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All Detective, October, 1933

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 lo...

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