Help via Ko-Fi

A Scarlet Ace Novelette

The House of Crime

By Theodore A. Tinley

JOHN Tattersall Lacy strolled leisurely out of the ornate foyer of the Cloud Building and walked to the corner. The sunlight was warm and bland. Fifth Avenue was a gay riot of moving color. Lacy smiled as he surveyed the teeming thoroughfare; loveliest street in the world, he thought. He crossed the avenue and swung aboard a northbound bus.

He looked almost foppish in his well-tailored suit of soft gray with a fresh white carnation at his lapel. A close observer would detect a hint of the military in his erect carriage, the keen eyes, the set of his shoulders. No one, however, except a handful of trusted men, would ever dream that behind the smiling eyes of this quiet ex-major of marines was the keen, ruthless brain that had organized Amusement, Inc.

High up in the pinnacle of the Cloud Building, in a duplex penthouse that was guarded like a fortress, was the major's headquarters. From that penthouse originated all of those secret smashing raids that had brought fear and hate to the criminal underworld.

The exploits of Amusement, Inc., were never chronicled in the newspapers. The ordinary citizen in the street took it for granted that the sudden death epidemic that had been striking left and right among the city's thugs and killers was due to the clever police work of a reform commissioner. Tattersall Lacy was well content to let the police department take all the credit it wanted. It suited the major to have his real mission cloaked. He had accepted as a patriotic duty the invitation to fight organized racketeers with the only weapon they understood—bullets against bullets, death against death.

One after another the snarling denizens of the underworld were being quietly exterminated. Now John Tattersall Lacy found himself locked in a deadly life-and-death grapple for mastery with the criminal chief of them all—a man of whom the crooks themselves spoke only in whispers. Step by step the major had climbed over the bodies of lesser rogues toward this master of organized crime. He was facing at last the mysterious unknown who wore a blood-red mask and left a sinister calling card on the stark bodies of his victims. The dreaded Scarlet Ace!

AS he rode northward on the top deck of the bus Major Lacy's smile deepened. Amid the bright sunshine and the hurrying Fifth Avenue crowds the threat of the Ace seemed something fantastic, unreal. Yet it was real enough! Charlie Weaver, the major's grim-faced little chief of staff, had urged Lacy with all seriousness to take an armed bodyguard with him to the art gallery.

Lacy's reply was characteristic. "My dear Charles, don't be an utter ass! I assure you that I haven't the faintest intention of doing anything bloodthirsty this lovely spring morning. I'm merely going to have a preview of some remarkably fine etchings and, if my modest pocketbook can stand it, to buy one or two."

"The invitation to attend the exhibition might be a trick," Weaver said stubbornly. "We're all marked men, Jack! Why not let Ed Corning or Pat Harrigan go along with you? It won't do any harm."

Harrigan's massive red head nodded. "My feeling, Jack, is that it's highly dangerous for any of us to go out of headquarters alone. I mean that!"

"Tosh!" said the major softly. "I grant you that our mysterious friend, the Ace, is a devilish shrewd customer. But I hardly think he'll pump lead at me in a public art gallery. I don't think that either the Ace or any of his thugs will turn up there."

Lacy's laugh was gently amused at the thought.

"I doubt very much if the fellow really knows an etching from a mezzotint."

At this time, of course, the major hadn't the faintest suspicion of the existence of the charming Zita. Afterwards he admitted with a wry smile that she had tricked him rather neatly. The odd affair of the wedding ring should have warned him. Perhaps he should have recognized her voice at once. But the damned etchings were so lovely and Zita herself so warmly beautiful a woman that for once Lacy's watchfulness wavered.

He first noticed her at the curb in front of the ornate Fifth Avenue building that housed the art gallery. She was stepping out of an expensive looking limousine. A chauffeur in dark livery held the door obsequiously open and bent toward her for a moment. To Lacy's amazement he saw the chauffeur hand the woman a circlet of smooth platinum—a wedding ring—which she immediately slipped onto the third finger of her left hand. It was done so swiftly and smoothly that the major wasn't absolutely sure whether the chauffeur had really handed the ring to her or whether she had withdrawn it deftly from her own handbag. For possibly ten seconds or so Tattersall Lacy stood stock-still on the sidewalk, staring at the woman. Her beauty was of the type that compels attention. She was no ordinary pretty girl in a smart Fifth Avenue frock. She was the serene embodiment of what most pretty girls never become—a really beautiful woman. Her hair and eyes were dark, her skin flawless, the curve of her figure a smooth, graceful perfection.

She flushed faintly and lowered her eyelids as she noticed Lacy's frank, unabashed stare. Lacy flushed himself as he turned away. It was not like the well-bred and sophisticated major to gawp at people like a country bumpkin. He walked briskly into the building's lobby and waited for the elevator.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the woman cross the tiled floor from the street entrance and approach the bank of elevators.

A white light bloomed and bronze doors slid apart. Lacy entered the car and the woman followed. The operator's voice was a bored grunt:

"Floor, please?"

"Eight," Lacy said.

The woman hesitated. In a low voice she asked: "On what floor are the etchings being exhibited?"

"Eight," repeated the operator.

"Thank you." The woman glanced at Lacy and their eyes met for an instant.

AT the eighth floor the major stepped courteously back and allowed her to pass ahead of him into the gallery. A sleepy looking attendant glanced up from his desk and Lacy's companion purchased a catalogue.

In another moment he forgot all about her in his pleasure over the really remarkable collection of etchings. In the back of his mind, however, lurked a faint feeling that the voice of the woman was vaguely familiar. Something in the low, modulated tone, something in the calm, clear enunciation.... With a shrug he dismissed her from his mind.

His eyes encountered a slim little nude by Dedagne on the wall in front of him. Lovely, by gad! He studied the etcher's inscription: Silver Birch. Beside a young birch tree the artist had etched a slim virginal figure with bud-like breasts, wind-tossed hair and arms flung aloft. The major sighed as he looked at the price....

He became aware, suddenly, that someone was standing close behind him. The thick carpet had deadened the sound of footfalls. Without turning his head, Lacy squinted backward out of the corner of his eyes. Instantly he relaxed. It was the woman of the elevator. She was staring over his shoulder at the little nude, her eyes bright with appreciation.

Lacy felt a faint stirring of his pulse. She was so close to him that he was conscious of the warmth of her body. A faint perfume enveloped him. A disturbing, scent, something oddly unlike perfume.

To his amazement a mist seemed to float in front of his eyes momentarily and the etching on the wall wavered and dissolved. He seemed suddenly to be falling endlessly through space— queer, green space. The sensation was not unpleasant.

Dimly he felt something strike him on the back of his skull. The green fog cleared for a second and he realized that he was flat on the floor. He was conscious of a faintly familiar voice. It seemed to be calling to him...

With an effort he forced up heavy eyelids. He was aware of a lovely face bending over him.

"John! John, dear! Speak to me!"

The woman was a superb actress. She had dropped to her knees beside him. One arm was under his feeble head. To the amazed attendant who had rushed up from his desk in the foyer she lifted large, liquid eyes.

"My husband—his heart... He's had attacks like this before... No, no! No ambulance, please. Our car is downstairs at the curb. If you will call our chauffeur—here he is now, thank God! Hurry, Grimes. Get Mr. Lacy downstairs to the car. He's had another heart attack. Can you lift him? Oh, be careful, please——"

As the burly Grimes reached down, a faint suspicion of a wink passed between him and the lovely lady.

Without any fuss and with a minimum of excitement the limp body of Lacy was carried down to the lobby and across the sidewalk to the waiting limousine at the curb. The pseudo Mrs. Lacy got hurriedly in. She sat close to the huddled figure in the corner, one arm supporting Lacy so he wouldn't slide to the floor. The chauffeur sprang behind the wheel.

The whole episode took barely a minute or two. A few pedestrians stopped to stare. But their stares were more for the sleek magnificence of the limousine rather than the fact that it contained a sick man.

Only one pair of eyes appreciated the significance of what was occurring. A few yards along the sidewalk, in the shadow of a jeweler's awning, a man whispered a faint, startled oath and reached instinctively for a hidden automatic pistol.

He was a small, nervous-appearing little man, with eager eyes and a face wrinkled like a winter apple. He took a single impulsive step forward. Then he changed his mind. His fingers came away empty from the concealed shoulder holster. He turned swiftly on his heel and walked diagonally toward the curb.

THE luck of the Lord was with little Charlie Weaver of Amusement, Inc. A woman shopper had just stepped from a taxicab and was walking toward the jeweler's shop. Weaver popped inconspicuously into the empty cab and slammed the door.

"Uptown!" he growled. "Straight ahead. Make it snappy!"

The ornate limousine was purring slowly north into traffic.

Weaver leaned eagerly toward the opened glass panel behind his own driver.

"Follow that car, the big one just ahead of us. You get ten bucks over the fare if you keep it in sight."

The hackman's red face twisted backward for an instant. He grinned pleasantly.

"And not a damn cent if you let 'em get wise up ahead that we're trailing 'em!" Weaver warned.

"Oke," said the driver softly.

Charlie Weaver's jaw jutted grimly. It was only a lucky miracle that he was in this cab following his chief. He had deliberately disobeyed orders by shadowing Jack Lacy. Now he was damned glad he had disobeyed. His worried hunch had been right. The invitation to the picture gallery had been a trick. In some way that devilishly good looking woman had managed to drug Lacy and kidnap him. Except for the presence of the disobedient Weaver the stunt would have been carried out without a flaw. As it was...

Weaver's eyes narrowed. He seemed to hear Lacy's well-remembered voice on a previous adventure: "Softly, my dear Charles! Don't try to rescue poor Caxton. Caxton will make a most excellent decoy. He'll show us the way to their hangout..."

The memory of that calm, modulated voice had stayed Weaver's impetuous hand as he reached for his automatic pistol back there on the sidewalk in front of the Fifth Avenue jeweler's shop. Charlie knew the major's stern creed. The success of Amusement, Inc. transcended the life and safety of any member of the organization. The fact that Lacy himself was the helpless decoy in the limousine made no difference. In this disciplined war on crime the individual's life meant nothing, be it the newest marine recruit or the Iron Major himself...

The stealthy automobile pursuit continued swiftly up Fifth Avenue past the long green- bowered wall of Central Park.

Presently the limousine made a sharp right turn and droned east. At Lexington it swung left again. There was no indication that the pursuit was noticed, but the chauffeur of the taxi-cab kept discreetly lagging nevertheless. He didn't mean to lose that ten bucks bonus!

The chase bore steadily east now and traffic began to thin out. The speed of the taxi slackened. Suddenly with a faint squeal of its brakes it halted in front of a small stationery store.

The driver grinned as he glanced backward at his fare. He winked with a friendly cunning.

"Walk over to that corner newsstand, Bud, and buy yourself a paper."

Weaver got out promptly and mooched over to the stand. He picked up a paper and threw down three cents. As he stood there pretending to look at the headlines, he let his eyes dart curiously down the side street.

The limousine he had trailed was parked quietly at the curb. As Weaver watched across the top of his paper, he saw the uniformed driver of the expensive car cross the sidewalk with Tattersall Lacy's limp form slung across his brawny shoulder. The girl followed him and both disappeared into what looked like a brownstone private dwelling of the better class.

Weaver stepped nimbly back to the waiting taxicab and drew out his wallet. He held on tightly to the folded bills in his hand and frowned at the hackman.

"Are you sure you're not wondering what this is all about?"

"Who, me? Don't be silly, fella. I got a livin' to make."

"That's fine. Scram!"

The cabman's grimy paw snatched the dough. The taxicab made a wide left turn and shot west with a toot of its horn.

Charlie Weaver walked slowly down the street past the brownstone dwelling into which he had seen Tattersall Lacy carried. He made a leisurely circuit of the whole block, mapping the terrain with an experienced military eye. Some fifteen minutes or so later he stepped into a drugstore phone booth and closed the soundproof door behind him.

He dialed an unlisted number and a brisk voice replied almost immediately.

"Marine headquarters. Private Kendall, on switchboard duty."

"Attention, Kendall! Captain Weaver talking. Put Mr. Harrigan on the wire at once."

A click sounded, followed by Pat Harrigan's jovial foghorn roar.

"Hello, Charlie. Where the hell did you skip to so mysteriously?"

"Alert!" Weaver barked in tense command.

"Alert!" Harrigan repeated swiftly. He said no more.

Into a dead silence at the other end of the wire the doughty little chief of staff of Amusement, Inc., began to issue orders with a careful and even precision.


JOHN Tattersall Lacy awoke with a dull, pounding headache. He was flat on his back on a chaise lounge in a room that was illuminated with a soft blaze of artificial light.

For a moment he thought it was night. Then suddenly he realized with a start that the room was a sealed chamber. The walls were an even silver tone, unbroken by doors or windows.

Mechanically he groped for his watch and found it still ticking. The hands pointed to ten minutes past twelve. Was it midnight or noon? Inside of a sealed room he couldn't be sure. But the instinctive feeling persisted that he hadn't been unconscious very long.

He swung his feet to the floor, sat up gingerly, tensed his stiffened muscles. Except for the dull headache back of his ears he was perfectly alert and normal. A swift search of his pockets disclosed the fact that nothing had been taken from him. His pistol was still tucked snugly away in its concealed spring shoulder holster.

He took a turn about the room, peering at the unbroken expanse of silvered walls. He knew with a sick feeling of wrath and despair that he had been neatly tricked by a very beautiful and very clever woman. He was penned up for slaughter like a steer in an abattoir. By whom? For whom?

There was only one answer. The Scarlet Ace!

A faint sound brought Tattersall Lacy's pistol out of concealment like a flash. He stared watchfully at the wall in front of him.

A voice behind him said sweetly: "Good morning, John dear!"

He whirled. The woman from the picture gallery was smiling at him with faint, acid mockery. A panel in the wall closed with a click.

She made a little pouting face at the gun.

"You wouldn't shoot your poor wife with an empty pistol, would you, dear?"

He stared at her with a hard, expressionless countenance and a leveled weapon. He was suddenly furious at the assured mockery of her tone and bearing. For a second their eyes clashed. Then, without a word, he pulled the trigger. There was a dull click as the hammer fell on an empty chamber.

In spite of herself the woman shuddered. The smile went out of her eyes.

"That was a deadly thing to do, my friend."

"I'm a deadly man, my dear-er-wife, I believe?"

"The name," she said coldly, "is Zita."

Lacy bowed ceremoniously and watched her narrowly. He knew that he was in stark peril, but in spite of his predicament he found himself fighting down a rising wave of admiration for this cunning agent of the Ace. Against the glowing background of the silvered wall the woman's beauty was so flawlessly superb!

She had changed from her street costume to sleeveless lounging pajamas of pale water-green silk. On her feet were tiny green-pointed mules. From jeweled shoulder-clasps her bare arms emerged like pale slender ivory. Beneath the soft green folds of the silken jacket her ungirdled figure was frankly firm and rounded.

She came forward slowly and the loose trousers she wore accentuated the feminine sway of her hips. Her smile was again a jeer.

"And how is my poor John?"

"A trifle puzzled, thank you," Lacy said dryly. "May I ask why you've honored me again with your charming presence? I thought that you had already successfully completed your part in this little comedy. Or should I say tragedy?"

THE girl's eyes fell before his, Her face suddenly was a shade paler. Then she resumed her mockery.

"I came to see if my dear spouse was himself again. The Master is anxious to interview you."

"The 'Master,' of course, being the Scarlet Ace?"

"Of course."

Her voice still struck at that memory chord in the major's brain. He looked at her searchingly.

"Tell me, have I ever spoken with you before this morning's-er-mishap?"

She laughed with tinkling amusement. "Not directly, my poor John. I spoke once and you listened, I believe. Surely you remember."

And then he knew! His mind flashed back to a poisoned phonograph disk whirring softly in his penthouse library while the men of Amusement, Inc. listened behind the protection of grotesque gas masks to the first bombastic challenge of the Scarlet Ace. A woman's tones had spoken first from the disc. She had bid them in a charming voice to listen carefully to the message from the "Master."

That woman was Zita!

Lacy cursed inwardly. If only he had...

"Exactly, my dear," Zita replied, reading his thought. "My voice was the only weak link in the kidnap scheme. We gambled on the fact that you wouldn't remember in time. And we won."

"True enough," Lacy replied steadily. "And I suppose I've lost. I'm going to be killed, I presume."

Again her mocking eyes wavered before his gray ones.

"Or tortured?" he continued insistently. "The Scarlet Ace would undoubtedly love me to betray to him the names of the men on the Emergency Council, decent members of society who are cheerfully risking their lives to stamp out a vicious cutthroat and murderer."

Her head came up and the dark eyes flamed. Then she shrugged listlessly.

"Call him what you like. It's nothing to me. I'm only a small cog in a marvelous machine. I'm only his—"

"His lovely and devoted mistress," Lacy purred.

The sting of her open hand on his face drove him backward a step.

"Your filthy liar!" she panted. She was like a tigress poised to rend him. She was stiff with anger—and was it an incredulous horror?

THE major's eyes remained flinty. There was little mirth in his short laugh. His face was a dead white except for the crimson splotch where Zita had struck him.

"I stand corrected," he said gravely. "You're just a member of his murder gang. You admire him for his skill as a wholesale killer. Is that it?"

She said harshly: "You're wasting your breath, Major. Save it for the time when you confront the Master."

As she turned contemptuously away Lacy's right hand, gripped her shoulder and swung her around to face him. She struggled for a second, saw the hopelessness of pulling free, and relaxed.

"Please let me go! You're hurting me."

"That doesn't matter a damn," Lacy rejoined evenly. His grip tightened on her shoulder. He saw her wince.

"I'm going to tell you something, my dear Zita," he said quietly. "God only knows why except that you're as lovely a murder tool as I've ever seen—and, frankly, I can't figure you out. You look decent, you sound decent; and yet you deliberately lured me to my death. Why, my dear Zita? I get the same feeling of amazement when I look at you as I would if I found a scented and full-blown rose in hell. It's not logical. Why should a woman of your type consort with ape-faced gangsters and a maniac in a blood-red mask? A moment ago I tested you with a filthy accusation and you reacted the way I hoped you would. In God's name, what queer mental quirk binds you to a monster like the Ace?"

"You're hurting me," she repeated dully. "I have nothing to say. Think what you like."

Lacy's grip relaxed on her shoulder but she didn't move.

"A year ago," the major went on tonelessly, "I resigned my military commission and abandoned an honorable career to wage war on the rats who kill decent citizens and fatten on the fruits of organized blackmail. I did it as a patriotic duty and because a beloved leader high in the councils of our government told me I was the man best fitted to do the job. I couldn't stop now if I wanted to, because the dead voices of my comrades who have been killed in this war on vice and filth wouldn't let me quit—nor, by God, would I ever want to."

His voice became even quieter.

"Hitherto I've been lucky, Zita. But today you made me ridiculous. That hurts. Although I realize that a woman of your beauty could make any man ridiculous. And so the comedy ends, my dear-er- wife. I go to meet the Scarlet Ace presently and everything ends for me."

A faint pulse was throbbing rhythmically at Zita's throat. The pale tracery of blue veins under the ivory flesh fascinated him.

"It's war," she murmured. "You said so yourself."

"So I did. But neither of us quite believe that, do we? Even you must realize that this is no counterpart to honorable war. It's justice with the bandage off her eyes, striking down ugly vermin. Do you mind looking at me?"

Her glance wavered past his square-cut chin, the clipped sandy mustache, the lean and high- boned cheeks.

"Do you honestly think, my dear Zita," he said, "that the Ace and I are just a pair of rival generals — that there's no other difference between us?"

"Please! There's nothing to be gained by this kind of talk. I think you're merely a foolishly brave... It—it doesn't matter what I think."

"Oh, yes it does, Zita. Your thoughts are important to me. After all, I'm your comic opera husband, you know. You even wore a ring to prove it. You still have it on, I see."

She snatched the hand away angrily Her red lips twisted. Lacy could see that she was desperately forcing herself into a rage. She tried to pull away from him but he cupped her rounded shoulders with both hands.

"Let me go, you ridiculous fool!"

"Why should I?" he retorted, "After all, I'm your husband."

She fought pantingly to free herself. Her breasts stirred under the green silk. Her slippered feet kicked at him. Lacy in cold anger swept her against him in a crushing embrace and his lips pressed against hers.

His head swam suddenly with the perfume of her dark hair. He bent her backward and his mouth slipped hungrily against the curve of her throat. Zita's arched body went limp. Lacy held her with a kind of savage triumph for a long heart-thudding instant.

When he released her his hands were trembling.

He said thickly: "I'm sorry. I didn't expect to do that."

"It doesn't matter," she breathed vaguely. Her own voice was thick, drowsy. She lifted a weak hand toward her disordered hair.

A soft clicking sound made Lacy whirl. Across the room, in the wall opposite the one through which Zita had entered, a square opening yawned.

A MAN stepped through. His face was masked, but to Lacy's surprise the hood was black— not scarlet.

Two unmasked men followed the intruder. They were heavy, powerful looking, with thick shoulders and squat, bullet heads. Prizefighters, Lacy thought swiftly. Then his eyes dropped to the massive legs, the long arms with the fingers unconsciously curling and twitching. Wrestlers, whispered the major's alert brain.

He stood quite still, watching the trio. The gun in his hidden holster was empty. To try for a break would be suicidal. He forced a thin smile and bowed ironically.

"Come in, gentlemen," he said dryly. He waved a vague hand about the room. "Sorry we haven't more chairs."

The two wrestlers blinked. The man in the black mask paid no attention whatever to the suave irony. His slitted eyes swung toward Zita.

"Quite an informal, costume," he sneered. "I presume you've had the Master's permission to visit this man?"

Zita's lovely face twisted into an expression of mingled scorn and disgust. Her antipathy for the man in the black mask needed no explanation. Lacy was himself conscious of the same crawling dislike. The fellow's gracefully effeminate hands, his light womanish voice, the very poise of his body were offensive to the major.

"My costume," Zita murmured coldly, "is none of your impertinent business, Karl. As for permission to do whatever I please, are you implying I need yours?" Her sneer cut like a knife.

"Get out!" His shrill voice cracked with sudden rage.

She shrugged and turned away with a provocative sweep of her body. As she walked past Lacy their eyes met for an instant. Zita's face was calmly inscrutable but flames were slumbering in her dark eyes. Her words sounded like gay mockery, but Lacy sensed meaning behind the low amused laugh.

"Good-by, Major," she said in a slow drawl. "It's quite a pity you have to die so soon, I enjoyed your little story. You tell it rather well."

The man in the black mask stared at them suspiciously.

Zita disappeared the same way she had come. Lacy strained his eyes but he was unable to detect how she manipulated the panel. For an instant she was a pale glimmer of green beyond the opening. Then the silvered wall became solid again.

Tattersall Lacy stood quietly as the two thugs advanced on him and seized his arms.

"Search him, Boss?" said a husky voice.

"Never mind," the man in the black hood said. "Hustle him along."

They obeyed literally. Lacy's feet stumbled helter-skelter down a long corridor behind the quick strides of the girlish-voiced Karl.

The fingers clamped on both the major's arms were like steel hooks. He protested and a free hand buffeted him in the face with a violence that made his ears sing.

"None of that!" the masked man said sharply. "No unnecessary violence, please. The Master's orders were strict."

They ascended a flight of stairs, turned back along another corridor. Tattersall Lacy's eyes veered watchfully. In his mind he tried to fix carefully the details of halls and staircases.

He was halted at last before a massive door.

"The prisoner is here, sir," the masked man said, apparently to the door itself.

"So I see," said a new and mysterious voice. "Excellent, Karl! Let go of his arms, please." The hidden voice crisped with sudden anger. "What's this? your face is bruised, Major. Has someone struck you?"

The thug on Lacy's left turned pale with fright. He began to stutter something.

"Quite so," said the Voice smoothly. "You disobeyed my orders, but that's quite all right."

Judging from the abject, doglike fear on the unhappy thug's face Lacy was certain that it was not quite all right.

The Voice became jovial. Lacy couldn't detect the origin of the sound; it seemed to float clearly and without echo in the air itself. There was no sign of its owner.

"Come in, my dear Lacy! We must have a chat. I've been waiting a long time to see you."

The door swung open and the major stepped unwillingly forward. His three guides didn't follow. The closing door shut them out.


IN the compact barrack room high up in the dizzy pinnacle of the Cloud Building, disciplined men gathered their equipment together with a quiet and orderly speed.

Rifles melted from the racks. Ammunition moved from hand to hand. A bronzed-faced sergeant with bulky, powerful shoulders, passed out a steady supply of squat steel eggs to a trio of picked grenadiers who stood somber-eyed and silent, stowing away the deadly little Mills bombs in small haversacks slung from their shoulders.

There was a curious tenseness in the cool sunlit room. No one of these ex-marine crime destroyers wasted time in useless chatter. They had listened to a brisk unemotional statement from Pat Harrigan, followed by the quick orders of a line sergeant. Speed! Get ready! Shove off!

Harrington was the only staff officer present. Ed Corning was down in the basement of the huge skyscraper, superintending the tuning up of a certain camouflaged Gray Goose bus and an innocent looking red-and-blue taxicab. Charlie Weaver was still away on advance scout duty, mapping the neighborhood of a certain brownstone dwelling. The method of attack was Weaver's responsibility.

And Major Lacy?

Men looked at one another with a sober restraint in their eyes. The Old Man was caught! Unconscious and in deadly peril of death! There wasn't a man in the penthouse headquarters of Amusement, Inc. who didn't love that tight-lipped leader of theirs with a grim devotion. His unseen presence seemed to fill the room. He was captured by murderers, out of action. And unless these tanned ex-marines of his smashed their swift way through hell and high water....

Pat Harrington spoke in a low voice to the sergeant at his elbow.

"Got the Bandelore torpedo ready? We may have to rip right through the front door if Captain Weaver's survey is accurate. We can't waste any time skirmishing, I'm afraid."

"I've packed the Bandelore myself, sir, in the suitcase carrier."

"Good. Hurry the men along, will you?"

He turned on his heel and ran through a corridor to the staff officers' quarters.

A MOMENT later the voice of the sergeant barked with authority. The men fell into formation and marched stolidly through the ornate and high-ceilinged foyer toward the opened door of the secret elevator that connected the penthouse with the motor exit in the gloomy basement.

The elevator descended swiftly, carrying six men at a time. The sergeant went down with the first group; Harrington descended with the last.

Ed Corning was down below watching with a moody eye the loading of the bus. Harrigan walked over to where he stood in the shadow of a huge concrete arch blocked off by great sliding doors of wood which were now closed tightly together.

It was hot under the bright glare of the electric arc. Coming's face was damp with perspiration. A little to one side, drawn well out of the way of the bus, the staff taxicab waited, with Sergeant Dillon, the major's personal chauffeur, behind the wheel.

Harrigan nodded to Corning. "All set, Ed?"

"Just about. Bascom's driving the bus, as usual. Shake it up, men!"

"Has he got the orders straight? He knows where to go—what to do?"

"Yep. Stop fidgeting, Pat, for God's sake. Weaver reported that there's only one guy on duty in the parking lot, and Bascom will take care of that part. It's the simplest arrangement because Bascom will have to stay with the bus anyway."

A door slammed. A voice called: "Ready to go, sir!"

Ed Coming's silver whistle blew a short single blast.

Without any fuss the big bus got under way as the wooden sliding doors moved apart. The bus moved under the concrete arch that divided off the private area which was leased by Amusement, Inc. from the Gray Goose Corporation. It lumbered through the gloomy Gray Goose repair shop, passed the deserted terminal platform and climbed the long ramp of reinforced concrete that led upward to the sunlight of Sixth Avenue and the murky L structure that ran past the frowning rear of the gigantic Cloud Building.

The sign on the front of the bus read: SPECIAL. Chintz curtains covered the windows. Through the windows could be dimly seen a jovial bunch of clean-shaven young men on an outing. They smoked cigarettes, chatted idly with one another.

The loaded racks and baggage carriers were invisible from outside. A flapping banner tacked on the rear of the truck read: ALOYSIUS J. SLATTERY DEMOCRATIC ASSOCIATION— ANNUAL OUTING.

Two minutes after the bus turned into Sixth Avenue and lumbered north, a red-and-blue taxicab followed, looking very demure indeed for a car that was a custom-built, armored job with a racing motor under the battered and dented hood.

The bus rolled monotonously uptown, bearing steadily toward the east as the lights changed, until presently, with a snorting rumble of its motor, it turned dexterously out of traffic and came to a standstill in a small automobile parking lot.

A sleepy looking man in shirtsleeves emerged, yawning, from a tiny wooden shack in the rear of the lot and came slopping forward through the unkempt weeds that grew in sickly profusion on the hard cindered earth.

He rubbed his eyes.

"What d'ye want—gas?" he grumbled.

"C'mere a minute, fella," said the driver of the bus with a bright and cheery smile.

He beckoned and allowed his hand to remain outstretched. His muscular fingers suddenly caught the parking man by the collar and yanked him bodily into the bus.

There was a faint yelp and no further sound. The shirt-sleeved man didn't reappear.

Instead, the jolly young bronzed-faced lads of the Aloysius J. Slattery Democratic Association began issuing from the bus by twos and threes.

A trio of them turned the street corner and drifted along until they were opposite a certain stately looking brownstone dwelling. These three carried haversacks slung from their shoulders. Each had a bright yellow box of breakfast cereal in his left hand. They looked like "free sample" salesmen canvassing the neighborhood for an advertising campaign.

Other young men in khaki shirts and gray civilian trousers made a circuit of the block to the rear of the brownstone dwelling. They disappeared through the paved delivery entrance of a tall yellow brick apartment house. They carried with them a long wooden box. The lid of the box was held on loosely by a hedge of bright pried-up nails. It wasn't a light burden to carry. Rifles are heavy.

A RED-AND-BLUE taxicab turned suddenly into the parking lot and stopped near the motionless bus with a squeal of its powerful brakes.

Charlie Weaver was the first one to hop out. The staff car had evidently picked him up at a prearranged spot. He said nothing, merely jerked his wrinkled little face toward Bascom, the driver of the bus.

"All ready, sir," Bascom said mildly.

"Stations!" Weaver growled in a low voice. Ed Corning turned on his heel and trotted off after the vanished riflemen. Pat Harrigan swung a heavy suitcase from the hands of Bascom and Weaver and the red-headed Pat took hold of it between them.

They carried their burden gingerly around the corner and walked along toward the brownstone house.

Weaver nodded with satisfaction as he glanced across the street. The three Mills bomb "salesmen" lurked unconcernedly in a dingy doorway opposite as though they were dodging the eagle eye of their advertising boss.

The only other person in sight was a letter carrier and he was far up the street and walking rapidly away. By a stroke of luck there were no empty cars parked at the curb, though that would not have deterred the grim-faced Weaver for a second.

The two staff officers of Amusement, Inc. walked up the short brownstone stoop, still lugging the heavy suitcase.

The door looked like a pretty heavy barrier to crack. Weaver's closer view confirmed his earlier judgment. For all of its innocently ornate appearance the thing was a powerful icebox door. In the center panel was a cumbrous ornamented metal knocker with a swanky little design in bas-relief.

The two men wasted no time. Harrigan heaved up the suitcase with a grunt and held it steady while Charlie Weaver wired the stout leather handle to the knocker. The job was done in a matter of seconds.

ACROSS the street the cereal salesmen watched. One of them tossed away a half- smoked cigarette with a lazy gesture.

Suddenly the two officers turned, walked together down the stoop and trotted off at a brisk pace, like two men in a hurry to keep a belated appointment.

"All right?" Harrigan panted.

"All right," gulped Weaver.

But there was a sick stab of worry at Charlie's heart as he hurried away along the bright sunshiny sidewalk.

Just before he had set the fuse of the Bandelore torpedo he could have sworn he had heard faintly the grim clang of a warning bell somewhere within the sinister house that held Tattersall Lacy.

With his back to a closed door, Tattersall Lacy stood still, staring watchfully. The room into which he had just unwillingly stepped was vividly ablaze with artificial light. On a raised dais at one end the red-hooded figure of the Scarlet Ace was visible, seated behind a square polished desk. Directly in the rear of the Ace stood a silent ominous figure with folded arms and dull, malevolent eyes. This bodyguard, or whatever he was, was huge and powerful. There was something steadily and pitilessly evil in his malignant and unwinking gaze.

"I seem to be here," Lacy said thinly. "How do you do?"

There was an empty chair in front of the desk and the Ace's robed arm gestured briefly.

"Sit down, Major."

He leaned toward a small box-like contrivance on the desk and said clearly: "That will be all, Karl. Dismissed." He chuckled as his fingers disconnected the microphone switch. "The rest of our little chat, Major, will be strictly confidential between you and me."

Lacy's eyes flicked inquiringly toward the evil faced bodyguard and the hooded Ace chuckled again.

"You probably won't believe me. But, then, so few people do. This admirably meaty fellow is a deaf-mute, my dear Lacy. Very melodramatic, eh? But very convenient for my purposes. I assure you that the poor fellow's infirmity makes it impossible for him to hear anything or to tell anything. You can safely forget him unless you turn violent. And with an empty gun in that hidden holster of yours, I think you'll find it sensible to be very lamb-like in your conduct."

Lacy said nothing at all. On the desk, a little to one side of the microphone, he saw a bronze signal button and behind it a horizontal row of smaller white buttons. He wondered tautly whether or not the bronze button controlled the opening and closing of the door through which he had entered.

The Ace leaned forward and his masked voice became silken, almost caressing.

"I rather like you, Lacy. I really do. You're the first man whose energy and boldness has caused me real worry. You've killed some of my agents, you've spoiled some of my plans for profit. But at the same time I must admit you've succeeded in making life amusing for me and—I speak in all sincerity—I'd really prefer not to kill you.

"That's very nice of you." Lacy's words were polite, but his smile was pinched and haggard. He knew the absolute peril of his position, the hopelessness of any escape except by the use of his wits.

"All I ask," the Ace purred, "is that you answer truthfully one or two simple questions and in return I guarantee to release you as smoothly and painlessly as I captured you."

"And if I don't answer?"

"You can't avoid answering, my friend. I'm merely trying to make things easier for both of us."

He laughed a little.

"Let me tell you at once that I've made quite a study of medieval torture methods. My laboratory in the basement is equipped with some very interesting devices to persuade courageous people to answer questions. I always tell my prisoners these things in advance. Most of them see the point immediately. A few stubborn ones have to be convinced by having their flesh torn. Am I clear?"

Lacy shrugged. He was sparring for time, for a chance to think.

"What do you want to know?" he muttered.

"Sensible man," the Ace growled. His hateful slitted hood bent eagerly forward.

"You are the leader of a vigilante organization composed of volunteer ex-marines and called Amusement, Inc.?"


"Its object is to wipe out crime—and incidentally to destroy me?"

"Yes," Lacy spat harshly. His jaw jutted.

"In this task you are assisted by three marine officers, namely: Charles Weaver, Edward Corning, Patrick Harrigan. Is that correct?"

"It is," Lacy admitted. There was nothing to be gained by denying what the Ace already knew.

"A few minor questions," the red mask sneered. "You enjoy the secret cooperation of the government in your war on crime?"

"Of course. You're well aware of that fact."

"Tell me," the Ace purred. "You are well financed, are you not? As a matter of fact you have practically unlimited funds at your disposal, haven't you?"

Lacy was silent.

"Is it government money or is it money advanced by certain very wealthy and, let us say—" his voice was an ugly snarl "—certain public spirited private citizens?"

LACY'S face turned helplessly away from that blindly staring scarlet hood. He swallowed and didn't answer.

"Is it private wealth? Answer me, or by God, I'll——"

"The money is advanced by private citizens," Lacy replied huskily.

A peal of harsh laughter made the blood-red mask of the Ace quiver for an instant. Behind him the tall figure of the grim deaf-mute never moved from his vacant, granite-like watchfulness.

"Six millionaires, eh? Six meddling fools! The so-called Emergency Council for Crime Control! A pack of wealthy meddlers hiding like rats behind their secret code names. I want their real names and I want the information now! Who is your Mr. Monday?"

Tattersall Lacy said nothing.

"All right. We'll pass Monday temporarily. Who is Mr. Tuesday?"

He called the six code names one after another and the lips of Tattersall Lacy remained tightly compressed.

"You have less brains than I gave you credit for," the Ace sneered. "Now let us see how much courage you have."

His hand moved toward the microphone switch.

Lacy said faintly: "Please! Just a moment!"

Time! He had to play for time! His tremulous fear was a perfect piece of acting. His outstretched hand trembled like a leaf. His words were thick, terrified.

"Please! A moment! Let me think for God's sake!"

The Ace barked a short scornful laugh. His finger withdrew from the switch.

"Will you let me go unharmed," the major stalled, "if I give you the names?"

"I promised you I'd free you," the Ace growled sourly. "Do you want a better pledge than my word as Master?"

"Your unsupported word is good enough for me," Lacy said. He played skillfully for the man's tremendous and insane vanity. "You're a deadly enemy, but a fair one. You've beaten me and I admit it. I thought I was clever but you outfought me at every turn. I wish——"

Lacy hesitated impressively.

"I wish to God that I——"

The Ace took the bait in one egotistic gulp.

"You wish you were serving a real leader instead of a grafting gang of politicians and policemen, eh?"

Tattersall Lacy shook his head as though in confused half-denial.

"I didn't mean that."

"Yes, you did. But you're so damned afraid of breaking the law—" He gestured fiercely. "The trouble with you, my friend, is that you don't think clearly. I do! How many men did you murder in France?"

"I killed them with the full sanction of the law."

"Law?" sneered the Scarlet Ace. "The only law is the law of the strong! Brains and strength, that's all that counts. A man like you is out of place fighting with crooked politicians and stupid police. You're neglecting your own self-interest."

"Are you asking me to join your organization?"


"WHY not?" the Ace growled. "By God, I like you, Lacy! You've got brains, ability, guts. I can give you the one thing you've never had—the one mighty thing every strong man wants."

"And what is that, pray?"

"Power!" the Ace snarled. "More power than you ever dreamed it was possible for a human being to possess! The power to take what you want, to hold what you take, to live like a king with no law but your own will to deter you."

His voice rose almost to a scream. He was like a shouting maniac. His gloved right hand clenched into a fist like steel.

"Say the word," he cried in a cracked, passionate voice, "and I'll place you in power second only to myself. The wealth of New York is in my grasp right now. Acknowledge me as your Master and fight under my leadership, and we'll conquer this whole weak-kneed country and rule it together like kings. I offer you power, wealth—" his voice slurred "—and the conqueror's right to love conquered women."

He lolled back in his chair with a hoarse laugh. He was drunk with his own boasting conceit. He had forgotten completely the fact that his prisoner had not yet divulged the names of the secret six on the Emergency Council for Crime Control.

Tattersall Lacy tried grimly to keep the madman forgetful.

"You spoke of women," the major said softly. His friends in Amusement, Inc. would have been amazed at the sly leer he contrived to express with a faint shrug and a crooked smile.

"The love of fair ladies," he lied smoothly, "has always been of pleasant interest to me. I have in mind at least one. Unfortunately, I'm afraid she's beyond my reach."

"No one is beyond reach," the Ace said. "Who is she? Name her."

Lacy shrugged again. He was cool, watchful.

"The woman's name is Zita," he said.

"Ahh..." The Scarlet Ace exhaled the ejaculation.

"You asked me to name her," Lacy said. "May I smoke?"

HE withdrew a cigarette from his platinum case and lit it with steady fingers. He blew a cloud of smoke and allowed his gaze to lift negligently toward the towering figure of the deaf-mute who stood motionless behind his criminal Master.

"You have selected someone who happens to be particularly high in my favor," the Ace said. "Zita is no ordinary woman, my dear Lacy."

"Your mistress, perhaps?" Lacy said blandly, one eye on his glowing cigarette.

It was a deliberately risked shot, a dangerous goad to secure a reaction— and perhaps a clue to the true status of this mysterious beauty in the house of crime. Lacy was fully prepared for the violence of the reaction.

With a bellow of rage the man in scarlet leaped to his feet. He towered above the flat desk like a devil incarnate.

The stolid deaf-mute sprang forward and stood watching his Master anxiously for a sign.

For ten absolutely silent seconds John Tattersall Lacy's life hung by a thread. He didn't stir a muscle. The cigarette between his fingers seemed frozen. The blue smoke from its tip seemed to waver. And he managed to keep smiling faintly. Perhaps it was the smile that saved him.

"You damned fool!" said the Ace very quietly. He sat down.

The deaf-mute moved back behind his chair and became again dull and impassive.

"You will kindly not mention Zita's name," the Ace said huskily. With an effort he recovered self-possession. "I'm afraid we've strayed a little from the purpose of this interview. Kindly let me have the names of the six public-spirited citizens who compose your Emergency Council for Crime Control."

Lacy steeled himself. Better to die swiftly and desperately than to betray under the agonies of torture the names of men who had handed their lives into his keeping.

"Speak!" said the masked man.

And, suddenly, on the echo of that word, came a harsh clamoring interruption. Somewhere in the house of crime an alarm bell began to toll a brazen, monotonous warning.

For a second the eyes of the two men clashed. Then the Ace sprang away from his chair with a high-pitched cry of dismay and fury.

"Treachery!" he screamed. "You fool, do you think you can elude me now? By God, you'll die, and you'll die this instant! I'll watch you die, Lacy!"

He gestured to the tall horrible figure of his bodyguard. The deaf-mute leaped forward with a soundless shout that exposed the pink cavern of his maimed mouth. A long bladed dirk glittered in his hand.

Tattersall Lacy shrank backward, but a clutching paw caught him and stayed his flight. Powerful fingers gripped his throat and held him helpless and dangling.

The deaf-mute's face glared down at his victim with a bestial grin. Lacy tried to hold the murderous right wrist away but his strength was unequal to the task. The knife point began to descend—slowly, inexorably.

At that moment, drowning out the monotonous clanging of the hidden alarm bell, there echoed a sudden smashing report like thunder. The deaf-mute quivered. Lacy's upturned eyes saw an ugly bluish hole gaping in the broad forehead. The mans massive body relaxed and crashed to the floor.

Lacy spun about. The woman, Zita, was in the room! A smoking pistol was in her hand. She stood as though carved in ice, staring at Lacy.

The Scarlet Ace gave a fierce, frenzied yell and turned to run. With almost a single motion Lacy bent, ripped the knife from the deaf-mute's dead fingers and sprang at the terrified Master criminal.

He forced him downward, straddled him with both legs and raised the dirk for a swift, merciless lunge.

"Drop the knife!" Zita screamed.

Lacy hesitated. Zita's finger slowly tightened on the trigger of her weapon.

"Drop the knife!" she repeated harshly, "or, God help me, I'll kill you without a second's hesitation."

He gaped at her. He saw that she was tensed to kill him if he disobeyed. The knife fell from his fingers. He moved back a step, watching her narrowly.

With a whimper of fear the Scarlet Ace regained his feet, turned like a terrified rabbit and scuttled out of sight behind a huge tapestry in the rear of the chamber.

There came a faint whining sound like the hum of automatic machinery—then silence.

The girl's lovely bosom was heaving. She swayed with a sick horror, her eyes averted from the horrible huddle of the dead man on the floor.

"Damn you!" Lacy spat at her. "Why did you let him get away?"

She made no answer. Just stood there facing him with a white and tortured countenance. The gun still menaced him. He eyed her, debating grimly within himself whether to rush her and take a chance on the swift, deadly bullet she had just proved she was capable of firing.

She solved the difficulty herself. With a shrug she turned the gun in her hand and held it out to Lacy with the butt foremost. He snatched the weapon from her and stared into her eyes for a long instant. Her eyes were as level as his, and as clear.

"Just whose side are you on, my friend?" he said coldly.

Tears streaked her cheeks. Her voice came faintly. "I—I couldn't let you kill him but I—I admire you, Major, and I want to save your life, if I can. Follow me if—if you think you can trust me."

She swayed away from him. A panel clicked open. Zita beckoned urgently and Lacy, with a wry twisting smile, followed her.

THEY were in a hallway like a gray stone tunnel. The walls and ceiling and floor were the same cold gray. The floor was covered with a heavy linoleum material stamped with a design of darker gray squares and circles to imitate stone tiles.

The leader of Amusement, Inc. tiptoed carefully along with Zita to a turn in the corridor. Beyond that turn he knew that there was a flight of stairs leading aloft and below. He had used his eyes to good advantage when the effeminate man in the black mask and the two hulking wrestlers had conducted him from the sealed room where he had first recovered consciousness.

They met no one on the staircase. The house of evil was like a tomb. They crept like dark phantoms down the steps.

"Where are we going?" Lacy whispered in her ear.

"We've got to get to my room. It's the only chance we have."

As they reached the landing of the staircase a tremendous explosion shook the house without warning. The force of it staggered Lacy and flung the girl to her knees.

"What was that?" she gasped.

"I don't know. It sounded like a bomb explosion."

He looked narrowly at her. She was pale with an uncomprehending fright. Whatever the explosion meant, Zita didn't understand it. Was it some clockwork device of the Ace to block off any exit from below?

Suddenly he pulled Zita down beside him against the thick carpet treads of the stairs they had just descended.

SOMEBODY was coming up from the floor below. They could hear the steady methodical scrape of feet. The carved newel-post at the turn of the stairs was broad and ornate. The major hunched downward in its shadow, waiting.

His victim had no chance to cry out. Tattersall Lacy's gun swung against the fellow's temple like a swift glitter of light. He saw the mouth fly open and the eyelids quiver. The man collapsed like a poled ox. He was one of the wrestlers, the same man who had struck Lacy in the face earlier in the adventure.

The major's hands rolled him expertly and ripped a gun from the inert body. One quick glance and his smile gleamed with a grim approval. The gun was fully loaded.

He had barely time for that mirthless grimace. Feet were racing down the long hall. A bullet thudded into the oaken newel-post, splitting it open in a jagged gash. A second bullet and a third whined past Lacy's averted head.

He dropped to his knees and fired at the onrushing thug. The sound of the crashing gunfire echoed like thunder in the silent house. The thug fell in mid-stride, with arms stiffly outflung.

Zita was tugging fiercely at the major's arm, pointing down stairs. Then she hurried down. He whirled and sped recklessly after her. At the turn on the landing below a streak of flame spat past their faces. The girl screamed and threw herself sideways. Half blinded, Lacy fired at a dodging figure and missed. Again flame spurted at him. His wrist lifted like the flick of a snake's tongue. His two vengeful bullets drilled through the body of his foe, scarcely an inch apart.

In another second Tattersall Lacy had scooped up the hot gun from the floor where it had fallen. "Quick!" Zita gasped. Her arm was linked desperately with his.

"Which way?" he growled.

She pointed down the long L-shaped corridor and they raced for the corner—only to pull up short. There was a man waiting beyond the turn with a leveled weapon. He fired promptly, but his bullet went wild. Plaster dust from the wall powdered the girl's hair. Lacy roared with rage as he recognized the gunman.

He saw the heavy gun jerking in a slim womanish hand, saw the silken black mask with narrow slitted eyeholes. It was the man Karl, the effeminate scoundrel whom Lacy suspected was one of the chief lieutenants of the Ace.

Lacy dove forward at him. The frightened Karl twisted around and ran like a deer. He didn't know that Lacy's borrowed guns were empty now. But Lacy did! His last shot had been a faint and harmless hammer-click.

He forgot Zita and raced at top speed after the fleeing Karl. In a dozen mad strides he caught him, jammed a muzzle against his back and yanked him around.

"Drop it!" the major roared.

Karl's fingers relaxed and his loaded gun clattered to the floor. Lacy stooped, dropped his own useless weapons and grabbed it.

"Thanks," he jeered harshly.

Zita had fled back along the hall. But in his exultation over the capture of Karl, Lacy forgot her.

The frightened rogue backed away. Lacy leaned and ripped the black mask away with one swift jerk. He glanced at the face and felt an instant crawling disgust. The sight of the man's rouged lips and penciled eyebrows made Lacy gulp with a fierce aversion.

He shoved his cringing prisoner grimly ahead of him. About midway down the corridor there was a shallow alcove cut in the left wall, a narrow recess not more than a foot or two in depth. A heavy bronze door formed the inner wall of the alcove. Lacy tried the door before he put his back to it. It was locked.

His prisoner tried suddenly to tear away from the major's grip. Lacy slammed him with the gun-barrel. Karl screamed shrilly and sank to his knees. The major swore viciously at him.

"Stand up on your feet or I'll blow a hole through your spine!"

Deliberately he held the fellow stiffly in front of him like a human shield. He peered cautiously beyond the alcove. Men were edging slowly along the hall from either end. Lacy's lips tightened. They had him bottled up at last.

"Yell at 'em! Tell 'em they'll surely kill you if they start shooting," he growled in Karl's ear.

There was a spiteful crack down the hall and a bullet grazed the alcove and sheered into the plaster.

"Don't shoot!" Karl screamed at them. "For God's sake, don't shoot! I order you not to shoot! Where's the Master?"

Lacy crouched warily and sent a bullet roaring over the shoulder of his human shield. One of the attacking party coughed, propped himself with one hand and a knee and then fell over. The rest of them ducked backward out of sight.

Instantly Lacy whirled his human shield to face the other flank. His pistol spat twice. The roar of gunfire became continuous, like thunder rolling in a hollow vault.

The advancing thugs were firing recklessly, oblivious to the shrill screaming of Karl. The sound of that screaming was knifelike and horrible in the major's ear. Karl's screech died suddenly as though a hand had been clapped over his mouth. The bullet had struck him and torn his body, spinning, from the major's tight grasp. It was a merciful end to a warped existence. The man with the rouged lips died instantly; died before his bleeding body struck the floor.

Lacy emptied his gun with mechanical accuracy. He saw another onrushing thug collapse. But he knew that he was done—finished. The gun he had wrested from Karl was empty. He waited calmly for the final rush.

"Quick!" a voice behind him gasped suddenly. "Hurry!"

His head jerked backward. The bronze door behind him stood open. A white-faced woman and beckoning urgently. The woman was Zita.


THERE was no time for Lacy to hesitate, to worry about the possibility of new treachery. The thugs in the hallway had sensed that the major's gun was empty. With savage yells of triumph they were racing toward him from both ends of the long corridor.

"Quick!" Zita screamed again.

Lacy hurdled the bleeding body of Karl and threw himself headforemost through the open doorway. He landed on hands and knees and regained his feet with a catlike bound.

The bronze door clanged sullenly as Zita slammed it shut. She tugged with both hands at a trigger-like lever and, as the mechanism whirred, the great rigid bolt clicked into its braced slot.

p "Is there any other way they can get in here?" Lacy panted.

"No. It's my own room. The mechanism of the other entrance is known only to me and—and the Master."

He glanced at her sharply and she flushed and looked away.

From the other side of the bronze door there came a dull steady pounding and the faint sound of a confused shouting.

"Let 'em yell," Zita said contemptuously. "If we get to the elevator first they can't head us off. They're checkmated."

"Where are the windows? Are we on the street level?"

"No. The street is below. We must go up."

"Why up?" Lacy rapped suspiciously.

"Oh, you fool, don't you understand? Do you think you could force your way out now? It's too late for that! The Master has every street exit guarded, front and rear. Our only chance is to get to the roof and try to attract attention. They won't risk firing at us out in the open gardens."

She was sobbing with a fierce excitement, tugging at his reluctant arm. "Hurry, or you'll be killed! I can't let them kill you!"

His gray eyes bored into hers. This girl was no traitress. Whatever her relations with the bloodthirsty Master might be, she was playing Lacy's game for the moment.

HE noted the significant fact that she had changed from the silk lounging pajamas to a street costume. It was added proof that she had deliberately prepared beforehand to escape with Lacy from the house of crime. Perhaps the very clanging of the bell that had interrupted the Scarlet Ace's inquisition of his helpless prisoner had been a cunning stratagem of Zita's! The major felt dizzy and confused. He could hear dimly the sound of men yelling, the dull smash of gunfire. Somewhere in the house below them he heard the shrill blast of a whistle.

His eyes roved the room with an eager glare.

"Weapons! I need weapons!"

Zita sprang to a leather couch and swung a huge oil painting outward from the wall. Behind the painting was a built-in metal cupboard that harbored a veritable miniature arsenal. Lacy grabbed a pair of .45s and shoved one to the girl. On a shelf below the rack were cartridges, boxes of fifty. With his free hand Lacy began stuffing them into his pockets. Swiftly he extracted the magazines from the remaining pistols.

"Spares," he explained briefly. "Know how to load 'em?"

Zita nodded.

His eyes shifted to another rack. "What are these devilish little toys—bombs?"

He picked up one. It was a four inch metal cylinder about twice the diameter of a broom- handle, with a screw cap at one end.

She snatched it hastily from him and replaced it in the rack.

"Don't touch those, for God's sake! They're incendiary time bombs."

The major picked one up, glanced at it for a second, and dropped it in his pocket.

Zita ran toward a door and opened it. Lacy followed her into a small connecting room, a bedroom. In one corner the wall projected to make space for a deep clothes closet. The closet door was wide open. The major saw shelves piled with hat boxes and below them, wedged tightly together, was a profusion of dresses and coats on hangers.

To the major's amazement Zita stepped into the closet, turned her back to the crowded array of garments and beckoned to him.

"Why hide in a closet?" he said dryly. "I thought we had some faint notion of taking to the roof."

"This is the elevator," Zita explained with a wan smile.

"By gad, it is!" Lacy growled incredulously.

He took one look at the metal panel with its vertical array of numbered buttons set flush into the plastered wall. The lean-faced chief of Amusement, Inc. narrowed his eyes and smiled grimly. The girl closed the closet door and an inner barrier slid across and locked. Zita pressed the top button in the wall-plaque. The button was marked: GARDEN. The innocent looking 'clothes closet' began to ascend smoothly in its shaft with a faint hum of automatic machinery.

"Quite a clever bit of camouflage," the major chuckled mildly.

He was trying to keep the whole ghastly affair on a jovial basis. The girl's courage, he saw, was close to the breaking point. If she collapsed into hysteria or fainted Lacy would be in an even uglier mess than he was right now. His only chance was to follow her lead, to make a last stand on the roof of the house behind his loaded .45s.

THE ascending elevator stopped with a jerk and the door slid open.

Sunlight fell on the major's face. His lungs expanded with the tang of cool fresh air. He found himself in a square open summer house, flooded with sunlight on all four sides. Plants and thick climbing vines covered the low wooden sills.

The beauty of the roof itself made the major gasp with astonishment. It was a landscaped garden dotted with flower beds and shrubbery. Stone paths radiated from a shallow basin of water in the center that was surmounted by the weathered statue of a nude sea-nymph pouring water from a fluted conch-shell.

Lacy had no way of judging how high above the ground he was. He judged not more than five or six stories, because he could see the towering brick wall of an apartment house rising a block away like a many-windowed cliff, high above the level of the garden roof.

"What's that queer smell?" Zita cried suddenly.

Smoke! He sniffed the sharp acrid reek of burning wood.

Zita's sudden scream roused the major from his savage contemplation. He saw slinking figures emerging into view from the twin summer house on the opposite side of the roof beyond the circular stone pool. Instantly he fired and dropped one of his enemies sprawling into a flower bed. The rest of them scattered like hares, diving into shrubbery, crawling out of sight behind the clipped boxwood hedges that lined the paths.

Lacy dodged back and crouched warily beside the girl, his gun muzzle steady on the wooden sill. He saw a face peer from behind a garden urn and his finger squeezed the trigger for a cool shot that sent stone fragments flying.

His face turned for an instant toward the crouching Zita.

"How did those rats get up here so promptly? Is there another entrance to the roof?"

"Through the Master's elevator," Zita rejoined faintly. "The elevator from his private chamber leads to the other summer house."

"Down!" Lacy yelled suddenly.

From behind a clump of dwarfed bushes rose a small black spheroid. It curved through the air and burst with an odd plopping sound. Instantly a gray vapor spurted like a thick cloud. Tear gas! Luckily for Lacy the rogue who had hurled the bomb aimed poorly. He had tossed it from a cramped prone position and it rose almost vertically in the air and fell well toward the center of the roof.

The wind thinned the gas into long ragged streamers and blew it puffily back toward the raiders. As it was, Lacy's eyes were red and smarting. Slow tears began to roll down his cheeks.

He grinned haggardly at the girl. Like him she was weeping, rubbing at inflamed eyes.

"Buck up," he encouraged. "Those birds won't try that again, I fancy. It punishes them more than it does us."

He saw Zita cower and fall flat on her face. He thought it was fear, but in another second he was undeceived. Green wood-splinters flew as a bullet ripped the summer house sill, barely an inch from his body. He saw the jagged hole that had made Zita cower to the floor. There had been no warning reports. A fresh arrival among the desperate thugs was pumping lead at them from a rifle equipped with a silencer.

From that instant Tattersall Lacy became a fiercely fighting automaton.

A haze of smoke shrouded the roof. He could see flitting figures intermittently; and whenever he did the big .45s in either hand jerked and pounded with a smashing recoil.

A confused numbness spread through his brain and rolled back the years. He was back in France in the flame-gutted courtyard of the Duberny Farm. The shrub-covered summer house and the crouched figure of Zita completed the illusion. She kept monotonously reloading his magazines, passing them to his groping hand. Like that weeping peasant girl of the Duberny Farm, Zita was fighting to the last ditch in her own violated home.

Without shifting his eyes from the enemy he kept patting Zita's bent head with a fumbling left hand, growling at her with harsh, monotonous encouragement:

"Carry on, ma cherie! Chin up!"

His brain steadied. Out of the swirling haze he saw a figure rising, armed and snarling. It seemed to materialize like a ghost. A staring face loomed scarcely a dozen feet away.

Lacy's gun whipped level. He recognized the haggard unmasked features of the Scarlet Ace. It was the same ghoulish face he had seen unmasked only once before—on the banks of the swirling Hudson river when the Ace had dived into the dark flowing current to escape the deadly gunfire of Amusement, Inc.

Flame spat from the weapons of the Master criminal. Bullets zipped and whined through the summer house. In his mad hate the Ace was firing wildly. Lacy forced himself to sight slowly and carefully at the heart of the onrushing Master. His finger squeezed the trigger.

But before Lacy's .45 could roar, a violent blow on the major's forearm deflected the muzzle. His bullet missed the maddened criminal and smashed a stone urn to flying fragments. The Scarlet Ace whirled instantly with a shrill yelp and vanished into the gray smoke haze with long stumbling strides.

Zita's lovely eyes were wide and glaring. Her hand caught again at Lacy's wrist and they struggled insanely for a moment for possession of the weapon.

"Let him go!" she shrieked. "Don't kill him!"

The major's poised fist had swung upward to strike the screaming woman away from him. Slowly his fist relaxed. He unbent the fingers from his wrist with a gentle and steady insistence.

She covered her face with both hands and harsh sobs racked her body. A dull paralysis of despair rooted Lacy's feet, made his body sag with weariness.

HE felt himself meshed in a horrible nightmare. Here and there he could see shadowy figures rising, running forward warily, dropping flat behind bushes and shrubs. He emptied his gun at his flitting enemies with a vicious despair. He saw a man topple headlong; another spun wildly, clutching at his pierced throat.

Lacy felt the butt of a fresh pistol thrust against his groping left palm. He dropped the empty weapon and fired again grimly, watching his shots.

Out of the corner of his eye he could see Zita, crouched on her knees, swiftly reloading the gun he had just dropped. Their eyes clashed and she nodded her head with a wan smile. He knew what she meant. There was to be fierce warfares between them as far as the Ace was concerned. But somehow, he knew—now that the Ace had escaped—that Zita would remain, crouched loyally at his side, methodically reloading clips till death should silence them both forever. She was his ally, his loyal comrade in arms.

He lost track of time. He was like an automaton. He saw their small supply of cartridges dwindle and disappear as Zita rammed them into magazines and shoved him the hot guns. Presently her open palms gestured briefly. Finished! No more! All that was left was a scattering of empty cartridge cases and the glittering dirk that Lacy had pried from the dead fingers of the deaf-mute.

Suddenly Zita screamed. A gangster came plunging forward, a yelling figure with thick legs and the wide brawny shoulders of an ox. The major's muzzle swung to the centre of the powerful chest and he squeezed his trigger. The trigger didn't move. He glared at the gun. The slide was all the way back. Empty!

Lacy had barely time to drop to one knee and scoop up the glittering knife when the impact of his enemy's body hurled him headlong. The next instant he was lifted in the air and crushed in a terrific embrace. His eyes popped with agony and he felt the breath squeezing out of his compressed lungs. He was aware, dimly, of Zita pounding futilely with her fists at the body of his foe.

His left hand was bent crookedly behind his own back yet he still retained the knife. He squirmed desperately while a heavy fist pounded blows at his head. The point of his own knife blade slashed him as he jerked it past his own ribs. Like a flash he lifted it high and thrust downward with the last vicious atom of his waning strength.

The knife sank up to the hilt in the bent back of his foe. Both men fell together with a crash. The encircling arms released their tight pressure. Lacy rolled over on his face and rebounded to his feet like a cat.

To his amazement no fusillade of bullets came to mow him down. His dimmed eyes saw vaguely a wild jamboree of furiously fighting men. He heard a staccato, shattering sound that made his brain reel with a wave of dazed unbelief—the sharp, never to be forgotten whiplash reports of Springfield rifles. His head buzzed. That harsh crackling echo of disciplined firing made him recall like a crazy phantasy the flitting figures of sweat-streaked Yank infantrymen shoving ahead like buzzing hornets through the tangled and bloody coverts of Belleau Wood.

He took a stumbling step forward, peering through red-rimmed half blinded eyes.

Straight at him came the ugly sheen of a pair of outthrust bayonets. He shrank back, trying vainly to shout.

The bayonets swerved away suddenly. Up went the two Springfields to a rigid rifle salute. Tattersall Lacy was staring with incredulous eyes at the brown shirts and grey snapbrim hats of two ex-marine hellions from Amusement, Inc.

p A wizened little man with a big .45 in his fist came racing up, yelping like a terrier:

"Jack! Thank God! Are you all right?"

Charlie Weaver stared curiously at the girl, Zita. The soldiers stared, too.


TATTERSALL LACY'S body stiffened. He seemed to change visibly. Without a spoken word he became instantly the leader of the field forces of Amusement, Inc.—a leader with a cold and disconcerting eye.

He said very softly: "May I ask, Captain Weaver, how you were fortunate enough to know that I was here?"

"I—er—followed you, sir, to the art gallery and——"

"You disobeyed orders. Is that what you mean?"

Weaver's glance wavered. "I'm afraid I did, sir."

"I see." A cold murmur. No inflection in it whatever. "Very well, Captain. Recall your men and let's get out of here quickly."

He turned toward the bullet riddled summer house behind him. Weaver spoke again, nervously.

"You'll have to use the other shaft, sir. This one's been damaged below by a grenade."

Weaver darted away and the shrill blast of his whistle sounded.

"May I, my dear?" Lacy murmured mildly and, slipping an arm about Zita's waist, he led her across the landscaped roof toward the elevator shaft opposite. The roof they crossed was a tangled mess, a bloody shambles. The girl averted her eyes and shuddered; Lacy watched her narrowly for signs of collapse.

Pat Harrigan appeared, grinning cheerfully and the major snapped a sharp question at him.

"Any casualties?"

"Two, sir. Minor wounds. Cantrell and O'Shea. They're in the bus now. We'll have to retreat fast, sir, or it's going to be awkward."

"Where is the bus?"

Harrigan outlined the situation crisply. The bus was waiting outside the alley that connected with the street in the rear of the building. It would be touch-and-go to get away clean without a brush with the police. The few police on the scene were, for the moment, under control.

Pat grinned slightly. There were, he explained, three marines with a Tommie gun on duty inside the ruined front doorway of the house. They were guarding a trio of disarmed and very angry cops. One was the regular patrolman from the beat; two others had arrived in a hurry in a radio car. All three had dashed into the house and been promptly nabbed. There was a crowd of spectators in the street out in front but nobody was rushing in.

Lacy listened, nodded. He asked only one question.

"Did you kill or capture the Ace?"

"No, sir. He got away from us in that last rush. Slipped off through some damned rathole we haven't been able to discover. We've gone over the amazing place pretty thoroughly. Outside of our own men there isn't a living being left in the house."

The major's eyes smouldered. In silence he helped Zita into the elevator and in silence he descended.

The men of Amusement, Inc. were drawn up in double file in a long gloomy corridor in the basement. Sunlight glimmered through the crack of a huge metal door that stood partly ajar.

"All accounted for," Weaver reported, "except the rear guard."

"Good. Mr. Corning and Mr. Harrigan will ride with the bus. Sergeant, get the men off at once! Smartly!"

Then: "Order your rear guard to fall back, Mr. Weaver!"

THE silver whistle of the chief of staff shrilled. Presently there came the sound of scraping feet and three marines appeared, backing slowly into view. The soldier in the center held an ugly looking Tommie gun at his shoulder, ready for action.

Trailing the backward moving trio at a respectful distance came three empty-handed and weaponless cops with narrowed, hostile eyes and rage written glaringly all over their florid faces. As they stood stiffly at bay Lacy chuckled softly and took the loaded pistol from Weaver's hand.

"Rear guard, fall back at once to the transport!" He trumpeted. "Charles, will you favor me by escorting the lady to the—er—staff car?"

The nearest of the helpless policemen growled and took a hesitant forward step. He halted at the menace in Lacy's gray eyes. The big .45 in the major's grip was rocklike in its steadiness.

"Attention, my charming uniformed friends," Lacy purred. "Please give ear to a short, true statement. I have no intention whatever of being stopped or interfered with by you gentlemen or by anyone else. I don't intend to shoot unless I have to. "The man who forces me to shoot will be killed. Do you take my meaning?"

There was a sudden flashing report from his pistol and the blue cap of the nearest patrolman spun from his head and fell to the floor.

"Remember," Lacy said softly. "The first fool who sticks his face out that door will have his misguided nose blown through the back of his head."

He wriggled sideways with a lithe movement. The heavy door slammed. Down a paved courtyard Lacy sped and through a gap in a board fence. Beyond was a long alley hemmed in on both sides by sheer brick walls. He sprinted along its echoing length, up a flight of worn stone steps.

The staff car of Amusement, Inc. was waiting at the curb. It was a harmless looking and slightly battered taxi, giving no hint of the armored sides and bullet-proof glass with which it was equipped.

Lacy took a quick look around. The bus had already disappeared. He crossed the sidewalk in three strides and leaped into the taxi. It shot away instantly.

The major dropped wearily into the empty seat next to Zita. Her eyes were dry and staring; she was shaking incessantly with a tremulous hysteria. Lacy talked to her as though she were a child. His voice was low and persuasive, his hand patted her clenched fingers with a magnetic and steady reassurance. Weaver kept his blank eyes studiously toward the front.

"Sergeant! Stop at the next quiet street!"

The cab spun round a corner and drew up at the curb. The major got out and assisted Zita to the sidewalk.

"Be off with you!" he snapped to Dillon. "Find me another taxicab in a hurry!"

THREE minutes later a taxi rolled up with the stolid Dillon on the running-board. He hopped off, snapped the faintest ghost of a salute and walked back to the waiting staff car.

The hackman glanced curiously at the pair who seemed to be changing mysteriously from one cab to another. He threw open his door.

Lacy pressed a folded lump of large denomination banknotes into the girl's cold hand.

"Permit me," he said smoothly. "Merely a loan, my dear. I hurried you away without your purse, I'm afraid. Er—you're free, of course, to go wherever you like."

"Thank you."

His voice dropped till it was barely audible. "May I ask you a question, Zita? Just why, in the name of God, is a woman of your caliber playing the game of a monster like the Ace? What hold has he on you? Who is this ugly Master who commands your loyalty and love?"

The smile she gave him was blurred, pitiful.

"The Master," she said dully, "is my—father."

She slammed the taxi door and screamed harshly at the driver.

"Go on! What are you waiting for?"

Lacy stood motionless at the curb, staring like a man of stone, until the girl's taxicab vanished into the press of Avenue traffic. A queer look flashed across the flinty hardness of the major's gray eyes. A ruthless machine—that's what they called John Tattersall Lacy—a man to whom soft sentiment was a sign of weakness.

He looked frozen, inanimate as he stood motionless on the curbstone. But there was wonder in his gray eyes, and pity, too.