The War Terror by Arthur B. Reeve
Chapter I. The War Terror
"I must see Professor Kennedy--where is he?--I must see him, for God's sake!"
I was almost carried off my feet by the inrush of a wild-eyed girl, seemingly half crazed with excitement, as she cried out Craig's name.
Startled by my own involuntary exclamation of surprise which followed the vision that shot past me as I opened our door in response to a sudden, sharp series of pushes at the buzzer, Kennedy bounded swiftly toward me, and the girl almost flung herself upon him.
"Why, Miss--er--Miss--my dear young lady--what's the matter?" he stammered, catching her by the arm gently.
As Kennedy forced our strange visitor into a chair, I observed that she was all a-tremble. Her teeth fairly chattered. Alternately her nervous, peaceless hands clutched at an imaginary something in the air, as if for support, then, finding none, she would let her wrists fall supine, while she gazed about with quivering lips and wild, restless eyes. Plainly, there was something she feared. She was almost over the verge of hysteria.
She was a striking girl, of medium height and slender form, but it was her face that fascinated me, with its delicately molded features, intense unfathomable eyes of dark brown, and lips that showed her idealistic, high-strung temperament.
"Please," he soothed, "get yourself together, please--try! What is the matter?"
She looked about, as if she feared that the very walls had eyes and ears. Yet there seemed to be something bursting from her lips that she could not restrain.
"My life," she cried wildly, "my life is at stake. Oh--help me, help me! Unless I commit a murder to-night, I shall be killed myself!"
The words sounded so doubly strange from a girl of her evident refinement that I watched her narrowly, not sure yet but that we had a plain case of insanity to deal with.
"A murder?" repeated Kennedy incredulously. "You commit a murder?"
Her eyes rested on him, as if fascinated, but she did not flinch as she replied desperately, "Yes--Baron Kreiger--you know, the German diplomat and financier, who is in America raising money and arousing sympathy with his country."
"Baron Kreiger!" exclaimed Kennedy in surprise, looking at her more keenly.
We had not met the Baron, but we had heard much about him, young, handsome, of an old family, trusted already in spite of his youth by many of the more advanced of old world financial and political leaders, one who had made a most favorable impression on democratic America at a time when such impressions were valuable.
Glancing from one of us to the other, she seemed suddenly, with a great effort, to recollect herself, for she reached into her chatelaine and pulled out a card from a case.
It read simply, "Miss Paula Lowe."
"Yes," she replied, more calmly now to Kennedy's repetition of the Baron's name, "you see, I belong to a secret group." She appeared to hesitate, then suddenly added, "I am an anarchist."
She watched the effect of her confession and, finding the look on Kennedy's face encouraging rather than shocked, went on breathlessly: "We are fighting war with war--this iron-bound organization of men and women. We have pledged ourselves to exterminate all kings, emperors and rulers, ministers of war, generals--but first of all the financiers who lend money that makes war possible."
She paused, her eyes gleaming momentarily with something like the militant enthusiasm that must have enlisted her in the paradoxical war against war.
"We are at least going to make another war impossible!" she exclaimed, for the moment evidently forgetting herself.
"And your plan?" prompted Kennedy, in the most matter-of-fact manner, as though he were discussing an ordinary campaign for social betterment. "How were you to--reach the Baron?"
"We had a drawing," she answered with amazing calmness, as if the mere telling relieved her pent-up feelings. "Another woman and I were chosen. We knew the Baron's weakness for a pretty face. We planned to become acquainted with him--lure him on."
Her voice trailed off, as if, the first burst of confidence over, she felt something that would lock her secret tighter in her breast.
A moment later she resumed, now talking rapidly, disconnectedly, giving Kennedy no chance to interrupt or guide the conversation.
"You don't know, Professor Kennedy," she began again, "but there are similar groups to ours in European countries and the plan is to strike terror and consternation everywhere in the world at once. Why, at our headquarters there have been drawn up plans and agreements with other groups and there are set down the time, place, and manner of all the--the removals."
Momentarily she seemed to be carried away by something like the fanaticism of the fervor which had at first captured her, even still held her as she recited her incredible story.
"Oh, can't you understand?" she went on, as if to justify herself. "The increase in armies, the frightful implements of slaughter, the total failure of the peace propaganda--they have all defied civilization!
"And then, too, the old, red-blooded emotions of battle have all been eliminated by the mechanical conditions of modern warfare in which men and women are just so many units, automata. Don't you see? To fight war with its own weapons--that has become the only last resort."
Her eager, flushed face betrayed the enthusiasm which had once carried her into the "Group," as she called it. I wondered what had brought her now to us.
"We are no longer making war against man," she cried. "We are making war against picric acid and electric wires!"
I confess that I could not help thinking that there was no doubt that to a certain type of mind the reasoning might appeal most strongly.
"And you would do it in war time, too?" asked Kennedy quickly.
She was ready with an answer. "King George of Greece was killed at the head of his troops. Remember Nazim Pasha, too. Such people are easily reached in time of peace and in time of war, also, by sympathizers on their own side. That's it, you see--we have followers of all nationalities."
She stopped, her burst of enthusiasm spent. A moment later she leaned forward, her clean-cut profile showing her more earnest than before. "But, oh, Professor Kennedy," she added, "it is working itself out to be more terrible than war itself!"
"Have any of the plans been carried out yet?" asked Craig, I thought a little superciliously, for there had certainly been no such wholesale assassination yet as she had hinted at.
She seemed to catch her breath. "Yes," she murmured, then checked herself as if in fear of saying too much. "That is, I--I think so."
I wondered if she were concealing something, perhaps had already had a hand in some such enterprise and it had frightened her.
Kennedy leaned forward, observing the girl's discomfiture. "Miss Lowe," he said, catching her eye and holding it almost hypnotically, "why have you come to see me?"
The question, pointblank, seemed to startle her. Evidently she had thought to tell only as little as necessary, and in her own way. She gave a little nervous laugh, as if to pass it off. But Kennedy's eyes conquered.
"Oh, can't you understand yet?" she exclaimed, rising passionately and throwing out her arms in appeal. "I was carried away with my hatred of war. I hate it yet. But now--the sudden realization of what this compact all means has--well, caused something in me to-- to snap. I don't care what oath I have taken. Oh, Professor Kennedy, you--you must save him!"
I looked up at her quickly. What did she mean? At first she had come to be saved herself. "You must save him!" she implored.
Our door buzzer sounded.
She gazed about with a hunted look, as if she felt that some one had even now pursued her and found out.
"What shall I do?" she whispered. "Where shall I go?"
"Quick--in here. No one will know," urged Kennedy, opening the door to his room. He paused for an instant, hurriedly. "Tell me-- have you and this other woman met the Baron yet? How far has it gone?"
The look she gave him was peculiar. I could not fathom what was going on in her mind. But there was no hesitation about her answer. "Yes," she replied, "I--we have met him. He is to come back to New York from Washington to-day--this afternoon--to arrange a private loan of five million dollars with some bankers secretly. We were to see him to-night--a quiet dinner, after an automobile ride up the Hudson--"
"Both of you?" interrupted Craig.
"Yes--that--that other woman and myself," she repeated, with a peculiar catch in her voice. "To-night was the time fixed in the drawing for the--"
The word stuck in her throat. Kennedy understood. "Yes, yes," he encouraged, "but who is the other woman?"
Before she could reply, the buzzer had sounded again and she had retreated from the door. Quickly Kennedy closed it and opened the outside door.
It was our old friend Burke of the Secret Service.
Without a word of greeting, a hasty glance seemed to assure him that Kennedy and I were alone. He closed the door himself, and, instead of sitting down, came close to Craig.
"Kennedy," he blurted out in a tone of suppressed excitement, "can I trust you to keep a big secret?"
Craig looked at him reproachfully, but said nothing.
"I beg your pardon--a thousand times," hastened Burke. "I was so excited, I wasn't thinking--"
"Once is enough, Burke," laughed Kennedy, his good nature restored at Burke's crestfallen appearance.
"Well, you see," went on the Secret Service man, "this thing is so very important that--well, I forgot."
He sat down and hitched his chair close to us, as he went on in a lowered, almost awestruck tone.
"Kennedy," he whispered, "I'm on the trail, I think, of something growing out of these terrible conditions in Europe that will tax the best in the Secret Service. Think of it, man. There's an organization, right here in this city, a sort of assassin's club, as it were, aimed at all the powerful men the world over. Why, the most refined and intellectual reformers have joined with the most red-handed anarchists and--"
"Sh! not so loud," cautioned Craig. "I think I have one of them in the next room. Have they done anything yet to the Baron?"
It was Burke's turn now to look from one to the other of us in unfeigned surprise that we should already know something of his secret.
"The Baron?" he repeated, lowering his voice. "What Baron?"
It was evident that Burke knew nothing, at least of this new plot which Miss Lowe had indicated. Kennedy beckoned him over to the window furthest from the door to his own room.
"What have you discovered?" he asked, forestalling Burke in the questioning. "What has happened?"
"You haven't heard, then?" replied Burke.
Kennedy nodded negatively.
"Fortescue, the American inventor of fortescite, the new explosive, died very strangely this morning."
"Yes," encouraged Kennedy, as Burke came to a full stop to observe the effect of the information.
"Most incomprehensible, too," he pursued. "No cause, apparently. But it might have been overlooked, perhaps, except for one thing. It wasn't known generally, but Fortescue had just perfected a successful electro-magnetic gun--powderless, smokeless, flashless, noiseless and of tremendous power. To-morrow he was to have signed the contract to sell it to England. This morning he is found dead and the final plans of the gun are gone!"
Kennedy and Burke were standing mutely looking at each other.
"Who is in the next room?" whispered Burke hoarsely, recollecting Kennedy's caution of silence.
Kennedy did not reply immediately. He was evidently much excited by Burke's news of the wonderful electro-magnetic gun.
"Burke," he exclaimed suddenly, "let's join forces. I think we are both on the trail of a world-wide conspiracy--a sort of murder syndicate to wipe out war!"
Burke's only reply was a low whistle that involuntarily escaped him as he reached over and grasped Craig's hand, which to him represented the sealing of the compact.
As for me, I could not restrain a mental shudder at the power that their first murder had evidently placed in the hands of the anarchists, if they indeed had the electro-magnetic gun which inventors had been seeking for generations. What might they not do with it--perhaps even use it themselves and turn the latest invention against society itself!
Hastily Craig gave a whispered account of our strange visit from Miss Lowe, while Burke listened, open-mouthed.
He had scarcely finished when he reached for the telephone and asked for long distance.
"Is this the German embassy in Washington?" asked Craig a few moments later when he got his number. "This is Craig Kennedy, in New York. The United States Secret Service will vouch for me-- mention to them Mr. Burke of their New York office who is here with me now. I understand that Baron Kreiger is leaving for New York to meet some bankers this afternoon. He must not do so. He is in the gravest danger if he--What? He left last night at midnight and is already here?"
Kennedy turned to us blankly.
The door to his room opened suddenly.
There stood Miss Lowe, gazing wild-eyed at us. Evidently her supernervous condition had heightened the keenness of her senses. She had heard what we were saying. I tried to read her face. It was not fear that I saw there. It was rage; it was jealousy.
"The traitress--it is Marie!" she shrieked.
For a moment, obtusely, I did not understand.
"She has made a secret appointment with him," she cried.
At last I saw the truth. Paula Lowe had fallen in love with the man she had sworn to kill!