He moved through the dream. And he knew it was a dream. But it seemed real. So real. He pulled his battered roadster to the curb of the familiar street. Dead center in what the scandal sheets called "the heart of the underworld." He alighted, full of the old energy and drive.
Once in the rooms of the four story walkup he automatically checked the tell-tales. All clear. Assured of no breach of security he listened at the door of the room devoted to makeup and disguise. Inside someone hummed a number one song from the War. He knew that hum.
He opened the door and stepped inside. Beyond the racks of costumes lights blazed at the stage makeup tables. The humming continued. He moved into the small open area. A tall shapely woman in a backless evening gown sat at one of the tables. He could only see the back of her head. Not even the sheet of mirror revealed her face. Her smoothly combed just over the shoulder hair gleamed an ebony black.
"Miss Gaynes," he said in a cheerful voice, "may I have this dance."
"Why Mr. Wilson," her haunting voice replied, "you are so forward. But I'll take a chance. Come here, my good fellow..."
He stepped to her as she rose from the chair and turned in one fluid motion. The self proclaimed authorities on the subject might have balked at calling her beautiful. But any man who met her like this knew dynamite when he saw it. He felt his heart race. He did not question why her skin almost glowed a dazzling green.
He bowed. He took her proffered hand. He brought her fingers to his lips. Then he moved them into dancing position in the middle of the tiny open area. He did not crush her to him as he wished. He wanted to savor the moment. His lips still tingled from the touch of her fingers.
Then his lips lost all feeling. Then where his hand held hers began to tingle. As did the forearm across her back. He felt his heart slow to almost nothing. Suddenly he could not pull air into his lungs. He felt his legs give out.
As everything faded away he called out, "Why, Arsenic?! Whyyy...."
In the Butler's quarters of Theodore Roosevelt Wilson's penthouse Dwayne "Dippy" Morgan sat bolt upright in bed.
"Was that a scream?" asked Sarah, the maid from three floors down.
"'Fraid so, sweetheart," replied Morgan. "The Boss is havin' a nightmare. I'd better go check on him."
Sarah slipped out of the bed covers to stretch her pleasingly plump body. "Can I do anything to help? Or should I just leave?"
"Please don't leave, beautiful. If you could get a pot of Sanka coffee goin' that'd be great. But put my robe on. Don't want the boss ta know just how lucky I am. See you in a bit."
Dippy Morgan hurried through the penthouse. He found Ted "Shorty" Wilson sitting on the edge of his bed, hands clutching the edges. In a huge sweat, the the man's tanned and mobile face looked almost white as his sheets. His hands shook. His eyes didn't seem focused.
"Boss," said Dippy as he knelt to put a hand on his employer's shoulder, "are you okay?"
At Dippy's touch all the tension seemed to flow out of Wilson. "Dippy? Did I wake you up? And at what? Two-thirty in the blessed morning. Sorry Dippy. Damn nightmares. Did I say anything I shouldn't?"
"You were askin' her 'Why?', boss. Nothin' to worry about on that score. But I do have company?'
"You lucky dog," smiled Morgan. "Jane? No! Not Candy?"
"Her name's Sarah, boss. Works for the McGruders. Sweet girl, not used to attention."
"Dippy, I sort of envy you. More girls than you can shake a stick at. And I'm still hung up on Arsenic Gaynes!"
At the New York Athletic Club Shorty Wilson's workouts always attracted some attention. The former All-American football end normally trained like the Rose Bowl was to be played next week. If other club members noticed even more fire and concentration than usual, they said nothing. The professional boxers he sparred with did take notice. Sometimes more than forty pounds heavier than Wilson, they still felt like they'd gone three rounds with an agile trip-hammer.
During that same time Dippy Morgan quietly walked his old paths listening for word about the woman known as Arsenic Gaynes. He heard nothing. But it wasn't Dippy who located the woman in question. His pal Tom "Nitro" Smith found himself staring at Arsenic Gaynes across a fancy dinner party in Albany.
This was the one part of his new career that Nitro Smith really didn't care for too much. As a "Security Consultant" he still cased the clients' places of business and home. And the firm's secretary turned his jargon laced reports into English for the non-criminal. But sometimes the customer wanted to check security for some event. Like tonight.
Nitro ran a finger around the collar of the tuxedo that felt like an iron chain-gang neck-ring. He checked his watch, again. He swore under his breath. Two more hours until they packed up the art exhibit of this charity shindig. Then Brinks, not his employer, could worry about the valuable pieces of canvas, marble, and whatever. Two more hours of standing around sipping gosh awful Shirley Temples and chatting with whoever happened to buttonhole him.
Lord, he wished he could call Mable for a Black Label beer. But the only brew stocked at this party came from Germany. The first shipment since the war ended. He caged a taste from the fellow minding the keg. He immediately decided he'd rather drink Bromo-Seltzer.
Then, across the room, something caught his eye. A woman in a golden evening gown flicked her head to get her jet black hair out of her face. A common enough move for the ladies with their hair down, but it caught Nitro's attention. Yes, the move seemed familiar, but so did the woman who made it. Could it be?
Nitro put down his drink. He began to make his way across the hotel ballroom. Joe Average would not have noticed, but one of his teammates did. The retired cop casually crossed his path.
"Nah," replied Nitro in the same low tone. "Personal. Saw a lady across the room. Might be someone I once knew. Couldn't see much of her face. Angling for a better view."
"Not somebody whose safe you once blew?"
"Nothing like that, Bill. I'd be under a table if it was."
The former cop chuckled and moved on. So did Nitro. Finally he reached a spot about thirty feet from the knot of people that interested him. He pointed his face at the next group to the left. Out of the corner of his eyes he finally saw the dark haired woman's face.
It required all of Nitro's self control to keep a straight face. He desperately wanted to call out. Or rush over and put a bear hug on beautiful Arsenic Gaynes. A split second later he became glad he did not. For the woman's eyes flickered ever so briefly in recognition. A moment later she turned towards her escort. Her left hand made a couple of seemingly random moves. But they were not random.
Nitro was not surprised to be signaled. The old team used a bunch of them. But he did not receive any of the ones he expected. The first translated as "You don't know me." That seemed fine, but not the second one: "Disappear!"
Nitro eased a notebook out of his pocket. He looked at his watch. He pulled the pencil from its slot and wrote briefly. When he returned the pencil he pushed extra hard. Just barely he felt the shutter of a tiny camera in the thing trip. He moved away, never having looked directly at Arsenic, or the group she was with.
Event over, Nitro hurried to the Air-Stream trailer that served as the company's mobile command post. He waived a five dollar bill at Mike, the guy who kept the thing running. Then he stuffed the bill in a slot cut in the lid of a coffee can marked "Beer & Pretzel Fund."
"Need to used the darkroom and the photo-transmitter. Personal stuff."
"'S okay," yawned Mike. "You know the shutdown routine. Don't make a mess. G' Night."
Alone, Nitro entered the darkroom. With the door sealed he performed the tweezer gymnastics to extract and develop the tiny roll of film from the notebook camera. With the film dry he used the specially made enlarger to generate a five by seven inch print. He mounted the print on the cylinder of a light tight box. Then he picked up the direct line to the office in New York. No problem there. The night man still owed him plenty for ridding his parents' farm of tree stumps.
A ringing phone slowly pulled Shorty Wilson out of the Land of Nod. He rolled over to look at the closed door to the room. Tacked to a small cork-board was a sign saying, "Gone to the market."
That's why Dippy hadn't answered. Mostly awake now Shorty realized that the phone from the building's switchboard rang. Not the private line. He picked up the instrument and mumbled a greeting.
"Good morning, Mr. Wilson," bubbled the regular operator. "Sorry if I woke you. There's a special messenger here with an envelope that either you, or your butler, have to sign for. May I send him up?"
Shorty mumbled something affirmative and the girl rang off. He pulled on his robe and ran a comb through his hair. Then he exited his bedroom for the foyer of the penthouse. As he fished some change and bills from the telephone stand a polite tapping came from the front door. He ransomed the stiff envelope and headed for the kitchen where he hoped to heaven Dippy'd left the coffee pot on.
Cup of black java in hand and the first swallow on the way down he took a look at the other side of the thing. He saw a trade-mark lined through with the word "Personal" next to it. Then he realized the trade-mark belonged to the company Nitro worked for. Now interested, he pulled the thing open. Other than some protective cardboard, there were two items. First another envelope fell into his hands. A photograph holding one. Then a short piece of teletype paper fluttered to the floor. He took another swallow of coffee before he removed the photographic print. And turned it over.
And froze. Shorty Wilson never knew how long he just stood staring at the grainy photograph. When he finally moved again he could not have said how many other people were in the picture. Or what the venue might have been. He only knew that somebody had sent him a picture of Arsenic Gaynes.
Slowly he placed the picture on the table of the breakfast nook. Next he retrieved his coffee and the teletype flimsy. Seated he looked at the message. First came four words in English: "Albany, last night. Nitro." There followed a text block of seemingly gibberish.
But it was not gibberish. This was a personal code he had developed with a bit of help from a long time editor friend at Street and Smith. Snatching a pencil he began lightly marking through groups of letters. A moment later he transcribed the unmarked characters on to a clean sheet of paper. Then he put meanings to each of the groups.
"Saw Arsenic. Arsenic saw me. She signaled: 'You don't know me.' & 'Disappear.' Nothing further. Departed with escort to left in picture." An Albany phone number followed.
After the meaning of the message sank in, Shorty Wilson began a close study of the photograph. A very close study. He was still making notes when Dippy hauled in a cart of groceries.
"Holy Crow!" muttered Dippy to himself when he caught sight of the picture and teletype flimsy. He knew better than to break the boss' concentration. Instead, he quietly began preparing a substantial breakfast. It was a long drive to Albany.
The smell of toasting bagels and frying Taylor's Pork Roll finally reached Shorty's attention. He looked over to see Dippy pouring hot Ralston's Cereal into bowls. Other bowls held sectioned half grapefruits.
Shorty blinked. "How long have you been back, Dippy?"
"Long enough, boss. We headed to Albany? I need to get packing."
"I'm headed to Albany later today. You don't need to go."
"Begging your pardon, boss, but Hell yes, I need to go. Ever since she disappeared you've either had your head in the clouds, or in the ground like an ostrich. You ain't thinkin' straight when it comes to Arsenic. Besides, if she told Nitro to shear off like that, she's up to her pretty ears in something. We all owe her plenty, first and last. So if anybody's going, we all are. Now, do you need me to do something besides pack?"
Shorty gave an ironic chuckle. "Okay, Dippy, you win. Take the picture to Robb at the Clarion morgue. Ask him to make some copies. And see if he can identify anybody else.
The tent was far and away the strangest looking one in the sideshow of Colonel Lane's Mammoth Circus. The only one taller was the Big Top itself. The shape was a bit like a ski jump. On the stand in front the sixteen year old daughter of the circus strongman harangued the crowd. Every time she leaned over to sell a ticket the men in the crowd's eyes would open wider, for her khaki blouse was low cut indeed.
"Come on in, folks. The one and only Human Fly is getting warmed up for his show. Watch him cling to a wall like an insect or spider. Three, sir? Thank you. Now there's a wise family. Are you agile? You could win a fifty dollar bill just for giving the Human Fly a challenge. That's right..."
Inside the tent Art Bellows, the Human Fly, half listened as he prepped his audience. He'd already picked out a rugged looking Marine Sergeant to try to climb the short wall.
"That's right folks. If that brave young marine can ring that bell on the top of the twelve foot wall before I ring the one at forty feet I will personally give him a picture of Ulysses S. Grant. That's more commonly known as a fifty dollar bill. Now we all know how rough, tough, and ready Marines are. But this is one skill they don't teach in boot camp..."
Ten minutes later Art shook hands and sold pictures as the crowd filed out. At the end of the line came Carnie Callahan, the chief Barker of the Midway.
"This telegram came in for you, Art. Hope nobody died."
Both startled and curious, Art tore the envelope open. The message read:
Nitro founder her in Albany. We are headed there. The Governor Clinton. Dippy.
"Nobody died, Carnie. But a gal who's like a sister just got located after being missing. I'm headed out. Can you get it packed in for me? Thanks. I owe whoever helps out. Is the barnstormer still here?"
An hour later the Human Fly roared aloft in the instructor's seat of a rare P-38 Lightning trainer. The owner had been offering rides to circus patrons. Now he had a charter headed straight for Albany, New York, below the Feds' new radar control system. Art sat on a parachute pack and stewed for the whole ride.
Between Washington and Western Avenues students at Albany High School participated in Track and Field events in the clear spring weather. Then a roaring sound came from the south. All heads turned in that direction. Low in the sky came an aircraft with a twin-boom tail. The silhouette was familiar to both American youngsters and worried German soldiers alike as the "Fork Tailed Devil."
"P-38!" yelled some. "Lightning!" called out others.
Then an incredible thing happened. The P-38 roared past the athletic field. First it pulled a one-hundred-eighty degree inside loop to return over the field inverted. And something, or somebody fell out!
Students and coaches alike fell silent. Until the white parachute opened. Then a cheer went up. Twenty seconds later the chutist sprawled on the gridiron grass. Twenty seconds after that he was surrounded by a wall of students.
Catching his breath Art Bellows began an improvised midway spiel to get the kids to help fold the parachute. He told the coaches the event was a publicity stunt for the rival Blossom's Circus. Then he removed his jumpsuit as he asked directions to the Governor Clinton Hotel. Now dressed in slacks and a sports jacket, the Human Fly struck out for the center of town.
Dippy happened to be driving when they reached downtown Albany. A cheerful beat cop gave them directions to the hotel. As he eased the large touring car into the unloading zone he almost did a double take.
"Boss! On that bench across the way. Somehow the Fly beat us here. An' he was in Toledo."
"Field goal for the Human Fly," said Shorty as he stretched his arms. "While I get us checked in go ask him for directions, or something that doesn't look like you know him. Let him know our room number. And give him some of the used bills. If he beat us, it must have been expensive."
The two men settled into the fifth floor suite. They left the window in one of the sleeping rooms cracked open. Shorty called the number in Nitro's message to arrange a meeting just after dark.
Nitro arrived on time. The greetings of the three had hardly finished when a voice came from the sleeping room.
"Hi-di-hi-di-ho fellows," the Human Fly called softly as he stepped into the common area.
Greetings soon exchanged, the four got down to business.
"The guy I saw with Arsenic's supposed to be from Hungry, or somewheres around there," reported Nitro. "He goes by the name Count Orlov, but nobody's ever seen an official piece of paper with that name or title. Been staying at some estate about where the farming area begins. Supposed to have a handful of super tough body guards. An' the last few months he's had Arsenic on his arm like a decoration for all the social events. Also supposed to be like Bernarr MacFadden, nuts about athletics and what the highbrows call 'Physical Culture.' Whatever the heck that actually means. Always sponsoring long cross country foot races. Other outdoor stuff, too."
"Thanks, Nitro. That's a bunch more than our sources could tell us back in the City." Shorty paused to write a brief message on a Telegram blank. "Now you get more legwork being you know more about this burg than the rest of us put together. Send this request for information on Orlov to the Clarion's morgue first thing. Then rent a couple of rooms at hotels where questions about guests are actively discouraged. You know the type. Then rent and set up at least one furnished safe house. You know the drill for these, too. Say, you have a map to that estate? Good! Thought you would.
"Dippy, you make those calls we talked about from this room. And wait for telegrams and returned calls. Soon as I make one call from a pay phone the Fly and I will head for that estate."
"Got it. But I'd rather be goin' with you two," replied Dippy. "By the way, should I open the tank, boss?"
Shorty felt the sudden tension in the air. The "tank" referred to an invisible extension to the touring car's gas tank and what it contained. His three friends seemed to be both eager and concerned about his answer.
"Not yet, Dippy," he replied. "Arsenic just may be in a con so delicate it wouldn't stand the slightest bump. We'll check the place out. Talk to her if we can. Then maybe we'll really understand what's up."
A quarter moon peaked through a scattered cloud deck when Shorty and the Fly finally got a good look at the Roland mansion. According to their Braille wristwatches the time was nearly eleven-thirty. From the next hill they began probing the compound with binoculars.
"Say, boss," whispered the Fly, "who'd you call back at that general store?"
"The private number for our Wartime FBI contact. I was surprised to get an answer, but the old password worked. Told the man who picked up we might be on the trail of an international spy. He gave me a number to call in Albany. Also gave me a warning."
"Warning? What kind, boss?"
"That we're at peace. To make damn sure of who we're taking on. And for the love of heaven not to shoot any diplomats by accident."
"That makes sense. But I'm surprised he didn't just tell us to go jump in the lake."
"I think that's what he was supposed to tell us. But I'm betting I was talking to Dan Fowler. Sounded like him. He knows us well enough to understand if we find real trouble we won't stop."
"Yeah, boss. Word is Fowler's worked with the Phantom, the Black Bat, and even Jim Anthony. He may be official, but he'd be about the only Fed who'd understand... Wait a sec... Boss, third floor fourth window from the right. Is that...?"
"It sure is. Good spotting. Looks like she's in a robe. Let's see how close we can get without making a fuss. I've seen two men wandering the perimeter."
Twenty tense minutes later the two, dressed all in black, stood at the side of the building just below that window. After a brief look-see the Human Fly began his ascent. Shorty kept watch. But he frequently glanced with awe at his friend's fast but silent progress up the stone and brickwork. Soon a dead black rope slithered back down.
Shorty gave the rope a quick test, then swarmed aloft. He soon reached the window. There he listened. And listened. After a few minutes he slithered through the window. Not four minutes after that he climbed out the window headed for the ground. Seemingly a moment later the Human Fly joined him.
Using only hand signals they withdrew.
Back at the fancy hotel both the Fly and Dippy watched their friend and boss closely. They could almost feel the seething emotions in the man. If I stick a pin in him he'll explode thought the former pickpocket. Then Nitro arrived. The clock by the door read about two-thirty.
"Got hotel rooms and most of the emergency stuff we'll need. There's three houses listed I'll call about first thing this morning. You two have any luck?"
"Yes, and no, Nitro. Glad you're back. Gather round men, I only want to have to say this once. We found her, all right. I talked to her. Its bad. Real bad. This questionable Count... He's a Soviet agent. Refers to himself as the Commissar. All those athletic events are for recruiting converts. The 'Workers of the World Unite' ploy. And he's having the rich capitalists finance the revolution with tax deductible contributions to his front foundation. Along the way he's forcing Arsenic to help him round up blackmail secrets on the rich suckers."
Rage in his voice Nitro broke in, "How does the ape force Arsenic to do anything? How come she ain't ripped out his liver, or worse?"
"That's the irony of it, Nitro. He's blackmailing her. Her old racket's now the millstone around her neck. We all knew she came to this country as a kid. But she left behind a niece who's stuck on the wrong side of what Mr. Churchill named the Iron Curtain. The Soviets have her. Arsenic gets a new picture every week of the niece holding copy of the Manchester Guardian Weekly for the week of the picture. She gave me a couple of them. Take a look."
The three passed around the five by seven glossies.
"They're supposed to have a reception for all the men and women they think are leaning toward their cause. That's day after tomorrow evening. Arsenic's next picture is due the day after. We could tip the FBI, but even if they arrested everybody involved, that still wouldn't help with Arsenic's problem. We'll watch what goes on quietly and... You got something, Dippy?
"Maybe, boss. You know Sir Reginald? Lives on th' fourth floor."
"Just casually. Nice fellow. Not as standoffish as some Brits I've met. Why?"
"'Cause he gets every major Brit paper delivered. Soon as they come in. When he's done he lets the help have 'em. I've read all of them one time or another. Point is the Guardian Weekly's not a true Brit paper. Its the best of the Manchester Guardian daily, with stuff from a few others. But the Weekly's not only printed in England. It comes out of South Africa, Australia, and Canada, too. Arsenic maybe, just maybe's gettin' played. Nitro, dig the jeweler's loupe outta that case you're leaning on."
The other three basically held their breath as Dippy checked out the photos. "Looks fine," he said at last. "Just one thing. Each time she's got her finger right over the little price marker. The exact same way both times. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
"Yes, it does, Dippy. So here's what were going to do."
Using various hastily obtained cars Shorty, the Human Fly, and Dippy began trailing those who came and went from the Roland estate. Nitro kept busy with some special projects only he had the qualifications and local connections for. The afternoon of the second day the four rendezvoused at a closed down filling station about four miles from the estate.
"Pop the trunk of your car, boss. I need to use the developing bag."
"Sure, Fly. You got something?"
Inside, he replied, "Your darn tootin', boss! Orlov went back to that house with all the ham radio antennas. But he didn't seem all that interested in the airwaves. And we could get arrested for mailing a couple of these pictures."
"I followed the guy around the whole area, to begin with," said the Fly as he manipulated the roll of film in the light tight developing bag. "He called on some of the hoi-poloi types at their business places. Then he hit a couple of union offices. Had lunch with the Mayor, of all people. Then he headed for the ham's house. Got real careful. Okay, the film's in the cassette. Hand me the bottle of Developer while I unzip the bag.
"Anyway he actually lost me. But I decided to check out the house Dippy followed him to yesterday. Was in the same small area. And there he was, getting one hell of a greeting. I drove by and parked. Only one other person in the place. They headed upstairs like there's no tomorrow. Time! Find the Stop Bath while I drain this. The upstairs bedroom's got one heck of a view. And no possible way to look inside there except for a tethered balloon. They left the curtains open. Lots of light for pictures. Now the Fixer, please.
"Anyhow, I went up the back wall. Took a peek. About fell off the wall from what I saw. And who I saw. Let's hang the negative to dry. I'm thirsty. The bottles of pop should still be ice cold in the bucket while we wait."
His tongue slightly yellow from a Vess Whistle soda pop, Shorty scanned the negatives fifteen minutes later. The others watched his eyebrows go up and up as he worked his way through the roll.
"Jackpot, Fly!" he exclaimed. "Jackpot indeed. Dig out the map and schedule. Then let's do some planning."
Just at dusk the Human Fly again climbed the back wall at the house with the antennas. He slipped into the now empty bedroom and waited for Dippy, who carried a Fuller Brush sample case, to knock on the front door. When the knock came the Fly eased on down the stairs.
At the same time Nitro eased over the wall at the mansion. A mansion they now knew had been rented from the executor of the Roland estate. On the hilltop used for on the previous reconnaissance Shorty Wilson lay prone with a silenced rifle. Attached above the weapon's receiver sat an infrared sniper-scope. He kept watch while Nitro slipped from place to place on the grounds. Full dark arrived as they withdrew.
Back at the garage they received a thumbs up from Dippy and the Fly, who pointed to a limp figure unconscious on the floor. He handed Shorty a stack of papers and notebooks.
"So that's how it lays," said Shorty a few minutes later. "We go with the second plan. Dippy, you can open the tank now."
"You bet, boss!" exclaimed Dippy as he grabbed a roll of tools and nearly sprinted to the touring car on the other side of the filling station's repair bays. For soldered to the original fuel tank was a flawless extension, undetectable unless you knew what you were looking for. What it contained was far more dangerous than gasoline.
As he waited Theodore Roosevelt "Shorty" Wilson began the mental technique he'd discovered as a child bullied first because of his size and later because of his double-jointedness that permitted him to appear much shorter than he actually was. Now he divided his emotions and thoughts into two groups. The ones not needed for the coming hours, or even days, he pushed to the barely lit back burner of the stove that represented his mind. What he needed tonight came to the biggest, potentially the hottest burner. Still required: the catalyst that locked his mind into the new arrangement. Once it had been his football helmet. Now Dippy handed the most recent version to him.
Nitro felt his heart speed up as Ted "Shorty" Wilson slit open the black oilskin package. What was inside, and what it stood for, made him the man he was today. An honest man. Well... Honest when it came to to dealing with really honest folk. All four of them had been crooks when they first met the man they now gladly called Boss. The boss had seen something in each of them. Something he used to turn each of their lives around. Made almost a family out of them as they tried to help out the war effort by taking on black-marketeers, bundists, saboteurs, and foreign agents in and around New York City.
Nitro had thought that part of his life over. With the war won, they soon shut down operations. The boss found the men honest jobs. Treated them almost like relatives. Nitro had wondered if he was going to set Arsenic up in business, or propose. For Ted Wilson was clearly in love with her. Then she disappeared. They'd looked with no luck. And the boss started having those nightmares. There was no chance they were not going to find a way to help her. But this was beyond what Nitro expected. His heart began to pound as he watched.
First the boss pulled out something rolled up. This he set aside. Next came a jet black wooden box with rounded corners. Out of the box came came two black automatics in black holsters, plus a stack of magazines, also black. Bright by contrast were the cardboard boxes of ammunition.
Now Shorty extracted an all black garment similar to a choir robe. He slipped it on on and zipped it up. The next black bundle of cloth he shook out into a near floor length cloak. With that over his shoulders he unrolled the first packet. As the lead wire sewn into the thing was straightened, the roll became a wide flat brimmed hat.
Hat on, he opened a box of shells and began filling magazines. The voice that now came from under the hat did not sound like Shorty Wilson. Nitro's heart almost skipped a beat. He glanced at the other two men. He could see they felt it too.
The Black Dwarf had returned!
All hands, save one guard, at the Roland mansion were handling the arrival of three school bus loads of potential new converts of the Communist Party, U.S.A. One member of the ring used his incredible set of pipes break through the confusion and conversations of the new arrivals. As he got the men, and a few women headed for the third floor, The Black Dwarf and his team vaulted over the wall and hurried to the rear of the structure. In a notch of the huge brick chimney that once heated much of the place the other three waited for the Human Fly to scale all the way to the roof.
Soon they climbed knotted ropes to the fourth floor windows. Clinging to the ropes Nitro and Dippy waited as the Black Dwarf slipped through a window into a screened off alcove. A quick look around confirmed what the captured plans indicated. The floor was empty while the guests tackled beer and a buffet supper. A moment later the Dwarf helped his friends and agents back onto a solid footing.
In that corner alcove sat a door into the mansion's projection room. Here slides and motion pictures could be projected on to the rear of a huge ground glass screen. A control board for the sound and speaker system sat in the far corner of the room.
Nitro hurried to the top of the line slide projector. He turned on the tiny light used to preview slides. The first few in the prepared stack he kept. The others quickly landed in a wire trash basket. Then he added the slides he had spent much of the past twenty-fours creating secretly using his employer's equipment.
In the meantime the Human Fly had hauled up the bundle left blow and brought it inside. He passed each man his gear while hey held a quick conference before assuming their positions for the coming wait.
"Remember," said the Black Dwarf, "we don't want any of these working folks hurt. Just gone. With a bad taste in their mouths."
"I just hope," replied Nitro, "that Arsenic picks up her cue."
"Don't we all, my friend. She knows we're around. When she sees that picture, its showtime! Let's go..."
Dippy set up shop in a tiny area between chairs in the alcove. Nitro and the Fly moved to the other end of the floor. Nitro entered a storeroom between the open and locked elevator and the staircase from the third floor. Inside, he plugged a special radio transmitter into a wall socket. The Fly ducked into the storage room on the other side of the stairs. And they waited.
In the projection room the Black Dwarf checked that the record of a march from a classic opera was cued up properly on the turntable. Then he applied a small length of Scotch Tape to one corner of the ground glass screen. Now he could see the whole ballroom. And he waited.
But not too long. Soon sounds of conversation and movement climbed the stairs followed by the people creating it. At the head of the group came "Count" Orlov with Arsenic Gaynes decorating his arm. She smiled, but the Black Dwarf knew she was far from happy. They made small talk with the guests who came with them.
The ten muscular staff members neatly herded the guests into rows of folding chairs. Then they stood along the ballroom's long walls looking inward. Orlov led Arsenic to the two chairs behind the podium from which he would speak. He made a great show of getting his companion properly seated. He spoke one word into the intercom to the projection room, "Begin."
The first slide appeared as the music faded up. These images were of young men and women happily working in fields and factories. Then of the same people playing sports. That was all part of the planned program. The slide that followed was not.
The audience gasped. The new slide depicted the Hammer and Cycle on a blood red outline of the forty-eight states. The music stopped dead. A grim voice boomed from the speakers.
"My fellow Americans, you are here under false pretenses. Count Orlov is not Count. He a Soviet agent sometimes calling himself the Commissar. Do not move! Anybody! There are guns pointed at Orlov's head. You men by the windows. Look back toward the stairs. You are covered. Move and you die!"
The Heroes of the Communist Party found themselves covered by guns in the hands of three masked men. Orlov rose from his chair sputtering. Arsenic Gaynes having recognized the amplified voice sat still.
"Every guest here gets the benefit of the doubt," the booming voice continued. "Leave now. Nothing will be said. No reports will be made. We only want the foreign agents. Get up and get going."
The group rose almost as one. Some chairs went over backward as they began to hurry for the stairs. The guards hesitated, not sure of what to do without orders.
Then, in a relative whisper, the amplified voice said, "Arsenic, look here."
On the screen came a new image. Orlov and a woman, both nearly naked, locked in an embrace. The picture changed one last time. The face of the woman filled most of the screen. The face of Arsenic Gaynes' niece. The real boss of the operation.
Orlov bellowed, "Kill them! Kill them all!"
Arsenic let out a blood curdling scream of anger. With that the crowd bolted for the stairs as all the guards drew guns. Before a massacre could begin the Black Dwarf hurled a heavy chair through the ground glass projection screen.
The guards spun toward the sound. They all saw a short figure dressed all in black leap over the jagged edges of the screen with an automatic in each hand. The man fired two rounds as he flew through the air. One guard screamed and collapsed before his gun fully cleared its shoulder holster. Another barely managed to dive below the bullet aimed straight for his heart.
Now the crowd reached the area around the stairs. By this time the Human Fly clung to some moulding many feet above the floor. The panicky men and women flowed under him. Nitro was not so lucky. The crush of bodies shoved a table with a cloth covering stacks of Party literature directly into him. He staggered back. His head smashed into the jamb of the door he had emerged from. Still clinging to his weapon he slid downward.
In the front of the room Dippy began firing from the alcove at the armed targets clear of the rushing exodus. Above the crush of people the Human Fly picked targets at will.
After his wild, attention getting, leap the Black Dwarf dived into a roll. He came up firing. He picked off one more guard as he spun around looking for Arsenic and Orlov. All he saw was the door to the service area swinging closed. He moved to for the door when a bullet plucked the sleeve of his coverall. Another zipped through the brim of his hat. He again dived and rolled.
The Black Dwarf's deadly automatics bucked alternately in his hands. Each round sought the armed guards whenever he got a shot that did not endanger the departing crowd. Through many moving legs he caught site of Nitro crawling to reach a cable with a box of switches on the end. He rolled again to give his friend covering fire. Dippy and the Fly could handle the other side. He prayed.
Finally Nitro reached his goal. Raising safety covers he began throwing switches. Nobody on the upper floors heard the small explosions set off via radio waves. That had not been the point. But now all vehicles save the rented school busses were disabled in one way, or another. And the four light poles at the front of the estate no longer burned. Some might have fallen. But that, also, had not been the point.
The last guest vanished down the stairs. The Black Dwarf squeezed off one last round. So did Dippy. The last standing gunman took both slugs high in the chest. Thrown backward, he smashed through the window he stood in front of. Already dead, he did not scream during the fall to the ground.
The man in black rose to survey the battlefield. Dippy and the Human Fly had mowed down the guards on their side. On the other side one prone gunman raised his weapon. Before he could fire the Black Dwarf's automatics roared one last time. One weapon's slide locked back. Empty! But none save his allies seemed to be alive.
Now the only sound on the upper floor of the Roland mansion came as first one, then the other, magazine from the Black Dwarf's automatics hit the floor. Those noises were followed in turn by the sound of fresh loads slamming home. Then silence. Silence for a few seconds until the floor creaked slightly as Dippy pushed aside the heavy couch he used for cover.
"You okay, boss?" he whispered.
The figure in black nodded as he scanned the carnage. Arsenic? He'd last seen her moving toward the false Count Orlov. The only place she could be was in the small room used by servants when a ball was in full swing in the main room of the floor. That door closing had been the only he'd seen in the area.
Then, from behind that door came a man's terrified scream of pain. There followed a huge crash of metal and glass. And three gunshots sounded. Then silence intruded again. A moment later the door began to creak open. Immediately five guns took aim at the portal.
Dippy crouched in a two handed stance. Nitro with what little strength he had aimed from the floor. The Human Fly clung to intricate molding ten feet up with his feet and right hand. With his left he held a steady bead on the door. The Black Dwarf silently glided to the left of the door and pointed both his weapons as he scanned the rest of the room for more trouble.
Before the door opened all the way Arsenic Gaynes staggered out. All four men caught their breath. For the statuesque woman was unsteady on her feet and covered in blood. She began to swear in a low voice as she sank to her knees.
"Dippy! Check that room. Fly, cover us."
In the same instant Dippy dived low through the door and the Dwarf reached the girl's side. He put his hands up to steady her as he looked her over for wounds in the poor light. Then he heard a muffled exclamation from the room. An instant later Dippy returned.
"One dead in there, boss. The Commissar. Most of the blood ain't hers. Its his. Don't exactly know what went on, but she bit him. Punctured his jugular. He's got a bullet hole in the chest and one between his legs. Oh, Lord! From this side I can see she took one through the right arm."
The Black Dwarf's heart felt cold as he began to give orders. "Dippy, first aid. Nitro, if you can, get her cleaned off. Lots of napkins in that room and water by the podium. We'll wrap her in tablecloths when we leave. Shock might be a problem. Fly, check the floor for anybody else alive. Locate a working phone, if you can. Then guard the main stairs."
Somehow Nitro managed to struggle over and bring the pitcher and a huge stack of heavy dinner napkins. He half knelt, half sprawled next to the others. As he applied the first ice water soaked napkin Arsenic stopped mumbling curses. Her rigid body relaxed. It was all the Black Dwarf could do to hold her semi-upright.
"Are you all right, Nitro?" he asked.
"Took a pretty good whack on the head, boss," replied Nitro as he finished cleaning off the woman's injured arm. "Dizzy, not too much strength right now. But for Arsenic I'll keep going."
"Boss, the wound's through-and-through, breathed Dippy. "Missed the bone, praise be. I'm just going to wrap her arm up tight. Do the real work someplace safe. You're right, need to treat her for shock soonest. Okay?"
"Get it done, Dippy. We're overdue to exit." With that the Black Dwarf headed for the main stairs. He found the Human Fly up in the molding again. They spoke in whispers as he stood directly below his team-mate.
"I've been hearing folks hurrying out, boss. Couple of the school bus 've pulled away. No car sounds. Hope they all cleared out. Can't be sure. That phone in the alcove's working. Got a long cord, too."
"Thanks, Fly. I'll cover the stairs. You give the outside a good checking. Soon as Arsenic's ready to travel we go."
As the Fly slipped out a window the Black Dwarf picked up the phone. A direct dial model. With a thought of thanks he dialed the local number given him by Dan Fowler. "This is Beta Delta," he said after exchanging passwords. "A cabal of hard core Communist operatives held a meeting at the Roland mansion tonight. They intended to convert a bunch of invited locals to their cause. Also there was a victim of a kidnapping held there. That person has been freed at the cost of severe damage to the foreign agents. The rest of the cell has scattered, but there must be lots of evidence to identify members who were in the mansion. The boss of the operation is tied up in the old Flying "A" filling station on Colbert Road, near Bannister. Suggest a large heavily armed force proceed to this location immediately. Beta Delta now withdrawing from the area." He ignored requests for more information before hanging up the phone.
Five minutes later the Black Dwarf and his team left the estate headed for the furnished safe house rented and stocked for emergencies by Nitro.
Car hidden in the safe house's garage, the group hurried to the upstairs bedroom where medical gear waited. They carefully placed Arsenic on the bed, propped up her feet, and nearly buried her under blankets. Only her head and injured arm were exposed. Dippy began cleaning the wound as the Black Dwarf slipped out of the hat and cloak to talk to her in his everyday voice.
"Arsenic, its me, Ted. Concentrate on my voice. Your arm is going to hurt while Dippy fixes you up. Look at me Arsenic! Com'on snap out of it! We're all worried. Talk to me, please."
Her relaxed face suddenly tightened with pain. "Dippy," she exclaimed, "what are you using? A bottle brush?!"
"Arsenic!" whispered Shorty Wilson. "Thank God!" And, with the Black Dwarf back in the genie's bottle, he kissed her full on the lips.
Dippy knocked something on the floor with a clank. Coming back up the stairs from a guard sweep the Fly caught the seated Nitro's eye and winked. He smiled when Nitro mouthed the words, "About damn time!"
Arsenic's gaze swung to Dippy as he taped down her bandage. "Did he just kiss me?"
"I think so," replied Dippy with a crooked grin.
"Shorty Wilson," she hissed, "did you just kiss me?"
Suddenly the deadly man's face glowed red, like a bad sunburn.
"You did kiss me... Well, if you don't do it again, and right now, I'm going to kick your butt from one end of this room to the other."
While Theodore Roosevelt Wilson fumbled with his emotions Dippy hastily cleaned up. Then he helped Nitro down the stairs. The Human Fly locked the bedroom door from the inside. As he slipped out the window he heard whispers.
"Please call me Arsenia, Ted. That's my real name."
Recently both the Pulp and Comic Fandoms have been talking about Moonstone Books "Return of the Originals" comic books and heavily illustrated prose stories. These feature characters said to have influenced comic book characters and their creators.
For one instance the evidence is stunningly clear. The first ever story of The Bat-Man was bodily cribbed from a novel of the Shadow. And a number of pulp heroes made the jump to comics in one form, or another. Street & Smith adapted both the Shadow and Doc Savage, plus some of their lesser lights. They even gave John W. Campbell's Jupiter born Arn Monroe a son. The strip Iron Monroe ran for in few issues of The Shadow's comic.
Over at the Thrilling/Nador group the Phantom Detective had some comic book adventures. So did versions of Captain Future, and the Black Bat(as the Mask), among others. They also took the meek drugstore owner identity of the Crimson Mask and gave it as backstory to what became their comics' signature character: The Black Terror.
And knockoffs abounded. Over at Flash Comics, for example, the King was a version of the Phantom Detective. And he was far from the only one.
One day something occurred to me. Moonstone is taking once major characters and offering new versions to new audiences. But, some of the minor "spin-off" comics characters are both worthy of new adventures and in the public domain.
One such character stood out as a hero-pulp character stuck in comic books. He dressed sort of like the Shadow. But, using only reformed crooks as agents, he operated more like Captain Satan. Let's hear it for the Black Dwarf. "The Black Dwarf"??? That's right, the Black Dwarf appeared in about a dozen original stories for Harry A. Chesler's Dynamic Comics imprint. Chesler's material got recycled in a lot of places. The Black Dwarf was not an exception. Once he even appeared as the Blue Monk. Go figure.
So I decided to write the first ever prose adventure of the Dwarf and his agents. Call this "The Return of the Knock-Offs." If you like the concept, please let us know. There are a couple of other Dynamic characters who are very pulp oriented. First, there's the Echo. He's a vaudeville ventriloquist who, like "Ed Race - the Masked Marksman" in The Spider, solved crimes between performances aided by his girlfriend and his brother Dr. Doom. (Not kidding) Mister E (no relation to the DC character, or any other Mr. E.) kept a pagan idol in his basement. The graven image helped him to fight evil. It spoke warnings to him. It even let him send magical sprites out to scout for him. The sprites took the form of either crows or leprechauns. (Again, not kidding)
Want to know more about the Black Dwarf? Want to read some of his comic adventures?
Has Pulp Spirit got a deal for you!
Use the "Preview" function on that page to read through several Black Dwarf stories.
Want to read more pulp-heroes in comic form? Go to:
Click on the individual issues of Ace Magazines' "Sure-Fire Comics." These early issues contain stories of Secret Agent X renamed "X- the Phantom Fed" and the Moon Man under the title "The Raven."
These links are part of the
Digital Comics Museum
DCM hosts huge numbers of public domain comics. Most are American titles, but there are some Canadian Whites and a few from the United Kingdom. Sign up for a free membership and start downloading historic comics free and legal.
Planetary Stories & Pulp Spirit would like to thank the Digital Comics Museum for permission to link directly to their content pages.