Only Monk noticed that; only Monk saw gangster after gangster suddenly leave the floor, to apparently float noiselessly back and out of sight.
The hairy chemist's breath came out in a faint sigh. His eyes lived again.
The killer had seen Gordon's faint signal. A sardonic grin crossed his face. The funnel turned full upon the bulky racketeer.
"Stalemate," he rasped flatly. "You can blast me, surely, but you'll die if you do!"
Gordon's face was indecisive. Then his resolution tightened. The machine gun was held steady in his hand.
A shriek came from Virginia Jettmore. The skeleton killer's eyes almost started from his head.
Standing in the doorway, directly behind Greens Gordon and Gats, was a tall, glowing skeleton!
Chapter XX. FINIS TO A KILLER.
DOC SAVAGE had solved the principle of the skeleton death almost at once. There could be only one explanation.
The human body is almost ninety per cent water. The only weapon of death possible that could transform a man into a skeleton in the s.p.a.ce of a second had to be some strong dehydrater that sucked all the water from the body.
The bronze man had tested his theory when the skeleton killer had appeared at his headquarters in New York. Besides dropping the invisible shield, he had turned on overhead sprinklers. This had created so much moisture that the deadly weapon had been unable to do more damage.
But knowing that sooner or later he would come face to face with the killer, Doc had worked on his yacht and prepared a mixture to cover all the pores of his body, to so completely plate his skin that the weapon would be harmless.
When he had appeared before the killer in the grove, he had been covered with this paste.
The paste had worked-except that the pull of the death machine had been so strong that the blood had been drawn to his head so rapidly, Doc had been dizzy for an instant.
In that instant the gas bomb had fallen from his hand; he had been overcome.Now the man of bronze stood behind Greens Gordon, hands reaching out.
The skeleton killer gave an unearthly scream. His weapon came up.
Greens Gordon and Gats had no way of knowing that an unearthly appearing figure stood behind them.
The machine gun in Gordon's hand roared. Gats fired savagely.
The skeleton killer buckled. A surprised expression came over his face.
Doc jumped back, and just in time. He tried to carry Gordon with him. The racketeer had leaned forward. He escaped the grasp of Doc's strong fingers-and became a skeleton!
There was a steady hissing.
Monk called out in alarm. His warning came too late. Doc was already out of harm's way. The others were past caring.
Where Gordon had been standing there was now only a heap of bones, bones that seemed to stand in the air for a moment before falling. A smaller skeleton was by his side, a skinny skeleton that even in death seemed to be trying to clutch a deadly automatic in bony fingers.
"Doc!" Ham and Monk spoke as one.
The peculiar-appearing skeleton walked into the room.
As he came fully into the light the skeleton seemed to disappear.
Ham grinned delightedly. "Phosphorus, by golly!" he roared.
"It fooled that killer there!" Monk chuckled, Jettmore at first looked bewildered, then smiled. Events had been occurring almost too fast for him. Virginia's eyes never left the smiling face of Doc Savage.
"Phosphorus is right," the bronze man agreed. "I painted a skeleton on myself. As long as I had a bright light, the flashlight turned on me, it didn't show, but when the flashlight went out I expect it did look as though I'd fallen a victim."
"But-but who is the villain?" Jettmore gasped uncertainly.
Doc smiled, walked toward the crumpled heap of the skeleton killer.
"HE was a master of make-up, for one thing," Doc said. He took a rag, wiped the bronze from the face of the fallen man. His fingers worked swiftly; gradually the features of the skeleton killer changed.
"Spotfield!" cried Jettmore.
"Exactly," said Doc."But-but he was killed in your office!" exclaimed Virginia Jettmore. Ham and Monk echoed her statement.
"You mean you thought he was killed," Doc corrected softly. "Probably some other member of Gordon's gang had to pay with his life for that deception. Then he placed his own ring on the victim's hand, escaped by another door and donned a different disguise."
"But-I trusted him," stammered Jettmore.
"How long had he been with you?" Doc asked quietly.
The bronze man nodded. "That is about right. Shortly over five years ago one of the most notorious killers and criminals, a former actor, disappeared. He had made the mistake of committing murder in England. He was believed to have perished when fire destroyed a plane he was piloting.
"Evidently he did not. He fled here, the last place any one would ever think of looking for him. When he learned you had made a valuable discovery, but would not tell him, he persuaded you to send him to the United States. Through his former connections he contacted Gordon, arranged for Gordon's support."
Ham nodded. It all fitted in.
"Why did he kill Pennfield?" Jettmore demanded suddenly.
Doc pointed to one hand of the fallen man-the hand that had worn the ring.
"I was not here, but it seems probable that Pennfield noticed that faint band of white on the one finger-the finger where Spotfield always wore a ring. He became suspicious and Spotfield killed him."
"Why didn't you blast him down out there in the palm grove?" Virginia asked. She had regained her color now; fear had dropped from her.
Doc smiled slightly, shook his head. He seldom explained his peculiar code, his set policy of never taking human life with his own hands. Nor did he make a habit of mentioning an interesting fact-that his enemies had a way of coming to untimely ends in traps of their own setting.
"Spotfield helped you some with your plant experiments?" Doc asked.
Jettmore nodded. "How did you know?"
"THAT explains the death machine. He undoubtedly studied plants intensely and noticed the peculiar species that draws water from other plants near it. His machine was built on that principle, only greatly intensified, and with electrical impulses taking the place of natural phenomena."
Doc opened Spotfield's shirt. Row upon row of small hose was about the man's body, the reservoir for the water drawn when the skeleton death was put into effect."You have nothing more to fear, Mr. Jettmore," Doc said. "I would suggest you transplant your entire colony to the United States. You will find the great American desert there with conditions almost similar to those here. Raise rubberkak and you will win the praise and admiration of your countrymen. Your secret is almost priceless."
"I'll do it, suh!" Jettmore promised fervently.
Virginia Jettmore glanced at the bronze man and saw something in his gold-flecked eyes that told her Doc was never for her.
Womanlike, she turned to Monk and dazzled him with a beautiful smile.
There was a moment of awkward silence. Chemistry broke it. He did a strange thing.
Long arms dangling, looking more like Monk than ever before, he lumbered forward, planted himself in front of Virginia Jettmore and gazed up at her with adoring eyes.
Ham's face grew red; he choked, then broke into peals of laughter as he glimpsed Monk's blushing face.
"Why don't you speak for yourself, John Alden?" he roared.