The Floating Island of Madness
By Jason Kirby
Far above the Arabian Desert three Secret Service men find an aerial island whose inhabitants are—madmen.
Above us curved the pale, hot bowl of cloudless sky; below us stretched the rolling, tawny wastes of the great Arabian Desert; and away to the east, close to the dipping horizon, scudded the tiny speck we were following. We had been following it since dawn and it was now close to sunset. Where was it leading us? Should we go on or turn back? How much longer would our gas and oil hold out? And just where were we? I turned and saw my questions reflected in the eyes of my companions, Paul Foulet of the French Sureté and Douglas Brice of Scotland Yard.
"Too fast!" shouted Brice above the roar of our motors. I nodded. His gesture explained his meaning. The plane ahead had suddenly taken on a terrific, unbelievable speed. All day it had traveled normally, maintaining, but not increasing, the distance between us. But in the last fifteen minutes it had leaped into space. Fifteen minutes before it had been two miles in the lead; now it was barely visible. A tiny, vanishing speck. What could account for this burst of superhuman speed? Who was in that plane? What was in that plane?
I glanced at Foulet. He shrugged non-committally, waving a courteous hand toward Brice. I understood; I agreed with him. This was Brice's party, and the decision was up to him. Foulet and I just happened to be along; it was partly design and partly coincidence.
Two days before I had been in Constantinople. I was disheartened and utterly disgusted. All the way from the home office of the United States Secret Service in Washington I had trailed my man, only to lose him. On steamships, by railway, airplane and motor we had traveled—always with my quarry just one tantalizing jump ahead of me—and in Constantinople I had lost him. And it was a ruse a child should have seen through. I could have beaten my head against a wall.
And then, suddenly, I had run into Foulet. Not ten days before I had talked to him in his office in Paris. I had told him a little of my errand, for I was working on the hunch that this man I was after concerned not only the United States, but France and the Continent as well. And what Foulet told me served only to strengthen my conviction. So, meeting him in Constantinople was a thin ray of light in my disgusted darkness. At least I could explode to a kindred spirit.
"Lost your man!" was his greeting. And it wasn't a question; it was a statement.
"How did you know?" I growled. My humiliation was too fresh to stand kidding.
"Constantinople," said Foulet amiably. "You always lose them in Constantinople. I've lost three here."
"Three?" I said, "Like mine!"
"Exactly," he nodded. Then he lowered his voice. "Come to my hotel. We can talk there."
"Now," he continued fifteen minutes later as we settled ourselves in his room, "you were very circumspect in Paris. You told me little—just a hint here and there. But it was enough. You—the United States—have joined our ranks—"
"I mean that for a year we, the various secret service organizations of the Continent—and that includes, of course, Scotland Yard—have been after—Well, to be frank, we don't know what we're after. But we do know this. There is a power—there is someone, somewhere, who is trying to conquer the world."
A white speck took shape beneath the rising Island.
"Are you serious?" I glanced at him but the tight lines of his set mouth convinced me. "I beg your pardon," I murmured. "Go ahead."
"I don't blame you for thinking it was a jest," he said imperturbably, "But, to prove I know what I'm talking about, let me tell you what this man has done whom you have been pursuing. He has done one of two things. Either he has proved himself a dangerous revolutionary or he has engineered the failure of a bank or chain of banks—"
"We can't prove it," I interrupted.
"No," said Foulet, "Neither can we. Neither can Scotland Yard—or the secret services of Belgium or Germany or Italy or Spain. But there you are—"
"You mean that in all these countries—?"
"I mean that for a year—probably longer—these countries have been and are being steadily, and systematically, undermined. The morale of the people is being weakened; their faith in their government is being betrayed—and someone is behind it. Someone who can think faster and plan more carefully than we—someone whose agents we always lose in Constantinople! I'll wager you lost your man from a roof-top."
I nodded, my disgust at my own stupidity returning in full force. "There was a lower roof and a maze of crisscross alleys," I muttered. "He got away."
"Was there an airplane anywhere around?" asked Foulet.
I glanced at him in surprise. What good would an airplane have been on a roof-top ten feet wide by twelve feet long? Then I remembered. "There was an airplane," I said, "but it was a long way off, and I could scarcely see it; but the air was very still and I heard the motor."
Foulet nodded, "And if you had had a pair of glasses," he said gently, "You would have seen that the airplane had a glider attached to it. There is always an airplane—and a glider—when we lose our men from the roofs of Constantinople."
"But that must be coincidence!" I insisted. "Why, I was on that roof right on the fellow's heels—and the airplane was at least five miles away!"
Foulet shrugged, "Coincidence—possibly," he said, "but it is our only clue."
"Of course," I murmured thoughtfully, "you have never been able to follow—"
Foulet smiled, "Can you imagine where that airplane would be by the time we climbed down off our roofs and got to a flying field and started in pursuit?"
We descended for dinner. Foulet's story had restored my self-confidence somewhat—but I was still sore. Of course Foulet connecting my vanishing man with that disappearing airplane was absurd—but where had the man gone? Was my supposition that he had jumped to a lower roof, climbed a wall and run through the maze of alleyways in half a minute in any way less absurd?
We were halfway through dinner when Brice appeared. Brice was one of the best men in Scotland Yard and I had known him many years. So, evidently, had Foulet, for his eyes flickered faintly with pleased surprise at the sight of him. Brice came directly to our table. He was bursting with victorious joy. I could feel it somehow, although his face, carefully schooled to betray no emotion, was placid and casual.
All through the remainder of the meal I could feel the vibrations of his excitement. But it was only at the very end that he confided anything—and his confidence only served to make the excitement and sense of impending thrill greater.
Just as he was rising to leave he shoved a tiny strip of paper across the table to me with a sidelong glance at Foulet. "Another roof-top," I read scrawled in pencil. "If you like, meet me at the flying field before dawn." If I liked! I shoved the paper across to Foulet who read it and carelessly twisted it into a spill to light his cigar. But his hand shook ever so slightly.
Needless to say we went to the flying field shortly after midnight. Bruce was there, pacing up and down restlessly. Near him was a huge tri-motored biplane, its motor humming in readiness.
"I've put a man on the trail in my place," Brice told us briefly. "Somebody else is going to lose the scent on a roof-top—and I'm going to watch."