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Virus X


By Robert Welles Ritchie
Author of “Stalemate,” “His Master’s Voice,” Etc.


The most valued member of Raoul-Flack’s interesting company of international crooks finds a rich field for his endeavors in the person of a millionaire whose life was one long battle with germs.


THE big man with the mink—lined overcoat snowplowed his way through the corridors of the Assurance Building, choked with the noon rush for the downtown, hasty-stoking restaurants. His shoulders, wide, competent, aggressive, clove a way for him with little respect for the comfort of others making for the wide battery of doors at the Broadway exit. There was about him that self-centered concentration of purpose and air of genteel bullying which fatuous Manhattan accepts as sure index of power and success. The veiled glare of latent hostility in his eyes, outshoot of close-barbered chin—even the pursy upholstery of his pink cheeks—all these incidentals of the purely physical cried “Way!” for the progress of the masterful one.

He came to one of the doors, which swung inward on massive hinges, and for the fraction of a second he hesitated. Then one gloveless hand dropped into a pocket of his overcoat and produced a handkerchief. The square of fine linen was spread between pudgy fingers as a veil, and thus, with the handkerchief protecting bare flesh from contamination by the metal of the door handle, the square-shouldered one made his exit into the hurly-burly of North America’s most petted thoroughfare. As his hand fell away from the door handle the handkerchief was allowed to flutter away unheeded on the stiff February wind. A “newsie” caught the fluttering white bit and came galloping after the one who had dropped it, the fascinating picture of a dime or a quarter filling his mental retina.

“Your hank, mister.” He ran alongside and held it up before the eyes of the man in the mink-lined coat.

The man cursed. “Take it away!” came the growl, and the boy faded, abashed, into the crowd.

Of the scores who followed the big man through the doors, but one, aside from the newsboy, noted the incident of the protective handkerchief—that one a man in whom perception of unconsidered things was developed to a passion, and to professional acuteness passing the ordinary. The fine, dark eyes of Gaspard Detournelles—hard drawn, they were, under downward-pointing brows a little like a fox’s—viewed all the world of men as a covert wherein fat game might be flushed at the least expected moment. Therefore they were preternaturally acquisitive. And they read significance in the most commonplace incident overlooked by the herd. So in this instance of the quick requisition of the handkerchief to protect a fat hand from effluvium of the masses corroding the handle of the door, the eyes of Detournelles read a hint sufficiently diverting. So diverting, in fact, as to swing him away from a quondam business engagement and set him to following a wide brown strip of mink fur through the press on the sidewalk.

Trailing was absurdly simple; he had but to follow the wake of outraged citizens left behind that blocky dreadnaught of a man who elbowed and chivvied his course like an all-big-gun fighting machine on trial triangle. A traffic policeman riding herd on the stampede of automobiles up and down the high-walled cañon, held up a thundering motor truck to permit the gentleman’s passing; a street sweeper raised a blunt hand to the vizor of his helmet. For both public servants reward was a gruff “How-yuh?” sufficiently compensating to judge from their beaming smiles. The object of these attentions turned down a side street and into the ornate entrance of a pay-all-you-have restaurant—one of those establishments with painted peacocks on the walls, wherein the price of viands is set by the number of golden eyes in the peacocks’ tails. Detournelles, following at a discreet distance, came up to the piratical haunt of the hat boy just as the object of his interest was divested of his hat and overcoat and had turned into the blue-tiled washroom. As casually as he could, Detournelles followed. He was just in time to see an obsequious Greek tip Over the edge of one of the basins a bottle of disinfectant, widely advertised in the subway placards. A little spurt of the Cleansing fluid into the contents of the bowl satisfied the blocky gentleman; he laved his hands and cleansed them on a towel which the Greek whipped out of an oiled paper jacket.

A dollar bill in the hand of the head waiter secured for Detournelles the dining place he desired; it was just inside an alcove and at a point of vantage whence the fastidious one he had followed could be observed from an angle wholly unobtrusive. The acquisitive eyes of the trailer were all alight now with interest and nimble speculation. His relish was, up to the present moment, purely-a detached one—the enthusiasm of a connoisseur in human foibles for a new find. But behind the surface interest that predatory instinct which made Gaspard Detournelles the most valued member of Raoul Flack’s interesting company of international crooks—known to the Paris Suréte as the Incomparables—had already begun to function. His imagination could leap a long way ahead of simple circumstance and frame eventualities and possibilities for profit along the oblique lines of the Incomparables’ professional activities.

So Detournelles studied the broad shoulders and half profile of the masterful citizen, a few tables removed, with a double interest.

That the object of his scrutiny was petted of the whole Mazarin management was sufficiently patent; also that the Café Mazarin was more than willing to bend its discipline and culinary custom to the curious whims of its wealthy patron. It was the first deputy head waiter himself who bent a slavish ear to take the great man’s order; another menial, whose touring car could not have been less than a twin six, brought the silver splendor of casseroled meat and mushrooms sous cloche. The rolls, so Detournelles noted, were each incased in oiled-paper pajamas, though no such delicacy was practiced at other tables. The waiter did not menace the cleanliness of the cutlery by removing it from the tray with his own hands, but held the server so that the diner himself could lift knife, fork, and spoon collection to the damask. All this regimen was done so as a matter of course as to carry to the observer conviction of its having become custom.

One preliminary to the meal rang a deep note in Detournelles’ penetration. Before he had touched a mouthful of the food ranged before him the exquisite cleansed knife, fork, and spoons by fire. One by one he held the several accessories in the flame of the alcohol lamp beneath the chafing dish, turning them over and over, and finally dipping the heated service implements in a glass of ice water. Then followed discussion of the viands with gusto born of confidence. He ate largely and with the same imperious air that marked his breasting of the crowd. Detournelles had to extend his meal with a liqueur and cigar in order to remain until the other had finished. With almost no finesse he followed his quarry back through Broadway and up the vaulting elevator to a high level of the Assurance Building. The door behind which the trailed one disappeared was one of an extensive suite and bore on its ground-glass panel this legend: “T. Stacey Crump, lndustrials.” Within fifteen minutes Bradstreet’s, the City Directory, and Social Register had yielded Detournelles much information concerning T. Stacey Crump. What Bradstreet’s asserted the Directory of Directors affirmed with emphasis—he was one of the biggest fish in all the Wall Street pool. The Social Register added its discriminating voice as to Mr. Crump’s connections with the Shallowbrook Hunt, his town house, and Adirondack lodge. Each of the mute character witnesses brought a deeper gleam to the eyes of Detournelles.

At exactly noon next day the Frenchman was at the Broadway corner of the Café Mazarin, eagerly scanning the street in the direction of the Assurance Building. When he saw a mink-lined overcoat breasting the tide he hurried into the domain of the peacocks, and, by virtue of a tip, secured a table a little to one side and in front of the one reserved for Crump. He was giving his order when the magnate appeared from the washroom and took his seat. Detournelles was so placed that he could not see the object of his manueverings, but knew that he could be seen of him.

The waiter brought rolls to place beside the silver service. Detournelles gave them one scornful glance, then turned and fixed the menial with a cold eye.

“That you should think I would eat these!” he sharply exclaimed. “Bah! Little nests of disease! At once bring me rolls with protective jackets or I shall seek the management.”

Overcome with the surprise of the attack, the waiter stumbled away, to return in a few minutes with pajama-clad rolls such as the fastidious Crump enjoyed. Detournelles removed one from its envelope and examined it critically before proceeding to break off an end to butter. When his meat order came, and with it knives and forks, he gravely inaugurated a most surprising campaign of preparation.

First, from a pocket of his jacket, he produced a miniature atomizer, spraying alcohol. He set fire to the tip of the jet, and in the thin fan of blue flame thus kindled passed back and forth the blades of the knives and tines of the forks. He heard the clatter of a fork dropped on a plate at Crump’s table, followed by a startled grunt of surprise. Other eyes than the waiter’s were on him, Detournelles knew by this token. When the table service had all been sterilized in the alcohol flame he brought from the breast pocket of his coat a small vial of colorless fluid—high-proof cognac it was—poured a film of this over the heaped-up viands on his plate, and applied a match. A veil of blue flame skipped like marsh gas over joint and vegetables, then passed to nothingness.

With a conscious air of satisfaction, Detournelles ate his meal, topping off with liqueur and cigar. But before he would put the tip of the perfecto between his lips he wet it with the liquid from the vial. He smoked at his ease, never turning his head by so much as an inch, though he could feel the gimleting of Crump’s eyes between his shoulders.

Before the first ash was sped a heavy figure appeared by his side and a throaty voice hailed him:

“Excuse me, but may I sit down and talk with you for a while? You and I have a good deal in common.” Detournelles looked lazily up to Crump’s face, and, somewhat distantly, indicated with a wave of his hand the opposite empty chair. The financier dropped heavily to his seat, fumbled with a cardcase, and finally managed to snare one of his cards between pudgy fingers. This he passed to Detournelles with a formal bow. The latter eyed the engraved script, then with a slight accentuation of his French mode of speech: “And for what, M’sieu Crump, this honor?”

Crump, put temporarily at a disadvantage by the coolness of his reception, cleared his throat noisily.

“Well, fact is, Mr.—ah—Mr.——” Detournelles made no move to supply his name. “Fact is, I couldn’t help noticing your—hum—precautions you took about your eating. That’s a sort of hobby of mine—germ protection, you know. More than a hobby I guess I might as well admit. I’m a nut about it.” Detournelles lifted his eyebrows ever so slightly at the slang phrase, and the pink deepened in the other’s superlatively healthy cheeks. He forged on doggedly:

“I said I couldn’t help noticing your little precautions—and they interested me a whole lot. You seem to have it all over me for science—in the way you go about sterilizing. Maybe you wouldn't mind telling me what that preparation is you put on your food to burn off surface germs from the air. A mighty necessary thing, that; but I never knew how to do it.”

Detournelles had allowed his frigidity to thaw materially during the other’s halting speech. Now he beamed upon Crump, as one enthusiast upon another. He brought out his cardcase and passed across the table a cardboard neatly engraved:

CHEV. GASPARD DETOURNELLES,
VISCOUNT ALLAIRE,

Institut Bacteriologique.


Directeur. Paris.


“We are, then, fellow soldiers in the army of preservation, M’sieu Crump,” Detournelles hailed, with a gesture of the hands essentially Gallic. “How well met in this so-strange country, where men know not the first principles of bacteriological defense—and die so miserably by the tens of thousands. You are the first——” He left the sentence pregnant because unfinished.

Crump was delighted. His native pugnacity and denial of convention carried him at a bound over all the reserve of this courteous stranger who made the battle against the unseen myriads of the air one of scientific management instead of the hit-or-miss provision Crump had seized upon. The nameless fear which rode at the financier’s elbow day and night—which in his chimera of dread made even his pink cheeks and superlative vitality mockeries in the face of insidious decay—this found solace in a lucky meeting such as the present one. He unburdened himself without reserve.

“Why, Chevalier——” Crump’s envious democracy hit upon that handle with avidity. “Why, chevalier, I even leave my shoes in a pan of B. O. disinfectant overnight, and when I’m in a strange hotel I won’t step out of my bed without night slippers—burn ’em, too, rather than put ’em in my trunk when I’m leaving. I won’t have a servant who’s got the least trace of dandruff. And I use up about a gross of handkerchiefs a month opening doors in public places with them—cheaper than throwing away gloves. Never wear gloves, anyway, since I read how a man got rabies through a pair of dogskin gloves. Of course, my lady wife says I’m crazy—not crazy enough to kiss her, you bet, and I’ve had to fire every stenographer I’ve had when she gets a cold and sneezes into her notebooks; and there’s considerable expense in having my whole suite of offices washed with B. O. once a week. But—I keep my health, and that’s the main thing.”

The director of the Institut Bacteriologique listened with warm courtesy to the financier’s recital of his many precautions. But he was evasive under direct questioning concerning his own system of defense against the ever-present germ, particularly as to the mission of the Parisian institute over which he had charge. “Some day,” he vouched tantalizingly, as they rose to go; “some day perhaps we can interest you in our system of permanent self-sterilization, which covers every point of defense except against the zymogenic bacteria. No, no, m’sieu, not a word; this is a happy meeting and we will not intrude business. At another time, perhaps——

Detournelles was adamant against the big man’s importunities for an immediate continuance of the chance acquaintance. Very skillfully he left implanted in Crump’s mind overweening curiosity and the desire to pursue farther the mastering passion of protection under the tutelage of the scientist from the institut.

“Right soon, M’sieu Crump, when I find the time in my so-pressing duties, I will meet you here for luncheon,” was Detournelles’ parting promise. “Let us hope nothing—no triumph of the enemy—will prevent.”


II.

It was ten days after the encounter in the Mazarin that Detournelles kept a dinner engagement with T. Stacey Crump, which he had reluctantly permitted to be forced upon him at a second meeting over the table in the downtown restaurant. The meal was served with all the quiet niceties that make the Salamis Club a place of comforts. For Crump the softly shaded candles on the table but lit the way to a larger and more wonderful prospect, for the director of the Institut Bacteriologique had promised that this night he would take his host for a visit of inspection to the branch of the Paris laboratory which he recently had opened in New York—“a small and modest beginning of our work in America, but an outpost, my dear M’sieu Crump, of our army of preservation over there.”

For Gaspard Detournelles, as for his precious associates in Raoul Flack’s little company of expert criminals, these ten days between meetings with the financier had been crammed with high-tension activity. Not the least portion of this period of preparation had been spent by Detournelles among the dry-as-dust accumulation of tomes in that obscure room of the great library on Fifth Avenue which has “Pathology” inscribed over its door. The nimble wits of the man had leaped to the exigencies of the occasion, and from the many scientific works he skimmed he had culled an engaging line of patter. This he doled out to his dinner companion in homeopathic doses—a word here, a phrase there. Before the cigars were finished and Crump’s limousine trundled up to the club door Detournelles had more than ever established himself in character.

It was on the Frenchman’s suggestion, artfully put, that the auto deposited them at a corner of the broad avenue flanking Central Park on the west; they would have a brief walk in the park, dear M’sieu Crump and himself would, so as to fill their lungs with the fresh night air after the confinement of the limousine. Detournelles had no wish that the location of the institut should be known to any other than the big man, his companion. Crump did not even notice the illuminated sign at the corner of the street down which they turned after five minutes’ brisk walk under the gaunt limbs of the park’s winter wilderness.

One of a long row of brownstone fronts, all similar in design, was their destination. A girl in nurse’s starched cap and apron—a girl with a sweet, demure beauty of level eyes and broad brow—opened the door at Detournelles’ ring. “Ah, Mamselle Nan," the Frenchman murmured, “the reception room for this gentleman, please, and request Doctor Flack’s attendance there if he is not engaged.” Saying which, he bowed his apology and disappeared down the dim hall.

Without a word, Nan Madden—the Nan Madden of the studio and the phonograph plot that came so near ruining the great tenor, Engwald—led the short way to a room on the right of the hall, and, at the door, bowed the visitor in with a curt little nod, wholly impersonal. The door closed behind Crump. He was alone in the strangest room he had ever seen. Bare it was to the limit of monkishness, and more than monastic the severity of the few pieces of furniture therein. Walls were shining white, reflecting dazzlingly the cold light from the incandescent cluster depending from the ceiling. Instead of the property sofa, center table, and leather—backed chairs of the usual physician’s consultation room, here were only a settee and two chairs, all of steel even to the thin mesh webbed across seat and back——steel painted an uncompromising and ultra-sterilized white. White, too, was the floor covering of some rubberoid substance.

But compelling focus of attention was the glistening steel boiler head of some strangely fashioned engine, which stood on spindling steel legs in a corner. Somewhere within its mysterious vitals hidden fires, whether of electricity or alcohol, were burning; a sighing murmur and whispering of imprisoned steam came intermittently from secret vents, and out of a thin tube rising above the boiler was disseminated a grayish vapor. It must have been the vapor that filled the room with that pungent, medicinally clean odor.

Crump had come to Detournelles’ “outpost of preservation” with imagination fired and every faculty of his chronic aberration on the qui vive. But this startling engineer of germ destruction—this white and steel room with the lisping whisper of medicated steam making its dead walls vocal—he was hardly prepared for such extremity of precaution. Alone as he was, all the delicious dread that assails the neophyte in the anteroom of the lodge was his. A great sense of peace also settled over him; here was one place in all New York where the ever-present germ could not get at him.

The big man of Wall Street had only the vapor generator for companion during ten pregnant minutes—so nicely did Raoul Flack time the necessities of psychological reaction. Then the door opened and two spectral figures entered. Both wore the gaberdine of the operating room, dropping below their knees and hooding their heads; their faces were partially masked by stiff gauze respirators. It was Detournelles who raised a rubber—gloved hand and unmasked himself, his companion—a diminutive figure somehow conveying the aspect of age even through the gaberdine—following suit.

“Pardon the delay, M’sieu Crump,” Detournelles purred. “A little visit to our patients in company with Doctor Flack here. Doctor Flack, my good friend, M’sieu T. Stacey Crump, of whose great name in the field of finance you will hear when you have been longer in this country.”

Crump rose and extended his hand. The face he saw under the sagging edge of the cowl was one to remember long. Just two deep-set and age-old eyes in the hollows of shadowed sockets, scraggy cheek bones, and a mouth that was a blue-white line; that was the face. The eyes dominated every other feature, they were so cold and absolute; knowledge seemed to be stored in the depths of their irises like treasure in steel-ribbed vaults. Doctor Flack acknowledged the introduction with professional curtness.

“M’sieu Crump is one who in his own way—maybe a somewhat imperfect way, but nevertheless praiseworthy—has been trying to avoid the perils of the unseen enemy,” Detournelles was saying. “I have consented to bring him to our little isle of safety here, my dear doctor, that he may see how far science has progressed along the lines of his endeavor. Will you be good enough to explain our method?”

They seated themselves on the steel-woven mesh, the Phantom pushed back the cowl from his surprising head of dead—white hair, and began, in markedly imperfect English, an exposition of the Detournelles system of immunization against all virulent bacteria save the zymogenic—naïve exception! He told of the inoculation with Virus X—that remarkable blanket policy against the risks of voracious animalculæ from anthrax to yellow jack; of the period of inculbation spent necessarily in complete quiet; the rise in temperature accompanied by occasional delusional symptoms, and the final rapid convalescence, out of which the patient emerged a veritable Samson in the germ world. During Flack’s disclosures Detournelles, with an air of translating the profundities for 1ayman’s comprehension, threw in a word here and there. In the end Crump persuaded himself that he understood thoroughly.

“And now, M’sieu Crump, for the visual demonstration—so far as circumstances permit,” Detournelles murmured, and he led the way out of the room and up a flight of stairs. Crump followed, trembling with eagerness for the final revelation. They passed down a dark hall toward a distant square of light shining out against an opposite wall. In this block of radiance they stopped. Crump saw that it came through a square panel of plate glass set in a closed door. He dared look through.

What he saw was sufficiently impressive: a bare, white—walled room such as the one they had just quitted and made dazzling by the cold light of incandescents. On an iron cot, against the far wall opposite the panel, lay the passive form of a man, head bandaged in white. A hooded figure in white gaberdine was just turning away from the cot as Crump looked through the glass. She saw the faces at the panel, and nodded brightly. It was “Mamselle Nan,” the pretty nurse who had admitted the visitor at the front door.

“Ah,” breathed Detournelles, as the girl inside made some quick gesture with her hand, “she says temperature is down, doctor. Which is as should be. We do not take you into this room, my dear M’sieu Crump, for a simple reason. It is our desire to protect our patients as greatly as possible against outside contamination during the period of incubation. We ourselves and the nurse go in only when absolutely necessary, and then only after complete sterilization. The sterilizer you will see in the corner, M’sieu Crump”—he pointed to a vapor engine similar to the one in the reception room below—“that makes of this room a veritable germ desert. No spirilla live in its atmosphere.”

“Is it painful, this period of incubation after inoculation with Virus X?” Crump whispered.

“Pah!” snorted Doctor Flack. “A fever for a few days, the—the—what you call it?—-night horse—nightmare, perhaps one or a few. And then—the resistant man!”

Crump made his decision on the way downstairs to the reception room; it was made quickly, as were all his decisions.

“I want to come here and take your treatment,” he announced. “When can I come and how long will it take?”

Doctor Flack humped his shoulders doubtfully, and looked to Detournelles as if passing judgment on the acceptance of Crump’s offer up to higher authority. The latter smiled dryly.

“We are not at all sure we desire you for a patient, M’sieu Crump,” Detournelles said. “You are a man—how shall I call it?—masterful. You would not be amenable to necessary discipline. Moreover, because of professional reasons, we desire to work ever so quietly in this our beginning in America. You would have to come to us secretly; not even your closest associate could know of your coming; not even your wife. So jealous are we of the robber physicians who will pattern after our processes so soon as they learn them. So, you see our position.”

Detournelles played his card shrewdly, knowing that the least sign of opposition would but whet the determination of this two-handed juggler of the financial balls to have his way. Slowly the director of the Institut Bacteriologique yielded under pressure, giving a point reluctantly and combating another with vim. At last Crump triumphed.

“I’l1 be here at nine to—morrow night, without baggage, as you say,” he affirmed, as he rose to go. “And I’ll bring a certified check in blank, at your suggestion; we can decide on the figure to fill in any time—and it’l1 be a big one, I’ll promise you that.”

“My children,” said Raoul Flack, the Phantom, when they were all gathered about a bottle of excellent vintage—even the “patient,” who was Henri, the diamond setter, there with his swathed head and nightgown—“my children, I am inclined to agree with M’sieu Crump’s statement that the figure on that certified cheek will be a large one.”


III.

Boylan—Roger Boylan, the detective without frills—was called into the case of the disappearance of T. Stacey Crump through the intervention of his good friend, Edgerton Miles, stock-broker, for whom he had once solved the mystery of the substituted sapphire collar. This was three days after Crump had left his home on upper Madison Avenue on a night after dinner, telling his wife he was going to the Salamis Club to keep a business appointment with a customer. Crump had stepped out of his front door and out of the world as completely as if by some magic the force of gravity had been cut from under his feet and he had soared into stellar space to become a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound comet.

It was in Miles’ office Boylan met Mrs. Crump for a preliminary consultation. To Miles as a close friend and business associate of her husband the distracted lady of the missing financier had gone in her extremity. The calling in of the detective had followed. Boylan came to the meeting in his rosy-cheeked and square-toed simplicity, from the flat top of his brown derby to the sleasy strings of his bulldogs every inch a master plumber or ward captain—anything but the confidential solver of society’s delicate problems. The slightly overdressed and delicately florid widow in posse made no effort to conceal the disappointment of her anticipations. She bored Boylan through and through with the stabbing of her gold-mounted monocle, injuring the victim not a whit.

Miles took upon himself the task of outlining the facts of Crump’s disappearance; the jovial giant took occasion more than once during the recital to slip in a ponderous wink unobserved by Mrs. Crump, as if to say that he, the wise one, could reveal privately a great deal appertaining to the mystery. Boylan listened with his round head cocked on one side in his characteristic, bird-like posture of alert receptivity.

“You say your husband took no baggage with him, Mrs. Crump—sent none away from the house in advance of his disappearance?” the detective asked when he had all of Miles’ facts.

“Not even his bedroom slippers,” the lady answered definitively, “and that shows he wasn’t planning to be away from home, for without his bedroom slippers he’s helpless as a turtle on its back.”

“Helpless?” Boylan echoed.

“Positively! T. Stacey won’t get out of a strange bed without slipping his feet into bedroom slippers so as not to pick up germs off an unknown carpet.” Again the illuminating wink from Miles, semaphored from behind Mrs. Crump’s shoulder.

“I supposie—um—Mr. Crump left his business affairs in proper shape?” Boylan hazarded.

“So far as they affect me, yes,” said the lady, with a significant tightening of the lips. “I know nothing about his business except the regular payment of my income.”

Boylan seemed lost in thought for a minute or more, then put a question with a shading of deference in his voice:

“Mr. Crump—has he any hobbies, any peculiarities of thought or conduct that might bear on this case?” Mrs. Crump bridled at the instant.

“Peculiarities? I should say as much! For one, he hasn’t kissed me in twelve years, and I’d call that a peculiarity. He’s afraid I’d poison him with some germ. He won’t sit down in a chair a caller has used until it’s dusted and fumigated. He makes the second maid wash Titbits—that’s my Persian—once a day in B. O. And every servant in the house must wear rubber gloves except in their sleep.”

When she had taken her leave, Miles rejoined Boylan, his face all broken into humorous wrinkles.

“Germs in the germea!” he boomed. “That’s what’s the matter with friend Crump, and it seems to have sort o’ struck in on his lady’s wifely affection, as it were. But, seriously, Crump is the shrewdest trader south of Maiden Lane and balanced like a top except on this one subject of the little wigglers in the air and water and food. You don’t suppose little wigglers have anything to do with his disappearance?”

“Not unless—— By the way, does this Crump talk to anybody about his dread of germs? Would he be likely to fall in the way of some faker who’d scare him to death for money?”

“Tries his best to conceal his bug from his associates,” Miles assured. “Eats alone at the Café Mazarin, so’s nobody’ll see him toast his table tools in the chafing-dish flame. Won’t drink at a bar because he refuses to swallow anything that’s had ice in it or near it. That’s how he dodges publicity on the nut stuff.”

“Looks to me as if we’d find T. Stacey Crump dangling somewhere on the tail feathers of a large he-bacillus just the same,” Boylan mused. “You’ll hear from me-—when there’s something to hear.”

He went from Miles’ office to Crump’s, in the Assurance Building. Patience was with Roger Boylan no more a virtue than breathing; it was obvious. Late that night he came upon the first clew to the disappearance of T. Stacey Crump. That was after he had sat for five hours, going over a bale of waste paper, the collections of all the wastebaskets of the Assurance Building for a week; dusty incandescents in the vaults of the sub-sub basement gave his only light. The clew was an engraved card, bearing this legend:

CHEV. GASPARD DETOURNELLES,
VISCOUNT ALLAIRE,

Institut Bacteriologique.


Directeur. Paris.


Boylan read the card twice over, and a cherubic smile creased the dust streaks on his face.

“On the tail feathers of a bacillus,” he whispered; “a regular bad bacillus.”


IV.

T. Stacey Crump eased his two hundred and fifty pounds of superlatively vital bone and sinew between sheets, and offered his plump, pink arm to the ministrations of Doctor Flack. The latter was swathed in his cowled gaberdine; from the shadow about his face his inscrutable eyes appeared to glow with a light all their own. Behind him hovered Detournelles and Nan Madden, the pretty nurse, both similarly garbed in grave cerements. The woman held a metal tray, from which came the limpid glow of lights on some liquid in a glass receiver and the sharp sheen of metal instruments. Flack turned to the tray, dipped gauze in the liquid, and thoroughly sponged a surface of several square inches on Crump’s arm. Then he straightened up, lifted a silver-and-glass hypodermic needle from the tray, and, holding it up to the cluster of incandescents in the ceiling, observed it with a critical, professional air.

“M’sieu is quite sure he wishes to proceed with the inoculation?" These were the first words spoken in almost ten minutes of quiet; they were given with the gravity of a death sentence.

“Sure; but don’t make such a funeral of it, doc,” Crump answered, with forced levity. Nevertheless, one corner of his mouth sagged under a sharp tug of fear, and his eyes roved from shrouded face' to shrouded face.

Flack lifted from the tray a test tube, stoppled with a dab of cotton, removed the woolly plug, and inserted the hypodermic needle in the thick yellow fluid, which half filled the glass tube. As he drew back the plunger Crump’s eyes followed the flow of the viscid stuff up into the glass barrel of the instrument. Almost before he was prepared for it, Flack had pinched a roll of flesh in Crump’s arm, and he felt the stab of a sharp point. He grunted.

“You now have in your veins something over three millions of active bacilli,” the Phantom was saying in a voice dry as the rustling of dead leaves. “In an hour—perhaps two—the phenomenon of symptoms makes itself to appear; a temperature rising, headache, perhaps unpleasant visions. But be undisturbed. That is as nothing. Above all things, M’sieu Crump, quiet—quiet! Do not rise from your bed. The touch of your bare feet on the floor—ah, that would be unfortunate!”

“But don’t I get a pair of bedroom slippers?" Crump whined.

“Decidedly not,” was the Phantom’s answer, and without another word the three sheeted figures passed out of the glass—paneled door. Crump was alone. He lay for a long time, his eyes on the three cold bulbs of light against the shining white ceiling. Every mental faculty was concentrated on a little burning spot on his left arm—the place where the needle had pricked.

His mind came back to the glazed walls of the room, roved over them incuriously. Now he was conscious of the presence of that engine—a lisping sigh and whisper, bubbling, bubbling interminably. By turning his head sharply he could see the thing over in a corner—the polished steel belly of its boiler and the prim tube rising over all to spout gray vapor. The smell of its disgorgings was abominable, even though germ fatal. Crump wondered if there was a chance of suffocation; where ventilation of the room was provided—he saw no openings in the walls and sealed windows.

By and by another sound slowly forced its way through the bubbling of the vapor engine with quiet insistence. He was several minutes identitying it; finally recognized it as a clock’s ticking.

How long since the injection of the Virus X? Was it an hour? No, it couldn’t be all of that. But——

Thereafter hardly five minutes passed without a painful sighting of the clock face by the patient. He counted the ticks—sixty to the minute, three hundred every five minutes. That would be three thousand six hundred in an hour. The doc had said that in an hour, or maybe two, something would begin to happen—fever, headache——

Crump counted his pulse, finger on wrist. He wished he remembered what was the normal pulse; knew once, but had forgotten. Seventy something, wasn’t it? Well, his was going strong at eighty-two. And wasn’t his forehead growing hot? It sure was—and clammy like the walls with the drops of moisture on them. Huh! Those three million germs were getting in their work.

Then came the headache. Just a dull sort of uncomfortable feeling at first, but growing into a pound-pound-pound, like steam riveters at work——

Downstairs, in the basement dining room of the house, Raoul Flack, the Phantom, was compounding a salad for the midnight meal. About the table were Detournelles, Henri, the diamond setter, and Nan Madden. The girl alone seemed to lack the zest of gayety that held the others to quip and laughter. Perhaps she was too recently come as a recruit for the Incomparables from the world of dubious probity that had been hers. The Phantom balanced a cruet of olive oil over a spoon, and let the thick, yellow liquor flow out.

“Behold, my children,” he chuckled, “the all-powerful Virus X, which we are about to take rashly into our stomachs and the effects of which our guest upstairs is now doubtless enjoying. Ah, my children, the psychology of suggestion is a most fascinating study! Had I used plain water, instead of olive oil, in the hypodermic the effect would have been the same: rise in temperature after one hour, headache—and visions. Yes, yes; when we have finished our little déjeuner we will have to arrange for the visions. They are most important.”


V.

Some time—Crump did not know when, nor care, for his headache was raging—the three bulbs of light on the ceiling flicked out. The room was sooty black; not a ray of light anywhere. In the dark the whisper of the sterilizing engine grew slowly to the roar of a freight train; that clock overhead was a pile driver, smashing on metal-capped timbers. But time ceased with the dying of the light; no longer could he screw his head around and trace the jump of the minute hand from station to station. The throbbing in his brain came to be synchronized with the hammering of the clock—bang—bang—bang, sixty times to the minute, three hundred in five minutes.

Maybe his brain had become a clock!

If he could only shut off that infernal engine and save himself from strangling in its fumes! Supposing something should go wrong with it and it should race? Then the breath would be shut out of him slowly—slowly. Why didn’t they have a bell rigged up by the bed so he could summon that little cockroach of a doctor? In the name of all reason why hadn’t they left him a pair of bedroom slippers so he could step to the door—if he could find it in the dark—and yell for somebody to come? By George, he’d go bare-footed. Wasn’t the floor sufficiently sterilized?

Crump had the covers off and one foot halfway to the floor when he noted a slow change in the sooty composition of the dark. It grew imperceptibly lighter there in the middle of the floor, between the cot and where he thought the door was—grew lighter, but whence came the dissolving of the dark the man in bed could not tell. He could only say that there was a growing patch of light on the floor and a corresponding one, equally strong, on the ceiling above. Now it was light as a star, now had almost the strength of the moon. The patient noted that this was a cloudy, smoky sort of light, as if it were alive within itself. He sat up in bed, the better to see this curious thing.

A cry like a tortured animal’s leaped from his lips. It bespoke the very abasement of fear. He fell back, but was dragged up, elbow to pillow, again by the hypnotism of horror.

The light was alive—alive with writhing, spinning bacilli!

That floor, to which he had nearly set his bared feet, was become a veritable serpent’s nest of loathsome, yeasty things. And the ceiling above crawled with them. All vague and dim of outline they were, but endowed with prodigious life.

Blind blobs of jelly squirmed and twisted through the pale medium of light. Single, sausage—shaped things darted hither and thither by the propulsion of two finlike hairs streaming from their balloon bodies. Circular disks, with horrid darker cores for eyes, revolved about one another in a mad, senseless convulsion. Bodies severed themselves and became two sentient things, each following a different course, in the winking of an eye.

Years of ghastly existence passed, broken, to be sure, by the most casual sanity. Figures in white came and stood by his bed, ministered to him, gave him food. They laughed off his stuttered tales of the dance of the bacilli—said it was the fever that brought these horrors. In one lucid moment he was propped up in bed and a pen put in his hand. Dazedly he signed his name where directed. He signed “T. Stacey Crump” to a certified check for fifty thousand dollars. Then he was left alone—utterly alone in an echoing house.


Methodical as the rounds of clock hands, and as sure, was Roger Boylan’s pursuit of the trail opened by the discovery of that bit of pasteboard in the waste bins of the Assurance Building. First he visited a physician, and from him gleaned information concerning that particular phobia-rare enough in medical jurisprudence—which drives its victims to the elaborate precautions that were Crump’s. The doctor gave the detective a list of the supply houses in the Greater City which furnish laboratory equipment and the paraphernalia of scientific study in the field of bacteriology. A round of these establishments was fruitless. None had sold orders to one answering the description of Detournelles, well enough known to the detective through his former meetings with the master crook. A chance word spoken offhand by one of the dealers sent Boylan to Philadelphia.

There, on the third day of his chase, he found a firm that had sold to Detournelles a bill of hospital equipment—sterilizing engines, rubberoid flooring, steel chairs, et cetera. The goods had been billed direct to an address on West Ninety—third Street, New York. Also the purchaser had taken away with him a most extraordinary cinema film, showing various animalculæ microscopically enlarged.

Edgerton Miles, following a telegram received from Boylan late that afternoon, was waiting the detective’s arrival at the Pennsylvania Station at eight o’clock that night. With him was a Doctor Throop, the Crump family physician. This provision was also on Boylan’s orders.

“A taxi!” was Boylan’s command when they had met outside the train gate. “It may be a question of minutes to save a man’s reason.” No more could Miles draw from the chubby little man in the dark beside him during all the mad ride up to the residence section off the park. When they alighted before a dark house and encountered a locked front door, Boylan stood not on the order of his progress, but pried open the door with a short-handled jimmy.

Then the groping through deserted hallways, up a black stairway, and in the direction of a strange, moaning chatter. Boylan’s pocket flash showed the round button of an electric connection by the side of a door, half paneled in glass. He switched the button. Lights flashed in the room beyond the glass.

“You go in alone, doctor,” Boylan whispered, with a catch in his breath; he had seen the figure stretched on the cot there, its starting eyes. “We’ll be in the room below this if you need any help.”

Then he led the stupefied Miles downstairs and into a bare room directly underneath the one from which smothered animal cries were sounding. The incandescents, switched into brilliancy, revealed the devilish enginery of the chamber.

In the middle of the room a cinema projector stood straddling on its tripod, a strip of black film still in place before the dead lamp, and its lens tilted sharply upward. Both men followed with their eyes the direction of the pointing barrel. They saw, flush with the plaster of the ceiling, a plate of glass three feet wide and running half the full length of the floor above. Through its vitreous under surface the observers could see the dull frosting of the plate exposed in the room above—a surface which would catch and hold, as a screen, the figures thrown upward through the lens.

“This is a deadly weapon,” Boylan gritted, his round face suddenly flushed with passion. “With it our friend, the Phantom, and his pack of devils attempted murder—the murder of a man’s reason. I suppose they’ve got away with his money. All we’ve done is to save his life—and, I hope, his mind.”

Later, when an ambulance came from St. Luke’s, and, almost at the same time, Mrs. Crump, in her limousine, Doctor Throop hurried to Boylan’s side in the hallway below.

“Take that woman away!” he commanded in a whisper. “She must not see.”

“What’ll I tell her?" Boylan urged.

“Tell her what’s true, praise God! Say he’ll live and possess his reason, but that the way back will be long—long.”



This series began in the November 7th POPULAR.

The next story in this series—entitled “The Black Angora Rabbit”—will appear in the New Year POPULAR, on sale January 7th.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1942, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.