Chapter 4. THE NEST OF EVIL

SQUINT climbed up to Riverside Drive. He dodged limousines and taxicabs across the Drive. Turning south a few blocks, he strode rapidly east until he reached Broadway, the sole street which runs the full length of Manhattan Island. A subway lies beneath Broadway nearly the whole distance.

Into this subway, Squint scuttled. He cocked a nickel into the entrance turnstile and waited on the white-tiled station platform. The light was dim. At either end, dark gullets of the tunnel gaped.

Squint felt safe. He had been listening to the entrance turnstile. The turnstiles always gave a loud clank when a customer came through. There had not been a single clank since Squint entered.

A subway train came howling down the tunnel, headlights like bleary red eyes. The roar it made, to which New Yorkers are accustomed, was deafening. At the height of the noise, the entrance turnstile clanked behind Doc Savage’s giant, bronze form. Nobody saw him.

Doc saw Squint wait in a car door until the other doors in the train, operated automatically, had all closed. Squint held his own door open against the gentle pull of the automatic mechanism. When he was satisfied no bronze giant had boarded the train, he let the door close. The train moved.

Running lightly, Doc reached an open car window. He dived through it. The train plunged into the tunnel with a great moan.

Squint alighted at Times Square, which might easily be dubbed the crossroads of New York City. He mingled with the dense crowd. He went in one door of a skyscraper and out another. He changed taxis twice going back uptown.

Unseen, his presence even unsuspected by Squint, a great bronze shadow clung to Squint’s trail.

Squint wound up on the street which had the long row of houses exactly alike.

Before the tenth house from the corner, a considerable crowd milled. Long since, an ambulance had taken away the body of the ratty man whose neck Doc had been forced to break. However, the police had found the cache of machine guns beneath the floorboards of the touring car. Curious persons were inspecting the vicious weapons.

A cop was getting the motor number of the car.

Squint chuckled. The officers would never trace that machine to him. It had been stolen in a Middle Western State.

“Let ‘em try to figure it out!” Squint sneered.

Then his gaze rested on Doc Savage’s big, efficient roadster, and his ugly glee oozed. He could see the license number of the car. This was a single figure. Only personages of great importance in New York had such low license numbers.

Squint shivered, thinking of the fearsome giant of bronze. He wondered who that awesome personage could be.

Squint had never heard of Doc Savage, largely because he never read anything but the newspapers, and Doc Savage never appeared in brazen newspaper yarns. In truth, Squint’s intelligence was not enough to rate a knowledge of Doc.

But some of the brainiest, most upright citizens of New York could have told Squint amazing things about the big bronze man. More than one of these owed Doc a debt of deepest gratitude for past services.

The leading political boss, the most influential man in the city government, owed his life to Doc’s magical skill at surgery. An extremely delicate operation upon the very walls of his heart had taken him from the door of death.

* * *

SQUINT did not enter the tenth house from the corner. He sidled into another several doors distant. He felt his way up a gloomy succession of stairs. A trapdoor gave to the roof. He eased out. Quietly, he closed the trapdoor behind him.

He did not notice it open a fraction of an inch a moment later. He did not dream a pair of flaky gold eyes were photographing his every move.

Squint scuttled across rooftops to the tenth house from the corner. He entered through another hatch on that roof.

He had hardly disappeared when Doc’s bronze form was floating over the roofs in pursuit. Doc pressed an ear to the hatch. His aural organs, imbued with a sensitiveness near superhuman, told him Squint had walked down a top-floor passage to the back.

A moment later, a window at the rear opened. Doc was poised above it in an instant. Squint’s relieved whisper reached him.

“No chance of anybody listenin’ from here!” Squint had breathed.

The window grated down.

With silent speed, Doc was over the roof edge. Even a bat, master of clinging to smooth surfaces, would have had trouble with the wall. Grooves between the bricks furnished the only handholds. Doc’s steel-strong bronze fingers found the largest of these.

At the window, there was no perch. But Doc hung by little more than his finger tips. His tireless sinews could support him thus for hours.

A shade had been drawn on the other side of the window. But it was old and cracked. One of these cracks let Doc look into the room.

The window sash fitted poorly. It gaped open at the bottom. Through this space, conversation seeped.

More than a dozen men were assembled in the shabby room. Some were thick-necked and burly. More were thin, with the look of drug addicts in their vicious eyes. And every one had the furtive manner of the confirmed criminal.

They were as choice a devil’s dozen as ever held unholy conclave.

Squint stood before them. He was swaggering and punctuating his talk with curses to cover his nervousness.

“Now you mugs pipe down while I call the big shot!” he snarled.

He strode to one wall. The old plaster was a network of jagged cracks. He pressed a certain spot. A secret panel, the edges cleverly disguised by the cracks, opened. Squint took out a telephone instrument.

The phone obviously was not a part of the regular city system, since Squint did not give a number, but began speaking at once.

“Kar?” he asked. “This is Squint.”

Outside the window, Doc Savage’s strong bronze lips formed the word “Kar.” The dying man on the pirate ship, in trying to name the master mind who had given them the mysterious dissolving substance called the “Smoke of Eternity,” had started a name that began with a “K.”

Kar was that name!

“Yeah,” Squint was saying over the secret phone line. “We put old Jerome Coffern out of the way like you ordered.” Squint paused to wet his dry lips nervously, then added, “We — we had a little tough luck.”

Squint was surprisingly modest. His four companions had died violently and he had barely escaped with his life — and he passed it off as a little tough luck!

Replying to a sharp query from Kar, Squint reluctantly explained the nature of the insignificant misfortune.

The outburst the information got from Kar was so violent the rattling of the receiver diaphragm reached even Doc Savage’s ears.

There followed what was evidently a long procession of orders. These were spoken in a low voice by Kar. Doc’s ears, sensitive to the extreme, could not hear a single word.

* * *

SQUINT hung up at last and replaced the phone. He closed the secret panel. Lighting a cigarette, he drew deeply from it, as though seeking courage. Then he faced the assembled thugs.

“Kar says I’m to tell you guys the whole thing,” he said, making his voice harsh. “He says you will work together better if you know what it’s all about. He says it’ll show you birds where your bread is buttered. I guess he’s right, at that.”

Squint paused to blow a plume of smoke at the ceiling. But the smoke apparently reminded him of the weird dissolving of Jerome Coffern’s body. He made a face and flung the cigarette on the floor.

“This is the first time you guys have been here!” he told the men. “Each one of you got the word from me to come to this room. I sent for you. I know every one of you. You’re regular guys. That’s why I’m ringing you in on the best thing you ever saw.”

“Aw, cut out the mush an’ get down to talkin’ turkey!” a thick-necked bruiser growled.

Squint ignored the contemptuous tone of the interruption.

“Sure, I’ll talk turkey!” he sneered. “You just heard me jawin’ to the big shot. His name is Kar. That phone leads to his secret hangout. I don’t know where it is. I don’t even know Kar.”

“You dunno who the chief is?” muttered the thick-necked man.

“Nope.”

“Then how’d you — “

“How’d I get hooked up with him?” Squint chuckled. “I got a telephone call from him. He said he’d heard I was a square shooter, and did I want to get in on the best thing in the world? I did. And I’m tellin’ you it’s good. This proposition is the best ever.”

“What is it?” queried he of the beefy neck.

“How does a million bucks to each of you within a year sound?” Squint demanded dramatically.

Jaws fell. Eyes popped.

“A million — “

“That much anyway!” Squint declared. “Maybe more! The million is guaranteed. You draw fifty thousand of it tomorrow. Fifty grand for each guy! But before I say more, I gotta know if you’re comin’ in.

“I know you mugs can’t afford to run to the police and talk. You’re sure to be rubbed out if you do. And if you come in, you gotta take orders from me. And I get my orders from Kar. I’m sort of a straw boss, see!”

“Count me in!” ejaculated the thug with the ample neck.

Like flies to sugar, the others offered eager allegiance.

“Here’s the lay!” announced Squint. “This fellow Kar has got something he calls the Smoke of Eternity. It’s something nobody ever heard of before. A few drops of it will dissolve a man’s body — make it turn into an ugly gray smoke. The stuff will dissolve brick, metal and wood — almost anything.”

For some seconds the villainous assemblage digested this. It was too much for them to swallow. The big-necked fellow voiced the thoughts of the rest.

“You’re crazy!” he said.

* * *

REDDENING, Squint swore and shook his fist.

“I ain’t nuts!” he ranted. “The Smoke of Eternity works like that! I dunno what the stuff is. I only know it will dissolve a man. It will wipe the front right off the biggest bank vault there is. Enough of it, about a suitcase full, could turn the Empire State Building into that queer smoke.”

The others were still skeptical.

“Don’tcha see what havin’ such a thing as this Smoke of Eternity means?” Squint snarled. “It means we can walk right into any bank vault in town and take what we want. And listen, you apes! I ain’t crazy — and I ain’t lyin’!”

At this point, a newsboy’s shout penetrated faintly to the room. The news hawker was crying his papers to the crowd of curious in front of the house.

“Body of famous chemist vanishes!” he was screaming. “Mystery baffles police!”

Squint laughed nastily. He leveled an arm at one of his listeners.

“Go buy a paper from that kid!”

The man left obediently. In a moment he was back with a pink tabloid newspaper.

Emblazoned in black scare-type was the story of the finding of Jerome Coffern’s right hand and forearm on the grounds of the Mammoth Manufacturing Company plant in New Jersey.

“I guess you’ll believe me now!” Squint sneered. “I used some of the Smoke of Eternity on old Jerome Coffern. It dissolved all of his body but the hand. Probably the hand didn’t go because there wasn’t quite enough of the stuff.”

The expression on the evil faces surrounding Squint showed the thugs had changed their minds. They no longer thought Squint was lying or crazy.

“Why’d you rub out this Jerome Coffern?” one villain asked.

“Kar ordered it,” said Squint. “Kar told me why, too. Kar believes in lettin’ his men know why everything is done. The only thing Kar don’t tell is who he is. Nobody knows that. Kar had Jerome Coffern killed because Coffern was the only man alive who might tell the police who Kar is.”

“Jerome Coffern knew Kar, huh?” muttered a man.

“He must have.” Squint fired another cigarette. “Now, I already got orders for you mugs. A shipment of gold money is goin’ to Chicago tomorrow. Some banks out in Chi are hard up and need the jack. There’s about two million dollars’ worth goin’. A hundred miles out of New York, we jerk up the tracks. We use this Smoke of Eternity to wipe out the bullion guards and get into the armored express car. And out of that two million, each of you guys gets paid your fifty thousand. The rest of the gold coin goes into Kar’s workin’ fund.”

A gasp of evil pleasure swept the group. Mean eyes glittered greedily.

Although Squint had proclaimed that Kar was letting them in on a great deal, they actually knew nothing but the existence of the Smoke of Eternity and the fact they were to rob a gold train.

Who Kar was — they had no idea. Should these men fall into the clutches of the law, they could help the police little even if they told all they knew. True, the gold robbery would be thwarted. But the master villain would still be free.

* * *

A FAINT buzz came from the secret phone. Squint hurried to the instrument. He received more orders from Kar. His thin, repulsive face was worried as he hung up and closed the hidden panel.

“Damn!” he groaned. “Kar has another job for us to do before the gold train thing!”

The others stared at Squint. They could see he was frightened.

“That big bronze devil who gimme such a lot of trouble!” Squint muttered. “Kar says we gotta get him like we did Jerome Coffern! The bronze devil’s name is Doc Savage. Kar is plenty mad because I let Doc Savage get on my trail. He says it’s the worst thing that coulda happened.”

“One guy can’t give us much trouble!” sneered the thicknecked thug.

“You wouldn’t be so cocky if you’d seen this bronze man work!” Squint whined. “He ain’t human! He moves quieker’n a tiger! He popped off my four pals just like you was snappin’ your fingers.”

“Baloney!” snorted the burly one. “Lead me to ‘im! I ain’t never seen the man I couldn’t lick.”

Squint passed a hand over his forehead.

“Beat it, all of you,” he directed. “Go to wherever you live an’ stay there. Kar knows where to get hold of each of you. I told him. Wait for orders from him, or from me.”

As they started leaving, Squint added an afterthought.

“Remember, Kar has got guys besides you an’ me workin’ for him. I dunno myself who they are. But he’s got more. And if one of you squawks to the cops, he’s sure to be bumped off.”

Then the villainous assemblage melted away. None of them would squeal.

Squint remained behind. When left alone, he went to the secret phone.

“I carried out your orders, boss,” he told Kar.

Suddenly there impinged upon the ears of Squint a weird, soft, trilling sound, like the song of a mysterious jungle bird. It was a note without equal anywhere else in the universe, melodious, but possessing no definite tune. It had a unique quality of emanating from everywhere, as though the very air in the shabby room was giving birth to it.

The trilling sound struck terror into Squint’s evil soul. He whirled, not knowing what he would see.

An awful scream tore through his teeth.

For the rickety window had lifted noiselessly. Equally without sound, the shabby curtain had moved aside.

There, poised like some huge bronze bird of vengeance upon the window sill, was Squint’s doom.

“Doc Savage!” the rodent of a man wailed. Convulsively, Squint clutched for the revolver he had secured aboard the pirate ship.

Doc’s powerful bronze hands seized a table. The table drove across the room as though impelled from a cannon mouth.

Striking Squint squarely, it smashed his worthless life out against the wall. The man’s body fell to the floor amid the table wreckage.

Doc Savage glided to the secret phone. The receiver came to his ear. He listened.

From his lips wafted the weird trilling sound that was part of Doc — the tiny, unconscious thing which he did in moments of absolute concentration. The strange note seemed to saturate and set singing all the air in the room.

Over that secret phone line cracked what sounded like a gulp of terror and rage. Then the receiver banged up at the other end.

It would probably be a long time before the evil Kar forgot that eerie, trilling sound! It was a thing to haunt the slumber hours!

* * *

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