“Shoot if you dare,” said Shiwan Khan. “But first, ask your woman about the contents of this vial.”
The Shadow’s eyes and gun hand did not waver. Some of Hung Fat’s men had made their way down already. “Stand fast,” he told them.
Margo Lane said, “He told me that he’s got a disease culture that could wipe out the entire continent. That could be it in his hand.”
“He bluffs,” snapped one of the gangsters.
“I have never known Shiwan Khan to bluff,” the Shadow replied.
The Asian mastermind smiled. “My conditions are simple. Let me leave unharmed, or I will release the plague. If I am allowed escape, I will send you word, Shadow, of where I may be found. But you and you alone will be allowed to come.”
The one hood who had called Khan a bluffer tightened his finger on the trigger of his gun. Before he could shoot, the Shadow moved his arm and shot him in the bicep. The hood cried out, dropped his gun, and grabbed his wounded arm.
Hung Fat went to his man and tore the sleeve from the shirt of a fallen enemy to wrap up his wound. “Be glad,” said the gangboss. “He could just as easily have put it through the heart. I would have shot you in the head.”
“Speak, Shadow,” said Shiwan Khan. “I have little to lose. I am already dying.”
“I should like to accelerate the process,” said the Shadow.
“You will have your chance,” Khan confirmed. “But not in this charnel house. I would have our last battle on a more suitable stage.”
Harry Vincent, wet with sweat and other people’s blood, said, “Give me five minutes alone with him, Boss. Then you won’t need any last battle.”
“He’d tear you apart, Harry,” said Cliff Marsland. “Pipe down.”
The Shadow kept his eyes locked with Shiwan Khan for another long moment. Then he said, “Go.”
The mastermind smiled viciously. “We understand each other, Ying Ko. But then again, we always did.”
Shiwan Khan stepped through the press of men, not seeming perturbed in any way. Before he got to the stairs, Hung Fat said, “Let me precede you. My men might shoot you on sight.”
“It is considerate of you to provide escort,” said Shiwan Khan. “Lead the way.”
The Shadow, Margo, Harry, Cliff, and Hung Fat’s soldiers watched the two ascend the staircase, leaving red footprints. A few seconds after they were out of sight, Harry Vincent punched the wall. “Dammit,” he said. “Dammit!”
“Control yourself, Harry,” said the Shadow. “We have regained Margo. Shiwan Khan is flushed from hiding and has lost most of his men.”
“But he’s getting away!”
“Only for the moment,” the Shadow answered. “We shall meet again soon.”
Vincent turned away and swore under his breath. The Shadow officially ignored it. There was work to be done. The bodies had to be disposed of somehow. Hung Fat would see to that. As Lamont Cranston, he would have to speak with Margo. As the Shadow, he would have to pay a visit to an old ally.
Whether that ally liked it or not.
Then he would have to plan for the next engagement with Shiwan Khan. Plan, and wait.
Commissioner Weston was at least relieved when he heard that Margo Lane was safe. Lamont Cranston promised to consult with him shortly. But before that, he and Margo had to have a private talk, so they did.
In Cranston’s apartment, Margo Lane stretched out on the couch, her high heels off, and sighed in relaxation for the first time since leaving him and being abducted. “I knew you’d come,” she said. “You always do. But thank you for it.”
Lamont was wearing a smoking jacket, pants, and slippers. He looked tired. “Men died to save you, Margo. What do you think of that?”
She chose her words carefully. “I regret it very much. Even if they were killers, crooks...it doesn’t make me feel good.”
He sat in an easy chair and stared at her.
“I’ve been in hell for the past few days, worrying about me, worrying about the baby, and worrying about you,” said Margo. “And Shiwan Khan. I didn’t face any bullets, but it wasn’t easy.”
“It never is,” said Lamont. “We both know that.”
She sat up and looked straight at him. “I want to know about us, Lamont.”
“I want to know about Khan.”
“About US, Lamont!”
“Margo!” For all his mufti, Margo thought he looked very much like the Shadow at that moment. “The fate of everyone in this land is at stake. That overrides any concerns we may have with ourselves, or even our unborn child. Tell me.”
She looked at him sullenly.
“But about us, Margo, I’ve come to a decision,” he continued.
Warily, Margo Lane looked at him. “Yes?”
“If we conclude this case successfully, if the disease culture is not unleashed, and if Shiwan Khan is brought to bay...”
She thought the atomic bomb could have been dropped on Hiroshima in the time it took him to finish the sentence.
“...then I will marry you,” he said.
Margo Lane sighed in relief. “At least you might say it like you loved me, Lamont.”
“I thought you understood that.”
She shook her head. “When I met you, there was always a difference between you and the Shadow. I could count on you being a human. Now, I’m less and less sure.”
“Do you want me as a husband?”
“Always,” she said. “Always.”
“Then you will accept me?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, softly.
He put his hands behind his head and looked at the floor.
“Tell me about Shiwan Khan,” he said.
“So,” said Commissioner Weston. “I’ve got corpses enough to keep the coroner busy for a week. Signs that some stiffs may have been dragged away before we got there. Bullets and bullet holes enough to make it look like the Battle of the Wilderness. Miss Lane. Lamont. Tell me what in hell happened.”
“I was captured by Shiwan Khan,” said Margo. “There was a war between him and members of a Tong, I guess. The Tong people let me go after the fight.”
“Did you ever find out why he wanted you in the first place?” asked Weston.
She shook her head. “He thought I was involved with the Shadow. At least that’s what he said.”
“Did you find out what he was planning?”
“Not entirely. I suppose it was something horrible.”
Weston cracked his knuckles. “Couldn’t exactly have been a church social, what with the number of bodies he left behind.”
Cranston tried to look impassive, but he held Margo’s hand as she affected a shiver. “I never want to see that sort of thing again. Never.”
“What about Dr. Roy Tam? How did he figure into it?” said Weston.
“I don’t know,” said Margo.
“And the Shadow wasn’t involved in this?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see him,” Margo replied.
Weston moved closer to Margo. “Miss Lane, are you aware there are criminal penalties for giving misleading information to the police?”
She nodded. “Yes, Commissioner. But I’m telling the truth.”
“Believe her, Commissioner,” said Cranston. “I’ll vouch for any statement she makes.”
The official made a face. “That’s really going to help. We’ve got so many dead Chinese thugs that the post office walls in Chinatown are going to be half-bare. I don’t have lead one yet. What Miss Lane has given me doesn’t amount to enough to help.”
“I’m sorry,” said Margo. “I’ve given you all that I can.”
“All right. You can go, both of you. But if I find that you’ve been holding out on me, even the fact that we’re friends isn’t going to be enough. Is that clear?”
“Eminently clear, Commissioner,” said Lamont. “Thank you for all your efforts.”
“Get out of here,” said Weston, waving them to the door.
Lamont and Margo left the office. Weston looked after them, waited for about five minutes, and then called in Joe Cardona. “What’ve you got?” asked the chief.
“Not enough,” said Cardona.
The look on Weston’s face told Cardona he’d better give him more.
“I managed to keep him in sight all the way to Chinatown,” Cardona explained. “Then out of the clear blue, this Chink woman stumbles right in front of me and I damn near fall over her. She tries to help me up and we both fall down again. I’m tryin’ to get loose and she comes up with me and starts apologizin’ all over the place in pidgin, says she’s FOB and doesn’t know her way around, and we’re attractin’ a crowd, and, hell...I tried to get loose from her, but...”
“But you were a gentleman,” grumbled Weston.
“But she was a leech. By the time I shook her off, Cranston was gone. I spent all the rest of the day there, most of the night, too, looking up and down for him. Nowhere. Gone.”
The commissioner massaged the back of his neck. “Why doesn’t that surprise me, Joe? Why the hell doesn’t anything surprise me on this case anymore? Never mind. There’s better things to use you on. Go back to your desk.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Weston glared at Cardona. The tough cop made a strategic withdrawal.
If Burbank had an existence outside the four walls of his office, none of the Shadow’s other agents knew of it. Presumably he slept sometime. Possibly he was an agoraphobe. All anyone knew is that anytime they put in a call to his number, he personally answered the phone. Every time.
More than that, only the Shadow knew.
“Summon all the agents,” said the Shadow to Burbank, over the phone. “We meet at 8:00 tonight at the Cobalt Club. No absence will be permitted. That is all.”
The loyal communicator began dialing the numbers as soon as his chief hung up.
The network of agents began filtering into the Club around 6:30. Some of them had not been seen in the group for quite some time. More than one of them looked ill-at-ease in the formal clothes they had to wear to get admittance. But when they were escorted into the back room reserved by Lamont Cranston, all of them recognized each other as a band of brothers and sisters.
Rutledge Mann was there, a financier and investment expert whom the Shadow had once saved from suicide after his business failed. He had been provided by the master with a new business and a new life, and in turn gave him his loyalty, his access into the moneyed circles he needed, and became his direct communicator to the various agents as needed. He sat with the others and seemed not at all out of place in the Cobalt Club.
Hawkeye was beside him. A denizen of the underworld and a frequent partner of Cliff Marsland, he was one of the Shadow’s most trusted men. Frequently he had provided information or more than that to tip the scales against their opponents. Cliff had greeted him with a hug, and Harry shook his hand.
Dr. Rupert Sayre was another new arrival. The Shadow had saved his life in times past. In turn, he had saved a wounded Shadow, and became one of the few to know both the face under his muffler and the Shadow’s origin. Now, he was the master’s personal physician as well as an agent. He fit in, but he was somewhat uneasy.
Niles Crofton even managed to make it. He was one of the Shadow’s seldom-used agents, a pilot whom the dark avenger had rescued from a criminal setup and who went on to serve him when needed. He had his hat in his lap and sat quietly, watching the others.
Then there was Myra Reldon, a trusted agent and a mistress of disguise. She was adept at making herself appear to be Asian, and had often served the Shadow in Chinatown intrigues. Most recently, she had served by stepping into the path of Joe Cardona.
The most imposing was Jericho Druke. He was a large and powerful black man whose life had been saved by the Shadow and, subsequently, lent his strength to the master’s endeavors when needed. He was a great asset to the band, and had proven his worth and ability time and again. If the management of the Cobalt Club had any inkling of that, perhaps they might have allowed him to enter through the front door.
Completing the set were Margo Lane, Harry Vincent, Cliff Marsland, Clyde Burke, Moe Shrevnitz, and Dr. Roy Tam. The lot of them sat around a pair of tables pushed together, with a space at the end reserved for the master. He had not yet come, which was not surprising.
“What time is it gettin’ to be, Harry?” asked Cliff.
Vincent looked at his watch. “2 of. Don’t worry, he’ll be on time.”
Dr. Sayre turned to Margo. “How are you coming along, my dear? Still bearing up?”
She smiled. “I’m doing fine, thank you. How are you?”
“I’m all right,” he said. “But I’d think a woman in your condition would be exempt from—“
“My condition!” Margo looked at him with astonishment. “I never said anything about it. How did you know? What is this, Doctor?”
Sayre cocked his head a bit. “My dear, believe me. The Shadow isn’t the only one who knows.”
Before Margo could frame a reply, the lights went out.
They came back up only a bit, and the occupants of the room saw that the place at the head of the table was no longer empty.
“Welcome, one and all,” said the Shadow. “Our time is indeed running short. Shiwan Khan is still loose, still in possession of a virus culture that could lay waste to America—perhaps to the world. From this moment until the resolution, your lives are not your own. Agreed?”
There was silence throughout the room, as he knew there would be.
“We must not fail, and we shall not,” the Shadow went on. “Either Khan or I will fall, or perhaps both of us. But his plan must be shattered. Even if all of us go down in battle, we must triumph. It will require the greatest effort of all of you. But I well know of what you are capable. That is why you are my agents. My trusted agents.
“And yes...my allies.”
Margo almost caught her breath at that. The Shadow had never been so open with his subordinates before. Was he becoming... No. This was the Shadow. Whatever Lamont Cranston might be, he was not the Master of Darkness.
“These are your assignments,” he continued. “Obey them implicitly. The fate of a country and a world is in our hands tonight. Shiwan Khan is dying, and fears no retribution should he loose his germs of death. We must make certain that the only one Death draws his circle around is Khan himself. Now listen, and listen well.”
In as few words as possible, the Shadow told each member of the team what his or her place would be in the operation. When he was done, his gleaming eyes looked out upon the lot of them in the red light of his Girasol ring.
“I must leave you now,” he said. “I will contact you when necessary. That is all.”
The lights went low again and came up an instant later. The Shadow was nowhere to be seen.
“I hate it when he does that,” said Harry Vincent.
“Not as much as me, Harry,” murmured Margo Lane. “Not nearly as much as me.”
No one was supposed to be able to get up to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building without permission of the man who lived there. That permission was given to his aides, his cousin, and those whose cases he deigned to hear. Anybody else, in theory and in practice, was detected and ejected long before he got to the sanctum sanctorum.
Without turning around from his glass maze of retorts, tubes, and chemicals, the large man said, “Stay where you are.”
A resonant voice said, “It has been awhile, has it not, Clark Savage?”
The man of bronze turned his head and peered into the gloom at the back of his laboratory. He could pick out the figure who lurked there. For most men, it would have been impossible. He was not most men.
“What do you want?”
“Aid of sorts,” said the Shadow, not moving forward. “This time, your expertise in medicine and chemistry.”
“Explain,” said Savage.
“An enemy of mine is at large,” the Shadow said. “Shiwan Khan. You know of him?”
“I’ve heard his name.”
“Then you know of what he is capable. This time, his weapon is a vial of disease germs. I am assured that, once loosed, it will wipe out the population of North America, at the least.”
There was silence for a second. “And you want me to help find him?”
“No, Clark Savage. I want you to be able to concoct an antidote to this culture of death.”
“That would be impossible unless I knew exactly what it was.”
“I know that,” said the Shadow. “I hope to bring it to you, intact. Once in your hands, it will be up to you to deal with it.”
“I understand,” Savage said. “But you need more than a lab hand in this sort of thing.”
“With all due respect, if I am unable to resolve this, the two of us would do no better.”
Clark Savage bent his head a bit. “You have my aid, in whatever capacity you ask.”
“I am grateful, Clark Savage. Is it true you have given up your life of adventure?”
Savage almost smiled. “All life is an adventure. I’ve just taken time to seek it in a different manner. When will I hear from you?”
“When you must,” said the Shadow. “Farewell.”
The Shadow was gone.
A trilling noise filled the air. Clark Savage brought the lights up and found no trace of his visitor.
There was nothing else to do at present except get back to his experiment.
Shiwan Khan hardly regretted the fact that he had to kill the Society underlings that had attempted to trace him after his leaving the asylum. He just regretted the fact that it had cost him time and effort. He had little to waste of either, now, and his supply of the former was growing criminally short.
But the final battle between himself and the Shadow had to be framed precisely. True, the vial could be dropped practically anywhere. The destruction of the Shadow, though, must be performed with care, art, and audacity. Nothing less would be courteous to such a foe.
It was fitting. The two greatest men of the age, ending the age together, with themselves. Only one would die a few minutes before the other. That, in a way, was regrettable. Both of them could, theoretically, see the end of one era of Man and the dawning of whatever came next, in their final moments. That would be comradeship.
None but the Shadow would be fit to see it with him.
However, if they both saw it together, how would Fate recognize a clear winner?
Regrettably, the Shadow must die first, and then the world.
Shiwan Khan picked up a telephone and dialed a number.
“Burbank,” said the voice on the other end.
“This is Shiwan Khan,” he said. “I have a message for the Shadow.”