Black Star's Campaign/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X

A DOUBLE CRIME

AT a quarter of twelve that night, a man walked rapidly through the alley behind the First National Bank. He knocked on the basement door of the building adjoining. The door was opened by a watchman.

"Everything's all right," the watchman reported.

"Did you attend to that other fellow?"

"He'll sleep for a couple of hours yet."

"Fine work. You are to disappear after this, of course. Go to the hiding place arranged for you, and you will be sent ample funds. You are not to attempt to leave the city until you get orders to do so. Understand?"

"Sure. I know my business, all right."

"You'd better! The boss is going to be mighty strict during this campaign of his. The man who makes a mistake or disobeys orders won't last very long. Where are the robes?"

The watchman opened a box, took out a robe, and handed it over. The other man put it on quickly, affixed the mask, and started toward a door that opened into the basement of the bank building adjoining. At the door, he turned again.

"Let the others in, and tell them that they are to hurry," he told the watchman. "They'll give the usual signal, of course. Hand them their masks and gowns."

He opened the door and hurried into the other basement, went up a flight of steps, unlocked another door, and was on the first floor of the bank.

Down in the basement, the watchman admitted other men who arrived two minutes apart, until twelve in all were in the building, and gave them robes and masks. They hurried into the other basement and up the stairs, and took up their positions.

Some guarded the stairways that led to the second floor. Others were scattered around the first floor, watching the doors and windows. Two hurried into the vault room.

The shades had been drawn at all the windows, and were fastened securely at the sides and bottoms so that no light could be seen from the outside. An electric torch was flashed on the door of the vault, and held there, and one of the men began working on the lock with tools taken from beneath his robe.

"It's a cinch!" he whispered. "The more intricate they are, the easier it is to open them. I didn't work once in a safe factory for nothing!"

Save for the rasping of tools against steel and the heavy breathing of the man who worked, there was silence in the vault room and in the rest of the building. Presently there came a sharp click, the workman gasped his satisfaction and stood up. The big door was pulled open.

Both men hurried inside the vault. They began stuffing packages of bills into canvas bags which had been in the box with the robes.

"That's all!" one of them whispered to the other. "The boss said for us not to bother with securities or any of the small stuff. We'll go!"

"We'd better, or they'll be on us in another minute," the other man replied nervously. "When you opened that door you sent in an alarm."

"And it went to a protective agency where the man on night duty is one of us," the other replied, chuckling. "He'll have to give out the alarm, of course, but by the time he gives it out, we'll be far away. What time is it now?"

"Twelve thirty."

"Just right! Send the signal to the others. The lieutenant is standing by the window at the end of the hall."

A hiss escaped the man's lips, and was carried and echoed through the building. The men gathered in the corridor, the lieutenant made sure all of them were there, and then they descended into the basement, and passed from it to the one adjoining.

"Signal for the autos," the watchman was ordered. "Then make your own get-away. And be sure you remember all that you've been told. Obey orders!"

The watchman stepped into the dark alley, and flashed an electric torch five times. A chauffeur at the mouth of the alley counted the flashes, and honked his horn. A procession of four automobiles started through the alley.

They did not stop, but merely slowed down, and into each machine sprang the men who had been assigned seats there. The automobiles continued through the alley and turned into the next street, where the chauffeurs put on speed.

There were few persons in that particular section of the city at the time, but those who were on the street saw the automobiles filled with robed and masked men. They knew what that meant—that the Black Star's band was working in the vicinity. Their terror kept them dumb until the automobiles had disappeared, and then they gave the alarm. They knew that there was but one thing in that section that would attract the master crook—and that was the vault of the old First National. The alarm went to police headquarters.

A few blocks down the street, the automobiles scattered, and one by one made their way to dark parts of the town, where the men in them took off their robes and masks, and, one by one, left the machines and darted away.

The band was scattered fifteen minutes after the vault had been looted, and one machine, a closed one, was running out along the river road toward the resort. The chauffeur drove in a leisurely manner, and the car attracted no undue attention.

At the end of the lane running to the old farmhouse, where it was pitch dark, the door of the closed car was opened, and a man sprang out. The automobile went on along the river road. The man who had jumped from it carried two canvas bags stuffed with currency. He was Landers, the Black Star's trusted lieutenant.

Landers hurried along the lane, entered the grove about the house, and took a telephone from its hiding place behind a clump of brush. He called the house, and the servant who remained on guard at the headquarters answered.

Landers gave a password, then put the telephone away and sprang to his feet. He came to the wire fence that ran around the house, but he did not touch it. He knew that it was charged with a deadly current. A light flashed in a window, and Landers opened the gate and went on to the house. He disappeared inside. His work for the night was done, except that he had to turn in the swag.

But the Black Star and his band were not done for the night. The men who had left the automobiles and scattered, immediately made their way to the National Trust Company's building, and lost themselves in the throng of people there. They bumped elbows with policemen and deputies and detectives, and grinned when they recognized one another in the crowd.

They were in time to hear the alarm given, and to see policemen spring into automobiles and hurry away. They saw Muggs drive through the crowd, and Roger Verbeck spring into the roadster and start for the First National Bank. Word flashed through the crowd that the master rogue's band was looting the First National, and the crowd melted away like snow beneath a blazing sun, hurrying toward the scene of the robbery.

One by one, and cautiously, the Black Star's men entered the alley behind the National Trust Company's building. Here, too, a basement door was opened for them by a watchman. Once more they put on masks and gowns from a supply that was in readiness, and posted their guards in the building. Once more two selected men hurried into the vault room.

They began their work on the door of the vault; and suddenly the Black Star himself appeared before them, his face masked, the flaming star of jet on the hood of his robe.

"Make it as quick as possible!" he ordered. "We don't want to be here too long. Did things go all right at the other place? Was the get-away good?"

"Everything went off as planned, sir," one of the men reported. "The work was done to the minute, and the get-away was as you had ordered, sir."

"Disguise your voice when you speak to me, you fool!" the Black Star said. "And hurry with that vault! We can't spend all night getting inside that box!"

The rasping of tools against steel, the heavy breathing of the workman told that the man was doing his best to hurry. But the vault of the National Trust Company was a complicated affair, and it was a quarter of an hour before the door finally was swung open.

"Lively, now!" the Black Star commanded. "Those bags of gold are what we want—and all we want here at this time. Get them to the rear door as soon as possible, and signal for the autos. All you men get busy!"

The masked and robed members of the band carried the heavy bags from the vault, hurried through the corridor with them, went down the stairs, and to the basement door.

The Black Star watched the work. When it was completed, he walked across the room to the nearest telephone, took down the receiver, and gave the number of police headquarters.

"Is the chief there?" he asked.

"He's here, but he's busy. What do you want with him? Who is this?" the desk sergeant demanded.

"I think he'll talk to me, all right. This is the Black Star talking."

There was an exclamation at the other end of the wire, and presently the chief spoke.

"Hello! This is the chief!"

"This is the Black Star! Did my new searchlight puzzle you a bit to-night, chief? When you know the secret you'll be more startled than puzzled. Did you wonder where my voice came from, and how I happened to be in the air just over you? Maybe you got the idea that I was putting on a ventriloquist's act."

"We'll get you, you fiend!" the chief cried angrily into the transmitter.

"Why, chief, how violent you sound! I am afraid you are working yourself into a passion."

"You got away with it this time, but you'll not do it again. And you had to lie to do it this time!"

"Indeed? How is that?"

"You used to boast of what you were going to do, and dare us to catch you at it, and you always told the truth in those days. You must be losing your nerve. You said, you crook, that you were going to rob the National Trust—and then you went after the First National."

"Oh, that was just a little job on the side!" the Black Star said. "I told you no falsehood, chief. I said that I would rob the National Trust, and that is exactly what I have done. I am speaking from the vault room of the National Trust this very minute. I have just removed several bags of gold coins!"

"What's that?" the chief cried.

"I am leaving a letter here in the vault room for you, chief, and have just mailed another to a certain newspaper. You'd better come right over here and get your letter, chief. And thanks so much for rushing all your silly policemen over to the First National when you got the alarm, so they would not bother my men here. It was very thoughtful of you!"

The Black Star laughed, and put up the receiver. He laid the letter addressed to the chief in the middle of the table, and pasted little black stars around the room on the marble. He ran to a rear window and saw three automobiles passing through the alley. In them were his men, he knew, and also the gold coin taken from the supposedly impregnable vault of the National Trust.

The Black Star laughed again, went to the stairs, and began mounting them, flight by flight, stopping now and then to laugh at a bound and gagged watchman. Presently he reached the roof by means of a trap door. He closed the door again, and fastened it securely. Then he took an electric torch from his pocket, and flashed a signal toward the sky.

He removed his robe, rolled it up, put it beneath his arm. He picked up his heavy ulster from the roof, where he had left it before descending into the bank, and put it on.

Once more he pointed the electric torch upward and flashed a signal. Then he touched match to cigarette, walked to the edge of the building, and glanced over.

He heard the sirens of police automobiles in the distance. He saw the machines stop and policemen spring from them. He watched as they gained entrance to the building, saw a crowd gathering in the street below. The Black Star chuckled again, took a vapor bomb from the pocket of his ulster, and hurled it at the street. It struck, exploded, and a cloud of white, pungent vapor drifted across the pavement. Shrieks and cries of alarm reached his ears. He saw one policeman stagger and fall, overcome by the gas.

The Black Star, still chuckling, walked back to the middle of the roof. He flashed another signal, and then returned the torch to his pocket.

He laughed again—and waited!