me last night.”
“But I sent my car for you? Didn’t it get there? If not, where’s the car? Where’s the chauffeur?”
“The car picked me up in Baltimore as per schedule,” said Van, “before we got waylaid. Your chauffeur is probably a corpse somewhere in Maryland. God knows where the car is.”
Havens nearly bounced out of his chair.
“What? You mean you never saw —”
“No. I never saw him.”
“But I received a confidential message from Washington late last night saying that you had been there.”
“Not me,” said Van grimly. “That was the enemy impersonating me.”
“But who? Who is this enemy?”
“That,” said Van very gravely, “is what we must find out if we care at all about living.”
There was a short grim silence in the room.
“Now,” said Van, “you’re beginning to realize what I came to realize last night. We’re dealing with a great man. A man capable of giving genius to crime. A man capable of welding the whole underworld together in a war on society. I have some papers here which give me certain information. Not a great deal, but at least something to work on.”
He broke off for a moment, then told Havens the whole story of his adventures of the night before.
“Now,” he went on, “if we can find out who it was that hypnotized you, we have a real first-class clue. Think, now! Did you come in contact with any suspicious characters this morning. Anyone at all, who you think might have hypnotized you?”
Havens wrinkled his brows and thought profoundly for a minute or two. Then he shook his head.
“No-o,” he said slowly. “I can’t say that I did. I — I’ve got it. The cripple!”
Van leaned forward in his chair. His eyes shone eagerly.
“Go on,” he said excitedly. “What cripple?”
“Well,” said Havens, “of course, I’ve no evidence to go on. But his eyes. I’ll never forget his eyes. I grew dizzy looking at him.”
“Go on,” said Van. “Give me all the details you can think of. Where did you meet him?”
“I ran into him as I was leaving the Pneumatic Rubber Company’s directors’ meeting. I left with Bursage — you know Bursage. He’s head of the board. Well, we were going out of the building together when this cripple beggar came up to us whining something about a nickel for a cup of coffee.”
Van nodded and scrawled something on a desk pad. Havens continued: “I reached in my pocket for some silver before I really saw him. Then when I looked at him, I noticed his eyes. He was dirty and unshaven, yet those eyes stared out of his head like glittering diamonds in a setting of mud. I never saw anything like it. They were filled with hatred — hatred and dominance.”
“Dominance is hardly a quality you’d expect to find in the eyes of a bum,” observed Van.
“True. I thought of that. As I handed him a quarter, his hand touched mine, and our gazes met. As he looked at me I got a trifle dizzy. My head buzzed. It was all over in a minute and I paid no attention to it. But I distinctly remember that I was frightfully dizzy at the time.”
Van nodded. “Did Bursage notice anything?” he asked.
“No. I mentioned the cripple to him as we walked away. He dismissed my ideas. Said the man was just an ordinary tramp. He saw nothing out of the ordinary about him.”
“Did you notice anything out of the ordinary about him, except for his eyes?”
“No. But, God, Van, those eyes were enough. I tell you, I’ve never seen anything that had such a weird effect on me. It was awful.”
“Awful enough,” said Van grimly. “They were the eyes of death. The eyes that we must find if ever we are to break the power of the man who plans to devastate society.”
THE PHANTOM MEETS THE FOE
HAVENS sat silent for a moment, as his mind absorbed the dire situation that they faced. When he spoke his voice trembled slightly, for Havens was a man of imagination.
“Does anyone know you’re here, Van?”
“Not a soul. I checked in early, this morning, under the alias of Smith. You’re the only living soul who knows it.”
Havens nodded, satisfied. Then he asked with a clouded brow:
we fighting, Van? Who is it? What is his aim? Have you no information?”
Van jerked his thumb in the direction of the papers that scattered the escritoire.
“Only what’s there. His name’s Hesterberg. From those Department of Justice reports, he’s mad, and he’s a Red. They’ve got a good line on him up till three years ago. Then it becomes mostly guess work. Anyway, he’s got a good head on him. But it seems he’s hipped on Communism. He’s drawn pay from Russia for years. And since he quit the university, where he was Professor of Economics, he’s devoted himself to breaking down all American ideals.
“He’s plotting a tremendous, world-wide revolution. As I understand it, his aim is to get all the civilized nations at each other’s throats through his machinations; to tear down governments and law by his alliance with the underworld, and then, when we’re weak and impotent, to crush us all with the mighty Red armies.”
Havens reached for a cigarette.
“A nice customer,” he said. “God, Van, if he can force his will on people as easily as he did on me, we’re done for.”
A vague fear was reflected in the publisher’s eyes as he spoke. Van Loan crossed the room and slapped him confidentially on the shoulder.
“Don’t let it get you, old man,” he said. “You’re naturally upset after what you went through this morning. Hesterberg hasn’t won yet. He —”
His words trailed off into nothingness as there came a sharp staccato rap at the door. Havens’s eyes stared into the detective’s.
“Who’s that?” he asked in a low tense voice.
Van loan stood perfectly still for a moment, yet the complete immobility of his body indicated that his mind was functioning smoothly, rapidly.
“You’ve been followed,” he said in a low voice. “Some one’s followed you to see if you really killed the Phantom. Open the door. I’ll stand back here. Pretend you’re upset. Act as if you’d really killed me, until I think of some way to turn this break to our advantage.”
Havens rose and walked toward the door, while Van carefully flattened himself up against the heavy drapes near the window. Havens opened the door, and did his best to look like a man who has just slain his best friend. His hands trembled as he held the door ajar.
His head was hung on his chest, and his voice broke as he asked:
“What is it?”
A burly man pushed past him, and glanced around the apartment.
Havens clutched at him.
“What is it? What do you want?” he demanded in a shrill voice.
The other pushed him aside brutally. “I’m looking for a corpse,” he said callously. “Did you do your little job?”
Havens uttered an exclamation of fear and shrank up against the wall. The visitor laughed harshly.
“Where’s the body?” he said.
Havens caught Van’s eye. With the air of a man who has been cornered he nodded his head toward the bathroom. The stranger took a step in that direction.
Van Loan made a swift movement with each hand. His right whipped an automatic from his shoulder holster, while the left slipped a black silk mask over his head. Unconcerned, the intruder walked toward the bathroom and looked in. Then he turned savagely to Havens.
“You rat! Don’t lie to me. Where’s the body? Where’s the Phantom?”
“The Phantom’s here. Both his body and his soul. Put up your hands!”
Havens laughed grimly. Their visitor turned an astonished face to the masked man who held the gun aimed directly at his heart. For a moment, Hesterberg’s henchman was too utterly amazed to move. Then an exclamation fell from his lips.
“God!” he said. “God!”
“So you’re rather surprised that I’m alive?”
“It’s never failed before,” said the man speaking more to himself than the others.
“But it’s failed now,” said Van. “But there’ll be another killing here that won’t fail unless you give me some information. Now talk.”
By now the stranger had taken a grip on himself.
“Talk?” he repeated. “About what?”
“Just talk,” said Van softly, but his eyes were hard. “About anything. But particularly about a Mad Red called Hesterberg, or about a cripple with remarkable eyes that impels men to go gunning for their friends. Best of all, tell me, where I can meet these charming gentlemen.”
The stranger frowned, opened his mouth, then closed it again. He stared steadily at the gun.
“I’m not talking,” he said laconically.
“Yes, you are,” contradicted Van. “You’re talking or you’re dying. I don’t bluff. I mean it.”
The other gazed at him steadily. Whatever his faults may have been, cowardice was not among them.
“I die anyway,” he said simply. “If I do talk, I’ll get worse from someone else than you can ever give me.”
“I’ll count three,” said Van, and his voice was jagged ice. “Then you get it.”
He began to count in a slow deliberate voice, and for the second time that day, death was in the room.
But the henchman of Hesterberg was not of the breed that waits for the reaper supinely. With a sudden swift motion he ducked his head. At the same moment his hand flashed to his hip. Something black and ominous appeared in his hand. Two staccato reports ripped through the room. One steel slug tore angrily through the plaster of the wall. The other crashed into human flesh, ripped a heart to shreds and wrenched a life from a body.
Van stood over the crimson torso of his fallen foe. He spoke rapidly to Havens. “Get out,” he said. “I can handle this better alone. I’ll communicate with you through our usual channels.”
For a moment Havens thought of protesting, but he had learned that when the Phantom issued orders it was expedient to obey. Silently he let himself out the door.
Van Loan bent swiftly over the corpse and ran facile fingers through the other’s pockets. He piled up on the table the articles he took from the dead man, then regarded them with no little wonder.
First, there was a red band, about six inches wide, with the Number 8 painted on it in white. Its use he could only conjecture. But he was quite familiar with the second object, though it was difficult to understand what a man was doing with it in the heart of New York at high noon.
It was a small rubberized silk gas mask of the type which covers the nose, leaving the mouth free. Van stared at these for some time. Then he began to go through the sheaf of papers that he had taken from the man’s inside pocket in the hope of finding some clue that would put him directly on the trail of the Mad Red.
Luck was with him. His pulses pounded with excitement as he stared at the yellow slip of paper in his hand. Typed neatly upon it was the message that would, God willing, give him the first personal contact with the man who had twice tried to slay the Phantom.
FOR NUMBER 8
You will appear at midnight at the Morton Bank. You will wear your identification band. You will bring your gas mask. I shall lead the horde in person. You shall wait for me and remain by my side while the work is done.
Van Loan sat down. He lit a cigarette and for a long time remained lost in thought. He was impervious to the bloody figure upon the floor. Impervious to everything save the fact that at midnight he was prepared to risk his life in order to come close to the man that he had vowed to track down.
The message was by no means clear to him. Then, too, there was always the alternative of calling in the police. Undoubtedly, the bluecoats, massed in sufficient numbers, could frustrate whatever plan Hesterberg had made. Yet that course would get the Phantom no closer to the Red madman.
No, to be successful, he, the Phantom, must play it alone. Number 8 had probably been sent to see that Havens carried out the instructions of the crippled hypnotist. Or, if not, he had come on his own to see the Phantom’s finish. In any event, it was a break Van could not afford to pass up.
Here at last was the chance to meet Hesterberg, to find out the man’s plans, and then to foil him. Once again, the Phantom would play a lone hand, spurning the aid of the police of the city, spurning all aid save that which his keen alert brain and his steady, courageous heart and hand could give him.
He glanced at his watch. It was almost five o’clock. That gave him over seven hours until his rendezvous. Until then he would rest, he decided. He might need that rest later. He glanced down at the body on the floor, and shrugged his shoulders. He had no time to bother with that.
He would check out and leave it there. After all, who could connect the entirely mythical Mr. Smith who had registered that morning with the Phantom?
He threw away his cigarette, removed his coat and lay down upon the bed. It was characteristic of him that neither the hazard that lay seven hours before him, nor the ugly shattered thing that lay on the floor, prevented him from falling into peaceful, untroubled slumber.
He awoke shortly before eleven o’clock. Rested and fresh, he sprang from the bed. After attending to his ablutions, he sat down before a mirror, and opened a black makeup box on the dressing table. Deftly, his fingers drew the sticks of grease paint across his face.
His complexion slowly changed color; his features gradually became those of another man. And when at last he had finished, he stared into the mirror carefully scrutinizing his disguise. And the face that stared so grimly back at him was the face of Number 8 of Hesterberg’s henchmen, whose corpse lay stiff and stark in the other room.
As he rose from his seat his eyes fell on the photograph of Muriel Havens on the table. Her limpid eyes stared at him from the brown paper. For a moment, he stood stock still. A sigh escaped from his lips. His heart was heavy. Then with the air of a man resolved to return to duty, no matter where his heart lay, he turned abruptly away, and, going into the other room, occupied himself with the gruesome task of divesting the dead man of his clothing.
At exactly three minutes before midnight the Phantom shot a quick glance out of the window of his cab at the illuminated dial of the clock that decorated the marble façade of the Morton National Bank Building. He was two short blocks from his destination; two short blocks from his mysterious rendezvous with Hesterberg, the Mad Red.
His lips curled in a thin, ironical smile. So be it! At last he was to come to grips with the fatal personality that hung like an oppressive pall over the money marts of the world.
The ornate pile of the bank loomed up a block away. The Phantom rapped smartly on the glass partition that separated him from the driver with hard knuckles. His cab wheeled into the curb and pulled up short with a harsh grinding of brakes.
One eye on the hands of the clock that slowly jerked over to three minutes of the hour, Van flung a bill at the cabbie, heard him shift into gear and wheel away. He paused a moment, irresolute, at the curb. The minute hand of the clock moved over another notch. Two minutes to go till the fatal hour struck.
He experienced a sharp tightening of the nerves along his spine as he traversed the last block on foot. He was aware of a strange eerie tenseness in the air; the atmosphere was super-charged with an uncanny chill of portentous doom.
Suddenly there was a black hole in the night where the brilliantly illumined dial of the clock had been but a moment before. The abrupt failure of that symbol of financial integrity that had shone down on Wall Street for the past sixty years, came as a ominous signal — a potential warning.
But of what?
The Phantom paused in his strides for a moment. And it was then that he realized for the first time that not only the lights of the clock had failed but all other lights along the canyoned thoroughfare as well. The knowledge came to him as a distinct shock. For a panicky second he stumbled forward in an abysmal tunnel of stygian gloom. What a moment before had been a mazda spangled street of granite was now empty of all light.
Empty of all light, yes; but not of life.
The nerves of the Phantom snapped out of their momentary lapse. He was distinctly aware of a horde of strangely masked figures rushing by him with purposeful haste. They seemed to materialize out of the very gloom of the street, that a moment before had been empty of all save himself.
They brushed by him, grotesque, goggle-eyed, long-nosed gargoyles in the heavy pall of darkness. The Phantom sensed without seeing that they were all converging on the massive doors of the bank building.
He measured stride with the surging throng about him, vainly trying to estimate their numbers. Then, a moment later a sound — a strange and sibilant sound — a sinister sound, pierced through the mental arithmetic of his brain. His finely arched nostrils quivered; his throat was suddenly parched with an acid streak of fire!
Gas! He understood it all then — those hideous masks for faces. Hesterberg was marshalling his forces to the attack under a barrage of gas. The noxious poison flicked at the lining of his lungs. With a practice and skill perfected in the Argonne he laced his own gas mask over his head and charged up the granite steps of the bank on the double quick.
A sharp pencil of light from a pocket flash played over the fantastic group of six around the bank’s door. The Phantom’s heart kicked out a steady hundred and thirty as it finally came to rest on him, picking out the bold letter eight on the sleeve of his coat.
A sharp cultured voice drilled into the Phantom’s consciousness — a voice he was never to forget.
“Good! Number 8! What word have you received?"
Some instinct, some cunning premonition told the Phantom that he was being addressed by the Mad Red himself. Twin pulses beat at his throat; the knotted veins of his gnarled hands stood out like whipcords. For a moment he was assailed with a swirl of mad chaotic emotions. Why not whip the automatic from his shoulder holster and empty its load of lethal death into the madman’s heart?
Then with Hesterberg’s sharp reiterated phrase came sanity. Van had no desire to commit suicide just then.
“Well, Number 8 — what word — what word?”
The Phantom knew now that the inquiry concerned his own demise.
“Dead!” he answered in a clear monotone.
A sharp breath whistled through Hesterberg’s nostrils.
“Magnificent, Number 8. Stand by my right. Details 1 and 4 are in the bank by now. 5 and 2 have the building surrounded and are holding the street.” A sharp grating as of steel on steel came from behind the massive doors of the bank, to be greeted by another sharp exhalation from Hesterberg’s nostrils. “So — the door opens to us — like all other doors in the world shall open at my command.”
The six-inch portals swung slowly inward. Hard at Hesterberg’s right with the detail of men close behind them, the Phantom moved swiftly across the threshold of the bank.
PAPERS OF DEATH