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THE LONELY SHACK stood in the chill night gloom, its windows faint squares of light. Thin mist, driven by a wind which shook the dark branches of surrounding heavy trees, swirled coldly about the small, solitary building. Within it, under the glare of a single naked ceiling bulb, two men stood with their backs to the bolted oak door. They were watching a third man who crouched across the room before the gleaming dials of a small but full equipped short-wave radio apparatus.
His hands--slender, nervous hands--were turning the dials with swift, jerky motions. The back of his hatless head was a shiny black knob, plastered-down hair glistening like patent leather in the light. His slender, crouched body swayed as he worked, graceful except for its slight jerkiness. His flashy top-coat trailed on the boarded floor.
Harsh, raucous static coughed abruptly from a loudspeaker, rising and diminishing as the man turned the dials.
"What's the matter, Slick? Can'tcha get it?" came the coarse, deep voice of one of the two, a huge, barrel-chested hulk of a man who seemed almost to fill the cramped little shack. His fedora hat seemed pygmy-sized over his wide, swart face with its small, glinting eyes, flattened nose, and wide gash of mouth.
He took a step forward as he spoke, moving with a loping, almost simian gait, one arm swinging at his side, the other nestled with snug ease around a blue steel Thompson submachine gun.
"Me," he snarled, "I'm gettin' tired of waitin' around here like this."
The authoritative command came in a harsh, jerky staccato from theman at the radio. He turned from the set. The light fell on his face--olive skinned, its darkly handsome features marred by a livid, zigzag scar which ran across his left cheek from chin to ear.
"I'll get it any minute now if you keep quiet."
He turned to the third man who was standing immobile as a statue, a faint wisp of smoke from the cigarette in his lips alone giving him semblance of movement. Tall, lean, he had an angular face with pale, expressionless eyes.
"Luke!" he snapped. "You sure you tipped off the others?"
Without moving the man Luke answered: "They'll be around on the dot, Slick."
The patent-leather hair of the man called Slick showed again as once more he bent to the dials. The static continued, grating in the silent shack.
Then, suddenly, Slick's crouching figure tensed as through the cloud of that static a voice began to materialize.
Slick turned the dials more. The static diminished, the voice grew in volume and clarity. A crisp, incisive voice speaking rapidly, with clear enunciation.
"--Plane Number One from Chicago, calling Newark Airport--Pat Bentley, pilot, speaking--Plane Number One--"
Out of the night, out of the dark ether, came that call. And as the three men in the shack listened with tense interest, there was a swift answering voice.
"Newark Airport. Go ahead, Bentley."
"We're still over the Pennsylvania, nearing Balesville. Visibility getting bad up here at fifteen thousand. Been keeping altitude to cross the Alleghenies and to get best speed, but clouds are too thick. Don't worry, though. We're smack on the radio beam. Ought to make Newark in another hour."
Slick rose to his feet. His dark eyes glinted, and there was a crooked, evil smile on his lips as he looked at his two companions.
"Newark in another hour, eh?" he chortled. "That's what he thinks!"
"Number One going off," said the voice in the loudspeaker. "I'm taking the controls again. Stand by."
Slick glanced at his wrist-watch. His slender body had gone tense again.
"We've got to be all set, guys! Luke--you keep your ears on that radio. Ape, you just keep that mug of yours closed."