The black garments were streaked with crimson. It took a supreme act of will not to look behind to see the scarlet trail he must be leaving. But, then, under the circumstances, even the simplest movement required mental concentration that few other men could have summoned.
From the day they moved in here, he had insisted that there be no neighbors near this building… this was the reason he had purchased the entire half-condemned block around it. As a result, no one outside his own organization had been hurt… but it also meant that it would likely be some time before the police or fire department arrived.
One leg was certainly broken; the other scarcely more useful. He could feel ribs moving, and knew he was losing blood at a dangerous rate. He would make it to the phone… but if the lines had been damaged in the explosion …
Margo Dane heaved a tremendous sigh as she closed the door of the apartment behind her. Some nights, the effort it took to listen to the prattle at those parties seemed scarcely worth the few crumbs of information she might obtain. Still, she thought, as she doffed the mink she had bought for these occasions, if this was what the Chief needed from her…
Margo closed her eyes as she thought of him, something she had promised herself never to do when she was alone, but... She leaned against the wall of her foyer, hugging herself, letting her mind drift to thoughts of herself in that fierce embrace, her body warming…
"Oh, Margo," she sighed aloud. "Pull yourself together." She still had a report to write, after all… and perhaps he would even be here later tonight, to take it in person. She could dream, couldn’t she?
She slid long fingers into the mass of glossy dark hair that fell loosely about her face—does he like it this way? Has he ever even noticed?—and gripped two fistfuls, stimulating the blood vessels in her scalp deliciously. She rubbed and twisted her neck, the pearl necklace gliding caressingly over her breastbone, shook her head to clear it of watery champagne, and headed for the kitchen.
As she scooped coffee from the tin and filled the pot with water, she did her best to guess which of the little tidbits she had gleaned would be the one the Chief would seize on, the one that would reveal secrets to him that would have remained hidden to anyone else.
Stop it, Margo. You promised yourself. She needed to get her mind off him, but the small apartment didn’t exactly brim with distractions. The afternoon’s mail was still on the side table: her pharmacist had evidently wasted no time in getting a new 1940 calendar to her, along with the 30th birthday card from her mother— both early, both carrying the same message:
Your life is moving along, Margo... time passes… you should think about settling down…
Margo gritted her teeth. She had always refused to let herself be defined by her relationship to a man, and now here she was—the willing slave of a man who usually treated her as just another of his agents. But there are those moments, aren’t there? She asked herself. Rare, but they are there. When we are alone together. Moments when I can almost glimpse a future of… but what might come next was hard to see.
With the coffee pot on the burner, Margo had just finished rinsing a cup and saucer when she heard the phone ring; she slammed the cup down, disgustedly. At this hour, he would only call if he were not coming.
She walked to the living room with a sense of disappointment, and lifted the receiver, expecting the typical cold greeting: "Agent Dane," he would begin. Would it really be so hard for him to say my name?
If the telephone receiver had grown lips and a tongue to continue the conversation, Margo could not have been more astonished. The voice on the ‘phone-- it was his voice; but his voice as she had never heard it before: even in their most intimate moments, steel always lay beneath it. Now, the voice was brittle, damaged.
"Margo, we are betrayed."
"There was a massive explosion," came the voice through gritted teeth. "Glendale is dead. I do not know how many other agents we have lost."
"Oh, God… Harry?"
"Agent Vega lives; he had not yet entered the building when it happened. He is taking me to a place of seclusion where my wounds can be tended."
"Oh, but I can take care of you—" the naked emotion in her own voice made Margo blush.
"Margo!" She winced as if he had slapped her, and flushed even more deeply. "Until I recover, it is vital that no one know how to find me. Your relationship to this organization"—not "relationship to me", Margo noted numbly—"is not publicly known. I need you to remain as my one link to the outside world."
"But how can I-- ?"
"Margo, it is time for you to read it." Her eyes darted across the parlor to the safe, picturing the envelope she’d prayed never to have to open.
"I…" she tried to clear the massive lump from her throat. "I will… but there must be more I can—"
"Read it!" What would normally have been a whipcrack of command was a ghastly plea. There was a long pause, punctuated by ragged sighs at the other end.
Finally, he spoke. "Margo… Margo, you must find my daughter!"
The line had gone dead, but Margo could not have answered anyway. Her head swam as tears brimmed her eyes. He has a daughter. And she must have had… a mother…
She fought to ignore the implications of that as she fumbled with the safe; she used every skill of concentration he’d ever taught her to suppress the picture of him with… with whoever the woman had been. It almost worked; but not enough to keep her eyes from streaming more as she withdrew the plain envelope and began to read the stiff paper inside it.
If you are reading this, our situation is dire. I am either dead or unavailable to you.
It was for precisely such a situation that I instructed you and Vega to arrange communications methods known only to the two of you. If he and I are still alive, he will carry your messages to me. You must not expect responses.
You will need aid, and you know where you must turn.
Margo goggled at this. He certainly didn’t mean the police. But surely he can’t mean…
I can predict your objections, but I believe that, in the end, he and I stand on the same side. His methods differ from mine, and we have had conflict with his camp more than once. Nevertheless, I believe him to be a man of honor. In any event, if our enemies have prevailed to this point, there is no certainly other man alive who might hope to succeed where I have failed. He will need your co-operation.
Go to him.
No signature, of course… just the cold, hard imprint of his ring.
Go to him? Margo could scarcely count the number of precautions the Chief had taken to prevent his powerful rival from interfering with their operations. And now, she was to co-operate? Potentially lay bare the Chief’s organization? "Organization"… it struck her, then… perhaps there was no organization any more. She had no idea how serious his wounds were… perhaps…
The smell of boiling coffee brought her up short. Thank God, she thought, pushing dark thoughts to the back of her mind. At least I have a task to do.
She had no need for stimulation now, and dumped the coffee in the sink before returning to the parlor and opening a drawer of the rolltop desk. She withdrew a small velvet pouch, and from it slid a tiny silver automatic pistol. A miniature version of the deadly pair he carried himself, it was the only gift he had ever given her. More than anything, Margo wanted to dwell on that fact, and sob her heart out. But there was no time for that. Is that what I have to tell my mother? That there is no time for me to be a woman?
Margo opened the hall closet; numb though she might be, she had more sense than to go out in the night wearing that expensive fur. She threw on a topcoat, disdained adding a hat to her ensemble, and made her way down to the lobby. Coming down the stairs, it suddenly occurred to her that, while she knew how to get where she was going (who in New York did not know the giant skyscraper?), she had made no provision for being received. She would have to chance the assumption that the man she was going to find would be somehow watchful at all hours of the day or night.
The October night was cool and black; at midnight, even a city that never sleeps dozes a bit. Margo began the three-block walk to the garage; glancing back over both shoulders. Once or twice she spotted figures in the darkness, but after a few moments of being tensely alert, she saw the odd bum or drunk stumble into the dim streetlight.
At the garage, she selected the custom-built black Horch 855 roadster from the Chief’s fleet; its 120 horsepower would outmatch anyone who cared to pursue her in anything short of a Duesenberg, and its sleek black form had a way of melting into the dark streets that she found comforting.
As she turned out of the garage, she noticed one of the attendants step back to the desk, and pick up a telephone… at this hour of the night, that’s more than a little suspicious. A note for the Chief if… when… he returned.
Margo let the car glide to the curb just short of the imposing skyscraper. So far as she could tell, no one had followed her, and she looked warily up and down the street as she emerged onto the sidewalk.
The crisp night wind ruffled her hair; Margo walked casually around the far side of the building, to try to spot any pursuers before committing herself to enter. She had just about satisfied herself that it was safe to enter, when she heard footsteps from in front of her-- they guessed my destination; instead of following me, they're lying in wait!
"Hold it right there, lady." Margo cursed to herself as a short, squat figure stepped out of the shadows of the dim doorways beside her; she dipped her hand to her bag, trying to decide how to get her hand on the pistol without his noticing. For his part, the little man was leveling a nasty-looking blue-black revolver at her.
"No guff, sister," he snarled, "or Roscoe here plays the ol’ one-two. Get it?"
Margo relaxed her body. If there was one thing that her years with the Chief had taught her, it was that the villains who talked the toughest were rarely the most dangerous—a truly dangerous man didn’t need to impress you with that fact. She assumed an expression of dismay.
"Oh, please, Mister, don’t hurt me." Her hand quietly slid closed around the handle of the automatic.
"Don’t gimme that! I know who you are, and you ain’t no sweet tomato. Now, you better—"
His threat died in his throat as Margo whipped the gun from the bag, ducked under his hand, and presented the delicately worked barrel to his cheek.
"Don’t move, unless you want me to take half of your face off with this." The man goggled at her; he tried to bring his arm back far enough to point his pistol at her again, but she jammed the barrel into his cheekbone.
"Drop the cannon, you cheap thug. I’ve got a few questions for you."
"Yeah?" he snarled. "And I got one fer you. How’s yer head?"
"What?!?" Margo made sense of the man’s sneer of triumph too late, as she felt thunder crack on the back of her skull, and she fell forward in a daze, dropping the pistol. She crumpled to the sidewalk, pain shooting through her body. From behind, the streetlight cast a wide shadow; the man who had assaulted her was huge. She felt his meaty fingers snatch at her collar; dazed, she tried to pull from his grip, but she was too slow-- after she slipped her arms free from the topcoat, he simply discarded it and clutched her upper arms in a grip of iron as he yanked her to her feet.
"Let go of m—oww!" the small man whipped the back of his hand across Margo’s cheek, and snarled, "Button it, sister."
The grip on her arms had shifted to her wrists; the man closed both of them into one of his enormous hands, and she felt some kind of rope being wrapped around them; her skin, already chafed by the night air, was sliced cruelly by the thin cord. After two quick turns of the rope, the man was able to use both of his hands to finish knotting the bonds in place, which he did with an indifferently efficient cruelty. She then felt him shift one of his massive paws to the top of her head, which he held in a vise-grip while the small man took a large sponge from his pocket, and held it before her mouth. The little man sneered at her.
"You bite me, and Mr Moto back there crushes your head like an eggshell." Margo didn’t believe that—they were obviously here to kidnap her and try to extract information—but she reckoned these two could do her a lot of damage short of killing her. Bound, unarmed, and at gunpoint… she was cornered. Reluctantly, Margo opened her mouth, and the little man began to stuff the enormous sponge into Margo’s relatively small mouth, seeming to take especial delight in the discomfort he was causing her. The thick material began to expand as her saliva moistened it, and soon her mouth felt dry and swollen. When he had inserted it as far as it seemed it would go, he removed an elastic bandage from his pocket, and he and the other man wrapped it around Margo’s head, over her hair, using some tape to hold it in place.
"There, sweetheart. Guess that’ll keep ya quiet for now. Don’t worry, though… you’ll getcher chance ta talk later on… you surely will." Margo tried to make some sounds through the gag, but the humming that came out would surely not have carried more than a few yards. She tried to turn for a better look at the man holding her, in hope that his identity might be known to her, but she could only make out the fact that he was Oriental—one of the biggest Oriental men she had ever seen, in fact: well over six feet in height, and appearing to be almost as broad.
As Margo squirmed in the huge man’s fierce grip, his rat-faced companion continued to leer at her unpleasantly.
"Seems a shame to waste this," he growled to no one in particular, fixing his eyes on the rise and fall of Margo’s chest beneath the flimsy evening gown she still wore. Margo’s eyes widened in fury, and she amused her captors with a few more futile attempts to break free.
"How about it, darlin'? You in the mood to make a little whoopie with Arnie?"
Arnie. She would remember the name... and make him wish she had not.
"HHhnnggff!" Margo flailed her head, trying to push screams past the gag.
"Time is short," came the clipped voice of the man holding Margo.
"Aw, nerts to you, Confucious," Arnie sneered. "This won't take long." Lewdly, he began to paw at Margo's chest. She strained against the man holding her, hoping that he would order Arnie to leave her alone. He did not, though, and Arnie reached one hand up to seize the collar of Margo's dress. Before he could rip it free, though, to expose her chest, Margo saw him hesitate, and his eyes widened as her necklace fell into view, glinting in the streetlight.
"Holy moley, Mama!" the little thug breathed. "Hey, Ghengis Khan, we can make ourselves a nice pile o' coin here on top of everything else." The fingers that had been about to tear Margo's dress lingered for a moment, lifting and examining the pearls... and Margo acted.
Instead of pulling away from the man holding her, Margo thrust herself backwards as hard and as fast as she could; the necklace caught on Arnie's thick fingers, there was a tug at the back of Margo's neck, and suddenly tiny drops of moonlight were slipping onto the dirty pavement.
"No!" Arnie squealled as he watched the precious treasure dispersing into the night; Margo took the opportunity to administer some punishment to Arnie's own personal jewels.
"OOoooff!" the little man folded like an accordion as the toe of Margo's pump made satisfying contact. She yanked again at her bound arms; the man holding her tried to tighten his grip, but one shoe came down on the pearls that skittered across the sidewalk, and he fell backwards, hard, his grip on Margo's arms broken.
Margo was off like a shot, taking the tiniest of steps at first, until she could be sure she was past the scattered pearls, then increased the size of her stride. Behind her, she could hear the Oriental man shouting in what seemed to be Mandarin... but a very ancient form of it... the Master's training was so ingrained that not even a neck or nothing race for her life could keep her from trying to collect clues for him! Arnie's groaning voice was responding, and Margo tried to increase her speed even more as she heard the men finally take to their heels in pursuit.
God, if I could only stop long enough to try to untie my hands. She continued trying to scream through her packed mouth; even here in New York, someone would come to the aid of a bound and gagged woman running for dear life if they could only hear her!
Running with her hands bound wasn't exactly a first for Margo-- the Chief's agents had plenty of experience at getting out of tough scrapes- but it certainly didn't allow her to get much speed going, and the gag was making every breath a struggle.
Where am I? How far have I come from the front door of the building? The miserable irony was that she could be kidnapped or killed in the very shadow of the man she was to seek out for protection.
"You goddam tramp! When I get my hands on you--!" Arnie's voice was rasping far too closely behind her for comfort. She kicked off the pumps and, biting down on the gag against the pain, raced along the cracked sidewalk in quickly-dissolving silk stockings.
There. The dimmest of lights showed from a U-shaped alcove in the front, and as she rounded the corner, she could see the big glass front door. It was clearly locked, and no night watchman or janitor was in evidence
Margo attacked the big door, using her hips and body to bang on it, kicking it with her bleeding feet. She threw her head back and emitted strangled, muffled sounds. The footsteps were closer now, and the doorway alcove was now a trap-- she was too deeply against the building to get out and start running again before they caught up to her. She sagged back against the doorway, weeping in frustration as the two running shadows grew larger in their approach.
I've let him down...I'll never see him again... She closed her eyes, the tears hot on her cheeks... when her right ear exploded.
"Aaaaiiiii!" the cry of pain was high and terrible. Margo saw one of the approaching shadows stumble and fall. Shaking her head, half-deafened from the explosion, Margo threw herself sideways, away from the source of the sound. She slid down, crouching low on the ground, and found herself staring past a pair of tall black leather boots which tightly hugged a pair of trim, muscular calves encased in white duck trousers, that were spread wide in a classic shooter’s stance. To the side of the alcove, a section of the brick had opened—- a secret doorway of some type. She had been seen, running from her pursuers, and now the air cracked as her rescuer let off another shot in the direction of the two men. This time, it was Arnie’s guttural voice that choked out a whimper; the next sound that reached Margo’s ringing ears was the scuffling of the wounded men’s feet, receding back into the shadows. This one knows how to shoot, Margo noted to herself. A champion marksman would have been happy with either of those shots.
Margo listened for a moment as the sounds grew fainter; she had moved one knee under her to start to get up, when a hand was extended.
"C’mon up, ma’am. You’re safe now." The voice matched the legs she had seen: female and obviously very capable. As Margo got to her feet, she took in her rescuer, and realized that she was all of a piece: at a glance, she could tell that this was a woman made for dealing with trouble. She was tall: she towered over Margo, who estimated the woman’s height at just under six feet tall. Even more striking than her height was her coloring: her skin had a deep bronze hue, but its smoothness indicated that it was hereditary, and not the result of an overdose of sun—- though the woman was certainly no shut-in. The hair that flowed in a silken stream across the shoulders of her dark brown chamois shirt was of a darker bronze hue, and her eyes gleamed the same. She nodded that Margo should turn around, and in a moment had slid a knife from her belt and sliced Margo's bonds.
Margo moaned in relief, stretching her arms to try and get some circulation back into her hands so she could attack the gag.
"Here, let me help." The woman raised her hands to the side of Margo's head, and fingers of near-surgical skill sliced the tape away, and began to unroll the bandage. In a few moments, Margo was plucking the sponge from her mouth, and inhaling huge, grateful breaths of air.
She held out a hand.
"Thank you, miss--"
"I’m Pat Samson, and you're obviously in some kind of trouble." Her smile had the cocky confidence of one for whom trouble represented nothing but the opportunity for adventure.
"Samson?" Margo could see the resemblance. "Then you’re—"
"His cousin," Pat replied cheerfully. "And I am guessing that he’s the reason I found you all trussed up here in your stocking feet."
Margo suppressed a giggle as she thought of the condition of those stockings now. "Yes, I need to see him about a matter of the most vital—"
"Save it, sister." Pat Samson frowned. "Sorry to say, but you’ve come at a bad time. Doc and the boys are somewhere in South America right now. Haven’t heard from him in a few days, now."
"Hasn’t he a radio?" Margo asked.
"In the plane, sure, but I doubt they’re hanging around it. More than likely, they’ve found some lost city or something and are havin’ the time of their lives exploring it while they dodge deadly perils right left and sideways—and without me, dammit!" Pat swore.
Margo frowned. "And they will return…?"
"Who knows?" Pat shrugged feigned indifference. "They wanna go off and play ‘Boys Clubhouse- No Girls Allowed’… well, they can just—"
"Please." Margo interrupted. "I need help. The kind of help that no one else can offer!"
Pat looked at Margo: she was the type of woman that usually gave Pat a major pain in the sit-down: dressed like a society dame, makeup just right, hair a little too perfect, even after her exertions… but there was something about Margo Dane. Pat couldn’t put her finger on it, but her instincts told her that there was more to Margo than met the eye. Anyway, the brunette had the one characteristic that Pat couldn’t resist--- the smell of trouble, and Pat lived for trouble!
"Look, Miss Dane—"
"Margo. I can’t really do anything about getting in touch with Doc and the boys, but I’m not exactly short on gumption, and I’ve fought at Doc’s side plenty of times. C’mon upstairs and tell me your troubles!"
Margo hesitated. The Chief was in trouble, possibly dying… wasting even a few moments might mean… but what were the choices? The police? They’d never really made up their minds about the Chief and his organization… she might do more harm than good that way. She’d always been certain that there must be someone in the US Government that gave tacit approval to their activities, but how to find that person without jeopardizing everything? And the Chief’s… daughter… what if she were not in this country legally? Or what if she were not here at all? No, the government was not the place to turn. She looked at Pat Samson closely; this woman could be very dangerous, that was clear. But with her unbridled enthusiasm and evident nose for mischief, the question was: more dangerous to her enemies… or her friends? And your other options are…? Margo asked herself.
"Thank you, Miss Savage—"
"Pat." Margo felt silly at this inversion of their previous conversation. "Well, Pat, I don’t want to put you in danger."
"Don’t give it a thought." The girl tossed her heavy mane of glossy hair and her smile widened. "How ‘bout you and me together show Doc and the boys that just because we’re what Doc's buddy Tank might call ‘a couple of dames’ don’t mean that we have to be ‘damsels in distress’, right?"
"Right," Margo murmured as she followed Pat Samson into the building. Why do I have this feeling, though, that there’s plenty of "distress" still ahead?
To Be Continued…
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