Chapter III. The Murder Syndicate
 

Quickly now Craig completed his arrangements for the visit to the headquarters of the real anarchist leader. Burke telephoned for a high-powered car, while Miss Lowe told frankly of the habits of Annenberg and the chances of finding his place unguarded, which were good in the daytime. Kennedy's only equipment for the excursion consisted in a small package which he took from a cabinet at the end of the room, and, with a parting reassurance to Paula Lowe, we were soon speeding over the bridge to the borough across the river.

We realized that it might prove a desperate undertaking, but the crisis was such that it called for any risk.

Our quest took us to a rather dilapidated old house on the outskirts of the little Long Island town. The house stood alone, not far from the tracks of a trolley that ran at infrequent intervals. Even a hasty reconnoitering showed that to stop our motor at even a reasonable distance from it was in itself to arouse suspicion.

Although the house seemed deserted, Craig took no chances, but directed the car to turn at the next crossroad and then run back along a road back of and parallel to that on which Annenberg's was situated. It was perhaps a quarter of a mile away, across an open field, that we stopped and ran the car up along the side of the road in some bushes. Annenberg's was plainly visible and it was not at all likely that anyone there would suspect trouble from that quarter.

A hasty conference with Burke followed, in which Kennedy unwrapped his small package, leaving part of its contents with him, and adding careful instructions.

Then Kennedy and I retraced our steps down the road, across by the crossroad, and at last back to the mysterious house.

To all appearance there had been no need of such excessive caution. Not a sound or motion greeted us as we entered the gate and made our way around to the rear of the house. The very isolation of the house was now our protection, for we had no inquisitive neighbors to watch us for the instant when Kennedy, with the dexterity of a yeggman, inserted his knife between the sashes of the kitchen window and turned the catch which admitted us.

We made our way on cautious tiptoe through a dining room to a living room, and, finding nothing, proceeded upstairs. There was not a soul, apparently, in the house, nor in fact anything to indicate that it was different from most small suburban homes, until at last we mounted to the attic.

It was finished off in one large room across the back of the house and two in front. As we opened the door to the larger room, we could only gaze about in surprise. This was the rendezvous, the arsenal, literary, explosive and toxicological of the "Group." Ranged on a table were all the materials for bomb-making, while in a cabinet I fancied there were poisons enough to decimate a city.

On the walls were pictures, mostly newspaper prints, of the assassins of McKinley, of King Humbert, of the King of Greece, of King Carlos and others, interspersed with portraits of anarchist and anti-militarist leaders of all lands.

Kennedy sniffed. Over all I, too, could catch the faint odor of stale tobacco. No time was to be lost, however, and while Craig set to work rapidly going through the contents of a desk in the corner, I glanced over the contents of a drawer of a heavy mission table.

"Here's some of Annenberg's literature," I remarked, coming across a small pile of manuscript, entitled "The Human Slaughter House."

"Read it," panted Kennedy, seeing that I had about completed my part of the job. "It may give a clue."

Hastily I scanned the mad, frantic indictment of war, while Craig continued in his search:

"I see wild beasts all around me, distorted unnaturally, in a life and death struggle, with bloodshot eyes, with foaming, gnashing mouths. They attack and kill one another and try to mangle each other. I leap to my feet. I race out into the night and tread on quaking flesh, step on hard heads, and stumble over weapons and helmets. Something is clutching at my feet like hands, so that I race away like a hunted deer with the hounds at his heels--and ever over more bodies--breathless... out of one field into another. Horror is crooning over my head. Horror is crooning beneath my feet. And nothing but dying, mangled flesh!

"Of a sudden I see nothing but blood before me. The heavens have opened and the red blood pours in through the windows. Blood wells up on an altar. The walls run blood from the ceiling to the floor and... a giant of blood stands before me. His beard and his hair drip blood. He seats himself on the altar and laughs from thick lips. The black executioner raises his sword and whirls it above my head. Another moment and my head will roll down on the floor. Another moment and the red jet will spurt from my neck.

"Murderers! Murderers! None other than murderers!"

I paused in the reading. "There's nothing here," I remarked, glancing over the curious document for a clue, but finding none.

"Well," remarked Craig contemplatively, "one can at least easily understand how sensitive and imaginative people who have fallen under the influence of one who writes in that way can feel justified in killing those responsible for bringing such horrors on the human race. Hello--what's this?"

He had discovered a false back of one of the drawers in the desk and had jimmied it open. On the top of innumerable papers lay a large linen envelope. On its face it bore in typewriting, just like the card on the drawer at Fortescue's, "E-M GUN."

"It is the original envelope that contained the final plans of the electro-magnetic gun," he explained, opening it.

The envelope was empty. We looked at each other a moment in silence. What had been done with the plans?

Suddenly a bell rang, startling me beyond measure. It was, however, only the telephone, of which an extension reached up into the attic-arsenal. Some one, who did not know that we were there, was evidently calling up.

Kennedy quickly unhooked the receiver with a hasty motion to me to be silent.

"Hello," I heard him answer. "Yes, this is it."

He had disguised his voice. I waited anxiously and watched his face to gather what response he received.

"The deuce!" he exclaimed, with his hand over the transmitter so that his voice would not be heard at the other end of the line.

"What's the matter?" I asked eagerly.

"It was Mrs. Annenberg--I am sure. But she was too keen for me. She caught on. There must be some password or form of expression that they use, which we don't know, for she hung up the receiver almost as soon as she heard me."

Kennedy waited a minute or so. Then he whistled into the transmitter. It was done apparently to see whether there was anyone listening. But there was no answer.

"Operator, operator!" he called insistently, moving the hook up and down. "Yes, operator. Can you tell me what number that was which just called?"

He waited impatiently.

"Bleecker--7l80," he repeated after the girl. "Thank you. Information, please."

Again we waited, as Craig tried to trace the call up.

"What is the street address of Bleecker, 7180?" he asked. "Five hundred and one East Fifth--a tenement. Thank you."

"A tenement?" I repeated blankly.

"Yes," he cried, now for the first time excited. "Don't you begin to see the scheme? I'll wager that Baron Kreiger has been lured to New York to purchase the electro-magnetic gun which they have stolen from Fortescue and the British. That is the bait that is held out to him by the woman. Call up Miss Lowe at the laboratory and see if she knows the place."

I gave central the number, while he fell to at the little secret drawer of the desk again. The grinding of the wheels of a passing trolley interfered somewhat with giving the number and I had to wait a moment.

"Ah--Walter--here's the list!" almost shouted Kennedy, as he broke open a black-japanned dispatch box in the desk.

I bent over it, as far as the slack of the telephone wire of the receiver at my ear would permit. Annenberg had worked with amazing care and neatness on the list, even going so far as to draw at the top, in black, a death's head. The rest of it was elaborately prepared in flaming red ink.

Craig gasped to observe the list of world-famous men marked for destruction in London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and even in New York and Washington.

"What is the date set?" I asked, still with my ear glued to the receiver.

"To-night and to-morrow," he replied, stuffing the fateful sheet into his pocket.

Rummaging about in the drawer of the table, I had come to a package of gold-tipped cigarettes which had interested me and I had left them out. Kennedy was now looking at them curiously.

"What is to be the method, do you suppose?" I asked.

"By a poison that is among the most powerful, approaching even cyanogen," he replied confidently, tapping the cigarettes. "Do you smell the odor in this room? What is it like?"

"Stale tobacco," I replied.

"Exactly--nicotine. Two or three drops on the mouth-end of a cigar or cigarette. The intended victim thinks it is only natural. But it is the purest form of the deadly alkaloid--fatal in a few minutes, too."

He examined the thin little cigarettes more carefully. "Nicotine," he went on, "was about the first alkaloid that was recovered from the body by chemical analysis in a homicide case. That is the penetrating, persistent odor you smelled at Fortescue's and also here. It's a very good poison--if you are not particular about being discovered. A pound of ordinary smoking tobacco contains from a half to an ounce of it. It is almost entirely consumed by combustion; otherwise a pipeful would be fatal. Of course they may have thought that investigators would believe that their victims were inveterate smokers. But even the worst tobacco fiend wouldn't show traces of the weed to such an extent."

Miss Lowe answered at last and Kennedy took the telephone.

"What is at five hundred and one East Fifth?" he asked.

"A headquarters of the Group in the city," she answered. "Why?"

"Well, I believe that the plans of that gun are there and that the Baron--"

"You damned spies!" came a voice from behind us.

Kennedy dropped the receiver, turning quickly, his automatic gleaming in his hand.

There was just a glimpse of a man with glittering bright blue eyes that had an almost fiendish, baleful glare. An instant later the door which had so unexpectedly opened banged shut, we heard a key turn in the lock--and the man dropped to the floor before even Kennedy's automatic could test its ability to penetrate wood on a chance at hitting something the other side of it.

We were prisoners!

My mind worked automatically. At this very moment, perhaps, Baron Kreiger might be negotiating for the electro-magnetic gun. We had found out where he was, in all probability, but we were powerless to help him. I thought of Miss Lowe, and picked up the receiver which Kennedy had dropped.

She did not answer. The wire had been cut. We were isolated!

Kennedy had jumped to the window. I followed to restrain him, fearing that he had some mad scheme for climbing out. Instead, quickly he placed a peculiar arrangement, from the little package he had brought, holding it to his eye as if sighting it, his right hand grasping a handle as one holds a stereoscope. A moment later, as I examined it more closely, I saw that instead of looking at anything he had before him a small parabolic mirror turned away from him.

His finger pressed alternately on a button on the handle and I could see that there flashed in the little mirror a minute incandescent lamp which seemed to have a special filament arrangement.

The glaring sun was streaming in at the window and I wondered what could possibly be accomplished by the little light in competition with the sun itself.

"Signaling by electric light in the daytime may sound to you ridiculous," explained Craig, still industriously flashing the light, "but this arrangement with Professor Donath's signal mirror makes it possible, all right.

"I hadn't expected this, but I thought I might want to communicate with Burke quickly. You see, I sight the lamp and then press the button which causes the light in the mirror to flash. It seems a paradox that a light like this can be seen from a distance of even five miles and yet be invisible to one for whom it was not intended, but it is so. I use the ordinary Morse code--two seconds for a dot, six for a dash with a four-second interval."

"What message did you send?" I asked.

"I told him that Baron Kreiger was at five hundred and one East Fifth, probably; to get the secret service office in New York by wire and have them raid the place, then to come and rescue us. That was Annenberg. He must have come up by that trolley we heard passing just before."

The minutes seemed ages as we waited for Burke to start the machinery of the raid and then come for us.

"No--you can't have a cigarette--and if I had a pair of bracelets with me, I'd search you myself," we heard a welcome voice growl outside the door a few minutes later. "Look in that other pocket, Tom."

The lock grated back and there stood Burke holding in a grip of steel the undersized Annenberg, while the chauffeur who had driven our car swung open the door.

"I'd have been up sooner," apologized Burke, giving the anarchist an extra twist just to let him know that he was at last in the hands of the law, "only I figured that this fellow couldn't have got far away in this God-forsaken Ducktown and I might as well pick him up while I had a chance. That's a great little instrument of yours, Kennedy. I got you, fine."

Annenberg, seeing we were now four to one, concluded that discretion was the better part of valor and ceased to struggle, though now and then I could see he glanced at Kennedy out of the corner of his eye. To every question he maintained a stolid silence.

A few minutes later, with the arch anarchist safely pinioned between us, we were speeding back toward New York, laying plans for Burke to dispatch warnings abroad to those whose names appeared on the fatal list, and at the same time to round up as many of the conspirators as possible in America.

As for Kennedy, his main interest now lay in Baron Kreiger and Paula. While she had been driven frantic by the outcome of the terrible pact into which she had been drawn, some one, undoubtedly, had been trying to sell Baron Kreiger the gun that had been stolen from the American inventor. Once they had his money and he had received the plans of the gun, a fatal cigarette would be smoked. Could we prevent it?

On we tore back to the city, across the bridge and down through the canyons of East Side streets.

At last we pulled up before the tenement at five hundred and one. As we did so, one of Burke's men jumped out of the doorway.

"Are we in time?" shouted Burke.

"It's an awful mix-up," returned the man. "I can't make anything out of it, so I ordered 'em all held here till you came."

We pushed past without a word of criticism of his wonderful acumen.

On the top floor we came upon a young man, bending over the form of a girl who had fainted. On the floor of the middle of the room was a mass of charred papers which had evidently burned a hole in the carpet before they had been stamped out. Near by was an unlighted cigarette, crushed flat on the floor.

"How is she?" asked Kennedy anxiously of the young man, as he dropped down on the other side of the girl.

It was Paula. She had fainted, but was just now coming out of the borderland of unconsciousness.

"Was I in time? Had he smoked it?" she moaned weakly, as there swam before her eyes, evidently, a hazy vision of our faces.

Kennedy turned to the young man.

"Baron Kreiger, I presume?" he inquired.

The young man nodded.

"Burke of the Secret Service," introduced Craig, indicating our friend. "My name is Kennedy. Tell what happened."

"I had just concluded a transaction," returned Kreiger in good but carefully guarded English. "Suddenly the door burst open. She seized these papers and dashed a cigarette out of my hands. The next instant she had touched a match to them and had fallen in a faint almost in the blaze. Strangest experience I ever had in my life. Then all these other fellows came bursting in--said they were Secret Service men, too."

Kennedy had no time to reply, for a cry from Annenberg directed our attention to the next room where on a couch lay a figure all huddled up.

As we looked we saw it was a woman, her head sweating profusely, and her hands cold and clammy. There was a strange twitching of the muscles of the face, the pupils of her eyes were widely dilated, her pulse weak and irregular. Evidently her circulation had failed so that it responded only feebly to stimulants, for her respiration was slow and labored, with loud inspiratory gasps.

Annenberg had burst with superhuman strength from Burke's grasp and was kneeling by the side of his wife's deathbed.

"It--was all Paula's fault--" gasped the woman. "I--knew I had better--carry it through--like the Fortescue visit--alone."

I felt a sense of reassurance at the words. At least my suspicions had been unfounded. Paula was innocent of the murder of Fortescue.

"Severe, acute nicotine poisoning," remarked Kennedy, as he rejoined us a moment later. "There is nothing we can do--now."

Paula moved at the words, as though they had awakened a new energy in her. With a supreme effort she raised herself.

"Then I--I failed?" she cried, catching sight of Kennedy.

"No, Miss Lowe," he answered gently. "You won. The plans of the terrible gun are destroyed. The Baron is safe. Mrs. Annenberg has herself smoked one of the fatal cigarettes intended for him."

Kreiger looked at us, uncomprehending. Kennedy picked up the crushed, unlighted cigarette and laid it in the palm of his hand beside another, half smoked, which he had found beside Mrs. Annenberg.

"They are deadly," he said simply to Kreiger. "A few drops of pure nicotine hidden by that pretty gilt tip would have accomplished all that the bitterest anarchist could desire."

All at once Kreiger seemed to realize what he had escaped so narrowly. He turned toward Paula. The revulsion of her feelings at seeing him safe was too much for her shattered nerves.

With a faint little cry, she tottered.

Before any of us could reach her, he had caught her in his arms and imprinted a warm kiss on the insensible lips.

"Some water--quick!" he cried, still holding her close.