Hell House

by Theodore Tinsley

 

MAJOR John Tattersall Lacy was seated comfortably in the spacious library of his duplex penthouse suite in the towering pinnacle of the Cloud Building. The door opened soundlessly. A hesitant figure came in. It was Private Caxton, one of the ex-marines on the secret payroll of Amusement, Inc.

Caxton clicked his heels together and snapped a salute. There was a wavering smile on the man's lips, a peculiar furtive boldness in the way he stepped forward.

“Halt!” the major barked.

Tattersall Lacy's face tightened with annoyance. He laid aside the copy of the Cavalry Journal he had been reading.

“You wanted, to see me?” he said in a cold voice.

“Yes, sir.”

“You obtained permission from Sergeant Hogan to do so, I presume?”

“N-No, sir.”

The cold voice turned icy.

“Then what the hell do you mean by leaving your quarters and intruding on me without the sergeant's permission?””

The man in the tan-colored shirt and gray civilian trousers hesitated and wet his dry lips. He, knew perfectly well that he had no right to be there, that his quarters were confined to the barrack area in the rear of the duplex penthouse. Yet he continued to smile queerly and he took another step forward.

“It's something so absolutely important, sir,” he muttered, “that I had to see you right away. I— er—”

A heavy step sounded in the doorway. A voice cried sharply: “About face, Caxton!”

It was Sergeant Hogan. The anger of the major was reflected in Hogan's honest eyes. As Caxton faced slowly about, the sergeant said awkwardly to Lacy: “I'm sorry, sir. I saw him going down the corridor, but I never dreamed he'd have the gall. Then to the interloper, “Get back to your quarters, Caxton! Report at once to your corporal and tell him I said—”

“Look out!” the major roared.

Caxton's right hand flicked swiftly with a .45 automatic in its grasp. Hogan's startled jump was a second too late. The heavy slug struck him in the arm and spun him around. He fell bleeding to the floor, his left hand tugging weakly at his own holstered weapon.

The intruder whirled instantly like a cat. His eyes were blazing with determination. The heavy gun in his taut grip spat twice and bullets ripped through the brown leather of Lacy's chair.

The major was on the other side of the table, crouched vigilantly. Caxton's murderous attack on Hogan had been wholly unexpected, as swift as a stab of lightning. But the major's brain worked equally fast. His lean body hurtled from his chair barely an instant before the bullets drilled the leather. As he dropped to one knee his gun slid into his hand and he fired under the table at the fleeing Caxton.

The shot was hasty and it missed. Caxton hurdled the fallen Hogan and was instantly out in the hall, racing with clattering feet toward the kitchen in the rear wing.

Hogan stirred weakly on the rug. “Get him,” he groaned. “Get the dirty—”

Tattersall Lacy's face was a sickish pallor.

Treachery! One. of his own trusted men! A marine and a traitor!

As he sped down the hall, gun in hand, his silver whistle darted to his lips and he blew a shrill blast. He sprang at the kitchen door and rattled the knob fiercely. It was locked.

THE sound of the major's whistle brought armed men pouring up the stairs from the squad room. Lacy jumped past them and ran toward the heavy dining room doors. They were locked.

“Steady, men!” the major roared. “Caxton's running amuck with a gun. He shot Hogan a moment ago. He's either stark raving crazy or a filthy traitor! Break down those dining room doors!”

Rifle butts began to thud against the stout oaken panels. A marine appeared from the squad room, hastily snapping a drum on a Tommie gun.

Lacy's finger jerked imperiously.

“This way, Corporal! McManus! Jackson!”

He ran with them around the L of the corridor to the kitchen door.

“Blast it off its hinges, Corporal!”

He could hear the steady thudding of rifle butts at the dining room's oaken barrier. It would take time to break through that solid timber. Here was the place to attack! The traitor was bottled up inside these two connecting rooms. Swinging doors inside the kitchen led directly to the locked dining room.

The corporal nodded at Lacy's crisp order and pointed his businesslike bullet mill. Ratatatatatatl The Tommie sprayed the door apart like rotten cheese. Holes gaped, splinters flew, the lock melted away.

“Cease firing!”

Lacy's own shoulder gave the final push that sent the wrecked door tottering from its snapped hinges.

He sprang forward. McManus and Jackson leaped after him. Lacy's long legs carried him with a rush across the tiled floor of the kitchen. He batted the swinging doors open and raised his weapon for a final duel with the crazed Caxton.

Caxton wasn't in sight.

The dining room was empty. Outside the locked doors the steady thudding of rifle butts made a dull thunder like sneering mockery in Lacy's ears.

“The terrace!” he thought savagely. “What a fool I was to forget the terrace! He'll try to double back into the penthouse through the library windows and blast his way to the elevator or flee down the enclosed stairs of the fire tower . . .”

Lacy crossed the dining room and threw open the wide French windows.. Cool air gushed in his face and there was a brilliant reflection of sunlight from the paved terrace. Again he paused in bewilderment. The terrace was bare except for the blinding sunlight and the blue arch of empty sky.

No sign of Caxton ...

A queer call from McManus spun the fuming major around with his Colt level and steady.

McManus was crouched at the outer edge of the terrace, peering cautiously over the top of the low palisade of wooden stakes. His left hand was gesturing fiercely, insistently.

“For God's sake!” McManus shrilled softly.

“Look, sir! He's nuts. He's a maniac!”

A single story below the major's terrace a smaller projection jutted. Caxton was down there, poised backward on the dizzy edge. Below his teetering heels was a sheer, hideous fall to a distant canyon where pedestrians were tiny dots, where cross-town cars were slow moving bugs.

Caxton was like a swimmer braced on his toes for a back dive. His arms were stiffly outspread to balance himself. His face was staring upward and his stark eyes glared murderously at the major with the lust to kill.

Tattersall Lacy sucked in his breath sharply.

Not at the man's hideous peril. Not at the gun in his hand. It was the belted harness Caxton was wearing. The fool was strapped in a parachute pack!

HE must have climbed into the thing in the dining room in the few minutes respite he had. Madman, nothing! He must have deliberately hidden the thing beforehand as the only possible mode of escape from a desperate murder. He was going to jump a thousand feet into a city street!

The wild daring of the planned escape, the swift attempt at treacherous murder in the very heart of the major's guarded headquarters. Only one man could be responsible for this. The Scarlet Ace! The mysterious “Master” who had sworn to kill Tattersall Lacy and destroy Amusement, Inc. forever.

Lacy's lips jerked quickly to McManus, the man at his side.

“Get downstairs fast in the elevator and get out into the street. I'll try to temporize with this fellow. If he jumps and doesn't smash to jelly, get in close to him. Don't try to collar him! Shadow him if he gets away. Don't lose sight of him.

Report back to me by phone when you can. You're on continuous duty until relieved. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

McManus ducked low and sped back into the penthouse like a flitting streak in the sunshine.

Lacy lifted his head cautiously above the palisade.

He kept his gun out of sight. His voice was calmly persuasive.

“Listen, Caxton! You're cornered! You can't possibly get away alive if you jump in that crazy harness. Listen to me! If you surrender—”

A bullet ripped the air above his head and he heard Caxton jeer.

“Why don'tcha come and get me if I'm cornered?”

“Don't be foolish, Caxton! I promise you that—”

The glaring traitor emptied his pistol with blind hate at the pleading face above him. He threw the useless weapon away. Lacy sprang to his feet in time to see the man's right hand clutch stiffly at his chest and stay there.

With wide open and bulging eyes Caxton threw himself headlong backward into space.

In spite of his iron nerve the major shuddered.

“Good God!” he breathed. He watched.

Caxton's plunging body whirled over and over like a twisting dummy. He dwindled with appalling swiftness to a distant dot. Down, down.

Suddenly a tiny flick of white flashed from the dot.

Far below in the dizzy depths the pilot chute ripped open a huge spinning parasol. Down toward the cluttered street dropped man and parachute.

“Cold guts!” Lacy shrugged. “The fellow couldn't have been ten stories high when the thing opened . . .”

For some queer reason he thought of him as “the fellow”—not Caxton. His eyes stayed glued on the falling figure and his brain buzzed with the mystery of the man's inexplicable and treacherous behavior. What was the secret of the Ace's power?p

To reach calmly into the heart of the major's loyal organization and corrupt a steady-going and dependable marine ... It was uncanny. It made Lacy's head reel.

He saw the jumper land in the center of the street on the tiny car-tracks and lie there for a moment. It must have been a terrific jarring impact in spite of the opened chute. A trolley car stopped short. People were flood-ing into the street in swarms, a black outpouring like ants—hundreds of them!

In the very center of the milling crowd the man on the car-track was up on his feet, slashing at the cords of the billowing chute that flapped on the pavement like a shrunken mushroom.

A small blue-clad ant pushed through the press of people. That would be a cop! The crowd fell back and Lacy could make out the two men shoving back and forth. They seemed to be arguing. Caxton handed the policeman something.

The cop was looking it over. His hand stayed on the jumper's shoulder.

Suddenly, with a twist and a wrench, Caxton fled. From his perch on the penthouse terrace Lacy could see him edging swiftly through the excited mob like a cork in a millrace. Then he lost sight of him entirely.

O did the cop, apparently. The cop stopped short and stared up at the cloud scraping the pinnacle of the building. The faces massed about him lifted too, a sudden white foam on the blackish sea of humanity.

The cop pushed his way across the sidewalk toward the building entrance.

“Damnation!” thought the major fretfully.

“This is going to be rather awkward.”

The staff officers of Amusement, Inc. were grouped behind him on the terrace. Charlie Weaver, with his spare, nervous little body and his crab-apple face. He looked like an inoffensive insurance broker and wore the congressional medal of honor. Pat Harrigan, grinning coldly, his red hair tumbled like a torch in the wind. Ed Corning, big and lazy and silent. All three of them were tested friends of the major and active participants in the secret war on crime that began on that solemn night when Amusement Inc. was born.

They looked astonished and uneasy. Behind them a handful of men with glistening rifles stood stolidly waiting for further orders.

“Captain Weaver!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have the men rack their guns and get out of sight. Remove the sentry from guard duty in the entrance foyer. Batten everything down snugly.

There'll probably be a patrolman up here in a moment or two, damn it all.”

Weaver issued an order and the men vanished at a swift trot. .

Lacy swung around to Corning and Harrigan.

In the absence of subordinates his usually crisp voice softened and became human and friendly.

“Ed, you and Pat will have to work fast too.

Poor Sergeant Hogan's got a .45 slug in him. He's on the floor in the library. Get him out of sight at once and fix a temporary dressing on the wound.

Smuggle him down to the basement garage. Have Dillon drive him to the private hospital on West End Avenue. Tell Dr. Barton I'll call him later.

Same arrangements as usual. No record of admission, no publicity.”

“Okay, Jack.”

He turned away but Harrigan lingered a moment. The big Irishman grinned.

“I saw McManus high-tailing it for the elevator before the guy jumped. If Mac trails him to wherever he's going, do you think there's a chance we'll lock horns with the Ace, Jack?”

“I shouldn't be at all surprised, Pat.”

“God be praised for that,” Harrigan said softly. “I'm plenty tired of chewin' oats in me stall.

You think the Ace is behind all this?”

Lacy chuckled. A dry, mirthless sound.

“I shouldn't be at all surprised, Pat,” he repeated tonelessly. “I intend to find out. I don't like treachery any more than you do.”

He smote Pat's shoulder. His eye went frosty.

“Shove off! Get back from the hospital as soon as you can. War conference in the library as soon as we can get together without interruption.”

Harrigan hurried off and the major shrugged and stood watching the turmoil in the distant street.

Finally he crossed the terrace, stepped through the French windows and closed them behind him with a calm methodical precision.

Except for himself the library was empty. The bleeding sergeant was gone.

Lacy selected an expensive Havana special from an inlaid box, snipped the end with finicky care, applied flame to the weed.

He was in his leather armchair, one leg crossed comfortably over the other, when Hawkins knocked softly and entered.

HAWKINS was Lacy's butler, his most prized bit of loot from the late war. He had won Hawkins at cards at one of those wild week-end parties in London that followed the armistice.

Hawkins had been with Lacy ever since. He was a heavy featured, soft spoken man with a faint hint of the military under his discreet servant's bearing.

Since the formation of Amusement, Inc., Hawkins had seen many queer things. He had even, on one memorable occasion, pumped bullets side by side with Lacy; but even then his eyebrows never lifted.

Always the correct gentleman's gentleman. That was Hawkins to a “T.”

He coughed slightly. “Beg pardon, sir.”

“Yes? What is it?”

“A gentleman—or rather, a person, sir. A uniformed policeman. Wants to see you immediately. He seems rather upset, if I may say so.”

“Dear me. A policeman, eh? Send him in.”

“Very good, sir.”

Hawkins bowed woodenly. If Lacy had said:

“Shoot the policeman and shove him down the incinerator shaft,” Hawkins would have bowed just as formally, and obeyed the order.

The cop came in with a heavy tread and a growling voice. “What the hell's going on in this joint, anyway?”

He stopped short as he caught sight of the magnificently furnished library and the fastidious gentleman seated calmly before the crackling fireplace. The cop's eyes were sullen and angry in a big raw-boned face.

Tattersall Lacy kept his legs crossed. He feathered the ash from his cigar into a shallow lacquered tray at his elbow. It was a lazy, indolent gesture but the voice that accompanied it crackled like lightning.

“Take off your hat!”

Instinctively the cop's hand flew upward and the hat came off. His face reddened. His big jaw jutted ominously.

“Listen, wise guy! Don't pull any cracks like that or you'll git inta fast trouble. I wanta know just what the hell—”

“And kindly moderate your language,” Lacy cut in wjth a musical murmur, “Or you can get out of my house right now. I don't care very much for either noise or profanity. Is that clear, my friend?”

HE cop hesitated. Anger had made him go off half cocked, but wise traffic pounders in New York soon learn to watch their step, particularly in penthouse suites furnished like this one was. He had come up in the elevator expecting to find a theatrical agency or an advertising office of some sort with clattering typewriters and a shrewd looking promoter in a check suit. The card in his gloved hand made him expect that.

Instead he found a sombre high-ceilinged foyer and a correct butler in black broadcloth. He saw a wide fireplace, the polished sheen of bookcases, a quiet and restrained wealth in the furnishings. Even to Moriarity's Third Avenue eyes the careless bric-a-brac, the gold thread tapestries looked authentic. He saw no hint of hard faced sentries or rifles. Little Charlie Weaver had done his work well.

There was only a small damp patch on the rug to show where the bleeding Sergeant Hogan had fallen. Lacy noticed the spot out of the corner of one eye. He hoped the cop wouldn't see it.

He smiled winningly at the patrolman.

“Let's not quarrel, Officer. I'm sure you're honestly attending to your duty. What's the trouble?”

“Huh? You mean you don't know?”

“Certainly not. What's wrong?”

“A man just jumped off your roof in a parachute!”

Lacy smiled. Shook his head briefly and politely.

“Not my roof. I'm sorry.”

“Yes, your roof! How do you get that way?p

He told me so, himself. The crazy fool damn near killed a dozen people! He said you folks up here had a police permit for a press agent stunt. He beat it while I was arguing.”

“I'm sorry he got away from you, Officer,” Lacy said mildly. “I don't know the man. He's a liar. Do I look like a friend and companion of—

er— parachute jumpers? Does this—er—

apartment look like a publicity office for a ridiculous press agent stunt?”

The cop countered with a swift, suspicious question.

“Is your name John Tattersall Lacy?”

“Of course.” His eyes narrowed. He hesitated.

“What of it?”

“Do you run a business up here called Amusement, Inc.?”

“I don't think I care to answer that,” the field leader for the Emergency Council said slowly.

“Oh, you don't!” Moriarity was beginning to get his self assurance back. “Maybe we can walk ye down to headquarters and make ye answer. This is your card, ain't it?”

He thrust a square pasteboard at the major and Lacy took it from his and glanced quickly at it. His eyebrows lifted incredulously. The card read as follows:

Quite an amusing little card. It even had its own trade-mark engraved in color in each of the four corners. A tiny blood-red diamond.

Moriarity was scowling impatiently.

“Well, what about, it? You got a police permit for that stunt, Mr. Lacy? Because if you ain't—”

Tattersall Lacy got up slowly from his chair.

There was a queer grimace of wry humor on his lips. This Scarlet Ace was a foeman worthy of his steel! The Ace had planned this whole grotesque adventure from Caxton's treacherous attempt at murder to this last flip sneer of sardonic humor, with a cunning efficiency. He was forcing Lacy to tip his hand to the newspapers, to explain what could never be explained if the undercover war on crime was to go on without hindrance.

“As a matter of fact,” Lacy said huskily, “I haven't a permit for a parachute jump to a city street. I have something far more important and interesting than that. I assure you I haven't the faintest desire to visit a police station. Nor am I overwhelmed with pleasure at the thought of you shooting off your well intentioned mouth about myself and my—ahem— business.”

He drew an oblong leather case from an inner pocket and snapped it open by the pressure of his palm.

The cop read slowly with widened eyes. He noted particularly the seal and the signature. Both seal and signature had been placed on the document in the District of Columbia, as even Moriarity could see. The signature made him gasp.

He was obviously worried as he handed the thing back; but his jaw stayed obstinate.

“That's Federal, sir. It doesn't supersede the city police regulations. I'll have to hand in my own report and —Wait a minute! What's that stain over there?”

His wandering eyes had caught, sight of the darkened patch that soaked the rug. He walked over, removed his white glove and touched the spot. The tip of his blunt finger came away crimson.

“That's blood,” he gasped. “Somebody's been bleeding like a pig all over the rug. What kind of a phony story are ye tryin' to hand me?”

He jerked out his service gun and his words spat harshly.

“Who lives here with you? Call that slick butler in. No—don't move! Yell for him!”

With one eye on Lacy he reached for the telephone on the tiny carved teakwood pedestal.

Lacy's hand closed on the instrument first. He snatched it upward and enunciated a swift number into the transmitter.

“Stand away from me, please!” he warned the patrolman.

HIS eyes were bright whips warning Moriarity to keep his hands off his person. Moriarity stood stiff and alert with his gun leveled at the major. He had heard the swift number that Lacy had called. Was this more hooey—another bluff?

He waited motionless.

Tattersall Lacy's voice was unflurried and clearly distinct. He paid no attention whatever to the ominous gun in front of his stomach. The calm flow of his talk was interrupted only once. He frowned, jerked irritably, “Of course! Of course!” and continued.

At the end he laughed faintly and said:

“Certainly he's here, Commissioner. He's watching me like a hawk, with a big blue gun in his hand. A most alert and damnably efficient patrolman. I'll put him on.”

He nodded to the cop. “Take it, please!”

“Hello?” Moriarity called. “I just now came up here on the run, sir. A guy jumped off the roof in a parachute an' I—Yes, sir!” His heels clicked together; his big face screwed into wrinkles with the effort to miss no word. “Yes, sir. I—I will, sir . . . Right . . . I'll obey carefully, sir!”

He hung up with a shaky hand. Lacy sounded mildly curious.

“Satisfied, Officer?”

Moriarity's grin was sheepish. He put the gun away.

“Phew! I sure hope I haven't—”

“You haven't, if you'll kindly listen to what I say and obey exactly.”

“That's just what I've been ordered to do, sir.”

“Excellent.” The voice snapped briskly.

“First, go back to your post and forget what has happened. Turn in no report whatever about the—

er— parachute jump. Talk to nobody. I'll see to it that the newspapers get a convincing yarn on what happened through other channels. I may add, however, for your own private ear, that the man did not jump from my roof. He apparently got through to the terrace below mine from the public hall. In a few moments another uniformed man will relieve you. He'll tell you where to go and whom to see. Understand?”

“Right.”

“The parachute jumper gave you no card,” Lacy continued evenly. “You've never heard of an organization called Amusement, Inc. In fact, you've never heard of or met a man named Lacy.

Do you ever talk in your sleep?”

“I—I don't think so.”

They were both soberly grave; their eyes steady on each other.

“That's a help,” Lacy nodded. “The habit of intelligent silence, my friend, may save you from a transfer to the goats away out in Staten Island.

Intelligent men are even sometimes promoted to a plainclothes assignment. Do you find my remarks—er— helpful?”

“I understand you perfectly, sir.”

“In that case, Officer, I bid you a pleasant good day.”

The suave Hawkins appeared and escorted a subdued looking patrolman to the elevator. A moment later the butler returned at Lacy's summons.

“Did you ring, sir?”

“Yes. Please send Captain Weaver in here if he's not otherwise engaged, will you, Hawkins? And as soon as Mr. Harrigan and Mr. Corning return inform them I'm waiting to see them.”

“Very good, sir.” He bowed and closed the door softly.

Tattersall Lacy went back to his favorite chair and a fresh cigar.

“Damnation!” he whispered in a wrathful undertone as he stared at the damp spot in the rug where Hogan had fallen. Hogan had been a platoon sergeant under Lacy in 1918 when the Argonne was a smoke-curtained labyrinth of hell. A splendid soldier, he had never once been scratched in battle. “Damnation!” the major whispered fiercely.

He smoked his cigar and blew huge fragrant clouds. Gradually the rage left him. A queer little sparkle grew in those grey eyes of his. It was a sparkle that looked like a smile but wasn't.

E thought of the traitor Caxton, of McManus who had rushed off to trail him; of Hogan bleeding without publicity in a private sanitarium on West End Avenue.

And he thought too, of a mocking adversary with a dozen secret hide-outs and a blood red mask to hide his unguessed identity. A man nobody knew. A man who killed his savage hirelings when they failed to murder the selected victim. The Scarlet Ace!

The odd sparkle that wasn't a smile lingered in Lacy's serene eyes.

Pat Harrigan and Ed Corning returned from the hospital to the Cloud Building without any delay. Dillon drove the innocent looking staff car down the ramp entrance on the Sixth Avenue side and they alighted in the gloomy basement area behind the vast repair shop of the big Grey Goose bus terminal.

Dillon, who had received detailed orders, began tuning up the powerful motor of the camouflaged armored car.

Pat and Ed entered the private elevator—a luxurious little cave of soft rose lights and onyx fixtures—and ascended swiftly to the penthouse level.

As they stepped out into the foyer the doors of the elevator closed automatically together. The mechanical annunciator in the foyer ceased its warning tak, tak, tak, tak! and the black clad figure of Hawkins advanced courteously.

“The major is waiting for you in the library, gentlemen. He wishes to see you at once. I believe there's to be an immediate conference.”

“Right,” Corning growled.

The two staff officers handed over their hats and coats and hurried through the foyer. They found a rather glum and subdued Weaver conferring in low tones with Lacy. The little man's face swung toward them as they entered.

“How's poor Hogan getting along?” he asked quietly.

“He's okay,” Pat replied. “Don't worry about the Sarge, Charlie. He's a tough toddy!” Pat's laugh rumbled. “He's as mad as hell that he's out of action in case anything develops. That's all that's worrying Hogan right now. Got a nasty hole in him but Doc Barton says that barring possible infection and fever, he'll have him back on his number ten brogans in a week or so.”

“The thing that makes Hogan the sickest,” Corning remarked, “is that the shot that wounded him was fired by one of our own trusted—”

“I know, I know,” Tattersall Lacy muttered irritably. “We've all been thinking about that.” He turned to Weaver. “Charles, what about this man Caxton? Your'e in charge of recruiting. Was he well recommended?”

“He certainly was, Jack. He has a splendid military record. I went over his papers and citations and verified everything.”

“Ummm . . . Did he seem queer or moody lately? Has he been acting differently? Or would you say he seemed to you quite normal?”

“I suppose so. I didn't notice particularly.

He'd been away on leave, you know.”

“How's that? He's been away?” Lacy looked immediately alert. “Why was he on leave?”

“His sister upstate is very ill and a week ago he applied to me through his corporal and sergeant for permission to visit her. He came back yesterday and reported for duty.”

“I see . . . Did you observe him closely when he came back?”

“Why, no.” Weaver looked startled. “What are you getting at, Jack? Do you mean to imply that there's been some kind of substitution? You mean that the man who returned as Caxton might have been a double, an imposter? A spy?”

“I wonder,” Lacy murmured. He drummed rapidly with his lean fingers on the padded arm of his chair.

HARRIGAN grinned incredulously. “That's damned nonsense, Jack. I had a quick look at the fella just before he jumped—and he certainly looked like Caxton to me. Hogan thought he was Caxton too.”

“And yet, Pat, he did jump, didn't he? And he certainly tried to kill me right in this very room.

And Hogan is in the hospital with a fresh hole in him from a blazing .45.”

His eyes clouded and he glanced at Corning.

“Ed, did you notice anything unusual about the fellow?”

“Sorry, Jack. Can't help you, I'm afraid. I paid no attention to him at all. I simply took it for granted that he was Caxton. I'll admit I didn't talk to him since he came back from his leave.”

Ed sat up suddenly and swore. “Wait a minute! If that guy wasn't what he seemed, then where's Caxton? What's happened to him?”

“Exactly.” The major sounded dry and remote. “If we've all been fooled by a clever actor, where's the man who went away a week ago on leave? Where's the man whose military record and trustworthiness were investigated and okayed by Charles here? In short, gentlemen, where is private Caxton of Amusement, Inc.?”

“I still think you're up the wrong tree, Jack,” Harrigan insisted stubbornly. “Men have gone crazy before this. I remember once in Santo Domingo—”

“But not crazy enough to smuggle in a parachute, Pat. An insane marine doesn't have a printed card ready to hand to a policeman so as to get us some swift and unpleasant newspaper notoriety. Gentlemen, say what you will, this whole thing was planned shrewdly from start to finish. It was a cold-blooded attempt at assassination by a man with enough guts and daring—or fear, maybe—to try murder in the heart of our guarded headquarters. And to make a ghastly leap into space.”

He swung his gaze at Pat. “Would you have jumped, Pat?”

“Not me,” the redhead grunted. “I'll take a chance any time; but not that kind of a chance.”

“There's only one man I can think of who can frighten his hirelings to a point of desperation like that. He's the man who accepts no excuse for failure.”

“The Ace,” Corning muttered. “Remember what happened to the Man in the Top Hat?”

Tattersall Lacy closed his eyes suddenly. He was trying to recall more vividly the face of the man who had jumped. The telephone rang suddenly and Lacy answered it.

“Hello?” His eyes flashed with a watchful flame. “Yes, Yes! Just a moment before you say a word. Are you in a soundproof booth? Excellent.

Keep your voice low but distinct. Full report please, from the moment you left.”

His lips jerked away from the transmitter and he spat a single explanatory word: “McManus!”

McManus was the marine who had .

descended swiftly to the street in the penthouse elevator before the major's maddened assailant jumped. The three staff officers of Amusement, Inc. sat forward on the edges of their chairs, watching narrowly, trying to make out the faint metallic buzzing that came from the receiver.

IT was exclusively a one-way conversation. Lacy said nothing at all. He listened intently, making hasty pencil notes on a small scratch pad at his elbow. Once or twice he nodded, but his face remained expressionless.

He said, finally: “Very well done, McManus!

Remain where you have described—in the clearing—until I have you relieved. If the—er—

party leaves the house in the meantime, follow him at once and report his movements by telephone the first chance you get. There will be someone here on duty in headquarters to receive such messages and forward them if necessary. And—McManus!”

His voice purred like a kitten.

“Keep alert!”

He hung up and faced his three associates with a flinty smile.

“We seem to have stumbled upon a most promising lead, gentlemen. McManus kept his eyes open and stuck close to Caxton from the very moment he wriggled away from the patrolman and vanished like a chip in a millrace. He hailed a cab and drove to the West Side subway, popped calmly underground and boarded the first Van Cortlandt Park train that came into the station. So did McManus—in a rear car of the same train. The fugitive apparently made no effort to dodge a shadower.”

“Isn't that a bit queer?” Weaver asked in his worried tone.

“Certainly it's queer, Charles. The whole damned thing is queer. It's possible that Caxton may have deliberately encouraged a shadow. If he did, it means only one thing—a trap. But trap or no trap, he's our one link with the Scarlet Ace. And by everything holy, gentlemen, we're going to investigate.”

“Where did the trail lead?” Harrigan asked.

“It led right to the end of the subway line at Van Cortlandt Park. Cax-ton descended from the elevated structure to the street, hired a taxi at the cab stand and drove north. Mc-Manus thought fast and acted shrewdly. Instead of following in another cab and arousing Caxton's suspicions he made a note of the license plate and hung around out of sight until the taxi returned. He slipped the driver a ten dollar bill and got the address without any difficulty. He pretended to be a private dick on an adultery case. He's on duty now at a place where he can watch the road leading to the grounds. So far Caxton is still there too. Unless he slipped out while McManus was telephoning.”

“Grounds?” Ed Corning asked. “What is this place, an estate or something?”

“Something of that sort. It's beyond the Riverdale district on Tarle-ton Road. According to McManus the house is a dilapidated, unkempt looking old dwelling set back from the road in spacious grounds. It's surrounded by a weedy lawn and uncut shrubbery that hasn't been trimmed in six months. There's a low stone wall along the road and a big wooden 'For Sale' sign at the entrance. Nothing around it for a mile or so but scrub oak. According to McManus, the fugitive Caxton went into this apparently empty house and he hasn't come out since.”

“Tarleton Road,” Harrigan mused slowly.

“Must be somewhere pretty close to the Hudson.”

For answer Tattersall Lacy arose, walked to the east wall of the library and touched a spring.

Panels slid smoothly aside and revealed a large rectangular map of New York City and its environs. On it was etched in tiny microscopic detail, streets, transportation lines, airports, ferries, bridges, tunnels. Red inked asterisks marked the map here and there but the major paid no attention to these symbols of past adventures. His long finger traced upward toward River-dale and beyond.

Behind him Weaver smiled as Lacy's finger passed smoothly over an asterisk in the upper city.

The ink-spot was a prosaic reminder of a wild, windy night when Harry Lipper, the Torch King, had died from a bullet in Lacy's gun, with the flames from a burning building bathing his smug well-fed face with mocking scarlet. At that time Lipper's death had seemed like an important victory in the war on organized and interlocking crime. They knew differently now—these sombre eyed men in the lofty penthouse.

The existence of an astute criminal overlord had never even been suspected. It was only as Lacy climbed the rungs patiently from lesser to greater scoundrels that the hidden figure of the Scarlet Ace emerged. He was out in the open now behind the mystery of his blood-red mask.

The major's slim finger paused on the map.

“Here we are. Tarleton Road. You were right, Pat. It's fairly close to the river. There's the railroad line; and here's a dot which I presume is a local station. Mmmmm ... Ed, fetch me the detail survey map for this particular sector. B-47, please. Better get out B-48 too.”

AFTER a while Lacy nodded. He shoved the detail maps aside and the twinkle that dry little Weaver loved come into his eyes.

“How many men available for immediate duty, Charles?”

“Eleven, sir.”

“Plenty. Issue the necessary orders. Better make Minsky acting sergeant. How are we on transportation? Have the Grey Goose people finished overhauling our—er—passenger bus?”

Weaver nodded.

“Have it gassed then and equipped Immediately. Notify Sergeant Dillon to have the staff car ready for a quick run to Riverdale.

Hawkins will take care of any phone calls that may come in from McManus. I'll arrange a relay in case it's necessary.”

“Any other orders, sir?”

“I fancy that's all, Charles, except—” He clapped the little man briskly on the shoulder.

“Except speed, my boy! Speed and precision, eh? Bundle along, Charles!”

Weaver disappeared toward the barrack rooms in the rear of the penthouse. The huge suite that housed Amusement, Inc., covered the better part of two floors. The major, rich as he was, could never have begun to afford the rent it was legitimately worth. As a matter of fact, he paid no rent at all.

The explanation was simple; it dated back to the formation of the Emergency Council for Crime Control.

THERE were six directors on that Council, answering only to code names based on the days of the week. The Council provided the sinews of war, Tattersall Lacy the field leadership. The chairman of the corporation which had financed and built the towering skyscraper answered to another name which newspaper readers had never heard of. He was simply Mr. Wednesday. Which would have interested the Scarlet Ace, had he known. . . .

Pat Harrigan's broad back moved toward the window. He stared out at the busy smoke plumes of Manhattan. His big fist clenched as he beheld the world's greatest city in its outspread beauty of steel and stone and circling rivers. A city plundered daily by thieves and murderers.

Pat was no lawyer. He had small use for writs, indictments or courtrooms. Bullet for bullet was Pat's simple code; death for death. That was all those slimy rats understood!

He stared out the window at the city he had been born in and he made his belligerent little prayer:

“Please, God, we grab the Ace red-handed in that house in Riverdale! Please God, I sneak past the major and get in there first!”

Pat was quite a religious guy.

A big Grey Goose bus lumbered up through the great stone archway of the Cloud Building and turned into Sixth Avenue. It rolled north under the striped stilts of the elevated structure for a few blocks and then swung over to Broadway.

The destination sign on the bus was marked SPECIAL. The sides were draped with frayed bunting; and on the rear an oilcloth poster flapped in the breeze. On the poster was stencilled In faded lettering:

ANNUAL OUTING—TIMOTHY O'FLANNIGAN ASSOCIATION

The bus, like the car that preceded it up Broadway was not exactly what a casual eye might suppose. Its chassis was a specially braced job; its sides were armored with thin plate from floor to windowsill; under each window, in a slotted recess, were steel shutters that could be raised at a moment's notice.

Lean looking men with ruddy outdoor faces rode inside the bus. Behind the draped chintz curtains on the windows they lolled pleasantly on upholstered leather seats, smoked cigarettes, kidded one another. They wore dark grey suits, tan shirts, black ties. Their snap-brim hats were all the same color—pearl grey.

In the racks over their heads were unpainted wooden boxes that might contain lunch but didn't.

Webbed belts sagged heavy with ammunition, each with a bayonet in its swinging scabbard.

Springfield rifles hung neatly suspended on double hooks.

The job of driving that heavy bus was a cinch for the tobacco chewing bozo behind the wheel. He had learned on Nash Quads and Four Wheel Drives, bumping along between hell and heaven with Jerry shrapnel to help him along.

He kept the bus monotonously to Broadway.

Ditto for the staff car that kept always a block or two ahead. At Kingsbridge Road a red light brought them side by side and a swift signal passed between Sergeant Dillon and the driver of the bus.

The sedan immediately increased its speed until it became a dot far ahead and finally passed from sight. It reached Van Cortlandt Park, turned west toward the hills of Riverdale and so came at last to Tarleton Road.

“Not too fast, Dillon,” Tattersall Lacy cautioned.

Dillon obeyed like an automaton without the slightest sign that he heard the order. He was Lacy's personal chauffeur; he always drove the staff car. Weaver and Corning sat on either side of the major. Pat Harri-gan's beefy body was like a squatting mountain on one of the folding seats.

Corning made sly cracks about it and offered him a newspaper to read.

They watched Tarleton Road slip by. It was a narrow macadamized highway that cut along the base of wooded green hills like a winding dusty ribbon. The car passed a crossroad presently where there was a huddle of frame stores and a one story grocery shack. This was the spot from where the patient McManus had telephoned. Lacy's keen eye noticed the familiar blue and white telephone sign outside as they sped by.

A mile or two beyond the crossroad Lacy said curtly: “Left turn, Sergeant!” and Dillon slowed and spun his wheel.

They turned into a rutted dirt lane that wound into the scrub oak and widened out in a small clearing. A path led from the clearing toward a low stone wall that was almost covered by underbrush and a thick tangle of trailing creepers.

Beyond this side wall was the house they had come to raid. The house itself was invisible from the clearing.

There was no sign of private McManus.

“That's funny,” Weaver said in a low voice.

“Wasn't McManus supposed to wait here, Jack?”

Lacy didn't bother answering the question. He turned to Corning:

“Ed, get back to the road right away. Slide along cautiously till you reach the front wall of the estate. Take a careful look at the house without exposing yourself. Weaver, you wait at the head of the lane and see that the bus turns in here as quietly as possible when it arrives.”

“Do you think there's anything wrong, Jack?”

“Of course there's something wrong,” Lacy snapped irritably. “Damn it man, use your head!

McManus was supposed to be here. He isn't. He's not the man to walk away from his post and pick daisies. He's been captured! It proves, I'm afraid, what I suspected. Caxton knew he was being trailed to this hangout! He must have had orders to lead McManus—and us—deliberately to this spot.”

“Then the Scarlet Ace,” Corning growled, “doesn't give a good damn whether we raid him or not. Is that what you mean?”

The major shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, Ed. Get going!”

CORNING stepped obediently down the road to reconnoitre the house from the front wall.

Weaver went with him to flag the bus at the head of the lane. Lacy poked carefully around in the little clearing in a patient search for some sort of clue that might throw light on the mysterious disappearance of McManus.

He found a cigarette butt or two, but nothing else. If McManus had been surprised and captured it must have happened swiftly. The thick growth of weeds showed no signs of a struggle.

A low rumble sounded and the big camouflaged bus of Amusement, Inc., backed up the narrow lane. Under Charlie Weaver's low voiced commands the men piled out in disciplined haste and began assembling and distributing equipment.

The thud of heavy feet sounded. Ed Corning was racing back from his inspection tour in panting haste.

“They've got McManus!” he cried breathlessly. “They've got him in the house somewhere!” Harrigan swore.

“Are you sure of it?” Lacy's voice crackled.

“Did you actually see him? How do you know?”

“I saw his hat, sir.” In spite of his anxiety Corning remembered automatically to “sir” the major in front of the men. “His hat's stuck up in the open like a challenge, sir. They put it up there on purpose.”

“His hat? Up where? What are you talking about?”

“McManus's grey snap-brim hat! It's stuck up on a projecting cornice directly over the front doorway. I saw it the minute I peeked over the top of the stone wall. McManus certainly never left it there—not in a spot like that. Why should it be placed so carefully in plain sight?”

“So we'd see it,” Harrigan snarled. “Why else?”

“Hmmm....” The major's forehead wrinkled.

“Any signs of occupancy that you could see from the grounds?”

“No, sir. The old joint is as quiet as a grave. Looks as though it's been empty for years.”

“Sounds like a trap,” Harrigan muttered somberly.

“Trap? Certainly it's a trap, or a grim invitation for us to come in and find a murdered McManus,” Lacy rejoined tartly. “I've been expecting something of the sort. However—”

He glanced about the clearing, at the stolid veterans with the rifles, at the opened grenade boxes, at the two assembled Lewis guns with their squat businesslike little tripods. The spark in his roving eye stiffened each man like the galvanic touch of an electric current.

“—However,” Tattersall Lacy's slow drawl continued, “trick or no trick, we're going to raid that house. Captain Weaver!”

“Yes, sir.”

“You will be in charge of the men. Scatter them through the grounds in the underbrush. Spot a machine gun to one side with its muzzle ranged on the front door panels. Put the other gun on the rear door. Detail two men as grenadiers. Keep everything covered and out of sight. Corning, you will assist Weaver. Place your men at once. I'll give you five minutes.”

Weaver led the men in a silent single file along the faint path to the weed-grown side wall that flanked the estate. They disappeared from sight like ghosts. No sound came from the grounds except the thin rustle of the breeze in the shrubbery.

THE slow minutes ticked by. Dil-lon, the driver of the staff car, wriggled with distaste in his seat. No matter how hot the scrimmage got, his orders were to stay behind the wheel.

Finally Lacy glanced at his watch. “All right, Harrigan.”

He squeezed past the empty bus and strode down the rutted lane with Harrigan at his side.

Together they walked swiftly along the road until they reached the stone wall that fronted the estate.

Thick shrubbery prevented a view of the house until they reached the front gateway.

Harrigan breathed a faint rumbling oath.

“By the Lord, Jack, there it is! See it? There's poor McManus's hat!”

It was just where Corning had described it—a grey snap-brim fedora stuck carefully on an overhanging eave just above the front doorway, where it could easily be discernible from the road.

The house itself looked dingy and tenantless; all the shades were drawn. There was a musty air of decay and emptiness about it. Grass sprouted in the cracks of the stone walk that led from the road.

Lacy noted with a grim approval that there was no visible evidence of his eleven marines.

He said curtly to Harrigan: “Wait here, Pat.

I'm going up this path alone for a moment, if you please.”

“But, Jack—”

“Wait here,” the major repeated tonelessly.

He walked slowly up the stone-flagged pavement with a silver whistle in his left hand and a .45 Colt, army model, in his right.

Twenty feet from the front door he halted deliberately and surveyed the silent house from roof to ground. He didn't look backward at Harrigan but his voice called softly: “All right, Pat.

Follow on. Keep six feet behind me.”

When he heard the crunch of Harrigan's feet cease he started forward again.

Pat called uneasily: “Look out for a volley from the window! They may have a Tommie in ambush.”

“Quite so.” The major's voice was dry. “I have my own small theory about that window and door. I rather think I'm right, too.” As he spoke he ran suddenly forward and his hand closed on the knob. With a swift motion he turned it and shoved.

The door, as he had surmised, was unlocked.

It flew inward with a bang and stayed wide open.

Tattersall Lacy leaped sideways out of range.

No Tommie gun flamed from the opening. Not a sound, not a motion came from the house. Lacy's hand went over his head and he made a peculiar circling gesture. He blew three short blasts on his whistle. From behind trees and bushes men with rifles came flitting into life. They converged on the doorway.

“Fix bayonets!” Lacy ordered.

The rifles lengthened ominously in a dead silence.

“I want this house mopped up from top to bottom, men. Forward!”

Pat Harrigan dashed instantly for the open doorway. He rebounded from the calmly stiffened shoulder of his superior.

Tattersall Lacy was the first man to jump through the opening.

He sprang across the hall and peered into a room on the right. It was empty; covered with dust.

But the major's sharp eyes saw recent footprints in the dust. The prints led to one of the shaded windows. There was a small ragged peep-hole in the shade. Someone had been in this room at no very ancient date.

Out in the hall Weaver's commands echoed hollowly:

“Parker's squad up with me to the second floor. Temple's men with Mr. Corning to the top floor. The rest wait here. No shots if you can avoid it. If you run into any gangsters wade into 'em with the long thrust. Pin 'em to the wall!”

Ascending feet rumbled on the un-carpeted stairs. Lacy smiled wryly. He rather imagined he knew what they'd find. Unless Lacy's forebodings were wrong they'd find nothing but the mutilated dead body of private McManus of Amusement, Inc.

He ran back to the front hall in time to see Harrigan emerge from the room opposite.

“Empty,” Harrigan snarled. “Nothing. Not even a rag of carpet on the boards.”

ITH a trio of silent marines at their heels they searched the entire ground floor. It was the same wherever they looked—nothing. The cellar door was secured by a bolt and a huge padlock; both were cob-webbed and thick with accumulated dust.

Suddenly they heard a faint shout from upstairs and the shrilling of Weaver's whistle.

They raced to the foot of the wide staircase and hurried upstairs.

As the rush of their feet died away one of the oaken panels below the main staircase swung soundlessly open, disclosing a black square hole. A man wriggled swiftly through the opening. He tiptoed to the foot of the stairs and stood there listening. He laughed with a brief snarled sound.

He had no face, this stealthy intruder. His hidden eyes gleamed through narrow silken slits. A close-fitting hood of scarlet covered skull and face and hung down below his collar. The mask fluttered faintly with the pressure of his heavy breathing.

He stood there for an instant, quietly tense, like a cowled scarlet chessman. Then he whirled with another snarling chuckle and vanished through the yawning hole below the staircase. The panel closed without a click. . . .

Up on the top floor, at the head of the stairs, Lacy and Harrigan found a puzzled looking marine on guard.

“Rear room, sir. Straight through to the back.”

“McManus's body in there?” the major snapped.

“No, sir. No sign of him anywhere.”

“What! The devil you say!” Lacy's eyes looked suddenly thoughtful.

“He ought to be here somewhere,” Pat muttered. “That hat of his outside—”

It was a big attic room with a peaked ceiling and an enormous chimney on one side. Weaver's finger pointed silently and the major said with astonishment: “What's all this?”

The wide and enormous projection of the chimney was plastered a smooth white like the rest of the room; but the whole chimney width was covered with writing from the ceiling to the small fireplace opening.

A mysterious and lengthy message. Hundreds of words in smudgy black crayon. It must have taken a long time to write.

Below the last line of writing was a blood-red diamond, so freshly painted that it glistened. Two wavering threads of scarlet had trickled from it down the wall.

ACY'S eyes narrowed as he read the first sentence or two of the long message. It wasn't a bit like the usual crisp challenges of the Ace. It was rambling, involved, almost meaningless.

“I can't make head nor tail of it,” the worried Weaver said. “It reads like the meanderings of a lunatic. What the hell does the thing mean?”

Pat Harrigan read the first few words aloud in his gruff voice, staring closely to make them out:

“Whereas and if and however, in justice to the supremely exalted character of the man who has chosen to call himself The Scarlet Ace, if those who stop to read will, perhaps, allow the personality involved . . .”

Ed Corning shrugged. “Plain lunacy! He's gone crazy, if you ask me.”

“I wonder,” Lacy said harshly.

He reached forward and touched the tip of his finger to the freshly painted ace of diamonds. His finger came away red.

He looked at the ugly stain. It wasn't gritty or greasy to the touch. An expression of stony horror came into his eyes. He placed the tip of his finger against his tongue. A faintly salty taste. It was blood! Freshly spilt human blood!

“What is it, sir?” Corning asked. “What's the matter?”

Lacy didn't answer. He stood there as though frozen, with that queer baffled look of horror in his eyes, mechanically reading the jumbled nonsense of the long, close-written message on the white plaster.

“It'll take hours to read that junk,” Weaver complained. “We've got no time to—”

Lacy shouted aloud. “Time!” He roared it savagely. “That's what it is! He's lured all of us here together and he wants time!”

He sprang away from the scrawled nonsense, whirled, and pointed toward the open doorway and the dusty stairs beyond.

“Out!” he trumpeted. “Out—all of you!

Downstairs and out into the open—for your lives!”

He shoved fiercely at the nearest marine and sent him staggering. His whistle blew a shrill retreat summons.

There was no gainsaying his savage command. They ran helter-skelter from the room and clattered down the stairs. All except Harrigan.

The big Irishman was staring obstinately at the wall. Lacy's fist doubled and he swung viciously against Harrigan's ribs.

“Out! Get out, you!”

He shoved Harrigan ahead of him. They raced madly toward the ground floor. Pat had to take the stairs in a series of giant leaps to keep ahead of the plunging major.

HE marines were bunched out on the grass in front of the entrance as Lacy sprang from the door. His big Colt menaced them. He certainly seemed like a madman. “Get back to the road!

Run—you fools!”

He set the example by racing past them, and they followed obediently in awkward and jostling haste.

Suddenly a great blast of wind struck at the backs of the fleeing men and hurled them flat on their faces. A thunderous roar shook the earth.

Dazed and bewildered by the terrific detonation they lay where they had fallen; and pieces of wreckage whizzed from the sky and gashed the ground all about them. Their eardrums ached. It was like the end of the world.

Tattersall Lacy crawled dizzily to his knees and stared over his shoulder.

The whole upper part of the house had melted away. It was wide open to the sky like the crater of a volcano. A greasy pall of black smoke hung sullenly above the ragged ruin. Flames licked in and out like orange serpents, snapping hungrily in the dust-laden air.

There was no trace whatever of the top-floor room where the marines had been crowded a few moments earlier. It was gone. Dissolved, exploded to atoms.

“Jeeze!” a voice whispered weakly. Somebody coughed hackingly. A man pressed his hand against his ribs and groaned.

“Anybody hurt?” Corning called.

Lacy was upright on his feet now. “Weaver!

Line up your men quickly! Are they all here?”

An uneven double rank moved together on the cluttered lawn. “Here! You! Present! Here. . .”

“All present, sir,” Weaver gasped.

“Good enough. Pick up your scattered equipment and rush the detachment back to the truck. Double quick! Drive off at once. Follow the planned route back to headquarters. Oh— Weaver!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have Dillon bring the staff car around to the front here. There'll be some awkward explaining to do if we don't all get the hell out of here in a hurry.”

The marines vanished. Suddenly Harrigan ran across the grass to the stone walk. He had seen something. He stood there, staring down.

“Look at this damn thing! Jack!”

There was a message on the stone. He pointed. Three crisp words scrawled on the pavement:

YOURS VERY TRULY

A playing card lay face upward in the grass nearby. The ace of diamonds. “That wasn't here when we went inside the house,” Ed Corning said slowly.

“You're damn right is wasn't!” Harrigan grunted. “It was done while we were upstairs.”

Lacy nodded. “The Ace must have been here in person. Came here to witness the explosion with his own eyes and make personally sure that he had wiped out the entire personnel of Amusement, Inc.

Damn him—he can't be far away right now. He must have fled just before we came pouring out of the house.”

From far down the road came the rumble of the departing bus-load of marines. There was a shriller hum and the staff car, driven by Dillon, halted outside the entrance gate with a squeal of its powerful brakes.

“Keep your engine running, Dillon,,” Lacy shouted. “Be ready to shove off fast in the next couple of minutes!”

His words spurted to Corning and Harrigan:

“By God, we're not going to leave here without a last quick search of the grounds for poor McManus! He must be here somewhere. That bloody signature on the plastered chimney was wet and sticky. It was freshly made ...”

He glanced at his watch. It was barely three minutes since the explosion had roared.

“Still time if we're lucky,” he muttered grimly. “Come on!”

They separated swiftly and ran through the grounds in a desperate last minute search for the missing McManus. They peered under torn shrubbery, ripped through vines and creepers; batted thorny branches away from their redrimmed eyes.

It was Lacy himself who found the bodies.

There were two of them. Sprawled on their backs in a tangled copse of birch trees in the rear of the burning dwelling.

IT was easy to see how the Ace had gotten them there; the force of the shattering explosion had cracked the smooth earth away from the sides of a grass-grown slab of timber. The mouth of a slanting tunnel yawned in the ground.

Lacy bent over the victims. They had both been stabbed repeatedly. They were slimy with their own blood. The eyes of private McManus were wide open and staring. He was dead.

But the other man still lived; and Lacy's mouth tightened viciously as he saw the dying face. Hogan's assailant! The man who had jumped!

“Caxton, by God!” the major breathed.

It was and it wasn't! Caxton's scalp seemed to have slipped queerly.

The major reached down and with one jerk he plucked off the black wig. Underneath it the man's real scalp showed—close-clipped, prickly, blond.

His mouth and chin were not Caxton's. In his death weakness the man's whole face had relaxed and was utterly different. Lacy marvelled that he could ever have mistaken the fellow for Caxton.

The dying man jeered faintly.

“Fooled you—not a bad—actor—am I? Fooled the whole pack—of—”

“Who stabbed you?”

No answer. Blood trickled from the tight corners of the fake Caxton's mouth.

“You've got guts,” Lacy whispered to him.

He leaned closer. His voice was friendly, fatherly.

Full of a subtle flattery. “I would never have dared to make that chute jump into a city street. I admire your courage, my friend; but what did it get you? A knife in your back!”

“I—got—plenty—guts,” he groaned. “I played ball with the—the—Master . . . But I didn't kill you up there— in—the Cloud Building— and—he—”

“Exactly. You're dying like a rat, my friend, as a reward for high courage and loyalty. The Ace stabbed you.”

“He — he killed me — damn — him ...”

“Where's the real Caxton? He's a prisoner, isn't he? Where has the Ace got him hidden?”

The eyelids closed.

“Where? Tell me, man! The Ace didn't play square with you. You did your best and he killed you for it. You're dying. Here's your last chance for revenge. Where's Caxton?”

“He's—he's—”

Tattersall Lacy laid his ear against the faintly quivering lips. Pat and Ed were like frozen shadows behind the major, staring, trying vainly to catch the stream of inaudible syllables that dribbled into Lacy's bent ear. The major listened like a carved Sphinx.

The dribbling whisper ceased. The dying head lifted suddenly by itself clear off the ground.

“So long, pal!” he jeered suddenly in a strong voice.

His head dropped. A flicker wrenched his body. He lay stark.

“You're a louse, my friend,” said the major's calm voice. “But you had guts; you weren't lying when you said that. And you did talk finally. Thank you for that, anyway.”

Rapidly he emptied the dead killer's pockets.

He did the same with McManus—ripped the tailor's label from the ex-marine's coat, removed swiftly all telltale marks of identification.

“Can't afford any publicity yet,” he said coolly to the scowling Harrigan. “An hour or two in the morgue can't possibly make any difference to McManus. I'll have his body removed to headquarters the minute I can get into confidential touch with Mr. Saturday of the Emergency Council.”

His words were hard-boiled; but his eyes were blinking queerly and he was holding himself in cold check by a tremendous effort.

“Stop looking at me like that, Pat.”

His teeth clicked and his voice steadied.

“Remember, gentlemen, that Caxton may still be alive. We can't help the dead. We've got a quick chance of rescuing a living man if we hurry!”

He turned on his heel and his long legs sprinted toward the waiting staff car. Pat and Ed piled in behind him; and the alert Dillon meshed gears promptly and shot away like a streak.

Lacy leaned forward with his face a stiff mask and whispered directions to Dillon.

THE afternoon was rapidly fading into dusk, but Dillon didn't switch on any lights. He kept the car hurtling along side a torpedo. At the infrequent crossroads he slowed barely enough to catch a quick glimpse of the vanishing street signs.

He turned left at a place marked Cunningham Road. He drove very slowly now. The road wound downhill toward the Hudson. It became a paved street, lined on both sides with neat and utterly respectable two-story cottages.

“Far enough, Dillon!” the major rasped.

Dillon slammed on the brakes and relaxed.

The rest alighted. They walked down the darkened street and the major glanced at the dim house numbers. The house he was seeking was the last one in the row; the one nearest the river.

There was a grass lawn surrounding it and a neat hedge of green privet along the edge of the sidewalk. The lawn sloped away on one side toward the misty river and ended in a sheer bank at the water's edge.

The major's shadowy figure led the way toward the front porch of the cottage.

“What's the program, Jack?” Corning whispered.

“Shoot anybody that gets in your way,” was the low response. “If Caxton is a prisoner in there he's coming out with us. Either he comes out or we say in.”

He pressed the bell button and stood aside in shadow. There was a brief wait.

“Who is it?” a thick voice growled hoarsely.

Lacy laid a calm finger on his lips. Corning and Harrigan couched watchfully. Under cover of his coat Lacy's right hand gripped a big rocklike .45.

“Who is it?”

The door opened slightly and a face peered.

There was a sharp exclamation and a gun rammed through the narrow opening. Lacy leaped staight at the muzzle. Before the gangster's finger could press trigger, the major's fierce thrust sent the opened door crashing inward and spilled man and gun headlong.

A thin jet of flame spat from the Army .45.

The sprawled thug on the floor coughed, threshed over on his face and died.

The major hurdled the body, raced swiftly down the hall and threw open a door. A bullet from within the room whizzed past his head and buried itself in the door frame with a harsh thhhwaaaack!

He dropped to one knee and fired again. The coolly aimed bullet caught his foe squarely in the groin and toppled him with a crash.

With the sound of that fall Lacy was up again and into the room.

There were two more snarling thugs inside.

They rushed promptly. A chair smashed against Lacy's head and beat him down. Pat Harrigan's gun blew a hole through the belly of the chair swinger. The fourth gangster fired almost pointblank at the redhead. Pat leaped sideways a second before the flash. Before he could recover a second bullet creased his neck with flame and he felt the hot blood spurt.

Lacy fired upward from the floor at the swearing thug and missed. But Ed Corning didn't!

There was a crashing echo from Ed's gun. Silence flowed into the reeking smoke-filled room.

“That makes four by my arithmetic,” Ed said dryly. “I guess that's all, folks.”

They were like cold eyed automatons. No mercy in their taut faces. Lacy swayed back to his feet.

“Are you hurt, Jack?”

“No.”

“Four of 'em,” Ed remarked. “Three here and one in the hall. Not bad shooting.”

“Listen!” Lacy said sharply

FROM the rear of the cottage they heard a sudden sliding, scuttling sound and the dull bump of a heavy body striking solid earth.

“Somebody's just slid down the extension roof,” Pat whispered. “Somebody scrammed out an upper window and jumped.”

With one accord the three crime discouragers dashed from the room. They ran like deer down the hall and threw open the rear door. In the soft earth behind the extension of the kitchen shed they saw the deep imprint of feet.

“Look!” Corning shouted.

Twenty yards away a figure was racing across the sloping lawn toward the Hudson. Lacy's gun elevated with a snap of his wrist and he fired.

As he ran forward he saw a crumpled smear of scarlet on the grass. A silken cowl with blank, ugly slits like empty eye-sockets; dropped in mad flight by the fear-stricken criminal ahead of him. It was the telltale disguise of the Ace!

The Ace had whirled and stopped short. In his terror he screamed shrilly like an animal. He sent three flaming stabs backward through the dusk.

Crouched at bay, he was a hideous sight. In the darkness Lacy couldn't be sure of the features; but he saw a powerfully shaped head, a gaunt face with wildly gleaming eyes. In the half-light the face was vague, a distorted blur of greenish shadow. Dank black hair lay plastered smoothly on the broad skull; it hung down in unkempt strands over the tops of the ears. The sight filled Lacy with a queer, loathing hate. He had a sudden sickish desire to swing the edge of a spade against that matted skull and smash it to pieces like a rotten melon. He felt repulsion, a crawling fear.

As Lacy hesitated, the Ace turned again and sped away.

The major fired steadily as he pursued. The criminal “Master” seemed to bear a charmed life.

Bullets sang above his head, cut the turf under his flying feet.

He reached the high bank above the river. His arms arched over his head. He dived. They heard the deep water splash as his body hit the surface.

A second later Lacy reached the edge of the steep bank. He reloaded hastily. He saw the dripping head emerge from the surface of the river, far out in the swirling current. He sent white spray flying all about it with the spat of his reckless bullets. Ed was emptying his gun; so was Pat.

They saw the Ace's gaunt arm lift and his dripping gun flamed once at them from the murky river. Then a second arm lifted. The head vanished swiftly out of sight. It didn't come up again.

Nothing but the rip of the tide and the formless swirl of gathering darkness.

Was he dead? Had they killed him? Was he a corpse rolling gently along in muddy depths? The three marine officers stared at one another and none of them voiced their thoughts.

Suddenly Corning gave a brisk cry. He sounded relieved about something.

“Listen to that! There'll be hell popping in a minute!”

They could hear the faint shrilling of a police whistle, the sound of shouting.

“Back to the house!” Lacy snapped in his old crisp tone. “We can't stop here. We've got to search that house. A quick search for Caxton and a prompt getaway or we'll have Dillon and the staff car out of action. We can't afford that.”

They went through the cottage like madmen on a spree. A locked door on the upper floor went in like matchwood under their assault. Within the room a man lay gagged and bound on a narrow bed. Caxton! He was emaciated and half delirious.

Lacy's knife snapped the taut bonds with a few swift cuts. Pat and Ed raised the semiconscious man between them and dragged his limp feet down the stairs to the street.

They piled into the staff car. They flopped Caxton upright on the rear seat and help him.

“Double quick, Dillon!” Lacy barked.

DILLON crossed the trunk highway like a streak and continued inland. He had studied the regional maps till he knew the place like a book. He stopped at the side of the road for a few seconds and sprang out.

Changing the license plates was a simple process; Dillon simply tore off the topmost plate and another number appeared instantly in its place.

It was like tearing a sheet from a calendar. The plates looked like metal but weren't; they were pressed one above another like leaves in a book.

The staff car resumed its flight at a more sedate speed. Dillon snicked on the dash lights.

“Well, we got the Ace,” Harrigan said in a funny voice.

“We know damn well we got the Ace,” Corning said harshly.

“Do we, Ed?” The major sounded tired.I wonder.”

“Men don't stay under water indefinitely and live, Jack.”

“They don't usually,” Lacy admitted. “Let's think about something else.” He sighed.

Lacy lit a cigarette with an unsteady hand. In the light of the match his face gleamed sharply-cut like a cameo.

“I did something today that wrenched my heart,” he said in a jerky voice. “I mean when I stripped McManus of identification marks and left him for strangers to stare at. And yet—”

His voice steadied. It cut at his brother crime destroyers with a grim sincerity.

“In a like case, gentlemen, I expect and want you to do the same thing to me. The cause we espouse is paramount; the individual life nothing.

McManus was a good soldier. If his spirit is still near us he'll salute, click his marine heels and say, 'Yes, sir!' to that. I—”

He said no more. The wheels of the staff car whirred monotonously along the dark road.

Thoughts drummed within Tattersall Lacy's brain with the same deadly monotony:

“I've put my hand to the task of uprooting crime and I'll never stop till the Emergency Council dissolves forever. If the Scarlet Ace is indeed dead, so much the better for me. If he's still alive so much the worse, by God, for the Scarlet Ace!”

It was fifteen long years since the war in France ended; but the bronzed profile in the fitful gleam of the cigarette looked curiously youthful— curiously like that younger man of the A. E. F. that a mud-caked battalion of hellions had given a proud nickname. Jack Lacy—the Iron Major!