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Title: Doors of the Night
Author: Packard, Frank L. (Frank Lucius), 1877-1942
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Doors of the Night" ***

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                           DOORS OF THE NIGHT

                          BY FRANK L. PACKARD

                               AUTHOR OF
            “Pawned,” “The Night Operator,” “The Adventures
                of Jimmie Dale,” “The Wire Devils,” etc.

                           A. L. BURT COMPANY
                         Publishers — New York

         Published by arrangement with George H. Doran Company
                          Printed in U. S. A.



                            COPYRIGHT, 1922,
                       BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY

                PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA



CONTENTS


  · I—ACROSS THE THRESHOLD

  · II—THE CRIME

  · III—INTO THE UNDERWORLD

  · IV—ALIAS THE RAT

  · V—THE SECOND-HAND DEALER

  · VI—A MIDNIGHT VISITOR

  · VII—WHISPERING SHADOWS

  · VIII—A LEASH IS SLIPPED

  · IX—BEHIND THE DOOR

  · X—THE PIECES OF A PUZZLE

  · XI—THE BACK ROOM AT JERRY’S

  · XII—A CLUE

  · XIII—THE CIPHER MESSAGE

  · XIV—THE ROBBERY

  · XV—THE ALIBI

  · XVI—TWENTY-FOUR HOURS LATER

  · XVII—THE MAN WITH THE CRUTCH

  · XVIII—MIRRORED YEARS

  · XIX—A HOLE IN THE WALL

  · XX—THE CAT’S-PAW

  · XXI—WITHOUT MERCY

  · XXII—THE FIGHT

  · XXIII—THE RENDEZVOUS

  · XXIV—AGAINST TIME

  · XXV—THE OLD WAREHOUSE

  · XXVI—THE LAST PORTAL



                           DOORS OF THE NIGHT



I—ACROSS THE THRESHOLD


Billy Kane paused for an instant in the doorway of the room before him,
as his dark, steady eyes travelled over the appointments in a sort of
measured approval such as a connoisseur who knew his art might bestow
upon a canvas in which he found no flaw. The apartment was quite in
keeping with everything else that pertained to the palatial residence in
that upper Fifth Avenue section of New York. The indirect lighting fell
soft and mellow upon the priceless Oriental rug, the massive desk of
dark, carved wood, the wide, inviting leather-upholstered chairs, the
heavy portières that filled the window spaces and hung before the doors,
the bookshelves that lined the walls almost ceiling high and that were
of the same dark, polished wood as the desk and chairs. There was luxury
here, and wealth; but it was luxury without ostentation, and wealth that
typified only good taste and refinement.

He closed the door behind him, and began to pace slowly up and down the
room. And now he frowned a little. He had dined alone with his employer
as usual, for Mrs. Ellsworth being an invalid was rarely in evidence,
and David Ellsworth usually so genial an old gentleman, had not been
entirely himself. From the pocket of his dinner jacket Billy Kane took
out his cigarette case, selected a cigarette, and lighted it. Mr.
Ellsworth had lingered in the dining room, and had said that he would
come presently to the library—that there was a little matter he wished
to attend to. There was nothing strange in that, for they often worked
together here in this room in the evenings, and yet Billy Kane’s puzzled
frown deepened. There was something certainly amiss with the old
multi-millionaire tonight, and that anything should disturb the old
philanthropist’s tranquillity, except when his sympathies had been
aroused and the man’s heart, that was softer than a woman’s, had been
touched by some pathetic appeal, was decidedly strange.

Billy Kane continued his pacing up and down the room in long, athletic
strides, the great, broad shoulders squared back as his hands were
thrust into the pockets of his jacket. It was far more than a feeling of
respect or mere liking that he held for his employer, for there had come
esteem for the old gentleman’s sterling qualities, and with the esteem a
sincere affection, and out of it all, very curiously, a sort of
fathering, or protecting interest for this man of millions.

The frown passed away, and Billy Kane smiled a little whimsically at the
somewhat quaint conceit. Fathering! Nevertheless, it was true! There was
scarcely an hour of the day that some appeal for charity, ranging from a
few cents to many thousands of dollars, was not made upon David
Ellsworth—too many of them spurious, and it was his, Billy Kane’s,
self-appointed task to stand between his employer and these fraudulent
attempts. All the world, at least all the world within reach, seemed to
be thoroughly conversant with the old gentleman’s ask-no-questions
liberality—and to lose no opportunity in taking advantage of that
knowledge! For instance, though here he was forced to the belief that it
was genuinely worthy, there was the case of the deformed beggar, one
Antonio Laverto, who, during the last week, had taken up his station on
the corner a block away from the house. The beggar had already secured
the old gentleman’s attention, and also a dollar or two every time David
Ellsworth passed; in return for which David Ellsworth had become
possessed of a very pitiful life history, and also possessed of a desire
to set the man squarely on his feet again.

Billy Kane paused abruptly in his stride, as his eyes rested on the
portières that hung before one of the two doorways at the lower end of
the room. Behind that door, which was one of wood matching the other
doors of the room, was a door of solid steel, and behind the steel door
was one of the strongest vaults in the city of New York, and in the
vault, besides the magnificent collection of rubies that nestled in
their plush-lined trays, a collection that, while but a hobby, had yet
made their owner even more famous and widely known than had his
millions, were thousands of dollars—_the money kept there for the sole
purpose of being given away_! Eccentricity? Well, perhaps—but if so, it
was a very fine eccentricity, the eccentricity of one of God’s own
noblemen.

One of God’s own noblemen! Yes, he had good reason to call David
Ellsworth that! Billy Kane’s strong face softened. As a boy is
acquainted with his father’s companions, he had been acquainted with
David Ellsworth for many years, it was true; but he had never known the
other for his real worth until the last three months, during which time
he had been the retired magnate’s confidential secretary. His father had
been an old friend of David Ellsworth; and a little more than three
months ago his father had died, just as he, Billy Kane, had graduated
from Harvard. His father’s estate, supposedly large, had turned out to
amount to comparatively nothing; the net residue of the estate, which
had just been wound up, being represented by the sum now at his credit
in the bank, a matter of something less than five thousand dollars.
Apart from that, there was nothing. His mother had been dead many years;
and, with no ties to hamper him, he had been casting around for some
opening where he could utilize his university degree in arts to the best
advantage, when he had received the offer from David Ellsworth to act as
the latter’s confidential secretary. He had accepted at once, and since
then he had led a rather singular existence.

Billy Kane tamped out his cigarette on the edge of an ash receiver, and
stood leaning with his back against the desk, facing the hall door. Yes,
it was a very singular existence! His new home was veritably a palace,
with servants at every beck and call. His work was not onerous; and his
salary was over-generous. He, in turn, had a private secretary, or at
least a most capable stenographer, who, having been long in David
Ellsworth’s employ, took care of the daily routine; and it was mostly
routine as far as business went, for the millionaire had long since
retired from any active participation in the various interests through
which he had acquired his fortune. But the work, that is the bulk of it,
had now taken on quite a different angle, due to his, Billy Kane’s own
initiative, than had been thought of when he had accepted the position.
He had not been there a week before he had realized that the old
philanthropist was being victimized right and left by fraudulent appeals
for money. It had been sufficient simply to excite David Ellsworth’s
sympathy in order to open the ever-ready purse. David Ellsworth had
inquired no further. He, Billy Kane, but not without protest from the
old gentleman, to whom the loss of the money was nothing, but to whom
the uncovering of some pitiful fraud was a cause of genuine distress,
had instituted a new régime, and had undertaken to investigate every
case on its merits.

The whimsical smile came back to his lips. Born and brought up in the
city, he had imagined that he knew his New York; but the last three
months had opened his eyes to a new world around him—the world of the
Bad Lands, with its own language, its own customs and its own haunts. He
knew his New York a great deal better now! Those three months had
brought him into intimate touch with the dens and dives, and many of the
habitués of the underworld, since it was amongst those surroundings that
his investigations had mainly led him. He had even been in the heart of
that sordid world no later than that afternoon.

Behind his back, Billy Kane’s fingers were drumming a meditative tattoo
upon the desk. His train of thought had brought him back to the crippled
Italian beggar, Antonio Laverto. The man was a pitiful looking object
enough—one of those mendicants commonly designated in the vernacular as
a “flopper.” His legs were twisted under him in contorted angles at the
knees, and his means of locomotion consisted in lifting himself up on
the palms of his hands and swaying himself painfully along a foot or so
at a time. Laverto’s story, told in halting and broken English, was
equally pitiful. The man had been a photographer, an artist he had
called himself, and he had come to America a few years before from some
little town in Italy, lured by the high prices that he had heard the
rich New World would pay him for his work. But within a few days of
landing he had met with an accident in a tenement fire that had crippled
and maimed him for life. He had been practically destitute, his sole
possessions being the camera and a few of the cherished photographs he
had brought with him. The camera had gone to pay for his support during
convalescence; and subsequently, reduced to beggary, most of his
pictures had gone the same way.

That, in substance, was the Italian’s story. Billy Kane shook his head
impatiently. The man bothered him. He had been frankly skeptical and
wholly suspicious at first; but investigation had only confirmed the
man’s story. Certainly, an Italian by that name, newly arrived in the
country, had been badly hurt and crippled in a tenement fire a few years
ago, and had been treated in one of the city hospitals. That much, at
least, he had discovered! Also, no more than a few hours ago, he had
gone to Laverto’s home and found the man existing in a small, miserable
room on the East Side, and surrounded by every evidence of squalor and
abject poverty; and the man, he was obliged to confess, had got his
sympathy too. There were two exquisite little photographs, landscapes,
real gems of art, wrapped up in fold after fold of newspaper. Laverto
had shown them to him, and had told his story again, begging him to buy
one of the pictures—and when he had produced the money the cripple had
drawn his treasures back, and had clutched them to his breast, and had
cried over them, and finally had refused to sell at all.

Billy Kane’s fingers continued to drum on the desk. David Ellsworth
would undoubtedly want to know about Laverto to-night—and the man
bothered him. He had no grounds for further suspicion, fairness
compelled him to the admission that the man’s story seemed true; and
yet, based on nothing more tangible than intuition, there still lingered
a doubt about the whole matter in his mind.

Billy Kane straightened up from the desk. Jackson, one of the footmen,
had opened the door from the hall, and David Ellsworth, an immaculate
little gray-haired old gentleman, in evening clothes, stepped into the
library.

The footman closed the door silently.

David Ellsworth wore glasses. He took them off, polished them with
nervous energy while his blue eyes swept around the room, fixed on Billy
Kane’s face, and swept around the room again. He cleared his throat once
or twice before he spoke.

“I’ve kept you waiting, Billy,” he said abruptly. “You must have noticed
that I had finished dinner at the same time as yourself; but I have been
very much disturbed and perplexed all day, and I have been trying to
solve a problem before saying anything to you.”

“I hope there’s nothing seriously wrong, sir,” Billy Kane answered
quickly. “May I ask what——”

“Yes,” said David Ellsworth, a sort of curious reluctance in his voice.
He took a letter from his pocket, and handed it to Billy Kane. “It’s
this.”

Billy Kane opened the letter—and, staring at the type-written words on
the sheet in his hand, suddenly an angry red tinged his cheeks and
mounted to his temples. His eyes mechanically travelled over the lines
again:

    Like father like son may be an old adage, but like a good many
    old adages its face value is not always to be relied upon. It
    might pay you to keep an eye on your confidential secretary—and
    on the contents of your vault.


                                                           A Friend.


Billy Kane laid the letter down upon the desk without a word—but his
lips were tight.

“You understand, Billy,” said the old millionaire eagerly, “that the
only reason why I did not show this to you immediately when I received
it this morning was because I wanted, if possible, to formulate a
definite conclusion as to the motive that prompted the writing of the
contemptible thing. You understand, my boy, don’t you? I could talk to
you then about it without hurting you. As for the actual letter itself,
there is, of course, but one answer, and that is—this!”

David Ellsworth reached out for the letter—but Billy Kane had already
picked it up.

“You were going to tear it up, sir,” he said deliberately. “I’d rather
you wouldn’t. There may be a chance some day of showing this to the cur
who wrote it—and I wouldn’t like to lose that chance.”

“Then keep it, by all means!” agreed David Ellsworth. He nodded his head
in vigorous assent, as Billy Kane restored the letter to its envelope,
and placed the letter in the pocket of his dinner jacket. “So much for
that! But what do you make of it, Billy?”

“It’s object is obvious enough,” Billy Kane replied savagely. “Somebody
appears to have it in for me.”

David Ellsworth was polishing his glasses again.

“You’ve told me that I was the most guileless man you ever knew, Billy,”
he said, shaking his head slowly; “and perhaps I am, and then again
perhaps I’m not—and perhaps it isn’t always because I’m guileless that I
close my eyes to many things. But I guess, after all, that I can peer as
far through a stone wall as the next man. I’ve had to do some pretty
stiff peering in the days gone by to get the few millions together that
I’ve got now. I mention this, Billy, so that you may not confuse my
idiosyncrasies with—well, whatever you like to call it. Those dollars,
my boy, didn’t just drop into my hands—they were _thought_ there. And so
you think that letter means someone has it in for you? Think a little
deeper, Billy.”

“I don’t quite follow you,” said Billy Kane, in a puzzled way.

“And yet it is quite simple—although I’ve spent a day over it!” returned
the old millionaire, with a wry smile. “I have known you from a child.
Nothing has ever occurred to shake my confidence in you. The person who
wrote that letter was obviously acquainted with my past friendship for
your father and my long knowledge of yourself, and, with nothing to back
it up, he would be a madman indeed who would expect a scurrilous missive
such as that to have any weight with me. Am I right—or wrong, Billy?”

“Well; yes, sir—I suppose you’re right,” Billy Kane answered.

“I am sure I am,” declared the old gentleman decisively. “Quite sure of
it! But suppose, Billy, that to-morrow, or at any time _subsequent_ to
my having received that letter, something _did_ occur here—what then?”

The old millionaire’s face was grave. Billy Kane leaned sharply forward.

“What do you mean?” he questioned in a startled tone.

“Sit down there at the desk, Billy, and I’ll tell you,” said David
Ellsworth; and then, as Billy Kane obeyed, he stepped swiftly across the
room, opened the hall door, looked out, closed the door softly again,
and from there walked to one of the two doors at the lower end of the
room, opened this, looked into the room beyond, and closed it again.

Billy Kane watched the other in frank amazement. The door that David
Ellsworth had just opened was the door of the “office”—the room that
during working hours, which were from ten to five, was occupied by the
stenographer. True, the room opened on the back hallway and had a
separate entrance from the courtyard in the rear, an entrance always
used by the stenographer, but it was always locked by Peters, the
butler, at night, and he, Billy Kane, had the only other key.

David Ellsworth returned, and halted before Billy Kane’s chair.

“No, I am not in my second childhood, Billy,” he said quietly. “That
letter was certainly not written without a purpose; and yet from every
angle that I have been able to view it, except one, it would have been
exactly that—without purpose. I believe it is the first step in a
carefully laid plan that will divert, or fix, suspicion upon you.”

Billy Kane shook his head in perplexity.

“A plan?” he repeated. “I don’t understand.”

David Ellsworth’s only reply was to jerk his head significantly toward
the other of the two doors at the end of the room.

Mechanically Billy Kane followed the direction of the gesture with his
eyes; and then he was on his feet, his face suddenly grim and set.

“My God!” he murmured under his breath. “You mean——”

“Yes,” said David Ellsworth evenly. “Why not? I couldn’t tell you myself
exactly how much those stones in there are worth, but they are ranked as
one of the most valuable single collections of rubies in existence, and
certainly the figures would run somewhere between two and three hundred
thousand dollars. Besides, there’s always a little cash there—you know
better than I do precisely how much at the present moment.”

“Fourteen thousand five hundred odd,” Billy Kane answered automatically.

“Quite so!” nodded the old millionaire. “Well, it’s worth it, isn’t it,
Billy? I’ve never been afraid of any ordinary cracksman’s attempt
against that vault; but, if I am right now, this wouldn’t be any
ordinary attempt. I believe we are dealing with—_brains_. I believe,
further, that instead of you and I being the only ones who know the
combinations, as we have imagined, they are known to someone else.
Suppose, then, that the vault is found empty some morning? I immediately
recall to mind that letter. I remember that you are the only one to whom
I have confided the combinations. And suppose that some additional clue
pointing to you is left on the scene of the robbery? It would look
pretty black for you, Billy, would it not? Naturally the stolen stones
and money would not be found in your possession; but the plain, logical
supposition would be that, not being a fool, and believing that you were
above suspicion, you had secreted the proceeds of the robbery, and were
pursuing what you considered the safest course—that is, to brazen it out
and indignantly proclaim your innocence. The object of all this, of
course, being immunity for the real authors of the crime, for if you
were accused and convicted it is obvious that the police would look no
further and consider the case closed.”

Billy Kane did not reply for a moment. He had been startled at first,
but now he was conscious rather of a slight sense of inward amusement.
The old millionaire’s deductions were, of course, plausible and
possible; but, also, they appeared to be a little labored, a little
far-fetched, a little visionary. Apart from being based on a premise
that entailed somewhat elaborate preparations, there was one very weak
point in the old gentleman’s argument. The combinations being known only
to the two of them, David Ellsworth had failed to explain how, or where
the combinations had been obtained by a third party; and Billy Kane was
even more than ever confirmed in his mind that there was a very much
simpler, and a very much more creditable motive for that letter—spite.
Through his efforts there was more than one none too reputable a
character who otherwise would have partaken liberally of the old
philanthropist’s bounty; and that was probably the secret of the letter.
That the day’s cogitations of David Ellsworth had resulted in the
discovery of a mare’s nest was the way it struck Billy Kane now; but if
the old gentleman found satisfaction in his deductions, he, Billy Kane,
was of no mind to dispute them. There was nothing to be gained by it,
and on occasions he had known even David Ellsworth to grow stubborn and
most unpleasantly irascible.

“You may be right, sir,” Billy Kane said deliberately.

David Ellsworth’s two hands fell on Billy Kane’s shoulders, and pressed
him back into his chair again.

“So you think I may be right, do you?” There was a twinkle in the blue
eyes. “Tut, tut! You can’t fool the old man, Billy, my boy! What you
really think is that I’ve got a brain storm. But”—his voice grew
suddenly grave and agitated—“I _know_ I’m right, Billy—I _feel_ it. I’m
as sure now, as though it had already happened. But we’ll beat them, my
boy! Take your pen, and a blank card—there are some in the top drawer
there. Being forewarned, all that’s necessary is to change the
combinations. And I guess that will be an answer to their letter that
they didn’t expect!”

David Ellsworth was already across the room. Billy Kane took a small
blank card from the drawer of the desk, picked up a pen, and, without
comment, turned in his chair to watch the other. After all, little as he
shared the old millionaire’s alarm, the changing of the vault’s
combination was a precaution well worth while under any circumstances.
If it even became a habit, so much the better!

The portières were swung back now, the innocent looking door that
matched the others in the room was opened, and the nickel-plated knobs
and dials of the massive steel inner door glistened in the light. Came a
faint musical tinkle, as the dial whirred under David Ellsworth’s
fingers; then, presently, a soft metallic thud, as the old millionaire
swung the handle over and the bolts shot back. The heavy door moved
slightly inward, there was the click of an electric-light switch, the
vault was flooded with light, and from where he sat Billy Kane could see
into the interior. It was as large as a small sized room, and built of
the finest steel throughout. Steel shelves piled with document cases
lined the vault, and at the far end was a huge safe of the most modern
and perfected design. Billy Kane smiled a little to himself. In one
thing, at least, that David Ellsworth had said, the old millionaire had
indubitably been justified. The vault was as impregnable as human
ingenuity and skill could make it, and there was very little indeed to
be feared from any ordinary attempt upon it.

A few minutes passed while David Ellsworth worked with the key used for
changing the combination and with the mechanism on the inner side of the
door, and then he began to call out a series of numbers. Billy Kane
jotted them down on the card.

“We’ll test it now—call them back,” said David Ellsworth; and then, as
Billy Kane obeyed: “All right, Billy. Now we’ll do the same thing with
the safe.”

He moved down to the end of the vault, spent a moment or two over the
safe’s dial; and, as this door in turn was swung open, Billy Kane caught
a glimpse of the tiers of plush-lined trays that held the famous ruby
collection, and of the score of packages of banknotes that lay neatly
piled in the compartments inside the safe.

Again David Ellsworth called out a series of numbers, and as before
tested the new combination; and then, from beside the open door of the
safe, he spoke abruptly:

“Before I lock up again, Billy, what about our friend Laverto? You went
down there this afternoon, I believe?”

“Yes,” Billy Kane answered—and frowned. “But there’s no hurry about it,
is there? I’m bound to confess that his story seems to be straight
enough, and that I can’t find anything wrong, but——”

David Ellsworth chuckled suddenly, as he reached inside the safe and
took out a package of banknotes.

“You’ve been laughing at me up your sleeve for fussing around with those
combinations, my boy—I know you have. But you’re the old woman of the
two, Billy. If you couldn’t find anything wrong, I guess everything is
all right. If it isn’t”—he chuckled again, as he closed and locked the
safe—“it would do my heart good to see someone put something over on
you!”

The light in the vault went out. The vault door was closed and locked,
the outer door shut, the portières drawn back into place, and David
Ellsworth, coming back across the room, dropped the package of banknotes
on the desk.

“Take ’em to him, Billy,” he smiled; “and take ’em to him now. He’ll
have twelve hours more joy out of life than if you waited until
to-morrow morning.” He picked up the card upon which Billy Kane had
written the combinations, and placed it in his pocket. “You’ve got a
better memory than I have, Billy,” he observed, “and I guess you’ve got
this down pat now; but I’m afraid I’ll have to study the memo over a few
times before I take a chance on destroying it.”

Billy Kane was paying little attention to the other’s words; he was
riffling the banknotes through his fingers—they were of all
denominations, from hundred-dollar bills down to fives. It was, in fact,
a package of loose bills that he remembered having counted that morning.

“Do you happen to know how much there is here, Mr. Ellsworth?” he
inquired abruptly.

“Not precisely”—David Ellsworth peered over the rims of his glasses at
the package—“but I should say around a couple of thousand dollars.
I—er—promised him that, if he turned out to be deserving, and I’d——”

“There are two thousand dollars here exactly,” said Billy Kane a little
curtly. “What I understood that you promised him was that you would
start him up in life again, but it doesn’t require two thousand dollars
to start a man of his type going as a photographer.”

“H’m! Don’t you think so, Billy?” David Ellsworth’s blue eyes were
twinkling, and he was drawling his words. “Well, let’s see! Now, first
of all, judging from the photographic landscape he showed me, the man’s
a real artist, and he ought to have the best of tools to work with. A
good lens is a rather expensive commodity. I’m not much up on
photographic apparatus, but I’ll bet you could pay as high as a thousand
dollars for one outfit. And then there’s all the paraphernalia, and a
little place to furnish, and a little something to keep things going
until returns come in. Two thousand dollars—shucks, my boy! Indeed as a
matter of fact, now that you call my attention to it and I come to think
it over, Billy, I’m not sure that two thousand dollars is——”

And then Billy Kane laughed, and picked up the money, and went to the
door.

“All right, sir, I’ll go—at once,” he said, laughing again.



II—THE CRIME


Upstairs in his room Billy Kane changed from his dinner clothes into a
dark tweed suit, a very less noticeable attire for that neighborhood
where Antonio Laverto had his miserable home, and choosing a slouch hat,
left the house. A bus took him down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square,
and from there, crossing over Broadway, he continued on down the Bowery.

It was still early; and it was as though the night world here had not
yet awakened from its day’s slumber. The “gape wagons” had not yet begun
to bring their slumming parties to rub shoulders with the flotsam and
jetsam of the underworld, and to shudder in pharisaical horror at
“planted” fakes; true, the ubiquitous gasoline lamps glowed in useless
yellow spots against the entirely adequate street lighting in front of
many shops of all descriptions, and the pavements were alive with men,
women and children of every conceivable nationality and station in life,
but—Billy Kane smiled a little grimly, for he had learned a great deal,
a very great deal in the last three months, about this section of his
city—it was still early, and it was not yet the Bowery of the night.

Some half dozen blocks along, Billy Kane turned into a cross street and
headed deeper into the East Side.

And now Billy Kane’s forehead drew together in puckered furrows, as he
approached the lodging of Antonio Laverto, the cripple. In the inside
pocket of his vest were two thousand dollars in cash, for the outlay of
which, in spite of the old millionaire’s attitude in reference to it,
he, Billy Kane, held himself morally responsible. The frown deepened. It
was strange, very strange! He had logically convinced himself that
Laverto’s was a worthy case—but the intuition that something was wrong
would not down, and the nearer he approached the miserable and squalid
dwelling in which the Italian lived, the stronger that intuition grew.

And then Billy Kane shrugged his shoulders. He could at least put the
case to one more test, and if Laverto came through that all right that
was the end of it, and the man got the money. Laverto would certainly
not anticipate another visit this evening, so soon after the one of the
afternoon; and if he could come unawares upon the man, and observe the
other unawares perhaps, the chances were decidedly in favor of Laverto
being caught napping if he were sailing under false colors.

Billy Kane, reaching his destination, paused in front of a tumble-down
and dilapidated frame house, and glanced around him. The little side
street here was dirty and ill-lighted, but populous enough. Small shops,
many of them basement shops with cavernous, cellar-like entrances
opening from the sidewalk, lined both sides of the street; for the rest,
it was simply a matter of two rows of flanking, dingy tenements and old
houses—save for the usual saloon, whose window lights were bright enough
on the corner ahead.

The house door was wide open, and Billy Kane, pulling his slouch hat
down over his eyes, stepped into the dark unlighted interior. The place
was a hive of poverty, a miserable lodging house of the cheapest class;
and the air was close, almost fetid, and redolent with the smell of
garlic. How many humans eked out an existence here Billy Kane did not
know; but, though he knew them to be woefully many, for he had seen a
great number of them on his visit here that afternoon, the only evidence
of occupancy now was the occasional petulant cry of a child from
somewhere in the darkness, and a constant murmuring hum of voices from
behind closed doors.

Antonio Laverto’s room was the second one on the right of the passage.
Billy Kane moved quietly forward to the door, and stood there in the
blackness for a moment listening. There was no sound from within; nor
was there any light seeping through the keyhole or the door panels,
which later, he remembered, were badly cracked. Satisfied that the
cripple, unless he were asleep, was not inside, Billy Kane tried the
door, and, finding it unlocked, opened it silently, and stepped into the
room.

He lighted a match, held it above his head, and glanced around him. It
was a pitiful abode, pitiful enough to excite anyone’s sympathy—as it
had his own that afternoon. There was a cot in one corner with a thin,
torn blanket for covering, a rickety chair, and an old deal table on
which stood a cracked pitcher and wash basin, and the remains of a small
loaf of bread.

The match went out, and Billy Kane retreated to the door, and from the
door, to the street again. It was pretty bad in there, and evidently
just as genuinely on the ragged edge of existence as it had been that
afternoon—but still the persistent doubt in his mind would not down. It
was a sort of dog in the manger feeling, and he did not like it, and it
irritated him—but it clung tenaciously.

He lighted a cigarette, and, frowning, flipped the match stub away from
him. In any case, he had to find the man before he went home, whether it
resulted in his paying over the two thousand dollars or not. His eye
caught the lighted window of the saloon, and he started abruptly forward
in that direction. If there was anything at all in his suspicions, the
saloon was the most likely place in the neighborhood where they would be
verified; but in any event, the barkeeper, who probably knew everyone in
the locality better than anyone else, could possibly supply at least a
suggestion as to where the Italian spent his evenings and might be
found.

Billy Kane chose the side entrance to the saloon—it would probably
afford him a preliminary inspection of the place without being observed
himself—and entered. He found himself in a passageway that was meagerly
lighted by a gas jet, and that turned sharply at right angles a few
steps ahead. He reached the turn in the passage, and halted suddenly, as
a voice, curiously muffled, reached him. The passage here ahead of him,
some four or five yards in length, was lighted by another gas jet, and
terminated in swinging doors leading to the barroom; but halfway down
its length, in a little recess, most thoughtfully situated for the
privacy and convenience of the saloon’s perhaps none too reputable
clientele, was a telephone booth.

Billy Kane drew back, and protected from view by the angle of the
passage while he could still see the telephone booth himself quite
plainly, stood motionless. The booth, like a good many others, was by no
means sound-proof, and the voice, though muffled seemed strangely
familiar to him. Billy Kane’s brows drew together sharply. Through the
glass panel of the upper portion of the booth he could see the figure of
a man of about his own height, and he could see, as the man stood a
little sideways with his lips to the transmitter, the man’s profile.

And then Billy Kane, with a grim smile, reached suddenly up to the gas
jet over his head and turned it out. This left him in darkness and made
no appreciable diminution in the lighting of the passage leading to the
barroom. The man who stood upright in the booth at full height, and who
was speaking most excellent English, was Antonio Laverto, the maimed and
broken cripple whose pitiful and heart-rending story had been so
laboriously told in the few halting and hardly understandable words at
his command!

And now, Billy Kane, listening, could make out snatches of what the man
was saying.

“... That’s none of your business, and I guess the less you know about
it the better for yourself.... What?... Yes, Marco’s—the second-hand
clothes dealer.... What?... Yes, sure—by the lane.... The back door’s
got a broken lock—it’s never been fixed since he moved in two weeks ago.
All you got to do is walk in. It’s a cinch.... Sure, that’s right—that’s
all you got to do. Marco don’t keep open in the evening and besides he’s
away, you don’t need to worry about that.... Eh?... No, there won’t be
no come-back.... You pull the break the way I tell you, and you get a
hundred dollars in the morning.... What?... All right then, but don’t
make any mistake. You got to be out of there before a quarter of eleven!
Get me? Before a quarter of eleven—that’s all I care, and that’s give
you all the time you want.... Eh?... Yes—sure.... Good-night.”

The grim smile was still on Billy Kane’s lips, as he crouched back
against the wall. The door of the telephone booth opened, and Laverto
stuck his head out furtively. The little black eyes, staring out of the
thin, swarthy face, glanced up and down the passageway, and then the
head seemed to shrink into the shoulders, the body to collapse, and,
with legs twisted and dragging under him, there came the _flop-flop_ of
the palms of the man’s hands on the bare wooden flooring, as he started
along the passageway.

But Billy Kane was already at the side door of the saloon—and an instant
later he had swung around the street corner, and was heading briskly
back in the direction of the Bowery. He laughed shortly, as his hand
automatically crept into his inside pocket. The two thousand dollars
were still there—and they would stay there! His intuition, after all,
had not been at fault. The man was a vicious and damnable fraud, and, as
a logical corollary to that fact, was moreover a dangerous and clever
criminal. What was this “break” that was to be “pulled” at Marco’s
before a quarter of eleven?

Quite mechanically Billy Kane looked at his watch. He and David
Ellsworth had dined early, and it was even now barely eight o’clock.
Billy Kane’s face hardened, as he walked along, reached the Bowery, and,
by the same route he had come, gained Washington Square, and swung onto
a Fifth Avenue bus. Why Marco’s? There was surely nothing worth while
there! Marco’s was little more than a rag shop. He happened to know
Marco, because on the corner next to the tumble-down place that, as
Laverto had said, Marco had rented a week or so ago, there was a small
notion shop kept by an old Irish widow by the name of Clancy, where,
more than once on his visits to the East Side, he had dropped in to buy
a paper or a package of cigarettes. Why Marco’s? It puzzled him. The old
white-bearded, stoop-shouldered dealer did not seem to have much that
was worth stealing!

The bus jolted on up the Avenue. Billy Kane shifted his position
uneasily on the somewhat uncomfortably hard seat on the top of the bus.
His first impulse had been to confront Laverto on the spot, but quick on
the heels of that impulse had come a better plan. With rope enough the
man would hang himself. If there was anything in this Marco affair, a
robbery as was indicated, Marco would obviously report it to the police
as soon as it was discovered, and he, Billy Kane, being in possession of
the evidence that would convict its author, would then be in a position
to put an end, for a good many years at least, to Laverto’s criminal
career; and besides this, there was David Ellsworth—he did not want to
wound or hurt the other’s finer sensibilities, but that David Ellsworth
should see Laverto for himself in the latter’s true colors was
essential, for it would and must make the old philanthropist in the
future less the victim of that over-generous and spontaneous sympathy
which was so easily excited by those who preyed upon him.

The thought of David Ellsworth brought back again the thought of David
Ellsworth’s anonymous letter. Billy Kane lighted a cigarette, and smoked
it savagely. It was someone of the same breed as Antonio Laverto, and
for the same reason that Laverto would soon have for revenge, who had
written that letter. He was quite sure of that in his own mind. What
else, indeed, could it be? Not David Ellsworth’s explanation! That was
entirely too chimerical! One by one he reviewed the cases where he had
uncovered fraudulent attempts upon the old millionaire’s charity during
the past three months; but, while more than one was concerned with
characters vicious, dissolute and criminal enough, not one seemed to
dovetail into the niche in which he sought to fit it.

A second cigarette followed the first, and his mind was still busy with
his problem, as he pressed the button at the side of his seat, clambered
down the circular iron ladder at the rear of the bus, stepped to the
sidewalk as the bus drew up to the curb, and stood waiting for the bus
to pass on—David Ellsworth’s residence was on the first corner down the
cross street on the other side of the Avenue. The bus creaked
protestingly into motion, and Billy Kane, in the act of stepping from
the curb to cross the Avenue, paused suddenly, instead, as a voice spoke
behind him.

“Begging your pardon, Mr. Kane, sir, may I speak to you for a moment?”

Billy Kane turned around abruptly. He stared at the other in surprise.
It was Jackson, the footman.

“Why yes, of course. But what on earth are you doing out here, Jackson?”
he demanded a little sharply.

“I was waiting for you, sir,” the man answered hurriedly. “I knew you’d
gone out, Mr. Kane; and I knew I couldn’t miss you here, sir, when you
came back, as you always come by the Avenue, sir. And, begging your
pardon again, sir, would you mind if we didn’t stand here? You wouldn’t
take offense, sir, if we went in by the garage driveway where we could
be alone for a minute, sir?”

Billy Kane eyed the man critically. Jackson, immaculate in his livery,
appeared to be quite himself; but Jackson at times had been known to
possess a greater fondness for a bottle than was good for him.

“What is it, Jackson?” he demanded still more sharply. “Did Mr.
Ellsworth send you here?”

“No, sir; he didn’t,” the man answered nervously. “But, if you please,
Mr. Kane, sir, that is, if you don’t mind, sir, I’d rather wait until——”

“Very well, Jackson!” Billy Kane interrupted curtly. “I suppose you have
a reason for your rather strange request. Come along, then, and I’ll
listen to what you have to say.”

“Thank you, sir,” said the man earnestly.

They crossed the Avenue, passed down the cross street, turned the
corner, and a moment later, entering by the garage driveway, gained the
courtyard in the rear of the house. It was dark here, there were no
lights showing from the back of the house itself or from the garage; and
here, close to the private entrance to the “office” and library, Billy
Kane halted.

“Well, Jackson, what’s it all about?” he inquired brusquely.

“If you please, Mr. Kane, sir”—the man’s voice had taken on a curious,
quavering note—“don’t speak so loud. We—you—you might be heard, sir,
from the servants’ entrance over there. I—Mr. Kane, sir—Mr. Ellsworth
has been murdered, and the money, sir, and the rubies are gone.”

Billy Kane was conscious only that he had reached out and grasped the
footman’s arm. They were very black, the shadows of the house, and it
was dark about him, but strange quick little red flashes seemed to dance
and dart and shoot before his eyes; and in his brain the man’s words
kept repeating themselves over and over in an insistent sort of way, and
the words seemed meaningless except that they were pregnant with an
overwhelming and numbing horror.

“For God’s sake, sir, let go my arm—you’re breaking it!” moaned the
footman in a whisper.

The man’s voice seemed to clear Billy Kane’s brain. David
Ellsworth—murdered! The horror was still there, but now there came a
fury beyond control, and a bitter grief that racked him to the soul.
David Ellsworth, his second father, the gentlest man and the kindest he
had ever known—_murdered_! His hand dropped to his side, and, turning,
he sprang up the few steps to the entrance just in front of him. He
whipped out his key, opened the door, and stepped forward into the
passageway. At his right was the door to the stenographer’s room, and
beyond, opening from that room, was the door to the library. He felt for
the door handle, for there was no light in the passage, and, finding it,
opened the door—and stood there rigid and motionless like a man turned
to stone. Across the blackness of the intervening room the library door
was partially open, and sprawled upon the floor lay the figure of a
white-haired man, only the hair was blotched with a great crimson
stain—and it was David Ellsworth. And something came choking into Billy
Kane’s throat, and a blinding mist before his eyes shut out the sight.

“In Heaven’s name, don’t go in there, sir!” Jackson was beside him
again, whispering in his ear, and pulling the door softly shut. “Don’t,
sir—don’t go—they’ll get you!”

“Get—_me_! What do you mean?” Billy Kane whirled on the man.

“For the love of God, sir,” pleaded Jackson, “don’t speak so loud! I’m
risking my neck for you, as it is, sir. There’s a couple of
plain-clothesmen waiting up in your room, sir, hiding there, and there’s
another two hiding in the front hall.”

“Are you mad, Jackson!” Billy Kane’s voice was low enough now in its
blank amazement.

“I’m telling you the truth, sir,” Jackson whispered tensely. “They’ve
got you dead to rights, sir. There ain’t a chance, except to run for
it—and that’s what I’d do, sir, if I were you, Mr. Kane. I didn’t mean
you to enter the house at all, but you acted so quick I couldn’t stop
you.”

Billy Kane’s two hands fell in an iron grip on the other’s shoulders,
and in the darkness he bent his head forward to stare into the man’s
face and eyes.

“You mean, Jackson,” he said hoarsely, “that _you_ believe I did that?”

The man wriggled himself free from Billy Kane’s grip.

“It’s not for me to say sir,” he answered uneasily. “I—I can only tell
you what they say.”

“Tell me, then!” Billy Kane’s voice, low as it was, was deadly in its
even, monotonous tone.

“Yes, sir,” said Jackson. “Keep your ear close to my lips, sir If anyone
hears us, it’s all up. They found him, Mr. Ellsworth, sir, lying there
dead in the library with his head split open, about half an hour after
you went out, sir. You were with him in the library after dinner alone,
sir; and no one was with him after that, and—don’t grip me again like
that, sir, or I can’t go on. You don’t know your own strength, sir, Mr.
Kane.”

“Go on, Jackson!” breathed Billy Kane. “I’m sorry! Go on!”

“Yes, sir; thank you, sir. It was Peters, the butler, sir, who found the
body, and he sent for the police. Mrs. Ellsworth doesn’t know anything
about it yet, sir. They’re afraid to tell her, she’s so delicate and
sick, sir. It was about half an hour after you went out, sir, as I said,
that Peters went to see Mr. Ellsworth about something, and found him
there like you just saw, sir. And then the police came, sir, and they
figured that you did it before you went out, and that you went out to
dispose of the money and jewels, sir, in some safe place, and maybe also
as a sort of alibi like, so that they’d think it was done while you were
away, sir, and that when you returned, if you did return, sir, you would
profess horror and surprise, sir.”

“Are you mad, Jackson!” Billy Kane said again.

“No, sir—you’ll see, sir—they’ve got you dead to rights. Both the vault
and safe doors were open, and the money and rubies gone, and on the
floor of the vault, way in by the wall under the lower shelf, like it
had fluttered in there without you noticing it, sir, was a card with the
combinations on it, and it was in your handwriting, Mr. Kane, sir. And
in Mr. Ellsworth’s hand, clutched there tight, sir, was a little piece
of black silk cord, and on the floor, under the table, sir, where it
must have rolled without you knowing it, sir, was a black button.”

“I don’t understand,” said Billy Kane, a little numbly now. There had
been something grotesquely absurd, something in the nature of a ghastly,
hideous and ill-timed joke, something that was literally the phantasm of
a diseased brain in the murmur of this man’s voice whispering out of the
darkness; but there was creeping upon him now a prescience as of some
deadly and remorseless thing that was closing down, around and upon him
with inexorable and crushing force. “I don’t understand,” he said again.

“Yes, sir.” Jackson’s low, guarded voice went on. “It’s not for me to
say, sir. You’ll remember, Mr. Kane, that you were wearing a dinner
jacket, and that before going out you went up to your room and changed.
I suppose it was excitement, sir, and you never noticed it, and it’s not
to be wondered at under the circumstances, sir. The button had been
pulled off the jacket, sir, and had taken the black silk loop with it.
And the button had rolled under the library-table, Mr. Kane, sir, and
the loop was clutched in Mr. Ellsworth’s hand.”

Billy Kane said no word. There was a strange whirling in his brain. Some
insidious and abhorrent thing was obsessing his consciousness, but in
some way it was not fully born yet, nor concrete, nor tangible. He
raised his hand and brushed it across his eyes.

“But that’s not all, Mr. Kane, sir.” The whispering voice was coming out
of the darkness again, and it seemed curiously fraught with
implacability, as though, not content with its unendurable torture, it
must torment the more. “They found a letter in the pocket of your dinner
jacket, Mr. Kane. It was a letter addressed to Mr. Ellsworth, which the
police figure you must have intercepted so that he wouldn’t see it, you
being the one who opens the mail, sir. It was a letter warning him to
look out for you, sir.”

And now it had come like a flash, the clearing of Billy Kane’s brain,
and now it was brutally clear, clear beyond any possibility of
misunderstanding; and, as a man walking in a fog that had suddenly
lifted, he found himself reeling, in the full consciousness of its
horror, on the brink of a yawning chasm.

“My God!” he cried heavily. “This is damnable! I——”

“Keep quiet, sir!” implored Jackson frantically. “They’ll hear you! If
you care anything about a chance for your life, don’t make a sound. The
police figured that you would do one of three things, sir. They figured
that after you had hidden the loot somewhere, you would walk back here
as though nothing had happened, and pretend innocence, not knowing about
that button and the cord, sir; and so there’s a couple of them waiting
for you in the front hall, sir. Or they thought that you might discover
you had lost the card with the combinations written on it and remember
the letter in your dinner-jacket pocket, sir, and try to get back
unobserved, just as you’ve come in now, sir, and hoping that the murder
hadn’t been discovered in the meantime, try to recover the card and the
letter before you played any other game; and they meant to let you, sir,
only, as I told you, there’s a couple more hiding up in your room, and
you couldn’t step into the library without the fellows in front seeing
you. Or they thought you might just simply make a break for it, make
your getaway, sir, and never come back at all; and so there’s an alarm
out, and your description, sir, in every precinct in the city, and all
the railway stations are being watched. But that’s your only chance,
sir, to run for it.”

It was silent here in the great house, ominously, strangely silent; and
the silence grew heavy, and grew _loud_ with great palpitating throbs
that hammered at the ear drums—and then, in the distance, from the other
side of the door in the long passage leading to the front of the house,
faint but nevertheless distinct, there came the sound of an approaching
footstep.

“There’s someone coming!” whispered Jackson wildly. “Run for it,
sir—while you’ve got the chance!”

Billy Kane’s lips were thinned into a hard, straight line. Run for it!
He had never run from anything in all his life! And now his brain was
working in a sort of lightning debate, battling it out—logic that bade
him go, against that finer sense that bids a brave man drop where he
stands rather than turn his back.

Still nearer came that footstep.

“Run!” prompted Jackson again. “In another minute it will be too late!”

Billy Kane’s hands were clenched until the nails bit into the flesh.
David Ellsworth had been right. That letter was but part of a deliberate
plot; and the plot had been framed with hellish ingenuity, not only to
secure the fortune in the vault, but, safeguarding its authors, to fix
irrevocably the guilt upon someone else, upon _him_, Billy Kane. Not a
loophole for escape had been left, every detail had been worked out with
a devil’s craft; the evidence was damning, incontrovertible, and if, in
spite of all, there might still have lingered a doubt in any jury’s
mind, he, Billy Kane, by an ironic trick of fate had——

“Run, I tell you!” came Jackson’s voice again. “Run, or—” And then
Jackson’s voice lost its deference, and his whisper was like the snarl
of a savage beast—the door along the passage was opening. “You damn
fool! I gave you your chance, and you wouldn’t take it—now take this!”

Billy Kane reeled suddenly back from the impact, as the man sprang
viciously upon him—and for a moment again his brain groped blindly in
confusion, even as he fought.

Jackson was yelling wildly at the top of his voice.

“Help! Here he is! Quick! Help! I’ve caught him!”



III—INTO THE UNDERWORLD


It had been dark before the opening of the door had thrown a dim glow
along the rear of the passage, and Jackson, in his onslaught, had missed
what was evidently intended for a throathold, and his hands, slipping
down, had caught at and bunched the shoulders of Billy Kane’s coat. But
now Billy Kane was in action. His arms, straightened, shot back behind
him—and the coat alone was in Jackson’s hands.

With an oath, the man dropped the coat to the floor, and wrenched a
revolver from his pocket. But there was light enough to see now—to see
the murder in the other’s eyes—and to see something there as well that
brought a surging fury whipping through Billy Kane’s veins.

“You devil! I understand it now!” he gritted, as he snatched and gripped
at the other’s wrist.

Jackson was twisting, squirming, fighting like a maniac.

“Help!” he shrieked. “Help! Here he is!”

Cries and shouts answered the man. There came the sound of racing feet.
Then a blinding flash—a wild scream. And Jackson, the revolver going off
in his hands as they struggled, sagged limply, and, with the revolver
clattering against the wall, slid to the floor—and Billy Kane, with a
bound, was through the back door, and leaping down the steps to the
courtyard.

There was no question in his mind now as to whether he should run for
it, or not. Jackson was one of the murderers ... there must ... be
others.... Jackson could hardly have staged it all alone ... but to
remain there and be caught was but to play into their hands! His brain
was working in flashes swift beyond any measure of time. If there could
still have remained a lingering doubt favorable to him in any jury’s
mind, fate had played him an ironic trick that would dispel any such
doubt instantly. _He had two thousand dollars of the money from that
vault in his vest pocket at that moment!_ And to be caught there, having
presumably gained entrance stealthily by the rear door, would condemn
him out of hand. To run, too, was to condemn him, that was their hell’s
snare that they had laid for him ... but there was a chance this way! A
rage that was merciless was upon him now. There was a chance this way
... one chance ... the only chance, not alone of saving his own life and
clearing his own name, but of bringing to justice the inhuman fiends who
had taken David Ellsworth’s life ... there was a chance ... one chance
... this way ... that someone would pay ... if he, Billy Kane, lived,
that someone _would_ pay!

There came a short, curt shout from behind him, an imperative order to
halt. He had gained the courtyard now, and was running along the garage
driveway, heading for the street. He glanced back over his shoulder. In
the darkness he could just make out a number of shadowy forms rushing
down the steps.

The order came again. Then the tongue-flame of a revolver split through
the black. And as though a red hot iron had been laid suddenly across
his left shoulder, Billy Kane gritted his teeth together in pain—and
stumbled—and recovered himself—and plunged out through the driveway
gates to the street.

Halfway down the block, he remembered, was an alleyway; and, running
like a deer now, Billy Kane again glanced behind him. Forms, a great
many of them, though perhaps his fancy exaggerated the number, were
pouring out into the street in pursuit. The men servants had evidently
joined forces with the detectives; and yelling hoarsely, a pack of human
hounds in cry, with the blood-scent in their nostrils, were some
twenty-five to thirty yards behind.

How curiously warm his shoulder was! He clapped his right hand upon it,
and drew his hand away, red and dripping wet. He began to feel strangely
giddy. The shots were coming now in a fusillade—but they missed him. He
was even gaining a little, and if it were not for that queer giddiness,
that sense of nausea that seemed to be creeping steadily upon him, he
could have outdistanced them all, and laughed at them—except that the
entire district would soon be aroused, and speed and lightness of foot
would therefore ultimately avail him little.

He laughed out harshly in grim, mirthless facetiousness. Logically then,
it made small difference whether he had been hit, or not! It was his
head, and not his feet, that must be depended upon to save him! If he
could only get out of the immediate neighborhood ... yes, that was it
... and his head must find the way ... only, and he was not very logical
after all, his head seemed possessed with that sick, swimming, impotent
sensation.

He reeled again. Then his teeth clamped hard, and the sheer nerve of the
man asserted itself, and fought back the purely physical weakness. There
was a way, at least a chance, perhaps a desperate chance, but still a
chance—if the alleyway, that was just ahead now, was dark enough, and
if——

A yell, chorused wildly, went up from behind him, and a bullet struck
the pavement with an angry _spat_, as Billy Kane swerved into the
alleyway. And again he laughed, gasping out the laugh in a sort of
desperate relief. Yes, the alleyway was black enough, he could not
distinguish an object twenty yards ahead; and that other “if,” something
that would furnish temporary sanctuary, was here, too, at his right—and
five yards in from the street, he sprang for the top of a board fence,
flung himself over, dropped down on the other side, and lay motionless
upon the ground.

It was a matter of seconds—no more. The pursuers swept into the
alleyway, and tearing down its length, shouting as they went, rushed by
that spot, so _innocently close_ to the street, where their quarry lay.

And now Billy Kane was on his feet again, and cautiously, silently,
raised himself to the top of the fence once more. He had counted on just
this exactly, it was simply what was naturally to be expected, and he
knew no elation on that score. The chance, the one chance he had, still
lay ahead of him, and was still to be taken—and to be taken without an
instant’s loss of time before the neighborhood became aroused to the
extent of pouring curiously out-of-doors. Across the intervening street
the alleyway extended in the opposite direction, and if he could gain
the other side, double on his tracks, he would, for the time being at
least, be safe.

The sound of the pursuit came from well down the alleyway now, and the
pursuers were lost to sight in the blackness. He swung himself over the
fence, dropped without a sound into the alleyway, and keeping close
against the fence, crept forward to the edge of the street.

And then Billy Kane’s lips moved in a silent prayer of fervent
thankfulness for that quiet and sedate neighborhood that had not
instantly responded to the disturbance. It had seemed hours, of course,
since that shot had been fired at him in the courtyard of David
Ellsworth’s home, but in reality he knew that it could scarcely have
been much more than a minute ago. The street, to all appearances, was
deserted; and Billy Kane, quick now, running again, darted out from the
lane; and, mindful that if he crossed the street in a direct line, he
would be in the light, and that any one of those in the alleyway behind
who might chance to look back would see him, made a slight detour, and a
moment later gained the alleyway again where it continued on from the
opposite side of the street.

He ran on now breathlessly. It had been raining hard that morning, and
the ground under foot was soft and slippery. He reeled once, and
fell—and rose splattered with grime and mud. He laughed again, but his
laugh was desperate now. It had been bad enough before—coatless, and
with a blood-soaked shirt—but his appearance must be disreputable beyond
description now, so disreputable that he would attract instant suspicion
the moment he were seen by anyone, and this quite apart even from the
fact that before very long the net spread for the “murderer” of David
Ellsworth would widen, and every man and woman abroad in that great city
to-night would automatically become allies of the police in apprehending
him.

He stopped. He was at the end of the alleyway, and it did not seem to
extend again on the other side of the next street. But he must go
on—somehow. He brushed his hand across his eyes. His shoulder pained
him, and those dizzy flashes kept recurring, though perhaps not now with
such great frequency. He must go on—somehow. That was essential. He must
put as great an immediate distance between himself and the Ellsworth
mansion as possible; later, if by some means he could get there, if luck
broke for him just a little, his chances would be better, thanks to
those three months of intimacy with the underworld, if he could get
somewhere into the maze of the East Side.

He peered out into the street, waited for some pedestrians who were near
at hand to pass further on, and then, moving quickly forward, crouched
down in the shadows made by the flight of front door steps of the
nearest house.

If he only had a coat! He could walk boldly then along the street
without the blood showing on his white shirt, and it would cover up
enough of the mud so that no one would pay any particular attention to
him. If he only had a coat! He had two thousand dollars in his vest
pocket—but it was not worth a coat. Anybody would sell him a coat for
two thousand dollars, but—— His hands went to his eyes, and then pressed
against his throbbing temples. Yes, certainly, his brain was verging on
delirium! Why should he think of Marco’s? Yes, yes, he remembered now!
Somebody was going to break into Marco’s to-night ... and Marco was a
second-hand clothing dealer ... and the back door had its lock broken
... and the way was open. He could steal too ... a coat ... at Marco’s
... and that was the only way he could get a coat ... to steal it ... he
dared not make any attempt to buy one ... and he must have a coat.

His brain cleared again, and he smiled a little ironically at himself.
But the thought of Marco’s now stuck persistently. It was possible, of
course—if he could get to Marco’s! But Marco’s was a long way off.
Marco’s was a long way downtown on the East Side. He shook his head,
smiling ironically again. Yes, he would very much like to be there now!
That was where he wanted to be—in the East Side, instead of here!

Billy Kane peered up and down the street again, and again moved
stealthily forward. He repeated these tactics over and over, sometimes
covering only a few yards at a time, sometimes making as much as half a
block, and sometimes even more when a friendly lane or alleyway offered
him the opportunity. And at the expiration of half an hour he had
covered a distance that surprised even himself, for, though still
uptown, he had succeeded in getting entirely away from the more wealthy
neighborhood.

Another ten minutes passed, and hidden again in the shadows of a porch,
he was staring now with feverish eagerness at a great, covered motor
truck, a furniture van, that was drawn up in front of what appeared to
be a truck-man’s office across the street. The driver had gone into the
office, but there was the street to cross—and two men were coming
leisurely in his direction along the sidewalk. He clenched his hands
fiercely at his sides. Here was the chance flaunting him in the face and
tantalizing him, the chance that was a far greater chance even than he
had dared hope for, and he was powerless to avail himself of it unless
those two men passed by before the driver came out again. He could read
the name and address in the huge letters on the side of the van. It
belonged down on the East Side. This was probably only a small uptown
branch office, and the odds were a hundred to one that the van would be
going home now. And if the driver took a direct route he was bound to
use a cross street that would intersect that lane in the rear of
Marco’s, and intersect it within at least a few blocks of the
second-hand dealer’s shop. Billy Kane’s hands clenched tighter, and his
face was strained and drawn, as from his hiding place he alternately
watched the van and the two men. Those few blocks through a lane would
be nothing! God, if he could only reach Marco’s—and a coat! A coat! It
seemed an absurd thing to be of such moment—a coat! But it meant life or
death. A coat would cover his blood-stained shirt, and he would be able
to move with freedom enough to give him at least a fighting chance,
and——

The two men had passed by; there was no one else in sight. He waited
another moment until they were still further away—and then, in a flash,
Billy Kane was across the road, and had swung himself over the
tail-board into the van. It seemed like some vast cavernous place here
inside, for the van was empty, save for what appeared to be, as nearly
as he could make out in the gloom, some large pieces of crated furniture
piled at the front end just behind the driver’s seat. Billy Kane’s eyes
swept the interior anxiously—and the drawn, strained look in Billy
Kane’s face relaxed. By lying flat on the floor of the van the driver
would hardly be likely to notice him in any case; but, to make assurance
doubly sure, some bits of sacking, evidently used to wrap around and
protect furniture from being scratched and marred, were strewn about on
the floor. Billy Kane pulled off his slouch hat, that had been jammed
down over his eyes, drew a piece of the sacking over him, and lay still.

And then presently he heard the driver come out from the office. The man
climbed to his seat. The van jolted forward. Billy Kane’s hand, under
the sacking, felt tentatively over his shoulder. It was paining him
brutally, and was burning and hot, but it seemed to have stopped
bleeding, and the sense of nausea and giddiness had passed away. It was
a flesh wound only, probably; or, at least, the bullet had not fractured
any bone, for he could move both shoulder and arm readily.

And now, safe for the moment, Billy Kane’s mind was back on the events
of the evening; and for a time grief for the man he loved had its sway;
and then came fury, pitiless and remorseless, and a cry in his soul for
vengeance; and then a quiet, measured analysis of every detail, an
analysis that was deadly in its cold, unnatural calm. Jackson’s acts in
that back passageway, Jackson’s possession of a revolver, and Jackson’s
words at the end stamped the footman irrevocably as being one of the men
in the murder plot. And with Jackson’s guilt established as a premise,
the rest unravelled itself step by step, clearly, logically,
irrefutably.

David Ellsworth’s deductions had proved themselves in ghastly truth. The
letter had been written as the initiatory step toward incriminating him,
Billy Kane, in the robbery that was to follow; and this demanded, even
as he had argued before, that the vault and safe combinations should be
known to a third party. Who knew them? The answer came now quickly and
emphatically enough—someone within the house—Jackson. He remembered now,
though he had paid no attention to it before, that Jackson had been in
the library on several occasions when he, Billy Kane, was opening the
vault. It had probably taken the man a month or two, perhaps more,
watching both David Ellsworth and himself at every opportunity and with
infinite patience, to pick up little by little, possibly but a single
number or turn at a time, the combinations—but he had undoubtedly
accomplished it finally.

The original plan had certainly not contemplated the murder of David
Ellsworth, for the letter was primarily intended to make the old
millionaire one of the first to accuse him, Billy Kane, of the
crime—there having been left on the scene of the crime, of course, in
that case, as David Ellsworth had also reasoned, some further damning
evidence of his, Billy Kane’s, supposed guilt. But the changing of the
combinations had completely upset that original plan. Who was it, then,
who knew that the combinations _had_ been changed? Again the question
answered itself almost automatically. It must have been someone in the
house at the time, and someone who was both listening and
watching—Jackson. True, David Ellsworth had looked out into the hall,
and had opened the door and looked into the unlighted stenographer’s
room, but he had done it only cursorily, and Jackson all the time might
well have been hiding in that room—in fact, must have been hiding there.

The rest was self-evident. Without the combinations they were helpless,
but the new combinations were on a card in David Ellsworth’s pocket. It
had been necessary, then, only to add _murder_ to the theft, employing
as accessories the card, the letter, the button and the black silk loop,
in order to seize the opportunity of the moment; for, the card bearing
the combinations once destroyed or out of reach, the months of work that
had been put in to secure the old combinations would have to be repeated
to obtain the new—and with very little likelihood of success, since
Jackson would know that David Ellsworth’s suspicions were thoroughly
aroused.

The van rolled rapidly downtown. Billy Kane, peering out from under the
sacking, kept watch on the streets through which he passed. But his mind
was still busy with its problem.

Jackson’s act in accosting him on the corner, and afterwards luring him
by suggestion to the rear of the house, had puzzled him at first, but
that, too, was clear enough now. There was a grain of truth in what the
man had said about giving him a chance, though Jackson would care little
enough whether he ultimately got away, or not. Jackson’s idea, or
perhaps the idea of a keener brain behind Jackson, was to prevent him,
Billy Kane, from entering the house at all, and so, by inducing him to
run for it, to corroborate the evidence of guilt against him, in which
case, being a self-elected fugitive, he would be doubly condemned if
eventually caught. On the other hand, if he refused to listen and
insisted on entering the house, as they were afraid he might do, they
meant to see to it that his entrance was made by apparent stealth, and
here again he but added the final touch to the evidence against him, and
discredited himself beyond any hope or possibility of recovery. Jackson
had taken no personal risk or chance in doing this, as far as the police
were concerned; and it was evident now that Jackson had meant to _kill_
him there in that back passageway should he, Billy Kane, persist in
refusing to run. The case and all investigation would have ended
automatically if he, Billy Kane were killed under such circumstances. It
was all simplicity itself! Jackson had only to call for help, as he had
done when the issue was forced by that approaching footstep, pretend
that he had discovered him, Billy Kane, creeping into the house, and had
rushed upon him—that he, Billy Kane, had drawn the revolver, but that in
the struggle had been shot himself. With the evidence as it stood, with
his, Billy Kane’s guilt so apparently obvious, Jackson would not only
have been believed, but would have been rewarded and lauded as a hero.

Still the van rolled on—mostly through deserted streets, for the traffic
was light at that time of night. Perhaps another twenty minutes passed.
Then Billy Kane began to edge toward the rear end of the truck. He was
in the East Side now, and approaching the neighborhood of Marco’s
second-hand clothing store.

Was Jackson dead? Billy Kane shook his head. He did not know. A grim
smile twisted his lips. He hoped not—not from any sympathy for the man,
for the man’s punishment in that case had been almost too merciful a
retribution, but because in Jackson was embodied the clue that would
lead, if he, Billy Kane, escaped, to that day of reckoning that, cost
what it might, he meant should come.

The van was in a narrow and ill-lighted street now. Marco’s was still
two streets further downtown, but in the block ahead was the lane that,
running north and south, passed the rear of Marco’s place.

Billy Kane sat suddenly upright on the tail-board of the van, the piece
of sacking thrown now around his shoulders. If the driver happened to
look around and see him, the supposition would be that he had hopped on
to steal a ride; and if the driver ordered him off it mattered very
little, since, in another yard or so anyhow, the van, as far as he was
concerned, would have lost its usefulness. He leaned out, and glanced
ahead of him up the street. There were a few people about, but not many,
and none in the immediate vicinity of the lane that was now just at
hand; but even if he were seen for an instant as he left the van, he
would not be running any very great risk for he would be out of sight
again before any particular attention could be riveted upon him; and,
besides, in that miserable and sordid quarter a man might do many things
out of the ordinary, for instance, dive suddenly into a lane and
disappear, without exciting even passing curiosity or notice.

He jerked his slouch hat over his eyes, flung off the sacking, dropped
to the ground, and slipped across the sidewalk into the lane. And now he
was running again. He reached the next intersecting street, and was
forced to draw back under cover to wait for an opportunity to cross
unnoticed. And then the chance came, and he continued on down the lane
on the opposite side of the street again.

Marco’s was the second store in from the next corner on the street that
paralleled the lane, and halfway down he stopped running and began to
move forward cautiously. It was very black in here, and he wished now
that he had looked at his watch when he had had the opportunity; but it
must be somewhere around ten o’clock. It was two hours, then, since he
had overheard that telephone conversation in which Laverto had said that
all he cared was that the man to whom he was telephoning should be away
from Marco’s before a quarter of eleven.

Billy Kane was crouched now in the darkness against the back door of the
second-hand shop. The chances were that whoever Laverto had been
telephoning to had already been here and gone. Certainly two hours would
have given any one ample time, and as Laverto had said that Marco did
not keep open in the evening there would have been no cause for delay on
that score.

He placed his ear to the panel of the door, and listened. There was no
sound, and he tried the door. It stuck a little in spite of its broken
lock, and gave with a slight squeak. Billy Kane drew in his breath
sharply, and listened again. There was still no sound. He closed the
door behind him, and crept forward, feeling his way with his hands along
the wall in the pitch blackness. The flooring was old, and once it
creaked under his foot, causing his lips to tighten rigidly, and his
face to set in a hard, dogged way. He had no matches—they, in the
match-safe that he usually carried in the ticket-pocket of his coat,
were gone with the coat. A coat! All sense of absurdity in the length to
which he was going to obtain so common-place an article as a coat had
vanished. It was the one, final, ultimate, essential thing that he must
and would have if he was to know a single chance for life. Without it he
might as well throw up the sponge at once, but if his luck still held he
would get one now. Marco’s stock of clothing would naturally be in the
shop in front, and——

His hand dove suddenly forward into space, and he halted for an instant.
He had come to an open doorway on his right. He felt around him in all
directions. The passage seemed to end a foot or so ahead, and to lead
nowhere but into what was probably the back room here at his side. The
entrance, then, to the shop proper would be through the back room.

Again he moved forward, crossed the threshold, and again halted. It was
dark, intensely dark, and he could see nothing; and it was still and
silent, and there was no sound. But suddenly he found himself standing
in a tense, strained attitude, his head thrown a little forward, his
eyes striving to pierce the darkness. He could hear nothing, see
nothing—but the sense of _presence_ was strong upon him.

A minute passed, the seconds dragging out interminably—and he did not
move. And then it seemed that close to him he caught a faint stirring
sound. But he was not sure. It might have been his imagination. The
silence, so heavy and prolonged, had taken on strange little noises of
its own. Billy Kane’s lips thinned. He was bare-handed, wounded and
unarmed, but he had a stake that he would fight for with a beast’s
ferocity. And that stake was a coat! If there was anyone here, if it was
more than his excited and wrought-up fancy playing tricks upon him, it
was certain at least that it was not the police, for the police would
have no incentive to play at cat-and-mouse, and therefore it was
probably the man, not yet through with his work, to whom Laverto had
telephoned; it was probably a _fellow_ thief, fellow since he, Billy
Kane, had also come to steal—a coat. Well, he would at least end the
suspense! He turned in the direction from which he thought the sound,
imaginary or real, had come, took a step forward—and stood still, hands
clenched at his sides, as he blinked, through the ray of a flashlight
that was suddenly thrown full in his face, at the round, ugly muzzle of
a revolver that held a steady bead upon him on a level with his eyes.

A voice came through the silence in a savage, guttural snarl:

“Throw up yer mitts, youse——” The words ended in an amazed and startled
oath. The revolver muzzle sagged downward, as though the hand that held
it had become suddenly powerless. “Well, fer Gawd’s sake, if it ain’t de
Rat!” gasped the voice in a hoarse whisper. “When did youse get back? I
thought youse was hobnobbin’ wid some of de swells youse used to know,
an’ was givin’ Noo Yoik de icy paw until next month!”



IV—ALIAS THE RAT


Billy Kane’s face was impassive. The keen, alert brain was working with
desperate speed. There had come in a flash with the other’s words a
vista, not quite clear, nor distinct, but a vista that seemed to promise
the way and the chance, not only of immediate escape from this place
here, but perhaps more than that—assistance, help, perhaps even refuge
and temporary sanctuary from the police who, before morning, would be
scouring every quarter of New York in an effort to capture him. This
man, a thief, a criminal, one of the underworld himself, had obviously
mistaken him, Billy Kane, for another of his own ilk—for one known as
the Rat. His appearance, disreputable, blood-stained and mud-covered,
had undoubtedly been a very large factor in bringing about the man’s
mistake, it was true; but that did not in any way apply to his, Billy
Kane’s, _face_, and his face had been, and was still, full in the
pitiless glare of the flashlight. Therefore he must to a very remarkable
extent resemble this so-called Rat. And, moreover, this Rat must be a
figure of some consequence in the underworld; for, even through the
man’s hoarse and amazed tones, Billy Kane’s quick ear had caught a note
of almost cringing deference. And then Billy Kane’s under jaw crept out
a little, and his eyes narrowed. Well, for the moment, at least, he
would play the part—because he must.

“Who in hell are you?” he demanded gruffly. “I can’t see you behind that
light.”

“I’m Whitie Jack,” the other answered mechanically.

“Whitie Jack, eh?” snapped Billy Kane. “Well, then”—his hand shot out,
and pushed the flashlight roughly away—“take your cursed lamp out of my
eyes? What are you playing at?”

“Sure!” mumbled the man. “Sure—it’s all right! Only youse gave me de
jumps sneakin’ in here. Bundy Morgan—de Rat! Wot’s de idea?”

Nothing perhaps would confirm the man more in his mistake than an
allusion to the common enemy—the police. Billy Kane dropped into the
vernacular. But the man’s reference to “de swells youse used to know”
had given him his cue. The Rat at one time had probably known quite a
different station in life, and the Rat’s speech therefore, even in the
vernacular, would hardly be ungrammatical.

“A coat,” said Billy Kane tersely. “The bulls have got my costume
spotted.”

“Swipe me!” Whitie Jack drew in his breath in a low whistle. “De
bulls—eh? So dat’s de lay! Well, youse wait a minute, an’ I’ll get youse
one. Youse look as though youse had blamed near cashed in! Youse have
spilled a lot of red out of dat shoulder, eh?”

“It’s pretty bad,” answered Billy Kane laconically.

“Sure!” said Whitie Jack again; and then, eagerly, the deference back in
his voice: “Well, youse wait a minute, Bundy, an’ I’ll get youse de best
coat de old geezer’s got—though dat’s not sayin’ much, for dere’s
nothin’ here but a bunch of rags.”

The man was gone. Billy Kane leaned back against the wall. His hand
swept across his eyes. It seemed as though for hours he had been living
through some horrible and ghastly nightmare from which he could not
awake. He was Billy Kane, whom the world, in the morning, would proclaim
the murderer of David Ellsworth; but he was also now Billy Kane, alias
Bundy Morgan, alias the Rat! Again his hand swept across his eyes. And
the Rat—who was the Rat? And what——

Whitie Jack was back.

“Here!” said Whitie Jack. “Here youse are!” He handed Billy Kane a coat,
and his flashlight fell again on Billy Kane’s shoulder. “Say, dat’s
bad!” he jerked out; and then, irrelevantly, “Say, wouldn’t it sting
youse—youse showin’ up here! When did youse blow into town, Bundy?”

“To-night,” said Billy Kane.

“Well, youse didn’t take long in startin’ something!” said Whitie Jack
admiringly. He helped Billy Kane on with the coat. “Was it a big one,
Bundy?”

“No,” said Billy Kane. “Only a fight, but someone got _hurt_ in the
fight—get me, Whitie? And the bulls are out for fair.”

Whitie Jack drew in his breath in a low, comprehensive whistle again.

“Sing Sing, an’ de juice route—eh?” he muttered. “Did dey spot who youse
were?”

“No,” said Billy Kane.

“Aw, well den, wot de hell!” observed Whitie Jack, with a sudden grin.
“Dat’s easy! Youse have got a coat now, an’ we’ll beat it over for yer
dump, an’ dat’s de end of it! You have got to get dat shoulder fixed,
an’ I’m some guy wid de bandage stuff—-believe me!”

Billy Kane did not answer for a moment. Well, why not? He had accepted
the absent Rat’s personality, why not the absent Rat’s hospitality? It
would afford him shelter for the moment, and he was living, feeling,
groping his way now only from moment to moment. Also, and what was of
even more urgent importance, he must somehow and in some way get his
wound dressed.

The flashlight in Whitie Jack’s hand was sweeping in a circle around the
room—in a sort of precautionary leave-taking survey of the place, as it
were. The room was evidently the proprietor’s office; but from what
Billy Kane could see of it, it was bare and uninviting enough. He caught
a glimpse of a rough table and a couple of chairs, and then the
flashlight went out. But he was still staring, through the darkness now,
toward the far end of the room—and it seemed that he could still see
just as vividly as though the light still played upon the spot. There
was an old safe there, a large and cumbrous thing, long out of date, and
the door sagged on its hinges where it had been blown open, and the
floor around it was littered with the books and papers it had evidently
contained.

“That’s a bum job you made, Whitie!” commented Billy Kane sarcastically.
“You’re an artist, you are! What did you expect to get out of a piker
hang-out like this?”

“Aw, forget it!” returned Whitie Jack. “It ain’t so bum! I’d like to see
youse crack a box in here wid soup, an’ not wake de whole town up. Dat’s
wot I get mine for—a century note—see? Dere wasn’t nothin’ in de safe!
Not a nickel! It’s a stall—savvy? But, come on, Bundy, we’ll beat it out
of here, an’ get youse fixed up.”

A stall! What did Whitie Jack mean? Whitie Jack, at Antonio Laverto’s
instigation, had blown open the safe, knowing beforehand that there was
nothing in it! What was Laverto’s game? Billy Kane mechanically made his
way out along the passage, the flashlight winking in Whitie Jack’s hand
behind him. What was the game? Laverto was no fool, and there seemed an
ominous something back of it all, but he dared not press Whitie Jack, or
appear too inquisitive. His own position now was precarious enough as it
was, and needed all his wits to see him through. For instance, they were
going now to the Rat’s quarters, to what was supposedly _his_, Billy
Kane’s, quarters—and he had not the faintest idea where, or in what
direction, those quarters might be! Billy Kane smiled grimly in the
darkness. But Whitie Jack evidently knew. Therefore Whitie Jack, without
knowing it, must be made to act as _guide_!

They were outside now. Whitie Jack had closed the door. Billy Kane
raised his hand to his head, smiled grimly again to himself in the
darkness, and stumbled heavily against his companion.

“Wot’s wrong?” whispered Whitie Jack anxiously. “Here, buck up, Bundy!”

“I guess I’m bad—worse than I thought I was—my head’s going round,”
mumbled Billy Kane. “You’ll have to help me, Whitie.”

“Sure, I will!” returned Whitie Jack encouragingly. He slipped his arm
through Billy Kane’s. “Youse just buck up, Bundy! An’ don’t youse be
afraid to throw yer weight on me. ’Taint far, an’ we’ll make it all
right.”

Billy Kane, his object accomplished, leaned not lightly on Whitie Jack.
Occasionally, as he walked along, he staggered and lurched, playing up
his rôle—but only when the street in his immediate neighborhood was
clear, and he ran no risk of attracting attention to himself and his
companion!

It was not far, a few blocks; and then Whitie Jack, still unsuspectingly
acting as guide, was helping Billy Kane down the half dozen steps of one
of those cellar-like entrances to the basement of a low building in the
middle of a block.

The building seemed to be a store of some kind, but it was closed, the
dingy front window dark, and in the none too well lighted street Billy
Kane could not make out exactly what it was. At the bottom of the steps
they halted—before a locked door—and for an instant again that grim,
desperate smile twisted Billy Kane’s lips. And then he laughed shortly,
as his free hand fumbled in the pockets of the stolen coat.

“Kick it in, Whitie!” he growled. “I haven’t got the key. I lost my
coat.”

“Nothin’ doin’!” said Whitie Jack complacently. “I got de goods, ain’t
I? Wot d’youse think!”

From his pocket Whitie Jack produced a bunch of what were evidently
skeleton keys; and, trying first one and then another, finally opened
the door. His flashlight played through into the interior, and indicated
a chair that stood before a table.

“Youse go over dere an’ sit down, an’ get yer coat an’ shirt off, an’
leave de rest to me,” he directed.

Billy Kane, lurching again, stumbled into the chair, as Whitie Jack,
closing and locking the door, located an incandescent that hung from the
ceiling, and switched on the light.

“Say, where do youse keep yer stuff?” demanded Whitie Jack. “A shirt’ll
do—anything to tear up an’ make a bandage wid, see?”

Billy Kane did not answer. He did not know! Instead, he let his head sag
limply forward, and fall on his crossed arms upon the table.

“Aw, buck up, Bundy!” pleaded Whitie Jack anxiously. “Youse’ll be all
right in a minute. Dat’s de boy! Buck up! It’s all right! Leave it to
me! I’ll find something!”

Still Billy Kane did not answer. His face hidden in his arms, he was
making a surreptitious, but none the less critical, survey of his
surroundings. It was a large room, evidently comprising the entire
basement of the building; and the single incandescent that it boasted
seemed only to enhance, with its meager light, the sort of forbidding
sordidness, as it were, that pervaded the place. There were no windows.
The walls had been boarded in with cheap lumber that had warped and
bulged in spots, and the walls had been painted once—but so long ago
that they had lost any distinctive color, and had faded into a murky,
streaky yellow. The room was dirty and ill-kempt. A few old pieces of
carpet were strewn about the floor, and for decoration prints from
various magazines and Sunday supplements were tacked here and there
around the walls. There was a bed in one corner; a wardrobe made by
hanging a piece of old cretonne diagonally across another corner; a sink
at one side of the room; and, at the far end, a bureau, whose
looking-glass seemed to be abnormally large. Billy Kane studied the
looking-glass for a moment curiously. It seemed to reflect back some
object that he could not quite identify, something that glittered a
little in the light. And then Billy Kane smiled a sort of grim
appreciation. Whitie Jack had left his keys hanging in the lock of the
door—the mirror held in faithful focus the only entrance to the place
that the Rat’s lair apparently possessed!

And now the reflection of the door in the mirror was blotted out, and
the figure of Whitie Jack took its place. The man had crossed the room
from an apparently abortive search behind the cretonne hanging, and was
rummaging now in the drawers of the bureau. And then, with a grunt of
satisfaction, and with what looked like a shirt and some underclothing
flung over his arm, Whitie Jack made his way to the sink, filled a basin
with water, and returned to the table.

Billy Kane raised his head heavily—and with well-simulated painful
effort aided in the removal of his coat, vest and shirt.

“Dat’s de stuff, Bundy!” said Whitie Jack approvingly.

It was a flesh wound, angry and nasty enough in appearance when the
clotted blood was washed away, but still only a flesh wound. Whitie Jack
surveyed it judicially.

“’Tain’t so worse, Bundy!” he announced reassuringly. “Youse’ll be all
to de good in a day or so.” He began to rip and tear the underclothing
into strips. “Youse’ll need de shirt to wear, an’ dis stuff’ll do for de
bandages,” he explained. “See?”

“Yes,” said Billy Kane.

The man dressed the wound with amazing deftness, stepped back to observe
his own work admiringly, and then, picking up the folded shirt, shook it
out, and began to unbutton it.

“Now den, Bundy,” he said, “get dis on, an’——” He stopped. From where it
had been hidden in the folds of the shirt, a little black object dropped
to the floor. Whitie Jack stooped, picked it up, glanced at it, and
tossed it on the table. “An’ dat ain’t so dusty a place to hide it,
neither!” grinned Whitie Jack. “Now den, up wid yer arms, an’ on wid de
shirt.”

Billy Kane made no comment. The object Whitie Jack had picked up was a
black mask. He raised his arms, and with deliberate difficulty struggled
into the shirt.

“How d’youse feel now?” inquired Whitie Jack.

“Better,” said Billy Kane. “You’re an artist with the swab rags,
Whitie.”

“Sure!” said Whitie Jack. “Well, I guess dat’s all. Youse go to bed now,
an’ keep quiet. I’ll tip de fleet off dat youse are back on de job.”

Billy Kane shook his head sharply.

“I don’t want anybody butting in around here to-night!” he said roughly.

“No, sure, youse don’t!” agreed Whitie Jack, with an oath for emphasis.
“Don’t youse worry, I’ll wise ’em up to dat. Dere won’t be nobody around
here till youse says so—youse know dat, don’t youse? I ain’t never heard
of any guy huntin’ trouble wid de Rat yet—an’ I guess dat ain’t no con
steer!”

Billy Kane was standing up now. It seemed strange, almost incredibly
strange that this man, one who evidently knew the so-called Rat
intimately and well, had accepted him, Billy Kane, without the slightest
suspicion that there could exist any question regarding his identity. He
had been watching and on his guard all the time that Whitie Jack had
been dressing his wound, but though Whitie Jack had seen him under the
full glare of a flashlight, and again in this lighted room here, their
heads close together as the other had bent over him, Whitie Jack was
obviously possessed of no doubts that he, Billy Kane, was anyone other
than the Rat! Well, it might be strange, but at least it was undeniably
true; so true that now that vista, which he had glimpsed with Whitie
Jack’s first words of mistaken recognition, was spreading out again
before him, but more concretely now, opening a staggering possibility;
so true that he dared not jeopardize anything by appearing too
inquisitive about Marco’s, for instance—much as Marco’s was still in his
mind! Marco’s! No, he was not through with Marco’s, for more reasons
than one. There was some queer deviltry that Laverto was hatching
there—at a quarter to eleven—and he meant to see it through. But, after
all, even if he broached the subject again to Whitie Jack, who was
patently only a tool in the affair, what more could Whitie Jack tell
him, except the name of the man who had hired him to blow open an old
safe whose contents were worthless—and that man’s name he, Billy Kane,
already knew. No, he was not through with Marco’s! But he would gain
nothing, save perhaps to excite suspicion, by speaking of it again to
Whitie Jack.

“Youse get to bed, an’ get some sleep!” prompted Whitie Jack. “Youse can
leave de mob to me.”

“Thanks, Whitie,” said Billy Kane. He moved across the room, and flung
himself down on the bed. “I’m not going to forget this. You’ve handed me
the glad paw to-night—and I’m not going to forget it.”

“Aw, dat’s all right!” said Whitie Jack earnestly. “I knows youse ain’t!
An’, say, youse can take it from me on de level dat I’d rather have had
dis chance dan have a thousand long green bucks in me mitt dis minute.
Say, I knows it, don’t I, dat de Rat never forgets; an’ I knows dere’s
about a million guys around here dat would give deir eye teeth for de
chance dat came my way to-night!”

It was strange again—but the servility in the man’s tones that was
coupled with elation was genuine beyond doubt. The Rat was
unquestionably a character of prominence and power in the sordid realm
wherein he appeared, by some at least, by this Whitie Jack for example,
to be held in awe. That being so, it was obviously the Rat’s prerogative
to command—Whitie Jack.

“All right, Whitie—that goes!” said Billy Kane tersely. “And now, beat
it! But before you go leave me your gun. I got cleaned out when I lost
my coat, and if anything comes of that little game of mine to-night I
might need your iron. Yes, and leave those keys, too—I’ve no other way
to lock the door.”

“Sure!” said Whitie Jack promptly. He took his revolver from his pocket,
laid it on the table, and walked to the door. “Are youse sure dere’s
nothin’ else youse wants, Bundy?”

“No, that’s all,” said Billy Kane.

“Well den, so long, Bundy!” said Whitie Jack. “I’ll see youse in de
mornin’!”

“So long, Whitie!” said Billy Kane.



V—THE SECOND-HAND DEALER


The door closed behind Whitie Jack, the man’s footsteps echoed back as
he climbed to the street, echoed faintly again from the pavement, and
then died away.

Billy Kane got up from the bed, went to the door, locked it, and then
walked down the length of the room—and standing in front of the mirror
stared into the glass in a grimly impersonal way. It was himself—Billy
Kane. His face was in no whit changed, except perhaps that there was a
slight pallor there due to loss of blood, and that the lines were
sharper and harder, as though he were, as indeed he was, under a tense
and heavy strain; but, with his collarless shirt, his trousers covered
with mud and dirt, his whole appearance had taken on an aspect that was
at once sinister and forbidding.

He laughed shortly, and turning abruptly from the mirror, crossed the
room again, and pushed aside the cretonne hanging. There were some
clothes on the wall pegs here. He gathered them up, and took them nearer
to the light for an inspection. They were old, somewhat greasy, and
wholly disreputable. He laughed shortly again, as he changed into them.
As the Rat, he might venture out, though he would do well to take care
not to be recognized, since Whitie Jack would have spread the report
that he was wounded and in bed; but he could at least go out without
inviting instant pursuit as the “murderer” of David Ellsworth. He was
safe now for the moment, safe until morning anyhow—and he could even use
those hours, if he would, in an attempt to put as many miles as possible
between himself and New York! His hands clenched, and into the pallor of
his face the red came burning hot. But he wasn’t going to do that! That
“staggering possibility” was clear before his mind’s eye now. He wasn’t
going to do that; he was going, instead—to play the Rat—to play the
cards that fate, if one believed in fate, had thrust into his hands—to
take the chance, the one chance, _if the Rat did not come back too
soon_, of clearing his own name, and of bringing to justice the
hell-hounds, who had struck down that gentle gray-haired man who had
been his friend. His hands clenched harder, until, as they had done once
before that night, the nails bit into the palms. He, Billy Kane—the
murderer of his father’s friend, the murderer of the man who had trusted
him and loved him! It was getting him now with all its brutal and
remorseless force! Broadcast over the country, by morning his name would
have become the synonym of all that was vile and hideous, and Billy Kane
would be known as one of the most revolting characters in the annals of
crime—a foul and filthy thing who typified the dregs and lees of human
degradation—a thing from whom the friends of old would turn in horror
and in shame, and——

Slowly his hands unclenched. The surge of fury that had been almost
ungovernable passed, and he knew again that cold, unnatural, deadly
calm. If he lived, the guilty man, or men, would pay! If he were taking
a chance now, a desperate chance, he was taking a chance that no _man_
could do otherwise than take. It was the chance to live—for one might
better otherwise be dead! A chance! He had picked up Whitie Jack’s
revolver, and was twisting it in his fingers, and now he thrust it
suddenly into his pocket. A chance! He was taking no chance, indeed,
save with the stake that was already flung upon the table—his life. It
was the one way! As the Rat, doubtless well known to the authorities, he
could move under the very noses of the police at will without suspicion
arising that he was Billy Kane; and as the Rat, if Whitie Jack was to be
relied upon as a criterion, he would have the run of the underworld, and
in the underworld were many secrets, and amongst those secrets was
perhaps the one he sought—the clue to Jackson’s associates in the murder
of David Ellsworth. He was not blinded to the difficulties of this
picking up of the thread of another man’s life; nor blinded to what was
perhaps the greatest difficulty of all, the necessity of being able to
recognize those with whom he _should be_ acquainted, but even that was
not insurmountable. He could see a way, he believed, to accomplish even
that.

But all this was for to-morrow—and the to-morrows after that! To-night
he was going out again—to Marco’s. That was why he had changed his
clothes just now. A graver thing, the thought of merging his identity
with the Rat’s, had impinged, obtruded itself, as it were, upon his
mind. But he had not forgotten Marco’s.

He picked up his discarded vest, transferred the package of banknotes
and his watch to the pockets of the one he now wore, and as he did so,
he looked at the time. Laverto had said a quarter to eleven. It was
almost that now. Billy Kane’s eyes strayed over the table, and fell upon
the black mask. The mask, too, went into his pocket. It might prove a
most valuable discovery, that mask—under certain circumstances even the
_Rat’s_ identity was not lightly to be disclosed.

He collected the muddy garments he had taken off, and tucked them under
the mattress on the bed. It was not likely that anyone would come here,
much less attempt to enter, in his absence; but he was fully aware that
now, and from now on, his life depended upon his caution in every
detail. He extinguished the light, put on his hat, walked to the door,
unlocked it—and stood for a moment hesitant. Was he a fool to take this
added risk, when already his own back was against the wall, when already
he was in desperate case himself? He shook his head in a sort of
exasperated remonstrance with himself for even his momentary hesitation,
then opening the door, he locked it behind him, and crept cautiously up
the stairs to the street.

Whitie Jack had been only a tool used for the stage-setting of some
deviltry that was to follow—at a quarter of eleven. That was obvious.
He, Billy Kane, had intended that the police should be informed and
should deal with Laverto, and that he in person should give evidence
against Laverto; but he could no longer inform the police, no longer
give evidence. He was wanted now himself for _murder_, and so upon him
fell the moral obligation to prevent or render abortive, if he could, a
crime that he knew was pending. And besides—his face hardened suddenly,
as he moved swiftly along, evading the direct rays of the street lights,
and keeping in the shadows—he had a personal account to settle with
Antonio Laverto. If it had not been for the man’s damnable imposition
having succeeded to the extent that it had, he, Billy Kane, would not
have left the Ellsworth house to-night, and David Ellsworth would not
now——

Billy Kane’s hand, in his pocket, tightened over the butt of Whitie
Jack’s revolver. Unconsciously he quickened his stride.

Always hugging the shadows, his hat drawn far down over his face, giving
the passers-by he met as wide a berth as possible, Billy Kane covered
the short distance that separated the Rat’s den from Marco’s. He slipped
into the lane unobserved, and for the second time that night crouched
against the door with the broken lock. But now, mindful of the door’s
tendency to squeak, he pushed it open cautiously an inch at a time. And
then, with the door slightly open, he stood motionless, a puzzled and
amazed expression on his face. Just exactly what he had expected to find
here, he was not prepared to say—but certainly not this! A faint light
came through from the door of the back room into the hallway, and from
the room there came a woman’s voice that mingled a sort of pitiful
defiance with a sob.

“It’s not true! I tell you it’s not true! The boy never did it!”

“So!” It was a man’s voice now, caustic and unrelenting. “Well, where is
he now, then?”

“I don’t know,” the woman replied. “I haven’t seen him since supper. But
that’s got nothing to do with it. That doesn’t prove anything.”

“So!” It was the man again. “Well, maybe not! But I am not to be fooled!
I am a poor man. I cannot afford to lose my money. So, it has nothing to
do with it, eh? You say that because you are his mother, eh? But did he
tell you at supper that I had discharged him this afternoon? Eh? Answer
me that!”

“N-no.” The answer seemed to come reluctantly.

Billy Kane pushed the outer door a little wider open and slipped
through. Keeping close to the wall, he edged forward until he could see
into the back room through its open door. A frown came and knitted his
brows in hard furrows. He was frankly puzzled now. The woman, a tall,
powerful, muscular woman of middle age, but curiously frail now in
obvious fear and emotion, was Mrs. Clancy, who kept the little notion
shop next door on the corner; and the other, bent-shouldered, in long,
greasy black coat, with long, untrimmed and dirty white beard, whose
eyes were distorted behind the heavy lenses of his steel-bowed
spectacles, was Marco, the proprietor of the second-hand store. Marco
was apparently in a state of equal distress and excitement. He
alternatively wrung his hands together and gesticulated furiously.

“Eight hundred dollars!” he cried out wildly. “Do you hear, you, the
mother of that brat? Eight hundred dollars! All I have on earth! And it
is gone! Stolen by that cursed young prison bird of yours! So he did not
tell you, eh, that I discharged him this afternoon because I was sure he
was making little stealings from me all the time? But you are not
surprised, eh? Maybe he has stolen from you, too, eh?”

The woman did not answer. She seemed to shiver suddenly, and then sank
down heavily in the chair before the table, near which she had been
standing.

Marco paced up and down the room, back and forth, from the table to
where the floor was littered with the erstwhile contents of the rifled
safe.

Billy Kane’s puzzled frown grew deeper. Evidently there _had_ been money
in the safe, but in some way Laverto had got it before he had set Whitie
Jack at work upon a stall, and it was obvious that Laverto had
maneuvered to plant the crime on the shoulders of this woman’s son. But
what then had been Laverto’s object in bringing Whitie Jack into it at
all? It did not somehow seem to fit, or dovetail, or appear logical,
or—— And then, with a sudden start, Billy Kane leaned tensely forward,
his eyes fixed narrowly on Marco. Yes, it _did_ dovetail! He had it
now—all of it—all of the damnable, unscrupulous ingenuity of the plot
that had been hatched in Laverto’s cunning brain. The frown was hidden
now by the mask which Billy Kane slipped quickly over his face, but his
lips just showing beneath the edge of the mask were tight and hard.

“I was a fool—a fool!” Marco cried out sharply. “A fool, ever to have
taken him in here as my clerk! I might have known! He has already been
in jail!”

“It was only the reform school.” Mrs. Clancy was wringing her hands
piteously. “He is only a boy—only seventeen now. And he did not mean any
harm even then—and—and since then he has been a good boy.”

“Has he?” Marco flung out a clenched fist and shook it in the air. “He
has—eh? Well, then, where did he get this? Answer me that! Where did he
get this?” Marco’s closed hand opened, and he threw what looked to Billy
Kane like a little brooch, a miniature in a cheap setting, upon the
table. “That’s you, ain’t it? That’s his mother’s picture, ain’t it? Do
you think I do not recognize it? That’s you twenty years ago—eh? Did you
_give_ it to him—eh? Answer me that—did you _give_ it to him?”

The woman had risen from her chair, and was swaying upon her feet.

“Did you think I did not have reason to be pretty sure when I asked if
he had not stolen from you, too?” Marco, apparently beside himself with
rage, was gesticulating furiously again. “And you said I had no proof of
_this_—eh?” He shook his fist in the direction of the safe. “Well, I
found that brooch there on the floor where he must have dropped it out
of his pocket when he blew my safe open, and he didn’t know he’d dropped
it in the dark, and then some of the papers he pulled out covered it.
That’s where I found it—under the papers! That’s proof enough, ain’t it?
I guess with his record it will satisfy the police—no matter what his
mother thinks!”

A great sob came from the woman. The tears were rolling down her cheeks.

“My boy!” she faltered. “It’s true—I—I am afraid it’s true. Oh, my
boy—my boy—my fatherless boy!” She thrust out her hands in a sudden
imploring gesture toward the other. “Listen! I will tell you all I know.
I will show you that I am honest with you, and you will have mercy on
us. To-night, after supper, I found that the little chamois bag in which
I keep the few little things I have like that brooch, and the money I
take in from the store during the day, was gone. Yes, I was afraid then.
I was afraid. But he is all I have, and——”

“And my eight hundred dollars, that he came over here and stole
afterwards, was all _I_ had!” screamed Marco. “You tell me only what a
blind man could see for himself! Did I not put two and two together
myself? He has run away now—eh—with all he could get? That he stole from
you does not give me back my money. But the police will find him! Ha,
ha! The police will find him, and when they do they will remember the
reform school and he will get ten years—yes, yes, ten years—for this!”

“Listen!” Mrs. Clancy’s voice choked. She brushed the tears from her
cheeks with a trembling hand. “If—if I give you back the money, will you
let him go?”

“Ha!” Marco stood stock still, staring at her. “What is that you say?
You will give me back the money? You! Are you trying to make a fool of
me?”

“No, no!” she cried. “I’ve got that much—it is my savings—it is in the
bank. Listen! Oh, for God’s sake, be merciful! Give him a chance! You’ll
get your money back, you won’t lose anything, and—and you would the
other way, because—because before they caught him he would perhaps have
spent a lot of it.”

“That is true!” said Marco, in a milder tone; and then, a hint of
suspicion in his voice: “What bank is it in? The bank down the street?”

“Yes,” she answered.

“That is my bank, too,” said Marco. He stared at the woman for a moment
speculatively, then his eyes circled the room, and he stared at the
broken safe. “Will you pay for my safe?” he demanded abruptly.

“Yes,” she agreed eagerly.

“Fifty dollars,” said Marco. “It would be fifty dollars.”

“Yes—oh, thank God!” She was crying again.

“So!” Marco shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I will do it.” He walked back
toward the safe, picked up a check book from amongst the debris on the
floor, tore out a blank check, dropped the book on the floor again, and
returned to the table. He pushed the slip of paper toward Mrs. Clancy,
and pulled out a fountain pen from his pocket. “So! Well, make out a
check for eight hundred and fifty dollars.” He shrugged his shoulders
again.

It was slow work. Mrs. Clancy’s hand trembled, and she stopped at
intervals to wipe her eyes. Billy Kane edged closer to the door. It was
probably all she had, the savings of years from the little shop, but the
fear and strain was gone from her face, and her lips were quivering in a
smile, as she signed her name at last, and handed the check to Marco.

But now Billy Kane’s revolver was in his hand—and suddenly, as Marco
held the check close to his eyes to peer at it through his thick lenses,
Billy Kane stepped forward across the threshold. And then Billy Kane
spoke.

“Drop that, Marco!” he said quietly.

There was a cry of terror from the woman, as she whirled around,
white-faced, clutching at her breast; it was echoed by a frightened gasp
from Marco, and as though the slip of paper in his fingers had suddenly
turned to white hot iron, he snatched his hands back in a sort of
grotesque jerk, and the check fluttered to the table.

Billy Kane stepped toward the man.

“You’ve made a mistake, Marco, haven’t you?” he inquired coolly.
“Instead of this woman’s son being the robber, are you sure it
isn’t—yourself?”

The man shrank back.

“What do you mean—myself?” he stammered hoarsely. And then, recovering a
little of his self-control: “Who are you? And what are you butting in
here for? What’s your game to say I did that?” He jerked his hand toward
the safe. “You can’t bluff old Marco, whatever you’re up to! I was in
Morgenfeldt’s café all evening until half past ten, and I can prove it;
and ten minutes after that I was pulling her”—he jerked his hand toward
Mrs. Clancy now—“out of her shop next door to show her what I had found
here. She’ll tell you so, too! I couldn’t have come all the way from
Morgenfeldt’s, and done all that, and blown that safe open in ten
minutes, could I?”

Billy Kane’s smile was unpleasant.

“Don’t be in such a hurry to produce your alibi, Marco,” he said evenly.
“It sounds suspicious—and it also accounts for a good deal. I think
we’ll take a look through your pockets, Marco—not for the eight
hundred”—Billy Kane’s smile had grown still more uninviting—“but on the
chance that we may find something else. Put your hands up!”

The man hesitated.

Billy Kane’s revolver muzzle came to a level with the other’s eyes.

“Put them up!” he ordered curtly; and, as the man obeyed now, he felt
deftly over the other’s clothing, located a revolver, whipped it out,
and laid it on the table behind him. A moment later, also from the man’s
pocket, he took a chamois bag, which, too, he placed upon the table.

Mrs. Clancy, with a startled cry, snatched at it.

“Mary, Mother of Mercy, what does this mean!” she gasped out. “It’s—it’s
my bag!”

“It means that our friend Marco here is a very versatile rogue,” said
Billy Kane grimly. “You may put your hands down now, Marco, and”—he was
clipping off his words—“you won’t need that beard, or those glasses any
more! Take them off!”

The man had gone a sudden grayish white. Mechanically he obeyed—and
cowered back, his eyes in terror fixed on Billy Kane’s mask. _It was
Antonio Laverto._

With a scream of rage, Mrs. Clancy rushed at the man.

“You—you devil!” she shrilled. “You made me believe my boy was a
thief—God forgive me for it! And—ah, let me at him! I’m only a woman,
but——”

Billy Kane had stepped between them.

“Wait!” he said. “There’s a better way, Mrs. Clancy.” He swung on the
Italian. “If it hadn’t been for your voice, Laverto—you see, I know
you—you might have got away with it. I didn’t recognize you at first.
You’re clever, damnably clever, I’ll give you credit for that, if it’s
any satisfaction to you. You must be a busy man! Are there any more
rôles in your repertoire? Well, no matter! The Italian crippled beggar,
and Marco the second-hand clothing dealer are enough for now—and enough
to put you where you belong!” His voice rasped suddenly. “You blotch on
God’s earth!” he said between his teeth. “You knew Mrs. Clancy had a
little money, and you knew that her son had a reform school record
against him. And so, about two weeks ago, you rented this place next to
hers that was then vacant, and you stocked it with a few old clothes,
and you hired her son to act as clerk; and you hired him, not with an
idea of doing any business, but as a necessary part of your plan to
incriminate him in his mother’s eyes, and also to enable you, without
arousing suspicion by appearing to neglect business here, to attend to
other irons equally as despicable that you had in the fire at the same
time—playing the flopper, for instance, up on Fifth Avenue. The whole
outlay probably cost you but a few dollars—and in return you meant to
get all of this woman’s life savings. I say all, because you probably
found out how much she had, and if she had had much more than eight
hundred dollars you would have set your fake loss higher. And to-night
in some way—the details do not matter at this moment—you stole from her
that chamois bag, both to impress her with the belief that the boy had
stolen from her too, and also to secure spurious evidence to prove that
he had been guilty of what you claimed had happened here.”

Billy Kane paused. His eyes had travelled to the wrecked safe—and sharp
and quick had come the thought of Whitie Jack. He smiled grimly. He did
not want Whitie Jack to appear in this. He owed Whitie Jack a good deal
to-night—and the “Rat” never forgot! His eyes came back to Marco. The
man was circling his lips with the tip of his tongue.

“You’re going up for this, Marco,” Billy Kane said in level tones. “But
I’ll give you a friendly tip—for reasons of my own. Maybe you didn’t
pull this safe-cracking game yourself, maybe your alibi stands on that
count; but, if it does, you got some tool to pull it off for you just
for that reason, and possibly also because you didn’t know how to handle
the ‘soup’ yourself—and if it’s one of the boys it won’t help your case
any to snitch on him, for you’re caught open and shut in this anyhow,
and maybe, Laverto, some of his friends might remember it when you _got
out_ again! You get the idea, don’t you? Yes, I see you do! Well, then,
there’s just one thing more. If this little game of yours had broken
right for you, Mrs. Clancy’s son—to make it appear that he had run
away—would have had to disappear for several days, until you could have
pulled up stakes here without exciting suspicion, and have pretended to
move away. Therefore, where is he now—Laverto?”

There were beads of sweat on the man’s forehead. His lips moved
mumblingly.

“_Where?_” Billy Kane’s revolver edged viciously forward. “I didn’t hear
you!”

“Wong Yen’s,” the man whispered.

Billy Kane’s jaws snapped together. He had heard of Wong Yen’s! It was
one of the most infamous Chinese underground dives in the Bad Lands.

“Doped?” He bit off the word.

“Yes,” the man whispered again.

Billy Kane turned to Mrs. Clancy.

“He’s yours now, Mrs. Clancy. You know the story, and you know where to
send them for your boy. I guess I can leave him to you. They say the
female of the species is more deadly than the male! There’s his
revolver. Do you think you could march him out of the front door, and
hand him over to the first officer you see?”

There was a bitter, hard look on Mrs. Clancy’s face. Big and brawny, she
towered over the cringing figure of the Italian—and the Italian shrank
still farther away from her, as she snatched up the weapon.

“I can!” she said, and her short laugh was not a pleasant one. “And I
can shoot if I have to, and, faith, there’d be joy in the doin’ of it;
but you”—her voice broke suddenly—“I don’t know who you are, and I owe
you——”

Billy Kane was backing toward the rear door.

“You’ll pay it all, and more, Mrs. Clancy, when you hand him over to the
police,” he said quickly—and, stepping out into the passageway, he ran
down its length, whipping the mask from his face as he went; and in
another instant, from the lane, had gained the cross street.



VI—A MIDNIGHT VISITOR


Keeping in the shadows and avoiding the passers-by as on his way to
Marco’s, Billy Kane hurried even more now on his return to the Rat’s. In
a moment or so, when Mrs. Clancy reached the front street with her
prisoner, there was likely to be an uproar, and he wanted to be housed
and under cover if possible before that broke loose. Mrs. Clancy’s story
could hardly omit reference to the man in the mask, and the police, to
say nothing of the on-lookers, might evince a most unpleasant degree of
practical curiosity—and he, Billy Kane, was in no condition, either
mental, or, above all, physical, to play hare to the hounds of the law
again that night. He was conscious now, as he made his way swiftly
along, that his shoulder was paining him intensely again, and that,
though through nerve force, his feet moved quickly enough under him, his
knees were wobbly and weak.

He turned a corner, and still another—and drew a deep breath of relief.
He was out of range of the second-hand shop now, and the Rat’s den was
just ahead up the street, and there was no one in sight.

Billy Kane swept his hand heavily across his eyes. It was strange! There
was not far from being a very close analogy between himself and Mrs.
Clancy’s son to-night. Mrs. Clancy’s son had been selected as the victim
of a “plant” much like himself—only there had been no murder, and the
“plant” had failed. It was curious, very curious, that the two should
have been so much alike, and that though he had been able to save the
other, he himself was being searched for at that moment in every corner
of New York, and that the human drag-net was spread for him, and that
the wires all over the country were hot with his description, and that
into every newspaper office in every state was pouring the story that
would make of him an abominable and an abandoned thing!

His head was singing. He stumbled a little, as he made his way down the
stairs, and fumbled with Whitie Jack’s key in the lock of the Rat’s
door. Well, if the Rat, who was away, did not return too soon, and if—he
shook his head, as he opened the door, and stepped inside, and locked it
behind him—no, he was too tired, and too near the breaking point to
think any more. He had a chance to rest now until morning. Whitie Jack
had said that no one would dare disturb the Rat, and that was enough—he
did not want to think any more—until morning.

He groped his way forward to the electric light, reached up to turn it
on—and, with his arm poised in mid-air, stood suddenly tense and rigid.
He listened. It came again—as though some one were knocking cautiously
on the wall—and it seemed to come from the far end of the room near the
bureau.

Billy Kane’s hand shot into his pocket and closed on his revolver; and,
quick and silent in every movement now, he tiptoed across the room in
the darkness, slipped in behind the cretonne hanging and waited, peering
through a corner of the hanging.

And now it was absolutely silent again. Perhaps a half minute passed,
and then, grotesquely, as though it came through the wall itself, the
white ray of a flashlight streamed into the room, and circled it slowly
and deliberately. And then a form moved forward—a woman’s form—and
crossed the room to the table. There was a slight sound as of the
rustling of paper, and, with the ray now flooding the top of the table,
Billy Kane could see that she was writing; but her back was turned, and
he could not see her face. For a moment more she stood there bending
over the table, and then, turning, she retreated again to the rear of
the room.

The flashlight now was full on the rear wall—but there was no opening
there. Billy Kane leaned tensely forward, watching through the corner of
the hanging. This den of the Rat’s that he, or fate for him, had
appropriated, promised much more than appeared on the surface! It was
obvious that there was another entrance than that from the street, and
to obtain its secret now was a matter upon which his life, sooner or
later, might very easily depend.

She was stooping now slightly, and her hand in the glare of the
flashlight was moving in a slow, tentative way up and down one of the
wall boards—and then her hand for an instant remained motionless. Billy
Kane drew in his breath softly. It was ingenious, clever, cunning—and a
craftsman’s work. A small door swung open into the room—a most curious
door! Its top was of an absurd zigzag shape—due to the fact that it
followed the natural joints of the wall boards. And the whole, three
boards in width, in no part therefore, to casual or even critical
examination, would show any signs of an opening, since it opened only
where boards joined one another, and since everywhere in the room all
the wall boards were more or less warped and ill-fitting!

The light was suddenly shaded, obliterated almost, as she passed through
the opening—and then was blotted out. The door had closed without a
sound. She was gone.

Billy Kane did not move. His eyes, as though fascinated, as though
fearful that he might lose it, were fixed through the darkness on the
particular spot on the wall where this strange midnight visitor had run
her hand up and down. A minute, two, three, passed. Wherever that
opening led to, she must be far enough away now to make it safe for him
to act. But he dared not turn on the electric light. It might throw a
glimmer to the street. He was none too sure of either the sill or panels
of that front door! Whitie Jack had passed the word around of the Rat’s
return—was this woman one to whom that word had come? In any case, she
had thought the room empty, the Rat away, and therefore he could not run
the risk of exposing the fact that he had been _hidden_ there—he knew
too little—and perhaps already too much!

He stepped silently over to the wall now. If he only had a match! But he
had lost his match-safe with his coat—no, there were matches here, a box
of them—his fingers had been mechanically searching his pockets—he had
forgotten—it was not even the coat Whitie Jack had given him at the
second-hand shop, it was the Rat’s coat now he was wearing!

He struck a match, located the board, pressed his hand up and down its
length, and felt something give slightly. The door began to swing open.
He blew out the match instantly, and, crouched there, listened. He could
hear nothing. He lighted another match, and this time held it above his
head. A short, tunnel-like passage through the ground, strongly braced
and stayed, and trending gently upward, confronted him.

He stepped forward into the opening, and, bending head and shoulders,
for the roof was scarcely four feet in height, followed the passage for
some five or six yards to where it ended abruptly in a blank wall of
earth, but where, above his head, a third match disclosed a trap-door.
Again Billy Kane listened, and then cautiously raised the door. It was
pitch black now. He drew himself up, and once more listened. There was
no sound. He lighted another match—the stub of the one before being
carefully consigned to his pocket—and nodded his head in understanding.
The passage had led him into a shed, evidently little used, for it was
littered and stored with odds and ends that, judging from the
accumulated dust and dirt, had been untouched for a long time; and the
shed itself—yes, he was right—he had pushed the back door open a
little—the shed gave directly on a lane.

Billy Kane closed the shed door; and, noting with grim appreciation that
the trap-door, as he closed it above his head, was an ingenious
arrangement of the floor planking similar to the construction of the
door within the Rat’s quarters, and was moreover, as an added
precaution, surrounded by an apparently careless stowage of the shed’s
litter, he made his way back along the passage again. The room door he
examined as he passed through. It was manipulated from the _inside_ of
the passage by an ordinary and frankly obvious spring lock. He closed
it, and stood for a moment staring at it speculatively. There seemed no
way of locking it here in the room, of protecting himself from an
intrusion through the night that might not be either as instructive or
as harmless as this first one had been. There might be a way, and there
probably was a way of fastening it, the Rat would surely have seen to
that, but he, Billy Kane, was too far gone, too weak, too tired, too
nearly all in to hunt or search for it now—and there _was_ a way of
obviating the possibility of the door being opened without first
arousing him and putting him on his guard. He went to the table, picked
up a chair, and, carrying it back, tilted it against the door in the
wall.

And now he swayed a little, and his hand sought his eyes. He was
conscious again of his aching shoulder, and that his head was swimming
dizzily—but he seemed to have forgotten something—yes, he remembered
now—that paper—that paper on which she had written something. He laughed
in a strained, almost delirious way. He must be worse than he imagined,
if he had, even for an instant, forgotten that! Or was it just simply
the reaction coming now?

He stumbled toward the table, and, feeling with his hand, secured the
paper—but there was no chair here now, and he stumbled across the room,
and sat down on the edge of the bed. He lighted another match, held it
close to the paper, and read the pencilled lines.

    So you are back, are you?
    Well, so am I! _Remember!_

The match burned down to his fingers, and he dropped it on the floor.
What did it mean? Who was she? He shook his head. And then, with a
queer, twisted smile, he folded the paper, thrust it into his
pocket—and, stretching himself out fully dressed upon the bed, lay there
staring into the darkness.



VII—WHISPERING SHADOWS


It was the next evening—in the Rat’s den. Through half closed eyes, as
he lay stretched out on the bed, Billy Kane watched Whitie Jack across
the room. The man was tilted back in his chair, his legs were sprawled
across the table, and from his cigarette, which dangled from one corner
of his lower lip, a thread of blue smoke spiraled lazily upward. Whitie
Jack was not smoking; the cigarette simply hung forgotten on the man’s
lip. For the moment Whitie Jack with bated interest was poring over the
evening paper.

And then Whitie Jack looked up suddenly, and spoke—out of the unoccupied
corner of his mouth.

“Say, dat secretary guy dat croaked de old geezer last night was a
sweet, downy bird—nit! But believe me, he made some haul—_some_ haul!”

Billy Kane made no reply. Whitie Jack resumed his absorbing perusal of
the newspaper. Billy Kane’s eyes closed completely—but not in sleep. It
had been a day that, viewed in retrospect, made the brain whirl. It had
been a wild untrammelled phantasmagoria. That was it—phantasmagoria.
There was no other word. The day was expressed in shadows, moving
shadows, shadows that came and went, many of them, shadows that were
paradoxically real and concrete, and shadows that were the reflection of
things felt and sensed, but unseen. And these latter, the shadows of the
mind, were weird, uncanny things like denizens out of some black world
apart—ghoulish things. And the shadows that were real and concrete, that
spoke and whispered, seemed to take it for granted that he was and
always had been in their evil confidence, and so their words were not
rounded out, and there was only the hint of dark and hideous things in
which he was supposed to have his part. It had been a day of mutterings,
of whisperings, of skulking things that had fled the sunlight. The brain
and mind was in riot from it. It was evening now; it had been the
strangest day through which any man had ever lived.

He had held court that morning and through the day, here in the Rat’s
lair—a sort of grim, unholy court to which grim, unholy courtiers had
flocked to pay him homage. And these courtiers had been admitted to the
presence one by one, their names announced by Whitie Jack, who had
acted—quite innocently, quite free from any thought of connivance—as the
master of ceremonies. Billy Kane’s lips twisted in a mirthless smile. It
had been very simple, that part of it; much more simple than he had
dared to hope it would be. Bundy Morgan, alias the Rat, was supposed to
know all those who composed the élite of the underworld intimately and
well—but Billy Kane upon whom fate had thrust for the moment the
personality and entity of Bundy Morgan, alias the Rat, knew none of
them. And yet it had been simple—so simple that, against the peril, the
certain death that would follow fast on the heels of even a misplaced
word or an unguarded look, it had been even grotesquely absurd in its
simplicity. Through the dens and dives of the Bad Lands, spread by
Whitie Jack when he had gone away the night before, the whisper had
passed that the Rat had returned; and so, throughout the day, stealthy
footsteps had descended from the street to the basement door here, and
in response to the knock Whitie Jack had opened the door a cautious
inch, peering out; and then he, Billy Kane, from the bed, his voice
querulous for the occasion, had demanded who it was, and Whitie Jack had
answered—and the unsuspected introduction thus performed, he had bidden
Whitie Jack admit the visitor.

There had been many like that—very many. And he had learned many things.
His hands clenched suddenly at his sides. The rôle he played promised
well! Innuendoes, words toying with the fringe of things, had made it
only too glaringly clear that the Rat was enmeshed in devilishness that
ran the gamut of every crime in the decalogue. And for the moment he was
the Rat! There was some hell’s syndicate, whose scope and power he could
only dimly plumb though he was satisfied that its branches were rooted
in every nook and corner of the underworld. And of this syndicate he was
now, by proxy, a member; and he was not only a member, but he was one of
those magnates of crime who composed its inner council, its unhallowed
directorate.

He twisted a little on the bed—more in mental than in physical unrest.
His wounded shoulder was still far from healed of course, but it gave
him very little discomfort, and in no way interfered with his freedom of
action—but it had been the safer way, this accentuating of his hurt,
this pretended state of semi-helplessness. It had brought those he must
know _here_ to him; it had brought about those unsuspected introductions
without which, had he first left this lair of the Rat’s and attempted,
trusting to luck, to pick up the threads of the Rat’s life, would
inevitably have plunged him in his blind groping to certain destruction.
Also it had brought him a quite thorough understanding of Whitie
Jack—the man’s deference that had been almost cringing at their first
meeting, and then the man’s subsequent eagerness to serve.

Whitie Jack was one of the lesser breed that looked up to the heights
the Rat had attained with both awe and unbounded admiration. The man had
come like a dog to heel, but like a faithful dog. Whitie Jack was living
in a sort of reflected glory—he would be the envy of the proletariat of
the Bad Lands—he was associating now, was even on terms of certain
intimacy, with one of those in high places in that inglorious
commonwealth of crime to which, both by birth and inclination, he owned
allegiance. It opened a new prospect to Whitie Jack, one that was full
of dazzling possibilities—and it had made of the man an invaluable ally.
Whitie Jack had been at once valet, nurse, surgeon and attendant all
through the day. He had returned at daylight that morning, dressed the
wound, and thereafter had not left the place except to go out and buy
certain necessities, such as food—and a pocket flashlight, which Billy
Kane, mindful of his previous night’s experience in the underground
passage to the shed and lane, had ranked amongst those necessities as
the first on the list.

Billy Kane shifted his position restlessly on the bed again. His mind
was in a turmoil of feverish activity. It seemed as though a thousand
divergent thoughts fought with each other to obtain undivided attention
and recognition each for itself, and the battle went on incessantly. Who
was the woman who had crept in here in the darkness through that secret
door last night? What did it mean, that message she had written and left
on the table? “So you are back, are you? Well, so am I! _Remember!_”
There was something malignant, something ominous in that
word—“remember.” Remember what? Why? What sinister thing was it that lay
between her and the Rat—that he, Billy Kane, must now accept and stand
sponsor for—since he was now the Rat!

The Rat! The Rat! The Rat! His brain was off again at another tangent.
In Heaven’s name, who was the Rat? Where was the Rat at this moment?
When would the Rat return? Guarded questions all through the day helped
him little. The Rat’s absence had been accepted, that was all—none
seemed to know, or have any interest in the cause of it. One ray of
reassurance only had filtered through the murk. The Rat’s return in his,
Billy Kane’s, person, had seemingly been premature, the Rat had
seemingly not been expected; and he could argue from that, and with fair
logic, that he might for a little while at least be left undisturbed in
his possession of the Rat’s personality, and the Rat’s belongings—as far
as the Rat was concerned. The Rat! Those innuendoes, those whispers,
those shadows, that strange woman’s stranger message were back again,
seething and boiling in his brain. Naked ugliness! What mess of iniquity
was the Rat not mixed up in! And what mess of iniquity might not he,
Billy Kane, accepted without question as the Rat now, with the Rat’s
face and features, with the Rat’s satanic partnerships, be forced to
wallow in to save his life, and, more than life, to——

The paper rustled in Whitie Jack’s hand.

“Some haul!” Whitie Jack rolled the words on his tongue like some sweet
morsel. “S’help me! Five hundred thousand dollars’ worth of rubies! Dat
guy Kane is some slick gazabo! Say, d’youse get it, Bundy? Five hundred
thousand—an’ a bunch of de green stuff, too!” He licked his lips. “Some
haul!”

The paper had exaggerated. David Ellsworth’s rubies at the outside would
not exceed three hundred thousand dollars in value. Billy Kane found
himself curiously and querulously irritated at the inaccuracy. He opened
his eyes, nodded unconcernedly at Whitie Jack—and closed his eyes again.
His mind was suddenly alert and concentrated. In a few minutes now some
of those who composed that inner council of crime would be here. He had
arranged that this morning—with Red Vallon. Red Vallon was the biggest
gangster in New York. Whitie Jack had dropped that information in an
enthusiastic eulogy of Red Vallon. And Vallon had bent over the bed that
morning and whispered of a meeting to-night at the usual time and place.
But he, Billy Kane, was not ready for that yet. He knew too little, it
was too great a risk; and he knew too much—to escape alive, if a chance
word or act betrayed him. But there had come a thought, swift, in a
blinding flash, a staggering thing, a gambler’s stake, and he had
whispered back what was apparently the obvious reply—that he was too
badly hurt to go. And then: “One or two of you slip in here on your way
over,” he had said quickly. “Get me? I’ve got something!” And Red Vallon
had agreed—and with Red Vallon would come Karlin. Karlin! The name had
somehow seemed familiar; but though Whitie Jack had subsequently
furnished a partial clew by referring to Karlin as one of the high-brow
lawyers of the city, he could not definitely place the man.

Billy Kane turned on his side, with his face away from Whitie Jack. Red
Vallon and Karlin would be here in a few moments—and he must make no
mistake now. What he meant to do was an impudent thing—impudent with a
Titanic impudence. He meant to pit the underworld in a fight on the side
of justice against the police. He meant to use the craft, the cunning
and the stealth of the Bad Lands to establish his innocence. He too had
read the papers—the morning and the evening papers—and the headlines had
shrieked out at him the infamy of which he was accused. His name was a
by-word now from one end of the country to the other. A viper and a
degraded wretch, a thing inhuman and apart, the papers had called him.

He had read them all to the last word. Murderer of his benefactor! A
thief—an assassin thief, who had fled for his life with those blood-red
rubies! A bead of sweat came out on his forehead, and he raised his hand
and brushed it away. Yes, he had fled—to fight—to take the only chance
he had of bringing to justice the hell-hounds who had struck down his
old friend, the only chance he had of clearing his own name.

Well, he would fight! It was beginning now, that fight. But he was
between two fires that threatened him at any instant with destruction.
The police, not only in New York, but from the Atlantic to the Pacific,
would search ceaselessly for him, and if he were caught it was death.
Fate, that had made him the double of a character that ironically seemed
to measure up to everything the papers had said about himself, had
thrown in that way a temporary mantle of protection over him, but let
that mantle slip but ever so slightly and he would better a thousand
times hand himself over to the law and have done with it—the end would
be more merciful!

But fate, too, had given him a weapon with which to fight; and,
two-edged though it was, with a chance always that it might turn upon
himself, he meant to use it now—and that weapon was the underworld. He
did not know yet, he was not sure yet just how high he stood in that
unsavory command, but he had discounted rather than overrated his power,
and he believed he had power enough for his purpose—those whispers and
those shadows had seemed to assure him of that. The Rat seemed to be the
driving strategical force in this crime syndicate that appeared to
permeate the Bad Lands with its influence, and move and sway the
underworld at its own imperious pleasure—and for the moment he was the
Rat!

There was Jackson—and Jackson was dead. His mind had flown off at
another apparently irrelevant tangent. But it was not irrelevant. The
papers had said that Jackson, the footman, had died that morning after
lingering in a semi-conscious state through the night. Jackson was the
single clue in his possession. Jackson, he knew, was one of the
murderers, but Jackson was the _only_ man he knew who was concerned in
that devil’s work last night—and Jackson was dead. And now he, Billy
Kane, was “wanted” on a double charge of murder—for the murder of
Jackson, who had probably himself struck old David Ellsworth down, as
well as for the murderer of the old millionaire! Yet Jackson, even if
dead, must still have left some clue behind him, if only that clue could
be found. Who was Jackson? The man had already been in service at David
Ellsworth’s before he, Billy Kane, had gone there as the old
philanthropist’s secretary, and he had naturally had neither motive nor
interest then in any of the footman’s personal concerns. But those facts
were vital now. Who was Jackson? Where had the man come from? Who were——

Footsteps were descending from the street. There was a low knock, twice
repeated on the door. Whitie Jack was on his feet, and looking
inquiringly toward the bed.

“Watch yourself!” said Billy Kane gruffly. “I’m not entertaining
to-night, except——”

“Sure—I know!” said Whitie Jack. He crossed the room, and, opening the
door a crack, peered out. “Red and Karlin,” he informed Billy Kane in a
whisper.



VIII—A LEASH IS SLIPPED


Billy Kane lighted a cigarette. Red Vallon he already knew—-Karlin he
was _supposed_ to know. “Let them in,” instructed Billy Kane.

He raised himself on his elbow.

“Hello, Karlin!” he greeted, as the two men stepped into the room.
“Red’s told you I was laid up—-eh? Glad to see you! Shake!”

His eyes, half closed, fixed on the other in scrutiny, as the man
advanced toward the bed. Karlin was immaculately dressed—in sharp
contrast to the untidy and careless attire of the stocky, brutal-faced
gangster who followed close at his heels. The man was tall, slimly
built, and, save that the black eyes were too close together and too
small, had a pleasant and attractive face. It was a mask perhaps! The
smile was too engaging; and it was rather curious how small the ears
were, and how tightly they hugged the skull. He toyed with a little
black Vandyke beard, as he shook hands.

“Same to you, Bundy!” The voice was soft, silky, persuasive. “Glad
you’re back, too!” He made an almost imperceptible movement with his
head toward Whitie Jack, who still remained near the door.

Red Vallon was more blunt.

“What about _him_, Bundy?” he growled, and jerked a thumb in Whitie
Jack’s direction. “We got to mosey along as soon as we can. Savvy?”

“Sure!” said Billy Kane. “Whitie, you take a holiday for the night. Come
back in the morning. Beat it!”

The cigarette hanging on Whitie Jack’s lip drooped in sudden dejection;
but if he swallowed hard to choke back what was evidently a very
grievous disappointment, he made no demur.

“All right, Bundy, if youse says so,” he blurted out, and went from the
room, closing the door behind him.

The man’s footfalls mounting the cellar-like stairs to the street died
away, and for a moment there was no sound except for a faint, irregular
_tapping_ from the floor above.

“What’s that?” demanded Karlin sharply.

Billy Kane blew a ring of smoke ceilingward, and lazily watched it
dissolve into air. Whitie Jack, through judicious prodding, had served
him well that day.

“Old Ignace—keeps the cobbler’s shop above—half blind, and has to work
overtime—wife’s nearly seventy, and deaf.” Billy Kane was explaining
almost wearily. “What do you think I hang onto this hole for?”

“Sure!” grunted Red Vallon corroboratingly. “But Karlin’s never been
here before.” He pushed a chair with the toe of his boot across the
floor toward Karlin, and appropriated one beside the table for himself.
“Well, spill it, Bundy!” he invited. “We got to hurry! It’s too bad
you’re laid up an’ can’t sit in on the showdown, but Merxler’s plum’s
got ripe, an’ we got to pick it to-night. Savvy?”

Billy Kane duplicated the first smoke ring. Merxler! He had identified
Karlin now! Karlin and Merxler! That was where he had heard Karlin’s
name—in connection with Merxler—and it must, necessarily then be the
same Merxler. Was young Merxler, whom he had heard of and had even met
through David Ellsworth, more then than simply the notorious spendthrift
that he was credited with being? Karlin, it was obvious, was leading a
double life. Was Merxler another of the inner circle, another from the
higher ranks of society—and the greater criminal therefor!

“Piker stuff!” commented Billy Kane complacently.

Karlin leaned forward with a jerk in his chair.

“Piker stuff!” he ejaculated, and the little black eyes contracted and
fixed on Billy Kane in a puzzled glitter. “Piker stuff!” he echoed
challengingly.

Billy Kane nodded indifferently. He was skating on thin ice, on
perilously thin ice. Whatever the “Merxler plum” might be, it was
obviously far from the definition he had given it, and having apparently
displayed an intimacy with the affair, an intimacy that he was evidently
supposed to possess, it was decidedly best left alone!

“That’s what I said,” he drawled deliberately. “Piker stuff—compared
with what I’ve got. I told you I had something, Red—didn’t I?”

Red Vallon hitched sideways in his chair, his head thrust forward.

“Go to it, Bundy! Spill it!” He circled his lips with his tongue. “If
you say so, that goes! What’s the lay?”

“Five hundred thousand dollars—a half million—cold”—Billy Kane had
lowered his voice.

He did not look at either of the men, but he was watching them both
intently—his eyes were on the mirror, the mirror of the bureau at the
far end of the room, that bore testimony to the cunning of his unwitting
host. The mirror held the door and the upper part of the room in focus;
and, lying there on the bed, he had the profiles of the two men in
distinct outline. Karlin was fingering his Vandyke in a sort of hesitant
incredulity. Vallon’s face had suddenly blotched red with rapacious
excitement.

“Gawd!” Red Vallon spluttered out. “D’ye mean that, Bundy?”

“Sure, I mean it!” Billy Kane answered a little curtly. “What do you
think I told you to come here for? Sure, I mean it! It’s all there—right
on the table, hitting you between the eyes.”

Red Vallon jerked himself around; and, as though he had taken the words
literally, stared with a frown of bewilderment at the only thing in view
upon the table—the newspaper that Whitie Jack had dropped there when he
had answered the summons at the door.

Billy Kane laughed quietly.

“Get it, Red?” he inquired. “Five hundred thousand dollars—better than
diamonds—blood-red rubies—red with blood, the paper says. Can’t you
read?”

Karlin had forgotten his beard. His hands clenched on his knees.

“You mean the Ellsworth murder—the robbery?” He was whispering hoarsely.

“You win!” said Billy Kane.

“My God!” whispered Karlin. “Do you know where that stuff is?”

Billy Kane’s eyes had returned to the mirror, and now suddenly they
shifted a little to the wall at the side of the bureau. Something cold
and forbidding seemed to grip at him, numbing for an instant mental and
physical action—and then left him in a state of grim, unnatural
calmness. Was it imagination? He could have sworn that the wall _moved_
slightly. He swung over on his left side, as though to face Karlin and
Red Vallon more directly before he answered them—but his hand, slipping
into his coat pocket, closed over his revolver. It _might_ be
imagination, but the possibility remained that someone was on the other
side of that secret door, and, having pushed the door almost
imperceptibly open, was listening there. If that were so, he must get
rid of Red Vallon and Karlin before any dénouement came if possible, get
rid of them without an instant’s loss of time; but equally vital was the
necessity of setting in motion, and equally without loss of time, the
machinery of the underworld upon which now he was practically staking
his all.

“Pull your chair over here, closer to the bed, Red—and you, too,
Karlin,” he said coolly. “We aren’t likely to be heard from the street,
but that’s no reason for shouting. No; I don’t know where they are, I
haven’t got the rubies in my pocket—but I know how to get them there.
What?”

Red Vallon’s face was working in a sort of anticipatory and avaricious
ugliness; Karlin’s expression was scarcely less rapacious.

“Go on, Bundy!” Karlin said under his breath. “What do you know about
it?”

“What you could have read for yourself in the paper,” Billy Kane
answered tersely. “And it looks like a cinch. It’s just a case of
beating the police to it, and it sizes up as though we had the jump on
them.” He was speaking almost mechanically. His mind was on that section
of the wall that _might_ have moved; and through half-closed eyes, but
as though deep in thought and as though concentrated on what he was
saying, he was watching it narrowly. It had not moved a second time, of
that he was sure; perhaps it had not moved at all, it might be only
nerves on his part, nerves high strung, taut to the breaking point, but
his fingers were still rigid around the stock of his revolver, and, in
the pocket, the weapon, resting on his hip as he lay sideways, held a
bead on the panels of the secret door.

“I don’t quite get you,” muttered Karlin, with a frown.

Red Vallon swore roughly, intolerant in his eagerness.

“Aw, give him a chance!” he said impatiently. “If he says so, that’s
good enough for me. Bundy never pulled a steer in his life, an’ if he
says this is a cinch—that goes! Give him a chance!”

“It’s like this,” said Billy Kane. “It’s a thousand to one shot that
this secretary chap who croaked the old millionaire and got away with
the goods is still in New Work. Why? Well, I’ll tell you why. After
pulling the murder, according to the papers, he beat it out of the house
with the loot, and evidently hid the stuff somewhere. Then he came back
to the house again, and the footman, Jackson, grabbed him. But there was
a good half hour between the time the police found out about the murder
and before this guy Kane came back to the house. Get me? And during that
time the police got busy and shot flycops around all the stations and
ferries. It’s a cinch, the way I look at it, that after he crawled into
that lane and they lost him there, that he’s been crawling ever since
somewhere around New York. He never left the city—he never had a
chance.”

Red Vallon whistled low and complacently under his breath; Karlin,
fingering his Vandyke again, nodded sharply now in approval.

“Besides,” added Billy Kane, “he had sort of queered his own game. He’d
hidden the loot somewhere, and he couldn’t make a direct get-away then.
He had to get hold of the goods again before he went. All right! What I
want to know is who’s got the better chance of grabbing him—us or the
police? He isn’t one of us. He’s working on his own. Well, all right! If
we nip him, and he’s satisfied with a little rake-off, and is willing to
cough up the rest, that’ll be treating him fair. If he isn’t strong on
coughing up, we’ll find another way of making him come across that he
won’t like so well, and we’ll get the half million, and he’ll get——”
Billy Kane completed his sentence with a significant shrug of his
shoulder.

An oath, the more callous and brutal for the soft purring way in which
it fell from his lips, came from Red Vallon.

“What do you want done, Bundy?” Karlin was terse and to the point. “It
looks good to me, if you can pull it off.”

“It’s the biggest haul we’ll ever get our mitts on if we live a hundred
years!” Billy Kane’s eyes shifted for an instant from the wall to fix
themselves impressively on the two men. “I’ve been lying here all day
thinking it out. What do I want done? Well, I’ll tell you! I want every
string and every wire we’ve got pulled. Savvy? We’ve got to beat the
police to it. We’ve got to get Kane—_first_. I want all the boys that
the bulls think they’ve got sewed up as stool pigeons to stool-pigeon
the police and get all the inside dope. And then that fellow Jackson,
the footman, looks like a bet we can’t throw down. He’s dead—but he
looks like a good bet. He lived all through the night, but the papers
don’t say anything about the story he told. Perhaps he knew something
that will help, perhaps he didn’t; but he doesn’t go into the discard
yet. Find out who he was and all about him, and get next to his family
if he’s got one. If he told any story to the police, any of the family
that were clustering around the bedside will be wise to it. Get the
idea?”

“Birdie Rose is the boy for that!” Red Vallon’s bullet head was thrust
forward in vicious earnestness, his red-rimmed black eyes were
glittering with a feverish light.

“Let Birdie go to it, then!” said Billy Kane.

“Birdie was slated for the Merxler affair to-night.” Karlin spoke a
little dubiously.

“Shift him!” snapped Billy Kane curtly. “Red’s right! Birdie’s the boy
for this job.”

“All right!” agreed Karlin, and shrugged his shoulders. He turned to Red
Vallon. “Put Bull McCann in Birdie’s place, then. See that he gets to
Jerry’s back room before ten.”

“I’ll fix it!” grunted Red Vallon. “What’s next, Bundy? This goes—all
the boys’ll fall for it.”

“There’s only one thing more—until something begins to crack open.”
Billy Kane’s lips had tightened, his eyelids had drooped still lower. It
was only a bare fraction of an inch at most—if at all—but it seemed that
door had moved again. His words were coming barely above a whisper now.
“There’s only one way he can get anything out of those rubies, and
that’s through a ‘fence.’ They’re no good to him unless he can cash in.
He’ll try to get rid of some of them as soon as he can. How soon depends
on how well he knows his way about. But he’s probably slick enough to
have got a line on a blind uncle or two. All right! The police, of
course, have passed the word down the line, but here’s where we put one
over on the police. There’s some of the joints they don’t know—we know
them all. Kane might get away from the police there—but he can’t get
away from _us_ on that deal. I want every ‘fence’ in New York tipped off
that he’s to stall on the job the minute he gets his lamps on a ruby
that’s being shoved his way, and that instead of opening up to the
police he’s to wise us up on the hop. That’s all for a starter—and now
go to it!”

Red Vallon drew in his breath noisily, as though he were sucking at some
luscious and juicy fruit.

“Some head, Bundy!” he applauded with undisguised admiration, as he
pushed away his chair and stood up. “Sure, we’ll go to it! Karlin’s
running the Merxler game to-night; but I’ll start this other thing
bumping along on the high gear. What about the reports? Who’ll the boys
make ’em to? You? Here?”

It was a moment before Billy Kane answered. It was the one thing he must
have, the one thing upon which he was staking everything—an intimate
knowledge of the result of every move made in this game that he had
initiated, and, beyond that again, it was vital that he, and no one else
should control each successive move. But Whitie Jack was gone for the
night. In one way he deplored that fact, in another way he was relieved.
If it was only imagination, if there was no one crouching there now on
the other side of that secret door, Whitie Jack’s presence would not
matter, but otherwise—his mind leaped to that other point—if Whitie Jack
was not here to perform those very necessary introductions, and Red
Vallon’s messengers came, messengers that he would be supposed to know
but would not be able to recognize, it would spell almost certain
disaster, and——

“There isn’t anything likely to break to-night, Red,” he said
deliberately. “If there does you look after it; or if it’s anything very
important you come here yourself. I want to get a night’s sleep if I
can, I’m feeling pretty rocky. But I ought to be on my feet to-morrow,
and in the morning you can swing the whole business over to me, and I’ll
run it.”

“Attaboy!” said Red Vallon heartily. “See you in the morning, then.”

Karlin too had risen from his chair.

“Good-night, Bundy!” he said—and grinned. “I pay you the compliment of
being the trickiest crook unhung!”



IX—BEHIND THE DOOR


The door closed behind the two men. Billy Kane lay motionless, save
that, as they climbed to the street and their footsteps echoed back from
the stairs, his hand, gripping his revolver, stole silently from his
pocket. There was a grim whiteness around his set lips. His ears
strained to catch the slightest sound from within the room, and strained
to catch the last echo of those retreating footfalls. He dared not make
a move until they were well away—out of earshot, say, of a revolver
report. If it were fancy, if the movement of that door were only his
imagination unhealthily stimulated, and unhealthily preying upon his
nerves, he would at least put an end to it in short order now! The steps
rang faintly back from the pavement, still more faintly, and were lost.
And then Billy Kane spoke—a cold deadly monotony in his voice:

“Those boards are thin! Come out into the room with your hands up before
I count three, or I’ll put a bullet through. One—two——”

There was a laugh, undisguised in its mockery, but low and musical. The
door, bizarre and grotesque in its zigzag projections, due to its
ingenious adherence to the natural joints in the wall boards, swung open
wide, and a woman stood in the room.

“I was only waiting for your friends to go, Bundy,” she said coolly.

The revolver sagged a little in Billy Kane’s hand. He could not see her
face very well, the single incandescent dangling from the ceiling was
miserably inadequate, but dark eyes flashed at him out of an oval face,
and the chin thrown up gave a glimpse of the contour of a full throat,
ivory white—and all this was merged in the background of a slender
figure clothed and cloaked in some dark material, unrelieved by a single
vistage of color.

She spoke again.

“I don’t think you are quite as badly hurt as you pretend, Bundy,” she
said, with a sort of icy composure. “You were out last night when I came
here, and if you could prowl around the streets, I think perhaps you
could manage now to get from the bed over to the door there and back
again without doing yourself any serious injury. The door has been
unlocked since Red Vallon went out, and it might be safer—locked.”

Billy Kane did not answer her. He got up, crossed to the door, locked
it, and, returning, sat down on the edge of the bed. She had not moved
from her position near the far end of the room. He became conscious that
he was still holding his revolver in his hand, and he thrust the weapon
quietly now into his pocket. A grim smile came and hovered on his lips.
This complication, another of the ramifications of his stolen identity,
he did not understand at all—except that it promised him no good. She
was the author of last night’s note—she had just said as much—and the
wording of that note was not reassuring as to her attitude toward him,
nor was the mockery in her laugh, nor was the self-contained, almost
contemptuous note of command with which she had just spoken. Who was
she? What was she to the Rat, that she knew the secret of that
underground tunnel, and the secret of that door?

He jerked his hand toward the chair Red Vallon had vacated.

“Sit down, won’t you?” There was a tingle of irony in his voice. His
invitation was at least safe ground.

She came forward toward the table, a subtle, supple grace in her
movements. Subconsciously he noted that she made no sound as she crossed
the room. She was like a cat—but a very beautiful cat. He could see her
face better now. The eyes were hard and unfriendly, but they were great,
brown, steady eyes of unfathomable depths.

She leaned against the table.

“I prefer to stand.” There was a challenge in her tones. “What I have to
say will not take long.”

Billy Kane waited. The initiative was with her. He meant it to remain
so. Her small white hand, ungloved, clenched suddenly at her side until
its knuckles stood out like little chalky knobs.

“You look sleeker about the face, clearer about the eyes—you beast!”
There was a studied deliberation in her voice that gave the words the
sting of a curling whip lash. “Perhaps you’ve been——”

“You were listening there at the door?” suggested Billy Kane
imperturbably, as he reached into his pocket for a cigarette.

There was a mocking little lift to her shoulders.

“Of course! That is what I came for. I followed Red Vallon here. I
supposed that you would meet at the old place, now that you are back;
but since you are an invalid——” Again the shoulders lifted.

“I am afraid it hardly paid you for the trouble—to listen,” Billy Kane
murmured caustically. “I’m sorry! I rather fancied I saw the door move,
and you see, my illness has affected my voice, and at times I can
scarcely speak above a whisper, otherwise you might have overheard——”

“I overheard enough!” She took a sudden step toward him. Her eyes were
flashing now; there was a flush, angry red, mounting from the white
throat, suffusing her cheeks. She raised her clenched hands. “You will
die with insolence and bravado on your lips, I believe!” she cried out
passionately. “How I _hate_ you! But I’ve got you—like _that_”—she flung
out an arm toward him, and the small clenched hand opened and then
closed again, slowly, as though in its grip it were remorselessly
crushing and exterminating some abhorrent thing. And then her hand was
raised again, and was brushed across her eyes, and a little quiver ran
through her form, and she spoke more calmly. “I overheard enough. I
thought this Merxler affair would be worked to-night, and I came to tell
you that you are to stop it. I came to tell you to—_remember_! I
promise, before God, that if there is murder done to-night you will be
in the hands of the police within an hour. And it’s not very far from
the Tombs to the death chair in Sing Sing—Bundy Morgan.”

Billy Kane’s eyes were hidden by drooped lids. His eyes were studying
with curious abstraction the pattern of the faded, greasy, threadbare
strip of carpet on the floor beside the bed. Murder! The word had come
with a shock that for a moment unnerved him. He had not associated
anything that Red Vallon or Karlin had said with murder. They had spoken
so lightly, referred to it in so humdrum a way. Murder! There was
something ghastly in that lightness now. A tightness came to his lips, a
horror was creeping into his soul. He was only on the verge of things,
of hidden and abominable things, here in this shadow land, this night
land of skulking shapes, this sordid realm of the underworld. He pulled
himself together. He was the Rat—he had a part to play. He was conscious
that those brown, fearless eyes were fixed on him contemptuously.

“What have I to do with it?” he muttered sullenly.

“Do with it! _You!_” Her voice rose, as though suddenly out of control.
“You dare ask that! You, with your devil’s brains—you, who planned it
all before you went away!”

The cigarette that he had lighted had gone out. He sucked at it,
circling it around his lips. He was fencing now with unbuttoned foils.

“Well, you’ve said it!” There was a snarl creeping into his voice. “I’ve
been away. I don’t know what they’ve done since I’ve been away.”

“You know about the will, and the sealed envelope in Merxler’s safe, and
you know the combination to the safe,” she said levelly. “And that’s all
you need to know to stop this from going any further.”

He laughed out shortly.

“And suppose I don’t know the combination! You don’t think I can carry a
thing like that in my head forever, do you?”

“No,” she said. She smiled curiously, and one hand slipped into the
bodice of her dress. “I don’t think you ever did memorize that
combination. But perhaps you will recognize it again—the original in
your own handwriting.” She held up a crumpled piece of paper before him,
then tossed it on the table.

“Where did you get that?” he demanded roughly.

Her shoulders lifted mockingly again.

“There are other secrets in this room besides that door and the tunnel
to the shed, aren’t there—Bundy?”

He eyed her now for a long minute, biting openly at his lip, his face
twisted in a well-simulated ugly scowl.

“So, I’m to queer this game, am I?” he snarled suddenly. “And if I’m
caught—as a snitch—they’ll tear me to pieces!”

She leaned a little forward from the table, a tense, lithe thing, and
her voice came low with passion:

“We’re wasting time—and you’ve none to lose. We’ve gone over this ground
before, haven’t we? It’s the one chance you have—to save yourself. Some
day you won’t be able to save yourself. Some day the reckoning will
come; but you will always have the _hope_ that it won’t, and that you
will always succeed in staving it off each time as you have in the past.
But until that day does come the only chance you have for life is to pit
your wits against the fiends like yourself that are around you. For what
you have done there is no atonement—only punishment. I mean you to live
in suspense, but even while that suspense lasts you will pull apart and
unravel your devil’s work as fast as you knit it together. You have a
chance that way! When the end comes and they get you, you know how the
underworld will pay—but there is the chance—that is what holds you—and
with the alternative—the police—there is no chance.”

She was breathing hard. She leaned back against the table, her hands
gripped tightly at its edge.

For a moment there was silence in the room. Billy Kane’s mind was
groping blindly now, as in some utter darkness. In some way, for there
was no question of the genuineness of her self-assurance, her very
presence here in seemingly placing herself in the Rat’s power proved
that she held the Rat, and the Rat’s life and liberty in the hollow of
her hand, at her beck and call. How? What was the secret of the power
she possessed over him? He lighted a match nonchalantly, and, as he
applied the flame to the half-burned cigarette he lifted his eyes to her
through the blue haze of smoke that he blew negligently in her
direction.

“Sometimes,” he said in a low, menacing tone, “people, even women, who
grow troublesome, have been known in this neighborhood—to disappear.”

She laughed sharply.

“You have no time to waste in foolish words!” she warned him curtly.
“You know the consequences of my—disappearance. You are at liberty to
take those consequences any time you choose. But you do not like them,
do you—Bundy?” She moved suddenly across the room, back to the secret
door through which she had entered. “I am going now,” she said steadily.
“If there is murder to-night, or if any part of that plan goes
through—_remember!_”



X—THE PIECES OF A PUZZLE


Billy Kane made no effort to stop her, as she closed the door silently
behind her. She was gone. The minutes passed, and he still sat there on
the side of the bed, his eyes mechanically fixed on the spot, an
innocent blank wall now, where she had disappeared. His face, hard and
set at first, grew harder. What was he to do? There seemed to yawn
before him, to have opened at his feet an abyss, bottomless, pitiless,
and he tottered on the brink of it, and unseen hands reached up and
snatched at him to drag him from the narrow ledge that was all that was
left to him of safety. What was he to do? To go on? Every hour that he
clung to this role of the Rat held a surer promise, not only of
desperate peril to himself, but a promise that he would find himself
launched in a sea of crime, of shuddering things, of murder, of blood,
of sordid viciousness, of hate. In God’s name, who was this Rat, who in
this hole here with its secret opening and its gnawed tunnel to the
daylight made the pseudonym so apt!

He clenched his hands suddenly, and rising to his feet began to pace the
room. He began to see now what, strangely enough, though it should have
been plainly obvious all through that day, he had not seen until she,
this unknown, mysterious woman, had, herself unconscious of it, made him
see. Her power over the Rat to which he was subject in his assumed
character, did not, in the final analysis, whatever the source of that
power might be, materially affect the situation. It was not her threat
that was the driving force that must actuate him. There was another and
a far greater force which he could neither ignore nor escape. He saw
that now. If the foreknowledge of proposed crime came to him, he was as
guilty, if he stood idly by, as those who became the actual perpetrators
of that crime. To-night, if there was to be murder done, and it was
within his power to prevent that murder, or even if it were only within
his power to attempt to prevent that murder—and he did nothing—he was a
murderer himself. And so to-night he had no choice. He must act. It did
not seem to him that there had been any question in his mind about this
in a specific way at all from the moment she had spoken of murder. But
afterwards—if he went on—the crimes that Red Vallon and Karlin and their
confederates would plot, and that he would know of—what then?

He halted by the table, and laughed in a short, harsh way, and in the
dark eyes there burned a sudden fire. Was there really any question
about that, either? Had there ever been! He asked only one thing in life
now, and to that everything else was subordinate—to feel his hands upon
the throat of the man who had murdered David Ellsworth, and who had
fastened that guilt upon him—Billy Kane—to wring from that man a
confession that would clear his name. Nothing else mattered. He could
run for it, discard this rôle of the Rat, and perhaps effect his escape,
but he would thereby throw away almost every hope of bringing the guilty
man to justice. The other way was to fight. Well, he would fight! It
would be a good fight! And, as the Rat, he would not have to fight
alone! If he accepted the chances as they stood, he must accept the risk
involved in foiling the plots and crimes of those who thought him their
confederate; but against this, the first step already inaugurated, he
had the craft and cunning of the underworld at his back in the one
purpose that meant anything to him now. It would be a good fight! If he
failed, he might as well go out this way as any other—better this way,
for then at least some of the projected deviltry would never know
fruition. He drew in his breath sharply as in a sort of strange relief.
It was settled now, once for all! He would go on—as the Rat—to the end.
And to-night he would see this Merxler plot through to the end.

Billy Kane picked up the crumpled piece of paper she had dropped on the
table, studied it for an instant, then placed it in his pocket. It
contained the scrawled figures of a safe’s combination, nothing more.
And now, glancing at his watch and finding that it was already a little
after eight o’clock, Billy Kane worked quickly. The mask that had served
him the night before was already in his pocket, as was his revolver. To
these he added the electric flashlight that Whitie Jack had procured for
him that morning, and, from where they dangled in the lock of the door,
Whitie Jack’s bunch of skeleton keys. He extinguished the light; then
passing out through the secret door, which he closed carefully behind
him, he made his way quickly through the little underground passage,
gained the shed through the trap-door, emerged on the lane, and from
there, cautiously, he reached the street.

He walked rapidly now, but keeping always in the shadows, shunning the
direct rays of the street lamps. He cared nothing for the police; his
danger did not lie in that direction. Seen anywhere in the city by
either police or plain-clothes man he would be recognized, not as Billy
Kane, but as the Rat—and the authorities, he was fairly well satisfied,
had no particular or immediate interest in the Rat. His danger lay
to-night in an unlucky recognition by some prowler of the underworld,
the report of which might reach the ears of Red Vallon and his crowd.
Supposed to be confined to bed, pleading physical inability to take his
place at that unhallowed council board of which he was accepted as a
member, it would be very awkward to explain his presence on the street
within half an hour after Red Vallon and Karlin had left his room!
To-morrow, the day after, it would be a different matter, he could go
and come then as he pleased, but to-night it multiplied his difficulties
and his dangers a thousandfold. And yet, after all, that was the most
simple of the problems that confronted him—with luck, he could see his
way out of that. But for the rest, he was almost like a blind man
groping his way along in what was already near to an inextricable maze.
He knew something of Merxler both by sight and hearsay, he knew where
Merxler lived, that there was a will in the safe which he must secure,
that he possessed the combination of the safe, and that afterwards there
was “the back door of Jerry’s before ten,” which referred undoubtedly to
the notorious gambling hell of that name, and that in these fragments,
once pieced together, there was murder—that was all he knew. And there
was something grim, and horribly ironic, and mocking, and something
forbidding, and ominous and premonitory in the fact that he was supposed
to know _all_!

The street for the moment in his immediate vicinity was deserted, and
just well enough within the radius of a street lamp to enable him to
see, he drew the package of money from his vest pocket that the old
millionaire had confided to his keeping the night before. He selected
several bills of the smaller denominations, placed them in his trousers’
pocket, and returned the package to the inside pocket of his vest. Thank
God for the money! He had enough in the bank twice over to replace this
two thousand that now belonged to the Ellsworth estate, but he could not
get it! He was a fugitive from the law! But this should see him
through—by the time two thousand was exhausted he must either have won
or lost. He smiled a little bitterly. Win or lose, the estate at least
would get its two thousand back! If he won, he would pay it back
himself; if he lost—well, his money in the bank had probably already
been attached!

And now he retreated to the shadows of the buildings again as he went
along. His surreptitious excursion from the Rat’s den last night had, to
one who knew the East Side as intimately as he knew it, supplied him
with a mental map, as it were, of the neighborhood in which the Rat had
chosen to reside. A block further on was The Purple Scarf, a so-called
Bohemian restaurant and dance hall, as lurid as its name, that for the
moment was the craze with the slummers and those of New York’s upper
strata who aped all things Bohemian—and from early evening until early
morning a line of taxis waited to snatch their share of the spoils from
the free-handed and, quite often, hilarious clientele. It was a taxi
that he wanted—without attracting any unnecessary attention to himself—a
taxi that he could not stand on a crowded thoroughfare and hail—and
there was, as usual, a line of them there now in front of the
restaurant.

He reached the corner, drew his hat far down over his eyes, stepped out
into the street, and approached the last taxi in the line from the side
away from the curb. The chauffeur was nodding in his seat. Billy Kane
touched the man on the arm.

“I want to go up to the Nineties—Broadway—probably several places after
that,” said Billy Kane pleasantly.

The chauffeur yawned, and shook his head.

“I’m waitin’ for a party in there.” He jerked his hand toward the
restaurant. “I got a fare.”

“I know you have,” said Billy Kane coolly. “You’ve got me.” He extended
a ten-dollar bill. “There’s another one just like this, perhaps more
than one, coming later—on top of the fare.”

The chauffeur grinned, pocketed the banknote, and, leaning out, opened
the door. His grin broadened.

“What did you say the address was?” he inquired.

“The one I gave you will do for the present,” Billy Kane answered
quietly. “I’ll let you know where to stop. Get up there as fast as you
can. I’m paying for speed to-night. Get the idea?”

“Leave it to me!” said the chauffeur. “Hop in!”

Billy Kane settled back in the seat. The car swung out of the line, shot
forward, and took the first corner on little better than two wheels.
Billy Kane smiled grimly. Between here and that purposely vague address
in the Nineties which he had given, the chauffeur could very obviously
be depended upon to do his part! In the meanwhile, and for the first
time, he, Billy Kane, had an opportunity to study those scattered pieces
of the puzzle in detail.

He lighted a cigarette. That there should be a will in Merxler’s safe at
all had a nasty look—unless it were Merxler’s own will, which was
altogether too highly improbable a supposition to be entertained
seriously. And besides, in that case, what was Karlin’s, and Red
Vallon’s, and the underworld’s interest in the matter? He shook his head
decisively. The existence of a will did not tend to place young Merxler
in an enviable light.

Merxler’s uncle, a man by the name of Theodore Rodgers, who had died
some few months before, had been quite an intimate friend of David
Ellsworth—that was where his, Billy Kane’s, personal knowledge of
Merxler came from. He had met Rodgers several times at the old
millionaire’s home; and once he had met the nephew there as well. The
two did not get on very well together. Young Merxler was a notorious
“high-roller.” Left a large fortune by his father two years ago, he had
squandered it to the last copper. Theodore Rodgers, his uncle, had time
and again, both privately and publicly, stated that he would have
nothing more to do with the boy. That was the gist of it. It had
occasioned some surprise then that, when Rodgers had died, it was found
that he had taken no steps to keep his money, what he had of it, some
sixty or seventy thousand dollars, out of the young spendthrift’s hands.
But no will had been found. Rodgers was a bachelor; young Clayton
Merxler was a dead sister’s only son—and Merxler had inherited as next
of kin, and had promptly moved his family—he was married—into his late
uncle’s residence.

Billy Kane finished his cigarette, and finished still another, as the
taxi made its way uptown. There had never been anything criminal, so far
as was known, about young Merxler, nothing wrong up to now, except that
he had gone the pace, and that, perhaps more than anything else, he had
been a foolish and unbalanced boy and had lost his head; but now there
were two very unpleasant facts that loomed up insistently. First, it was
common knowledge that at the time of his uncle’s death young Merxler was
having an exceedingly hard time of it to make both ends meet. And,
second, was the fact that Karlin was in this too. Knowing Karlin now for
what Karlin really was, it looked ugly enough for young Merxler. Karlin,
accepted in the upper circles in which he moved, as a respected citizen
and an excellent attorney, had always been trusted as a friend and the
legal adviser of both young Merxler’s father and uncle—which placed him
now in a position where he could be a very useful, if not indispensable
confederate in assisting Merxler to enter without obstacle into the
possession of his uncle’s estate.

The minutes passed. Billy Kane, within a few blocks of his destination,
noted the cross streets carefully now, as he shook his head again. The
pieces did not fit so perfectly after all. Suppose that Rodgers _had_
left a will disinheriting his nephew, and suppose that young Merxler had
found that will and that it was in Merxler’s safe now, and that Karlin
was a party to it—why hadn’t the will been _destroyed_? That would seem
the obvious and safe thing to have done! And if Merxler and Karlin and
Red Vallon were all hand in glove in the affair, where was the incentive
for murder that she had spoken of? Whose murder? There was a snarl in
the thing. He was conscious that he had not untangled it at all to his
satisfaction.

He tapped suddenly on the glass front, signalling the chauffeur; and, as
the taxi drew up at the curb, he stepped quickly to the sidewalk.

“Wait for me here,” he directed, and started at a brisk pace up the
block.

He turned at the first corner, heading east along the cross street. It
was purely a residential neighborhood here. There was no other
pedestrian in sight for the moment. Merxler’s house was one of a row
halfway up the block. Billy Kane’s pace became a nonchalant stroll. He
passed the row of houses slowly, though apparently indifferent to their
existence, and then, retracing his steps quite as negligently, slipped
suddenly into the shadows of a flight of high front steps, and the next
instant was crouched against the basement door.

A skeleton key from Whitie Jack’s comprehensive assortment crept into
the lock. It proved abortive. Billy Kane, as he made a second attempt
with another key, was subconsciously rehearsing certain details in his
mind. There was a light in the vestibule or front hallway above him, but
the windows on that floor were dark. Above that again the windows were
lighted, and it was a fair presumption that the family proper were all
upstairs. There was probably a maid, but as there was no sign of life
here in the basement it might well be her evening out.

Again Billy Kane selected another key, still another—and then the door
opened silently under his hand. He stepped inside, closed the door
noiselessly behind him, and stood listening. There was no sound and no
light. It was pitch black. He could not have seen his hand before his
eyes. And then his flashlight winked through the black, went out, winked
inquisitively again, and he moved forward. The stairs were just at his
right, and made a right-angled turn halfway up. He gained the stairs and
began to mount them, testing each separate tread cautiously before the
next step was attempted. Stairs before now had been known to creak out
discordantly! Billy Kane smiled in a grim, mirthless way. He was
becoming an adept at this burglarious trade where silence was so prime a
factor. Since last night he——

_What was that?_

He felt his muscles, as though without volition of his, strain suddenly
and grow rigid. He was halfway up the stairs now, and he drew back into
the angle made by the turn, his body hugged tight against the wall. What
was that! He thought he had heard a sound as of someone moving in the
hall above, but it was gone now and there was only a stillness in the
house, a stillness that, as he listened, became exaggerated until it
seemed to possess noises of its own that began to throb, and pound, and
palpitate, and make his eardrums ring, and—_no!_—there it was again—a
light, quick step—and, unmistakably now, upon the topmost stair.

It was inky black. He could not see. He pressed still closer, flattening
himself against the wall. The step was very light, scarcely audible; a
woman’s step probably, and probably the maid’s. Billy Kane held his
breath. If he were found here, discovered, caught, the Rat would——He did
not care to dwell upon the consequences.

Something, a shapeless thing, a deeper, shadowy blackness passed by him.
It seemed to escape contact with him by the barest fraction of an inch.
He heard the sound of breathing—then a step along the passageway
below—and the basement door closed quietly. There was silence again,
save for that din infernal that beat at his eardrums. He lifted his hand
to his forehead—it was moist as he brought it away again.

A moment more, and he was grimly composed again. It was the maid
probably. That seemed the natural conclusion. Who else would have gone
out by the basement door? Well, if that were so, he was left now with
almost unrestricted freedom of action; the family being all upstairs, he
might reasonably expect to have the first floor quite to himself without
very great fear of interruption.

He crept on up the stairs, and reached the main hallway. Here the dim
light in the vestibule sifting down the length of the hall metamorphosed
the blackness into a murky gloom. He listened again. A murmur of voices
came intermittently from above. There was no other sound.

There was a door at his right. He opened it silently, and stepped
through into the room beyond. He closed the door, and the flashlight
winked out again. He was in luck now! This, at the first venture, was
the room he was looking for. The round, white ray of the flashlight,
cutting a filmy path through the darkness, fell upon the nickel dial of
a small safe that stood against the opposite wall. He crossed to the
safe, knelt before it, and took the crumpled piece of paper that bore
the combination from his pocket. Thereafter for a moment, as his fingers
moved swiftly, the silence was broken by the faint, musical whirling of
the dial—and then a low, metallic thud, as he shot the lever over—and
the safe door swung open.

The ray from the flashlight flooded the interior of the safe. It was a
small safe, but even so it was evidently more than large enough for its
requirements. On the floor of the safe was a package of securities, held
together by broad elastic bands, but the pigeon-holes were but sparsely
filled, some being entirely empty. A few minutes’ examination disposed
of the pigeon-holes—and the skeleton keys came into service again on a
little locked drawer. The drawer contained a single envelope, sealed. He
slit the envelope open. It contained two folded sheets of paper. He
examined only one of them, and that only to the extent of glancing at
the first few words: “I, Theodore Rodgers, being of sane mind and——”

Billy Kane’s face darkened, as he thrust the envelope into his pocket
and locked the drawer. It was true then! His lips pursed grimly, as his
eyes fell upon the package of securities again. He took up the package
and riffled it tentatively through his fingers. Theodore Rodgers had
perhaps been a little eccentric—if eccentricity was defined by a
divergence from the general habits and customs of others! He had made no
secret that he kept his securities in his own safe, preferring that
method to depositing them in a safe-deposit vault, and claiming that, as
the securities were made out in his name and were therefore valueless to
anyone else, they offered no temptation for robbery. Young Merxler had
evidently followed in his uncle’s footsteps in this particular! But
Theodore Rodgers had been credited with being worth in the neighborhood
of seventy thousand dollars! Billy Kane’s lips pursed tighter, as he
replaced the package of bonds and stock certificates in the safe, and
closed and locked the safe door. At a generous estimate there remained
no more than twelve or fifteen thousand dollars. Young Merxler, in the
brief period following his uncle’s death, had evidently done well!

Billy Kane retreated from the room, descended the stairs, and let
himself out through the basement door—and five minutes later, in his
taxi, was being whirled downtown again. “The back room at Jerry’s before
ten.” He had directed the chauffeur to drive to a side street just off
the Bowery near Chatham Square—that was close to Jerry’s. He had looked
at his watch, as he had entered the taxi. It was just nine o’clock. He
had therefore plenty of time now. He took the envelope from his pocket
and extracted the two folded sheets. There was not light enough to read
by, but that was quite easily rectified. He had his flashlight.

He bent well down toward the floor of the cab so as not to attract the
chauffeur’s attention, read both of the papers, read them again—and a
look of stunned surprise and bewilderment settled on his face. One was a
will, evidently drawn and written by Rodgers himself, and duly
witnessed, bequeathing practically everything to charity, and specifying
four or five different organizations as the beneficiaries. It appointed
Karlin, who was referred to as a “trusted and lifelong friend,” the sole
executor; and, “as a mark of personal esteem,” and as a “slight
compensation” for the administration of the estate, left Karlin a legacy
of two thousand five hundred dollars. The other paper was a letter
signed by young Merxler. Billy Kane read this again for the third time:

    “If I die before Karlin does, this is a joke on Karlin; if
    Karlin dies before I do the will and this letter go into the
    fire. Damn him—I hate him! He’s a smooth oily-tongued hypocrite!
    It was Karlin more than anybody else who backed my uncle up in
    the idea of cutting me off. Well, I guess this is where I get
    even! If there’s two thousand five hundred dollars left when I
    get through, I hope Karlin will enjoy it—but there won’t be! I
    just wanted him to know how thoughtful my uncle was, and it was
    worth the risk of keeping the cursed will for the sake of the
    jolt it will give Karlin’s miserly, snivelling soul. If there’s
    anything Karlin loves, it’s money. If Karlin’s got any God at
    all, it’s money. He worships that, all right!”

Here the letter veered abruptly into direct address:

    “It’ll break your heart, Karlin, won’t it, to think I spent two
    thousand five hundred dollars of _your_ money! That’s the joke,
    Karlin! It’s rich, isn’t it? And I just want to tell you, too,
    that you had the will in your own hands once—and overlooked the
    bet! That’s where you slipped up, Karlin. It was the day my
    uncle died, and we were going over the papers together. It was
    in a plain, unsealed envelope—and didn’t look like anything. You
    tossed it on a heap of other stuff to be looked into later—all
    you could think of was counting stocks and bonds, getting your
    fingers into money—that you didn’t know was yours—some of it,
    anyway! I was looking for something else—and found it. I only
    had to read about two words and see that it was in my uncle’s
    handwriting, and—well, since you’re the executor, you’ll find it
    enclosed herewith!


                                                   Clayton Merxler.”


Billy Kane refolded the papers, returned them to the envelope, restored
the envelope and flashlight to his pockets, and leaned back in his seat.
The taxi lurched and swayed along at a pace that gave small deference or
heed to speed laws. Billy Kane stared out of the window.

The letter was viciously facetious, callous and unscrupulous. The boy
was a self-confessed and blatantly unrepentant thief. In that at least
his first supposition had evidently been justified, and it was quite
clear now why Merxler had not destroyed the will—but otherwise the whole
affair had now assumed an entirely different aspect. Instead of Karlin
being in league with Merxler, Karlin, unknown to Merxler, it now
appeared, was aware of the existence of the will—and Karlin, if _she_
had not exaggerated, meant murder. And, since no one else was involved,
meant Merxler’s murder.

Billy Kane’s face hardened in perplexity. But why? What could Karlin
hope to gain thereby? Certainly it was not on account of the little
legacy of two thousand five hundred dollars—Karlin had only to expose
the fact that the will existed to obtain that. And that applied equally
to the executorship. And what good could the executorship do Karlin?
With the stocks and bonds there open to inspection and their value
known, Karlin’s executorship could afford no opportunity for crooked
work—he could simply turn the securities into cash, turn the cash over
to the various charities, and the cash must correspond with the
valuation of the estate’s schedule of assets. Why, then—murder? Personal
enmity? No; Red Vallon and the underworld were interested in this, and
the enmity that had caused Merxler to preserve the will, an enmity that
no doubt was fully returned by Karlin, had nothing to do with Red Vallon
and the rest.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes went by. The taxi reached the lower section
of the city. Billy Kane still stared from the window, his face still
hard in perplexity. Murder! No, he did not understand. But there was
still the “back room at Jerry’s”—where he was going now! Did the answer
lie there? Jerry’s, safely entrenched in one of the most abandoned
neighborhoods of the city, was a gambling hell that yet boasted a
certain exclusiveness—and its patrons quite made good the boast. It was
an open secret that men whose names ranked high in the city’s commercial
and professional world went there for their fling. Jerry, it was said,
was an ex-croupier from Monte Carlo, and had brought the spirit of Monte
Carlo with him. He, Billy Kane, had heard of the place often enough—the
entertainment was lavish, the play unlimited. Did the answer lie
there—in the back room at Jerry’s? He shrugged his shoulders
philosophically now, and a grim little smile came and flickered across
his lips. Well, if there were any means by which an uninvited guest
could gain access to that back room, he would know within a very few
minutes now!



XI—THE BACK ROOM AT JERRY’S


The taxi drew up to the curb. Billy Kane’s hat was far over his eyes as
he stepped out. He stood an instant debating with himself, then handed
the chauffeur another bill. What might happen at Jerry’s he did not
know—he was going it blind again. But as a means of retreat, a taxi
waiting around the corner would at least add to his chances, if
necessity arose. And a chauffeur well paid was a guarantee of fidelity
than which there was none better.

“You’ve struck a gold mine to-night,” he said coolly. “I may be gone
half an hour, or I may be gone an hour—wait for me.”

“You bet your life, I’ll wait!” said the chauffeur fervently. “I——”

Billy Kane was hurrying down the street. He turned the first corner, and
headed along the intersecting street, that was dark, narrow and
deserted. He passed another cross street, and thereafter counted the
houses as he went along. Here tenements and the old-fashioned dwellings
of New York’s early days incongruously rubbed shoulders with one
another. Jerry’s, he found, was the fifth house from the cross street.
There was no mistaking Jerry’s. It was one of the old private dwellings,
and it had been pointed out to him more than once. He returned to the
cross street, turned down it, slipped into the lane that passed in the
rear of the houses he had just inspected from the front, and, guardedly
now, making his way silently along, he again counted the buildings that
here in the darkness loomed up like black, uncouth shapes against the
sky line. He stopped in the rear of the fifth house. Here and there a
thread of light showed from a window, but it was a stealthy light, a
light that played truant through the interstices of closed shutters, or
seeped perhaps through the folds of curtains hanging inadvertently awry.
It was abnormally dark, and in the darkness there seemed to lurk a
somber secrecy, like a pall, cloaking evil things.

Billy Kane swung himself up and over a high fence, and dropped
noiselessly to the ground on the other side. He found himself in a yard
that, even in the darkness, he could make out was strangely restricted
in area. A few feet in front of him was the wall of the building itself.
He crept forward, skirting along this wall. There was no window, but
opening almost on a level with the ground were shuttered French doors.
He continued on, rounded the angle of the building, and suddenly stooped
down in a crouching posture. There was a window here just above his
head, and from it came a meager gleam of light. His eyes grown
accustomed to the darkness, he could distinguish his surroundings a
little more clearly now. The yard here, a narrow strip of it paralleling
the side fence, seemed to run back quite a distance, taking up a jut in
the building. They had puzzled him, those shuttered French doors where
logically he had expected to find an ordinary back door and porch, but
it was obvious now that the “back room at Jerry’s” was an addition that
had been built onto the house, extending almost to the fence in the
rear.

The window beneath which he crouched was shoulder high. He straightened
up. The light came through slightly parted, heavy portières. He felt the
blood quicken suddenly in his veins. He could see in quite well. There
were two men in the room—Karlin, and another man whom he did not
recognize. The room was luxuriously, if somewhat garishly furnished. A
green baize card table, with several unopened packs of cards upon it,
stood in the center; there was a blue-and-gold Chinese rug with a huge
dragon pattern upon the floor; and at one side a large buffet groaned
under a load of wine and whisky bottles, bowls of fruit, and
refreshments of various descriptions. The two men were talking
earnestly. Karlin pulled out his watch, and scowled.

Billy Kane’s lips tightened. He could see, but he could not hear. He
took his penknife from his pocket, and slipped the blade under the
window sill. If he had luck, if the window was not locked, he—ah!—his
breath came in a soft, long-drawn intake—the window gave slightly under
a cautious pressure. An inch was all that was necessary, half an inch
even. The window went up by infinitesimal fractions of that inch.

Billy Kane returned the penknife to his pocket. He could hear them now.
Karlin was speaking; and the other man, it appeared now, was the
proprietor of the place, Jerry, the ex-croupier of Monte Carlo.

“What’s the matter with you, Jerry—getting nervous waiting?” said Karlin
curtly. “Well, forget it! This is the Rat’s plan—and that ought to be
good enough, what? Nothing is going wrong, nothing can go wrong.
Certainly, the police will close you up for a month, but that’s all
there is to it, so far as you are concerned. They have nothing on you.
That’s the inside of the whole thing—that the killing is done in an
unpremeditated, drunken brawl over cards—that it just happened—just an
untimely end without any other strings to it! There’s no reason why you
should lose your nerve—your story is straight. Young Merxler came here
often. He gives a little party here to-night. Neither you nor your
doorkeeper knows a damned one of his guests. He vouched for them, and
that’s all you know. You heard a row in here, then a revolver shot, and
when you got here the table was upset, wine, cards and glasses all over
the place, the boys beating it out through the French doors there, and
young Merxler dead on the floor. You just notify the police. Your loss
through being closed for a month makes it a cinch your story’s
straight—you don’t have to tell the police that your share of the split
is the best bet you ever made in your life! Let _me_ do the worrying!
I’m the one who’s taking the risk. I’m the one who’s been showing a
seamy side to Merxler in confidence lately. I’m the one who’s invited
him to the party that the police will be told _he_ was giving. You can
leave it to me that nothing goes wrong. I’ve got my own skin staked on
this. There won’t be any mistake made—dead men can’t talk. The only
thing I’m bothering about is what is keeping Bull McCann. He might——”

Billy Kane drew suddenly back from the window, and crouched down again
against the wall of the building. Someone, unless he were curiously
mistaken, was out there in the lane at the rear of the place. He was
listening intently now—but there was a strange turmoil in his brain that
seemed somehow to divide his attention, that had made his act of caution
one that was almost purely automatic. Murder! That _casual_ discussion
of murder! There was something within him, soul deep, that he could not
quite analyse—save that it seemed a lust for murder was upon him too,
possessing him, engulfing him. Would _that_ be murder? Was it murder to
crush out the life of a poison-fanged snake! There was a fury upon him,
but a most strange fury, a fury that was utterly cold—and utterly
merciless. Murder! Yes, he knew now beyond question that there was to be
murder, that the stage for it was set with a devil’s craft, with the
craft of the Rat whose identity _he_ had assumed; that it would appear
on the face of it nothing more than quite a logical outcome of the life
led by young Merxler, that there would appear to be no connection
whatever with young Merxler’s death and what was to follow—but what was
it that was to follow? How, in what way, was this murder, in dollars and
cents, to show a profit at the next meeting of that unhallowed
directorate of crime? How did Karlin——

Strange how his mind should isolate itself from his immediate
surroundings, and yet leave him fully conscious of those surroundings!
He was still listening—listening intently. There was no mistake. A boot
scraped against a board. Someone was climbing the fence. Came then the
soft thud of feet dropping to the ground, and now a quick step across
the yard.

Billy Kane’s revolver was in his hand. If the newcomer came around the
corner of the house, dark as it was, it was almost certain that—no! The
other had halted evidently before those shuttered French doors, and was
rapping softly—three raps, a single rap, two raps. The raps were
repeated. Someone moved swiftly across the floor of the room. There was
the faint clash of portière rings, and the sound of the French doors
being opened.

Billy Kane was at the window again. A third man was in the room now.
Karlin was speaking sharply.

“You’ve been a long time coming, Bull!”

The newcomer, his back turned to Billy Kane, shrugged his shoulders.

“I had to wait until Merxler went out,” he answered. “I didn’t lose no
time after that, an’ I came downtown as fast as I could. I ain’t been
much more’n half an hour from Merxler’s to here.”

“Well, all right!” grunted Karlin. “Have any trouble?”

“Nix!” said the other. “I slipped the envelope into the drawer of the
safe, all right. It was a cinch! The family was all upstairs.”

Karlin nodded.

“Where are the securities?” he demanded.

The man took what Billy Kane could see were a number of stock and bond
certificates from his pocket, and handed them to Karlin.

Karlin nodded again, as he ran through the papers rapidly.

“How much did you leave in the safe?” he inquired crisply.

“What Red told me—about ten or twelve thousand.”

“All right!” said Karlin. “Good work, Bull! Beat it, now!”

The man turned, and left the room. Billy Kane heard him step across the
yard, heard him climb the fence, heard Karlin within the room close the
shuttered French doors—but this time Billy Kane made no movement, save
that there was a curious twitching of his face muscles as his jaws
locked together. All the bald, hellish brutality of the scheme was
beginning to take form now in his mind. It was a plant, all of it, the
letter, the will; a plant with the devil’s stamp of ingenuity upon
it—and it was the man who had just gone from the room, Bull McCann, who
had passed him on that black stairway from the basement in Merxler’s
home!

Karlin was laughing in a viciously jubilant way, as he came back to the
ex-croupier’s side.

“Fifty thousand dollars!” said Karlin, as he thrust the securities into
the inside pocket of his coat, and patted the pocket complacently.
“Fifty thousand, Jerry, and all of it in Theodore Rodger’s name—I kept
stalling the kid on the idea of transferring the securities into his own
name—told him there was no hurry—that he could clip the coupons and get
the dividend checks through all right, just the same. I was his attorney
too—see? Works pretty smooth, eh, Jerry? Too bad you didn’t get a chance
to have a look at that letter and the will! The Chipper did the job, and
they’re the best pieces of forged penwork that were ever pulled in
America! Some head the Rat’s got, I’ll give him credit for that—he
worded the letter. It’s _prima facie_ evidence that the kid was blowing
the coin just as fast as he did when he came into his father’s money—and
nobody’s surprised that most of it has gone up in smoke. And, besides
that, it’s a confession. Well, what happens? Merxler is killed in a
gambling brawl—at which nobody is surprised, either!—his safe is opened,
the will is found, and with it that little hymn of hate against me,
which accounts for what would otherwise have been a fool play in having
kept the will. I am found to be the executor, empowered to transfer and
sell, and administer the estate—and we find that all that’s left is
about ten thousand—which is _all_ I have to account for. I enter that as
the value of the estate, split it up among the beneficiaries, and”—he
chuckled softly—“I generously waive my claim to any share in the legacy
on the score that the estate has been so hard hit. Neat little play, eh,
Jerry? Well, after that, there’s nothing to it! My signature is legally
good on any document, and little by little, here and there, we turn the
fifty thousand into the long green—and pocket it. If it’s done quietly,
a security or so at a time, no one would ever think of digging around to
find out if it was one of those on the schedule filed by the estate.
Feeling better, Jerry?”

The ex-croupier walked over to the buffet, poured out for himself a
stiff four fingers of whisky, and tossed off the neat spirit at a gulp.
He forced an uneasy grin.

“I don’t often drink in business hours,” he said nervously. “But I’m not
used to playing this high—maybe I’m a little shaky. Are you sure-fire on
the witnesses to that will? Their signatures would have to be proved.”

“They’re the only things that are genuine,” said Karlin, with a
malicious laugh. “We had two of our boys working around the hotel down
on Long Island where Rodgers spent a month this spring, and where he is
supposed to have written the will. They identify their signatures, and
their story’s straight. Rodgers asked them to witness his signature to a
paper, that’s all. He didn’t tell them what the paper was, and they
didn’t know—see? If there’s any question crops up, the hotel proves that
the two men were its employees at the time Rodgers was staying there.”
He pulled out his watch again. “It’s ten o’clock!” he said brusquely.
“Merxler ought to be showing up. I——”

The ex-croupier had suddenly laid a finger to his lips in caution. A
knock was sounding on the hall door.

“Here he is now,” said the ex-croupier, in a lowered voice. “I told them
to send him here as soon as he came.”

“All right, let him in,” instructed Karlin. “And tell the boys to drift
along as soon as they like. _It’s the man who cuts the first jack._”

The ex-croupier opened the door, and was instantly continental in both
manner and speech. He bowed profoundly, as a young man entered.

“Ah, Monsieur Merxler—a great pleasure! I was telling Monsieur Karlin
that——”

Billy Kane had drawn slightly back from the window. His lips were
thinned, compressed. The fiendishness of it all had got him now—-Karlin
with his suave, oily, Judas smile, preening at his Vandyke beard—and
Merxler, for all that he had played the fool for several years now,
still with a frank and boyish face, his broad shoulders squared back as
he laughed a pleasant greeting. There was a whiteness in Billy Kane’s
face, a whiteness that was like to the fury, no longer cold, that was
white-hot in his soul. Murder! Well, perhaps—but it would not be
Merxler’s murder! He whipped his mask from his pocket, and adjusted it
swiftly over his face. His fingers automatically tested the mechanism of
his revolver, as he again looked in through the window. The ex-croupier
was bowing himself out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Quick and silent now in every movement, Billy Kane crept around the
corner of the house, and crouched before the shuttered French doors. He
had a minute, perhaps two at the outside, in which to act before
Karlin’s confederates entered the room. He tapped softly with his
revolver on the shutters—three raps, a single rap, two raps; he repeated
it—three raps, a single rap, two raps.

From within a step came hurriedly across the floor, there was the faint
clashing of the curtain rings again as the portières were drawn aside,
and through the interstices of the shutters came little gleams of light.
Billy Kane shifted his grip upon his revolver—to the muzzle end. The
doors opened a few inches cautiously. And then Karlin’s voice:

“Who’s there? What—-”

But Billy Kane was in action now, and the words ended in a wild shout of
alarm. His left hand shot forward like a flash into the opening,
wrenching the doors wide apart; and, lithe as a panther in its spring,
he launched himself forward, and struck with the butt of his revolver,
struck as he would have struck at a mad dog, full on Karlin’s head.

There was a crash as the man went limply, senseless, to the floor, and
another cry, from Merxler now, and then, dazing Billy Kane for an
instant by the sudden and unexpected onslaught, Merxler had sprung and
locked his arms around him in a grip of steel. They crashed against the
table, upsetting it.

“Let go!” Billy Kane panted frantically. “The hall door—lock it! You
don’t understand!”

There was no answer from Merxler, save another hoarse shout for help.
The boy was fighting like a demon. Here and there about the room they
lurched, staggered, reeled, but Billy Kane was the stronger. It seemed
only by inches, but still by inches they were nearing the hall door.
There was something of ghastly irony in this frenzied effort of the boy
to bar his own road to safety; but there was something fine in it too,
something that, even as he fought, found recognition in Billy Kane’s
mind. The boy, spendthrift though he might be, a fool with his money
though he might be, was game to the core in standing by a man whom he
believed to be his friend.

There was an uproar now from the interior of the house. There came the
rush of feet along the hall. Another instant and they would be at the
door. Massing his strength for the effort, Billy Kane tore himself free,
flung Merxler back, and plunged forward. The door was being opened now.
He hurled his weight against it.

“Quick, Merxler! Quick! The inside pocket of Karlin’s coat!” he gasped
out. “Quick!”

There was a yell of fury from the hall, as the door slammed shut, and
Billy Kane turned the key—and then a crash upon it, and another, as
human battering rams launched themselves madly against the panels. Over
his shoulder Billy Kane saw Merxler standing hesitant, glancing in
stupefaction alternately from the door to Karlin on the floor.

A panel cracked and splintered. Billy Kane’s revolver roared like a
cannon shot through the room. The bullet, aimed low, ripped along the
threshold.

“Merxler, the inside pocket of Karlin’s coat!” he said in deadly quiet.
“Man, are you mad! Hurry! They’ll have us both in another minute!”

The revolver shot had checked the rush against the door for an instant,
though only for an instant, but that instant was enough. Merxler, stung
into action, had leapt to Karlin’s side, and was bending over the man.
And then he was on his feet, staring wildly at the papers in his hand.

“Good God, what’s this!” he cried out. “What’s——”

“The French doors—the fence—run for it!” said Billy Kane tensely, and
fired again. And the next instant the room was in darkness, as he
switched off the light; and in another, with Merxler running now beside
him, he had crossed the few feet of yard and was swinging himself over
the fence.

From behind came the rip and tear and smash of the yielding door,
shouts, yells, oaths, a confusion of noises; but Billy Kane had reached
the cross street now, and, pulling the mask from his face, jerking his
hat brim far over his eyes, turned in the opposite direction from that
in which he had entered the lane, and, urging Merxler on, was running at
top speed. At the next block they swerved again—and Billy Kane, with a
restraining pressure on Merxler’s arm, here dropped into a slower and
less noticeable pace. There was little or no chance of pursuit now; no
one, it seemed, had taken the immediate initiative of following them
into the lane, yet Billy Kane made a wide detour before he finally
reached his waiting taxi cab.

“Get in,” he said to Merxler; and, crisply, to the chauffeur: “Drive as
fast as you know how! Go up the street at the rear of The Purple Scarf!”

He followed Merxler into the cab.

Merxler drew his hand across his eyes in a dazed way, and laughed
nervously.

“I can’t see your face now, and you had a mask on before,” he said
jerkily. “This is a queer business! Who are you? What’s it mean? Those
securities were in my safe an hour ago—how did they get into Karlin’s
pocket? What was he doing with them?”

“Stoop over!” said Billy Kane quietly. He handed Merxler the forged
letter, and flashed the ray of his lamp upon the paper.

His head bent forward, Merxler read the letter, and his face, already
white under the ray, gradually took on a drawn, grayish pallor.

“I—I never wrote this,” he faltered. “It’s my handwriting, but I—I never
wrote it.”

“Nor your uncle this,” said Billy Kane, the same grim, quiet intonation
in his voice, as he placed the will in turn in Merxler’s hand.

The light played on the paper, and over Merxler’s face. Billy Kane sat
drawn back in the shadows.

There was moisture on Merxler’s forehead, as he looked up after a
moment.

“My God,” he whispered hoarsely, “what does this mean?”

The flashlight was out. It was dark in the cab now, and the taxi rattled
on traversing block after block. Billy Kane spoke swiftly, sketching the
events of the night. Merxler did not move, save that at the end his hand
sought and found and closed tight upon Billy Kane’s arm.

It was Merxler in a new light who spoke.

“You’ve saved my life—and you haven’t preached,” he said slowly. “I’m a
fool! I’ve played the fool—they never would have tried to get away with
it if I hadn’t played the fool all my life. I guess perhaps I’ve had my
lesson tonight. But fool, or not”—his voice rasped suddenly, bitter
hard—“Karlin will pay for this, or——”

“You will—yet!” Billy Kane cut in grimly. “You know too much, and you
haven’t a minute to lose. They lost their heads for a moment in the
confusion and the darkness when we got away, but their one hope now will
be to get you before you tell your story. They may figure that you will
hesitate about telling it, as you would have to admit your presence at
Jerry’s gambling hell—and they may figure that you wouldn’t act anyway
before morning. Do you understand? That’s _their_ chance. Your chance is
the police without a second’s delay—you may even get Karlin before he
regains consciousness, or before they try to move him, if you’re quick
enough. I know your story will sound strange with an unknown man in a
mask running through it, but you have only to tell the truth. You have
all the evidence you need. The police will know the Chipper, who forged
the papers; and the police will know how to make those fake witnesses to
the will squeal—it’s a different proposition now with them than simply
appearing before Karlin and a notary public and swearing to the
signatures. Understand?”

“Yes,” said Merxler tersely. “You’re right—and I’ll see it through. But
you—you saved my life, and——”

“I get out here,” said Billy Kane, and leaning forward suddenly, tapped
sharply on the glass front. They had turned into the street that was not
only in the rear of The Purple Scarf, but was equally in the rear of
that secret entrance into the Rat’s lair. He held out his hand to
Merxler. “Good-night, Merxler—I——”

“But,” Merxler cried, as the taxi stopped, “I can’t let you go like
this! I owe you too much. Who are you? What is your name? Where can I
find you to——”

“I’m trying to find—myself,” said Billy Kane, with grim whimsicality.
“Let it go at that!” He caught Merxler’s hand in a hard grip.
“Good-night, Merxler—and good luck!” he said, and stepping quickly from
the taxi, closed the door. He handed the chauffeur another bill. “Drive
this gentleman to police headquarters—fast!” he ordered, and, turning,
moved swiftly away down the street, hugging the shadows again, avoiding
the rays of the street lamps.

He slipped into the lane, gained the shed, and from the shed made his
way through the underground passage to the secret door, listened here
intently for a moment, then stepped through into the Rat’s room, and
groped forward toward the electric light that hung over the table.

It was strange! There was something almost mockingly ironic in it all!
It was like the night before again. In peril himself as grave as
Merxler’s, he had saved Merxler—and his own peril remained, was
increased even, for the inner circle of this crime world that ranked him
as a trusted confederate would be aroused now to an unbridled pitch of
fury and excitement, seeking the unknown man in the mask who had foiled
them to-night. Suspicious as they would be of every one, he now had that
suspicion to combat, and he could ill afford that a breath of it should
touch him. His all was at stake—Red Vallon, with the underworld at his
heels, was enlisted now in a hunt for those rubies, which, if
successful, must inevitably discover too the identity of the man, or
men, who had murdered David Ellsworth, and who had driven him, Billy
Kane, into this damnable exile! It was paramount, vital, that he should
preserve his authority to keep the underworld at that work, the power to
command, the——

Billy Kane switched on the electric light, and stood staring at the
table, grim faced, his jaws locked tight together, his hand like a flash
seeking his revolver in his pocket. His eyes lifted, and swept around
the room. The swift, quick glance went unrewarded. The room was
apparently as he had left it. He crossed quickly to the street door. It
was still locked.

Again his eyes searched the room. He remembered that she had spoken of
other secrets that the room possessed. What were they? Still another
entrance? There was no sign of it! He knew only that someone had been
here in his absence—and was now flaunting that visit in his face. Was it
mockery? A warning? What?

It could not have been Red Vallon, or any of his pack. It was almost
certain that Red Vallon had no knowledge of any secret entrance, and
besides it was too soon for Red Vallon. Was it the woman? He shook his
head. It was hardly likely, and his reason told him no—she had been
outspoken enough that evening, and she had given no hint of _this_. Who
then? And what was its meaning? Was it grim mockery? A grimmer warning?
What?

On the table, ostentatiously placed in full view, and identified beyond
possibility of mistake by a piece cut from the corner of the original
plush tray on which it and many of its fellows had rested, was one of
the rubies stolen from David Ellsworth’s vault!



XII—A CLUE


Billy Kane’s eyes lifted from his plate, and fixed in a curiously
introspective way on Whitie Jack’s unhandsome and unshaven face across
the little table. Twenty-four hours! He was out in the open
now—“convalescent.” Twenty-four hours—and as far as Red Vallon and
Birdie Rose were concerned specifically, and the underworld generally,
there had been not a shred of success. He had unleashed the underworld,
but the underworld had picked up neither thread nor clue; the
underground clearing houses for stolen goods, the “fences,” had yielded
up no single one of the rubies belonging to the Ellsworth collection;
the lead that he had given Birdie Rose in respect of Jackson, the dead
footman, had, up to the present at least, proved abortive.

Well, perhaps he, Billy Kane, would be more successful! The twenty-four
hours had not been wholly fruitless. Perhaps before the night was out
there would be a different story to tell—perhaps a grim and ugly story.
There was one clue which had developed, but a clue that was to be
entrusted to neither Red Vallon, nor Birdie Rose, nor any of the pack.
Even they, case-hardened, steeped in crime though they were, might balk
at pushing that clue to its ultimate conclusion. They might weaken at
the limit! He, Billy Kane, would not weaken, because, as between his own
life and the life of one who he was already satisfied was a murderer, he
would not fling his own life away! His life was at stake. Red Vallon’s
wasn’t. Birdie Rose’s wasn’t. It made a difference in—the limit!

An attendant, in a dirty, beer-stained apron, sidled to the edge of the
table. The man had been eager in his attentions, deferential, almost
obsequious.

“Wot’re youse for now, Bundy?” he inquired solicitously.

Billy Kane smiled, as he shook his head and jerked his hand by way of
invitation toward Whitie Jack. He, Billy Kane, was the Rat, alias Bundy
Morgan! He had never in his life before been in this none-too-reputable
place run by one Two-finger Tasker, that combined at one and the same
time a restaurant and dance hall of the lowest type, yet he found
himself not only well known but an honored guest! He had known of the
place by name and reputation; it was the sort of place that seemed
naturally one the Rat would frequent, and he had told Red Vallon that he
would “eat” here this evening. Red Vallon would have to make a report
somewhere, and he, Billy Kane, had become none too sure of his own
temporary quarters—that secret door, that underground passage into the
Rat’s lair had not proved an altogether unmixed blessing! There was the
Woman in Black, who had been an uninvited, unwelcome, and almost
sinister visitor on two occasions already; and there was, far more
disturbing still, the matter of that ruby from the Ellsworth collection
which had found its way mysteriously to the table in that room—the
single stone from the collection that had come to light since the murder
two nights ago.

Whitie Jack accepted the unspoken invitation.

“Gimme another mug of suds,” he said.

The glass was replenished.

“You seem to have pulled a good job, Whitie,” said Billy Kane
approvingly. “The tenement is next to the café on the corner, eh? All
right, I know the place. What next?”

Whitie Jack gulped down half the contents of his glass.

“I guess I did,” he said complacently. “I wasn’t pipin’ de lay all day
for nothin’—wot? De place has three floors, an’ two flats on each floor,
savvy? It ain’t much of a place, neither. Peters’ flat is on de second
floor, on de right as youse go up. Dere’s nobody at home, but he comes
down dere himself to give de place de once-over one night a week. De
family’s away somewhere for a vacation, sniffin’ in de ocean breezes at
some boardin’ house. Gee, say, de guy must have money to pull de high
brow, out-of-town-in-de-summer stuff for de family!”

Billy Kane nodded.

Whitie Jack finished his glass, and drew his sleeve across his mouth.

“Two of de flats is vacant,” he said. “One on de second floor, an’ one
on de top. De other one on de top over Peters’ flat is where dat crazy
old fiddler guy, Savnak, hangs out all by his lonesome. But Savnak won’t
bother youse none. He’s out every night. He goes down to Dutchy Vetter’s
jewelry shop, an’ him an’ Dutchy, bein’ nuts on music an’ pinochle, dey
goes to it for half de night. Old Savnak’s got bats in his belfry, I
guess; but I guess he can fiddle all right. I heard he used to be a big
bug leadin’ some foreign or-kestra, an’ was a count or dook or
something, an’ den de dope got him, an’ den he came out here. He ain’t
livin’ like a dook now, an’ I guess it takes him all his time to scratch
up his rent. Bats, dat’s wot he’s got—bats an’ dope. Dey got him to play
one night down to Heeney’s music hall, an’ he went up in de air an’ quit
flat ’cause de waiters kept circulatin’ around an’ dishin’ out de suds
while he was playin’! Say, wot do youse know about dat! An’ den——”

“Stick to cases, Whitie,” interrupted Billy Kane patiently. “I’m
expecting company in a few minutes. What about the ground floor? Who
lives there?”

“Oh, dere!” said Whitie Jack somewhat contemptuously. “I dunno wot yer
lay is, but dere’s nothin’ dere to bother youse neither. Dere’s a couple
of sisters about sixty years old apiece on one side, an’ a young guy
dat’s just got married on de other.”

“Back entrance?” inquired Billy Kane casually.

Whitie Jack shook his head.

“Nope!” he said. “Nothin’ doin’! Dere’s a back yard about four inches
square, but the buildin’ behind butts right up against it, an’ dere
ain’t no lane. But youse can get in de front door to-night whether it’s
locked or not, for dere ain’t any street lamp near enough to do youse
any harm.”

“Good work!” said Billy Kane. He pushed his plate away from in front of
him. “I guess you’d better beat it now, Whitie.”

Whitie Jack, of the lesser breed of criminal, self-attached familiar to
the man he believed to be the Rat and an aristocrat of Crimeland, rose
from his seat with evident reluctance. There was a sort of dog-like
faithfulness and admiration in his eyes, the same deference in his
manner that seemed to mark the dealings of everyone in the underworld
with the Rat; but the look on Whitie Jack’s face was nevertheless one of
undisguised disappointment.

“Ain’t I in on dis any more?” he pleaded. “Ain’t I got anything more to
do?”

“Yes,” said Billy Kane. He lowered his voice. “You’ve got more to do,
and what will count for a lot more than you’ve already done—keep your
mouth shut tight.” He leaned across the table, and his hand closed in a
friendly pressure on the other’s arm. “Take the night off. Show up in
the morning. Beat it now, Whitie.”

Whitie Jack left the place. The waiter removed the dishes from the
table. Billy Kane leaned back in his chair, and his eyes, the
introspective stare back in their depths, travelled slowly over his
surroundings. The tables, ranged around the sides of the room, were but
sparsely occupied; the polished section of the floor in the center was
deserted—it was too early for the votaries of the bunny-hug and the
turkey-trot to start in on their nightly gyrations. Two-finger Tasker’s
was in a state of lethargy, as it were; a few hours later it would awake
to a riot of hilarity, and come into its own with a surging crowd and
packed tables, but it was too early for that yet.

Billy Kane’s fingers slipped mechanically into his vest pocket, and,
hidden there, mechanically began to twirl a small, hard object,
irregular in its shape, between their tips. His face hardened suddenly.
The touch of that little object stirred up in an instant a grim flood of
speculation. It was the ruby from the Ellsworth collection that he had
found on his return to the Rat’s den last night. It worried him. How had
it got there? Who had put it there? And why? Above all—why?

Only a few hours before, turning his purloined authority to account, he
had set the underworld the task of tracing the Ellsworth collection—and
mysteriously there had appeared upon his table this single stone,
ostentatiously identified by a piece cut from one of the original plush
trays in which the stones had been kept. The bare possibility that it
had been Red Vallon, or some of his breed, who had stumbled upon the
stone in their search through the underground exchanges, and had left it
there as evidence of a partial success for him to find on his return,
had occurred to him; but a cautious probing of Red Vallon that morning
had put a final and emphatic negative on that theory.

Who, then? And why? It had seemed like a ghastly jeer when he had seen
that stone there on the table, and the prelude to some sinister act that
he could not foresee, and against which therefore he could not prepare
any defense. Did someone know that he was not the Rat, that, desperate,
with no other thing to do, he had snatched at the rôle fate had thrust
out to him, and was playing it now?

Who, then? Not the Woman in Black—her acceptance of him as the Rat had
been altogether too genuine! Not the underworld—even a suspicion there
would have been followed by a knife thrust long before this. Not the
actual perpetrators of David Ellsworth’s murder, if they knew him to be
Billy Kane—for their one aim had been to fasten the crime irrevocably
upon him, all their hellish ingenuity had been centered on that one
object, and they would certainly, therefore, have lost no time in giving
the police, in some roundabout, guarded way, a tip as to his identity.

His brain whirled with the problem, and ached in an actual physical
sense. It had been aching all day. He could minimize his peril, if he
cared to make the wish father to the thought; he could not exaggerate
it. It seemed impossible that his identity was known, but, even so, the
question as to where that stone had come from, and why, still remained
unanswered. Was it, then—another possibility—the murderers of David
Ellsworth, who, while still believing him to be the Rat, and having
discovered in some way that, as the Rat, he was working against them,
had given him this ugly and significant warning to keep his hands off?
Well, if that were so, he was still in no less danger, for he must go
on. To turn aside was to fail, and to fail, quite equally, meant death.

The hard pressure of his lips curved the corners of his mouth downward
in sharp lines. Nor was the question of that stone all! Since last night
when the cloak of respectability had been stripped from Karlin, and the
“man in the mask” had turned the tables on the crime coterie in the
gambling hell run by Jerry, the ex-croupier of Monte Carlo, the
underworld had been in a nasty mood, ugly, suspicious, in a ferment of
unrest. It was another alias added to his rôle, another alias to
safeguard even more zealously, if possible, than his unsought rôle of
the Rat. He was the man in the mask. He shrugged his shoulders suddenly.
Quite so! The mask was even at that moment in his inside coat pocket. If
it were found there! He laughed harshly. It seemed as though he were
being sucked in nearer and nearer to the center of some seething vortex
that hungrily sought to engulf him. It seemed as though his brain ground
and mulled around in a sort of ghastly cycle. When he tried to bring one
thing into individual outline some other thing impinged, and all became
a jumbled medley, like pieces of a puzzle, no one of which would fit
into another.

The underworld looked askance and whispered through the corners of its
mouth as it asked the question: Who was the man in the mask? And he,
Billy Kane, who could answer that question, sitting here in Two-finger
Tasker’s in the heart of that underworld, was asking himself another, a
dozen others, whose answers were vital, life and death to him in the
most literal sense. Who was the Woman in Black, who, like a Nemesis,
hovered over the Rat? Where was the man whose personality had been so
strangely thrust upon him, Billy Kane? When would the Rat return? Had
he, Billy Kane, even the few hours at his disposal this evening that
were necessary to enable him to run down the clue which he had
discovered, and upon which he was banking his all now to clear himself,
to bring to justice the murderers who had so craftily saddled their
guilt upon him—had he even that much time before the inevitable crash
came?

This evening! Yes, this evening! His fingers came from his vest pocket,
and his hand clenched fiercely at his side. He would go the limit. His
mind was made up to that. He had never thought that he would consider,
calculate and weigh the pros and cons of taking another’s life, much
less come to a deliberate decision to do so! But he had made that
decision now; and, if it were necessary, he would carry it through. It
seemed to affect him with an unnatural, cold indifference that surprised
himself—that decision. It seemed to be only the result, the outcome that
continued to concern him. If he had luck with him to-night he would win
through. Red Vallon, Birdie Rose and the underworld had so far failed.
He had kept prodding them on, and would continue to prod them on even
now on the basis that he could not afford to let go of a single chance;
but his hopes, that amounted now to a practical certainty of success,
were almost wholly centered on his own efforts in the next few hours.

He stirred impulsively in his chair. The murderers of David Ellsworth
had been _too_ cunning, it seemed, had overstepped themselves at last in
their anxiety to weave their net of evidence still more irrevocably
around him. The affair of last night, the capture of Karlin by the
police, and the social prominence of both Karlin and Merxler, had
furnished the morning papers with material for glaring headlines and
columns of sensational “story”; but, even so, all this had not by any
means overshadowed the Ellsworth murder and robbery. The press was still
alive with it, New York was still agog with the old
millionaire-philanthropist’s assassination, and with what it believed to
be the traitorous and abandoned act of, not only a trusted and
confidential secretary, but of one who at the same time was the son of a
lifelong friend.

The blood surged burning hot into Billy Kane’s face. From coast to coast
they had heralded him as the vilest of his kind—he was a pariah, an
outcast, a thing of loathing! Yes, the papers were still giving him and
the Ellsworth murder prominence enough! But that prominence was not
without its compensation, since it had furnished him with the clue now
in his possession.

The inquest had been held late yesterday afternoon, too late for more
than brief mention in the evening papers, but this morning the papers
had carried a full and practically verbatim report of the proceedings.
He had read the report, not daring at first to believe what he wanted to
believe, afraid that his eyes were playing a mocking trick upon him—and
then he had read it again in a sort of grim, unholy joy.

Jackson, the footman, who he knew was one of the murderers, was dead,
and so far Birdie Rose had been unable to trace the man’s family or
connections; but Peters, the butler, was not dead, and out of Peters’
own mouth, in his effort apparently to seal for all time his, Billy
Kane’s, guilt, Peters had convicted himself!

True, before a jury, Peters had done himself no harm—that was the
hellish ingenuity of the scheme that fitted in with all the rest of the
devil’s craft with which the affair had been planned. Peters, in the
public’s eyes, or before any court, was treading on safe and solid
ground, for his, Billy Kane’s, simple denial was worth nothing in any
man’s opinion to-day; but he, Billy Kane, _knew_ that Peters’ testimony
was not fact. Peters had testified that he had seen him, Billy Kane,
leave the house about seven o’clock—which was true. Peters had then
deliberately testified that half an hour later, though he had not seen
Mr. Kane return, he had seen Mr. Kane come quietly down the back stairs,
and enter the library—which, besides being untrue, since he, Billy Kane,
was not even in the house at that time, was also equivalent to swearing
away his, Billy Kane’s, life. Peters, continuing his evidence, had
stated that he was quite sure he had not been seen by Mr. Kane, as he,
Peters, at that moment was standing just inside the cloakroom off the
hall. He did not see Mr. Kane emerge again from the library, but some
fifteen minutes later a telephone call came in for Mr. Ellsworth, and,
knowing Mr. Ellsworth to be in the library, he connected with that room.
He tried several times, but could get no reply. Finally he went to the
library door and opened it, and found Mr. Ellsworth with his skull
crushed in, dead upon the floor, the private vault and safe open and
looted. He at once called the police. He stated that it was obvious Mr.
Kane had made his escape from the library through the stenographer’s
room at the rear, and from there to the back entrance, where, later on
again, as the police already knew, returning once more in the hope
presumably of recovering the card with the combinations of the safe and
vault on it in his handwriting, he had been discovered by Jackson, the
footman, and had killed Jackson, who had tried to capture him.

Billy Kane’s hands were shoved in an apparently nonchalant manner into
the side pockets of his coat—to hide them from view now. The nails were
biting into the palms of his hands. “_Killed_” that was the word Peters
had used—“killed.” It was very subtle of Peters to have used that
word—it just clinched the whole story with the seemingly obvious.
Everybody believed that he, Billy Kane, had killed Jackson, as well as
David Ellsworth. Yes, Peters had put the finishing touch on the evidence
that was meant to free the actual perpetrators, himself quite evidently
amongst them, from punishment, and to send him, Billy Kane, if caught,
as their proxy to the death chair in Sing Sing.

Quite so! And Peters thought himself quite safe. What had Peters to fear
from a hunted wretch who he undoubtedly believed was miles away, fleeing
for his life, cowering from the sight of his fellow humans, afraid to
show his face? But Peters and his accomplices had overshot the mark! The
evidence was final, incontrovertible, damning—only it was not _true_.
He, Billy Kane, would not dispute it with a jury—he would put Peters on
a witness stand of a grimmer nature than that! He had known on the night
of the crime that Jackson, the footman, was one of the guilty men; but
he had not suspected that the dignified, perfectly trained Peters, the
butler, with his fastidiously trimmed, gray, mutton-chop side-whiskers,
was likewise one of the band. And now he wondered why he had not thought
of it.

He saw Peters in quite a different light now! A hundred little incidents
metamorphosed the man’s excessive efficiency and attentiveness into a
smug mask of hypocrisy. And, corroborative from this new viewpoint,
where, for instance, had Peters, as it now appeared, got the money to
send his family away even to a boarding house? Butlers were not in the
habit of sending their families away to the seaside for the summer! Even
Whitie Jack had not failed to comment on that fact. Well, he was
satisfied that he knew the real Peters now, and it was not too late. It
was Peters, or himself now. It was his life, or Peters’ life—unless
Peters laid bare to the last shred the whole plot, and the name of every
man connected with it.

And the stage was set. From the moment he had read the papers that
morning, he had put Whitie Jack at work—and Whitie Jack had done well,
exceedingly well. He, Billy Kane, knew that Peters was married and had a
family, but he had not known Peters’ home address. Whitie Jack had
proved a most praiseworthy ferret. He, Billy Kane, knew that Thursday
was always Peters’ night off. This was Thursday night. Peters, then, if
he followed his usual custom, would visit his flat to-night; and, since
the man’s family was away, Peters and he would be _alone_. It was
fortunate that the family was away, luck seemed to be turning; it
precluded the necessity of getting Peters somewhere else—alone. It
simplified matters. Peters’ flat would serve most excellently for that
interview!

He laughed a little now. He was strangely cool, strangely composed. He
was in a mood in which he found difficulty in recognizing himself. He
was going to-night to wring from a man either that man’s life, or that
man’s confession. He was absolutely merciless in that resolve; he would
not turn back, nothing would make him swerve one iota from that
determination, he would go the limit—and yet he sat here entirely
unmoved, callous.

Well, after all, why not? If the man was already a murderer, his life
was already forfeit. If he, Billy Kane, must choose between losing his
own life and permitting one of the murderers of David Ellsworth to
profit further thereby, would one hesitate long over that choice, or
hesitate to go—the limit?



XIII—THE CIPHER MESSAGE


Billy Kane’s hands came from his pockets again, and he leisurely lighted
a cigarette. Though sitting sideways to the door, he nevertheless
unostentatiously commanded a full view of the entrance. Red Vallon had
just entered, and, after a moment’s pause in which the man’s eyes
searched around the dance hall, was coming forward, threading his way
through the intervening tables. Billy Kane flung a short nod of
recognition in the direction of the approaching gangster; and then his
eyes fastened in a sort of hard, curious expectancy on the street door
again. Whether or not it was intuition or premonition, induced by what
had happened the previous night when Red Vallon had been followed, he
did not know, but he was somehow prepared now, a little more than
prepared, almost sure, in fact, that there would be a repetition of last
night’s occurrence.

Red Vallon dropped into the seat vacated by Whitie Jack.

“Hello, Bundy!” he greeted affably.

“Hello, Red!” The response was purely mechanical. Billy Kane shifted his
cigarette from one corner of his mouth to the other—to hide a smile in
which there was no humor. His intuition, if it were intuition, had not
been at fault. A woman had just entered the dance hall. He was not
likely to mistake that slim, graceful figure, nor those dark, steady
eyes—that were spanning the room and resting upon him. He could not see
the lurking mockery in those eyes, the distance was a little too great
for that, but his imagination could depict it readily enough. Nor did it
require much imagination! It was the Woman in Black. He glanced at Red
Vallon. Red Vallon’s back was turned to the door, and he had quite
evidently not observed her.

The beer-stained attendant hurried to the table.

“What’ll you have, Red?” inquired Billy Kane pleasantly.

Red Vallon waved the man away.

“Nix!” he said in a lowered voice. “I got to beat it—I got to meet
Birdie Rose. There’s something doing.”

Billy Kane, even as he watched that trim figure make its way to a table
near the wall on a line with his own, leaned abruptly, eagerly forward,
toward Red Vallon. He felt his pulse throb and quicken. Luck seemed to
be breaking wide open at last. If, coupled with his own clue, Red Vallon
and Birdie Rose had unearthed another, this infernal masquerade that
threatened his life at every turn was as good as ended.

“What is it?” he demanded sharply. “Have you spotted the stones?”

Red Vallon shook his head.

“Not them stones,” he said a little uneasily. “Some others. I got
orders.”

Billy Kane’s face hardened.

“Orders!” he echoed shortly. “Didn’t I tell you last night that
everything else was piker stuff? A half million in rubies, that’s what
we’re after—to the limit! Understand? To the limit! Orders! Who gave you
any orders except to stick to the game?”

“You know,” said Red Vallon, and pushed a sheet of paper across the
table. “Tear it up when you’re through. It’s no good to me any more. I
just wanted to show it to you, so’s you’d know I wasn’t side-stepping on
my own.”

Billy Kane did not tear it up. His face, still set hard, showed no other
signs of emotion, as his eyes studied the paper, but inwardly there came
a sort of numbed dismay. It was a code message. It meant nothing to him
in one sense, in another it meant a very great deal. He was _supposed_
to know what this jumble of letters signified. Red Vallon expected him
to know. To arouse Red Vallon’s suspicion for an instant was simply and
literally equivalent to bringing down the underworld upon him—and the
underworld would be as gentle and merciful as a pack of starving wolves!
The jumble of letters seemed to possess a diabolical leer all their own,
as he stared at them.

    zidu6vesfuu6fwefwjf8dfsuofnIIohjtopdteop8nbje3ofueobt8v
    piutsb7mmpez5bepun4psgnb9esfutnbf4wbiopjubIInspgoj3fiuf
    m4p2ntjho6jzbImbuo5bm2qpuu3fhnf4iuuih7jopuoff7xufcu5ih
    j3feobf4ojold6pmd3peobu6sfwjeopjd9jqtv2tpuf4np3tfopf4tm
    3fov3sf4iufmp2npui5usb3fe4obflb3nn5jiih2vpdqv.

Was it a code that, with the key in one’s possession, one could read at
a glance? He did not know. Was it a code that required elaborate and
painstaking effort to decipher? He did not know. Did Red Vallon, sitting
there across the table watching him, expect him to give instant
indication that the code message was plain and intelligible to him? He
did not know. There was only one course to take—the middle course. He
laid the paper on the table, and laid his clenched fist over the paper,
as he leaned farther over, truculently, toward Red Vallon.

“I tell you again that everything else is piker stuff,” he said angrily.
“Do you get me? What have you done, you and Birdie, and the rest? Have
you got anywhere to-day? Do you know where that secretary guy, Billy
Kane, is? Do you know where those rubies are?”

“No,” said Red Vallon hurriedly, “we haven’t turned anything up yet,
but——”

“But you’re going to—by nosing around after something else!” snapped
Billy Kane. “Do you think I’m going to see the biggest thing that was
ever pulled slip through my fingers? If you do, you’ve got another think
coming! Things have changed since I’ve been away—eh? How long since
there’s been any monkeying with what I dope out?”

“Don’t get sore, Bundy,” said Red Vallon appeasingly. “It’s nothing like
that. You know how it was. Karlin’s arrest last night queered
everything. That cursed snitch with the mask on put everything on the
rough. There wasn’t any meeting. You know who sent that code there;
well, _he_ didn’t know about the other job, or that he was butting in on
you. Tumble? There ain’t nothing to be sore about, Bundy. Say, me and
Birdie ain’t going to be more’n an hour or two doing this trick, anyhow.
Someone of the Mole’s gang must have leaked; or maybe one of our boys
piped him off. I dunno. But we got him cold this trip. He’s a slick one
all right, and he’s been getting away with the goods quite a lot lately,
and giving us the laugh. You know all about that. Well, this is where he
doesn’t laugh—see? He’s pulling a nice one to-night. Got it all fixed up
to make it look like somebody else did it. Sure! Well, we’re not kicking
at that—so long as _we_ get the loot. Sure! We’ll let him pull it, all
right, all right, believe me!”

Billy Kane appeared to be unmoved. He studied the gangster coldly.

“And how does it happen that you and Birdie, out of all the rest, are
picked for this?”

Red Vallon indulged in an ugly grin.

“’Cause we know the Mole down to the ground,” he said; “but principally
because the Mole knows _us_! There won’t be any fooling when we spring a
show-down, he’s wise to that, and he’ll come across. And, besides,
’tain’t only Birdie and me, I’m taking some of my own gang along as
well.”

Billy Kane scowled. It probably mattered very little indeed that Red
Vallon’s efforts were to be sidetracked for the next few hours, and
should he, Billy Kane, during that time, be successful, it mattered not
at all; but his play for the moment was to preserve his rôle in Red
Vallon’s eyes, to keep away from anything intimate concerning the
purport of this cipher message that still lay beneath his clenched hand,
and that might so easily betray his ignorance, and above all now to get
rid of Red Vallon before any such awkward and dangerous _impasse_ could
arise. He shrugged his shoulders, but his voice was still sullen as he
spoke.

“Well, go to it!” he growled. “Go and pick up your chicken feed! But you
get this into your nut, Red, and let it soak there. After this”—he
leaned far over the table, his face thrust almost into Red Vallon’s—“you
stay with the game every minute, or quit! It’s the limit, or quit!
There’s just one thing that counts—those rubies, or the man who pinched
them. If we get the man, he’ll cough—red—the stones, or blood. Do you
think I’m going to let anything queer me on my share of half a million?
You don’t seem to get what I mean when I say the limit. Look out I don’t
give you an object lesson!”

Red Vallon licked his lips, and drew back a little. There was something
in Red Vallon’s eyes that was not often there—fear.

“It’s all right, Bundy,” he said with nervous eagerness. “I’m with you.
Sure, I am! This thing must have broke loose quick, and there wasn’t no
idea of crabbing anything you’d started. I got ten of the best of ’em
combing out the ‘fences’ for you right now.”

“All right,” responded Billy Kane gruffly. “Make a report to me on that
before morning.”

“Where’ll you be?” Red Vallon was apparently relieved, for his voice had
recovered its buoyancy.

“At my place—some time,” said Billy Kane curtly. “You can wait for me
there.” He smiled suddenly with grim facetiousness. “My shoulder’s a lot
better—enough so that maybe I can sit in for a hand myself to-night.”

“I hope you do,” said Red Vallon fervently. “You always had the
knock-out punch, Bundy, and it’ll seem like old times.” He half rose
from his chair; then, looking furtively about him, bent forward over the
table. “There’s something else, Bundy, before I go—that snitch last
night at Jerry’s, the man in the mask. He’s played hell with the crowd.
There’s no telling what’ll tumble down behind Karlin. And it don’t look
like he’s just stumbled on that deal by _accident_. It don’t look good,
Bundy. We got to get him, and get him quick, before he pulls anything
more. The word’s out to bump him off.”

Billy Kane nodded.

“Well, don’t lose your nerve over it, Red,” he said coolly. “If it was
by accident, he won’t do us any more damage, and we’ve only got to
settle with him for what he’s done, providing we can ever find him; if
it wasn’t accident he’ll show his hand again—won’t he?”

“Yes,” said Red Vallon.

Billy Kane’s smile was unpleasant.

“Well, you’ll know what to do with him then, won’t you?” he inquired
softly.

The gangster’s red-rimmed eyes narrowed to slits.

“Yes, I’ll know!” said Red Vallon coarsely. He made an ugly motion
toward his throat. “Well, so long, Bundy!”

Billy Kane nodded again by way of answer. He watched Red Vallon thread
his way back among the tables, and pass out through the front door. With
the gangster out of the way, he picked up the sheet of paper upon which
the code message was written, studied it for a moment, then thrust it
into his pocket—and his glance travelled to the table opposite to him
and against the wall, where that slim little figure in black was seated.
She appeared to be quite indifferent to his presence, and quite intent
upon the consumption of a glass of milk and the sandwich on the plate
before her.

Billy Kane smiled with grim comprehension. The frugality of the meal was
not without its object. It was fairly obvious that she could dispose of
what was before her in short order, and leave the place at an instant’s
notice without inviting undesirable attention to an unfinished meal—if
she so desired! It was his move. She had followed Red Vallon in, but she
had not followed Red Vallon out—she was waiting for him, Billy Kane. The
seat she had chosen had been in plain view of Red Vallon, therefore she
was evidently free from any fear of recognition on the part of the
gangster, and, as a logical corollary, from probably anybody else in the
room. That she gave no sign now therefore could mean but one thing. It
was his move. If he cared to cross swords with her here, he was at
liberty to do so; if he had reasons of his own for preferring a less
public meeting, he had only to leave the place—and she would undoubtedly
follow.

In one sense she was most solicitous of his welfare! She would do
nothing to hamper or hinder him in protecting himself, as long as he
continued to double-cross and render abortive the crimes of that inner
circle of the underworld in which she believed him to be a leader;
failing that, as she had already made it quite clear, she proposed, as
near as he could solve the riddle, to expose some past crime of the
Rat’s to the police, and end his career via the death chair in Sing
Sing. Also she had made her personal feelings toward him equally
clear—she held for him a hatred that was as deep-seated as it was
merciless and deadly.

He shrugged his shoulders. He, by proxy, stood in the shoes of one who,
seemingly, had done her some irreparable wrong, and since she would dog
him all night until she had had the interview that she evidently
proposed to have, it might as well be here as anywhere. It mattered very
little to him, as the Rat, that he should be observed by those in the
room to get up from his table and walk over to hers. He was not being
watched in the sense that anyone held surveillance over him, and, in any
case, the conventions here in the heart of the underworld were of too
elastic a character to have it cause even comment; and, besides, in a
few hours from now, if luck were with him, he would be through with all
this, done with this miserable rôle of super-crook, which, though it
brought a new and greater peril at every move he made, was the one thing
that, for the present, he was dependent upon for his life.

He rose, crossed the room nonchalantly, and dropped as nonchalantly into
the chair at the end of her table, his back to the door.

She greeted him with a smile—but it was a smile of the lips only. The
dark eyes, under the long lashes, studied him in a cold, uncompromising
stare; and there was mockery in their depths, but deeper than the
mockery there was contempt and disdain.

A cigarette, pulled lazily from his pocket and lighted, preserved his
appearance of unconcern. In spite of himself, in spite of the fact that
that contemptuous stare was his only through a damnable and abhorrent
proxy, he felt suddenly ill at ease. He had never seen her as closely as
this before. He had only seen her twice before—once in the dark; and
once with the width of the Rat’s den separating them. He had been
conscious then that she was attractive, beautiful, with her clustering
masses of brown hair, and the dainty poise of her head, and the pure
whiteness of her full throat; but he was conscious now that beyond the
mere beauty of features lay steadfastness and strength, that in the
sweetness of the face there was, too, a wistfulness, do what she would
to hide it, and that there was strain there, and weariness. And he was
suddenly conscious, too, that he disliked the rôle of the Rat more than
he had ever disliked it, and that the loathing in those eyes, which
never left his face, was responsible for this added distaste of the fact
that nature had, through some cursed and perverted sense of humor or
malevolence, seen fit to make him the counterpart of a wanton rogue,
and, worse still, seen fit to force upon him the enactment of that rôle.

He could not tell her that he was not the Rat, could he?—that he was
Billy Kane! Would the loathing in those eyes have grown the less at
that? Billy Kane—the thief, the Judas assassin, whose name was a byword
throughout the length and breadth of the land at that moment, whose name
was a synonym for everything that was vile and hideous and depraved! He
was the Rat—until to-night was over! After that—well, after that, who
knew? Now, he was the Rat, and he must play the Rat’s part.

She broke the silence, her voice cool and even:

“I left it entirely to you as to whether you would come over to this
table here or not.”

“I quite understood!” Billy Kane forced a sarcastic smile. “You are
almost too considerate!”

“Am I?” she said. Her eyes flashed suddenly. “Well, perhaps you are
right! I have thought sometimes that even the chance I give you is more
than you deserve. I feel so strongly about it, in fact, that the only
thing which prevents me from putting an end to it—and you—is that by
using you to defeat the ends of your own criminal associates a great
deal of good is being done. They will trap you sometime, of course, and,
knowing them, you know what will happen, and I am satisfied then that,
as an alternative, you would prefer Sing Sing and the chair; but you are
clever—that is why you grasp at the chance I give you. You are extremely
clever—and you believe you can continue to outwit them indefinitely. I
don’t think you can, though I admit your cleverness, cunning and craft.”

“You flatter me!” said Billy Kane ironically.

“No,” she said, her voice suddenly lowered, passionate, tense; “I hate
you.”

“You told me that last night.” Billy Kane indolently blew a ring of
cigarette smoke ceilingwards. “I am beginning to believe you. Did you
follow Red Vallon in here to tell me the same thing again?”

She did not answer for a moment.

“Sometimes you make me lose my faith in God,” she said, in a slow,
restrained way. “It is hard to believe that a God, a just God, could
have created such men as you.”

Billy Kane removed his cigarette from his lips, and flicked the ash away
with a tap of his forefinger. He felt the color mount and tinge his
cheeks. There was something, not alone in her words, but in her tone,
that struck at him and _hurt_. The brown eyes, deep, full of implacable
condemnation, burned into his. What was it that the Rat had done to her,
or hers? He turned slightly away. An anger, smoldering in his soul,
burst into flame. He was the Rat by proxy—and the proxy was damnable. He
could not tell her he was not the Rat. He could not tell her he
was—Billy Kane. He must play on with his detestable rôle! He must play
the Rat. What answer would the Rat have made to her?

“Cut that out!” rasped Billy Kane.

“Yes,” she said quietly, “I spoke impulsively. There are only two things
in life that affect you—your own safety, and to be quite sure that you
get all of your share out of your crimes, and, if possible, somebody
else’s share as well. But the latter consideration is at an end now,
isn’t it, Bundy? I think I have taken care of that. It’s just a question
of whether you can save yourself or not with those clever wits of yours.
Well”—she shrugged her shoulders suddenly—“you did very well last night.
His life would not be worth very much if the underworld should ever lay
hands on the man in the mask. Would it, Bundy?”

He did not answer her.

“Yes, you did very well, indeed,” she went on calmly. “You will meet
somewhere else, of course, as soon as you can find a suitable place, but
you will hold no more of your secret council meetings at Jerry’s for
some time to come.”

Billy Kane’s face was impassive now. He was apparently intent only on
the thin blue spiral of smoke that curled upward from the tip of his
cigarette. So those meetings of that cursed directorate of crime had
been held at Jerry’s, had they? He had not known that.

“Suppose,” suggested Billy Kane, curtly, “that we come to the point.
What is it that you want to-night?”

“I am coming to the point,” she answered levelly. “Owing to the events
of last night your organization is in confusion, some of the more
faint-hearted of your partners have temporarily even taken to their
heels; but, even so, the organization’s activities can hardly come to an
abrupt standstill. You will perhaps remember a somewhat similar occasion
once before? There are perhaps certain matters that are imperative, that
cannot wait. Is it not so, Bundy? And in such an emergency it is left
to—shall we call him the organization’s secretary?—to keep things going.
Personal touch is lost with one another, but there is still a way. I
know, it does not matter how, that Red Vallon received a written order a
little while ago. I followed Red Vallon here. I _think_ he gave that
order to you.”

Billy Kane looked at her for a moment, a quizzical, whimsical expression
creeping into his face. She was in deadly earnest, he knew that well.
And yet there was a certain sense of humor here too—a grim humor with
something of the sardonic in it, and nothing of mirth. Red Vallon’s code
order was quite as meaningless to him as it would be to her!

“Sure!” said Billy Kane, alias the Rat—and chuckled. “Sure, he gave it
to me! You don’t think I’d hold anything out on _you_, do you? Sure, he
gave it to me!” He tossed the paper across the table toward her. “Help
yourself! All you’ve got to do is ask for anything _I’ve_ got, and it’s
yours. You’re as welcome as the sunshine to it.”

She studied it for an instant calmly. Billy Kane, watching her narrowly,
frowned slightly in a puzzled way. She appeared to be neither agitated
nor confused. She raised her eyes to his, a glint half of mockery, half
of menace, in their brown depths.

“Did you think I did not know it was in cipher?” she inquired coldly.
“You would hardly have been so obliging otherwise, would you? It is
always in cipher under these circumstances, isn’t it? Well, what is the
translation?”

“Red Vallon didn’t tell me,” said Billy Kane complacently.

“Quite probably not!” she countered sharply. “It was hardly necessary,
was it? But since you have decoded it yourself?”

Billy Kane shrugged his shoulders.

“I’ve been away so long,” he said, “that I’ve forgotten the key.”

“Really!” She was smiling at him in derision now. “In other words, you
refuse to tell me what it is.”

“Don’t you think you expect a little too much from me?” He forced a
sudden roughness into his tones. “I haven’t decoded it yet, as a matter
of fact; but if I had, do you think I’m looking for trouble—to give you
the chance to force me into another mess?”

She shook her head in a sort of mocking tolerance.

“Does it really matter, Bundy?” she asked softly. “You are not as bright
this evening as usual. I know that some crime is planned and set forth
here on this paper. It really makes no vital difference to me to know
beforehand specifically just what that crime is, for if it succeeds I
shall know about it, and, in that case, I shall equally know that you
did not prevent it. I think you quite understand what that means, don’t
you, Bundy? However”—she smiled again, as she opened her purse and took
out a pencil—“let us put it down to a woman’s insatiable curiosity, if
you like, and decode it together.”

Decode it! The twisted smile that came to his lips was genuine enough.
He couldn’t decode it. He had only one card to play—a flat and
unequivocal refusal.

“Nothing doing!” he snarled.

“Oh, yes, I think there is,” she said softly again.

He stared at her. Her pencil was flying across the paper. Who was this
woman? She knew the key! Was there anything that she did not know? He
watched her in a stunned way, his mind in confusion. And then he leaned
forward to observe her work more closely. Beneath the original cipher
she had written this:

    ziduve sfuufw efwjfdfs uofnohjtopd teopnbje ofu eobtvpiu
    tsbmmpe zbepu npsg nbesfutnb fwbi opjubnspgoj fiu fmpn
    tj hojzbm b uobmq pu ufh nfiu uihjopu offxufc uihjf eob
    fojo lpmdp eob usfwje opjdjqtvt pu fnpt fop ftmf ovs fiu
    fmpn pu iusbf eob flbn nji ihvpd qv.

“It is so simple, Bundy,” she murmured caustically. “The numerals to
designate the number of letters in the words, the transposition of ‘a’
for ‘b’, and so on, and the words spelled backwards. It is so simple,
Bundy, that it is strange you should have forgotten—and forgotten that
there are other secrets I have found in that den of yours, apart from
that very convenient and ingenious door!”

She was working as she spoke, paying no attention to him. He made no
reply, only watched her as she set down a second series of letters:

    yhctud rettev deviecer tnemngisnoc sdnomaid net dnasuoht
    srallod yadot morf madretsma evah noitamrofni eht elom
    si gniyal a tnalp ot teg meht thginot neewteb thgie dna enin
    kcolco dna trevid noicipsus ot emos eno esle nur eht elom
    ot htrae dna ekam mih hguoc pu.

A moment more, and she had written out the message in plain English:

    Dutchy Vetter received consignment diamonds ten thousand dollars
    to-day from Amsterdam. Have information the Mole is laying a
    plant to get them to-night between eight and nine o’clock, and
    divert suspicion to some one else. Run the Mole to earth and
    make him cough up.

She was studying the paper in her hand. Billy Kane lighted another
cigarette. He was still watching her, but it was in a detached sort of
way. Between eight and nine o’clock! Peters was rarely able to leave the
Ellsworth home on his evenings off until well after eight o’clock;
Peters, therefore, would not reach his flat much before nine, and
certainly was not likely to leave there again immediately.

Billy Kane’s mind was working in quick, and seemingly unrelated snatches
of thought. There was time enough to see this Vetter game through
without interfering with that interview he meant to hold with Peters....
It was strange that it should be Vetter ... Whitie Jack had spoken of
Vetter ... Savnak, the violin player, and Vetter ... Whitie Jack said
that Savnak and Vetter spent most of their evenings together at Vetter’s
playing pinochle and the violin.... Savnak would likely be there then
between eight and nine.... Upon whom was it that the so-called Mole
intended to point suspicion?... Here was the moral obligation again....
He had fought that out last night.... She, this woman here, was not the
driving force.... She only represented disaster from an entirely
different source if he failed.... If he stood aside with the
foreknowledge of crime in his possession he was as guilty as this
Mole.... Perhaps he had been trying to trick his own conscience in not
pressing Red Vallon for explanations.... Perhaps, in a measure, he had
allowed the argument that he might invite Red Vallon’s suspicions to act
as an excuse for evading the responsibility that this foreknowledge of
crime entailed.... Well, that responsibility was his now, thanks to
her.... He had no choice.... It was likely to be the man in the mask
again, and——

She pushed the paper toward him.

“Perhaps you would like to destroy this—for safety’s sake,” she observed
complacently.

He took the paper mechanically, and mechanically tore it up.

“I do not know the Mole personally”—she was speaking almost more to
herself than to him, as though feeling her way cautiously along a
tortuous mental path—“I only know him as an exceedingly clever
scoundrel, and as the head of a small, but very select, band of
criminals. He is a sort of competitor of yours, I believe, and more than
once has had the temerity to act as a thorn in the side of your own
rapacious and diabolical crime trust. But I do know that this Vetter is
an honest old man. It would be too bad”—her voice, still low, was
suddenly vibrant with a significance that there was no mistaking—“if
Vetter should lose his diamonds, wouldn’t it, Bundy?”

The spiral of cigarette smoke again occupied Billy Kane. It was quite
true that his mind was already made up; but for the moment he was the
Rat, and the Rat would not be likely to accede to her suggestion with
any overwhelming degree of complacency.

“You are a little inconsistent, aren’t you?” he inquired sarcastically.
“If you are so anxious to prevent this crime, why don’t you warn the
police?”

“You can put down my inconsistency to the frailty of my sex again, if
you like,” she answered quickly. “But you know quite well why. And,
besides, one Bundy Morgan, having more at stake than the police, is more
likely to accomplish the task successfully. Yes—Bundy?”

“But this isn’t my hunt!” he protested, with a snarl. “I can’t stop all
the crimes in the world! This isn’t _my_ crowd! I’m not responsible for
the Mole. I don’t know _his_ plans. How can I put the crimp in them? The
game is to let the Mole go ahead, isn’t it, and then Red Vallon is to
grab the chestnuts out of the Mole’s pocket? Well, that’s all right! But
suppose I butt in, and, knowing nothing about the Mole’s plans, fall
down, and he gets away with the goods, and is too sharp for Red Vallon
so that I can’t even get the loot away from Red—am I responsible?”

“I’m not unreasonable,” she said—and smiled. “There is a good deal of
truth in what you say. But there is a way to provide against both
contingencies.”

The snarl was still in his voice.

“What is it?” he demanded.

“Steal the diamonds yourself before the Mole gets to work,” she proposed
calmly.

Billy Kane’s gasp was wholly genuine.

“What?” he ejaculated.

“You’ve plenty of time,” she said sweetly. “Vetter’s isn’t far from
here, and it’s not much more than half past seven now. The diamonds can
be returned to Vetter tomorrow. After having had them stolen once, I
think Vetter could be trusted to put them somewhere where neither the
Mole nor anyone else would be likely to succeed a second time.”

“But I don’t know where the diamonds are now!” His voice was helpless in
spite of himself.

She lifted her shoulders.

“Neither do I,” she said imperturbably.

“Well, you’ve got your nerve!” he burst out—and it was Billy Kane, not
the Rat, who spoke.

The interview, as far as she was concerned, was evidently at an end. She
had resumed her frugal meal, and was picking daintily at the sandwich on
her plate. Her eyebrows arched.

“I hope you’ve got yours,” she murmured.

He stood up. He could have laughed ironically, and likewise he could
have sworn. She was distractingly pretty, as she sat there quite the
mistress of herself; but her profound and utter disregard as to how the
perilous project might result for him personally brought suddenly a
vicious sweep of anger upon him—and abruptly, without a word, he swung
from the table, and made his way toward the door. But the few steps
cleared his brain a little, brought things into sharper focus. After
all, he had forgotten! To her, he was the Rat. And the Rat—he did not
question it—merited little of either mercy or consideration at her
hands. At the door he looked back. She nodded to him pleasantly, and
smiled—not in the manner of one who might very well be sending another
to his death!

“Well, I’ll be damned!” muttered Billy Kane, and, opening the door,
stepped out to the street.



XIV—THE ROBBERY


It was not far to Vetter’s place, but—Billy Kane looked at his watch
under a street lamp—it was later than she had said. It was ten minutes
of eight. He knew where Vetter’s was. That point presented no
difficulties; he could hardly have spent the months he had amongst the
queer, heterogeneous lives of the East Side without knowing at least
that much about so outstanding a character as the old Holland diamond
merchant—but that was quite another matter from knowing where the old
Hollander domiciled his diamonds!

Billy Kane frowned, as he went along. Well, was it necessary to steal
the diamonds? That task, on the face of it, was so almost practically
impossible as to render it bizarre. He had nothing to work on, no
information, just the cool suggestion that he should steal the diamonds
_first_; and, under ordinary circumstances, he might well be filled with
dismay at the prospect of failure in view of the threat which she held
over his head, though that side of it need not, and did not, concern him
to-night. In a few hours from now he no longer expected to be the Rat;
in a few hours Peters would have had his choice between losing his life
and telling the truth, and under those conditions there was very little
room for doubt but that Peters would have told—the truth. If, however,
he could meanwhile save the old Hollander from loss, he, Billy Kane, was
quite ready to go to almost any length to do so.

He went on at a quick pace, traversing block after block. He smiled
ironically to himself, as he finally turned a corner, and with more
caution now, approached a low frame building that was bordered by a dark
and narrow lane. Yes, it was bizarre enough! He could not very well
inform the police himself! The Rat—and particularly Billy Kane—was not
at the moment on speaking terms with the police! But was it necessary to
steal the diamonds?

Her idea, of course, was that then they would be absolutely safe from
any attempt, or, perhaps what she feared most, physical coercion on the
part of the Mole—even if Vetter were given a warning.

But surely Vetter could take care of himself if he were warned! He,
Billy Kane, certainly preferred that method! But, even that, as an
alternative, was not quite so simple as it appeared. He was still the
Rat. He did not know the plan this so-called Mole had evolved, and, more
vital still, he did not know how closely Red Vallon was, in turn,
watching the Mole. It was eight o’clock now, and any or all of them
might already be here. If he, Billy Kane, were discovered there would
never be that little interview with Peters! The corollary was
self-evident. Even for the purpose of warning the man, to reach Vetter
inside this house here, that he was just passing, demanded the same
degree of caution and secrecy on his part as though he entered for the
purpose of stealing the stones himself. Also the little shop that made
the front of the building was closed and dark. Vetter’s living quarters,
he had heard, which was one of the eccentricities that had made the man
a talked-of character on the East Side, consisted of no more than a
single room, serving for every purpose, at the rear of the shop itself.
He did not dare take the risk of inviting attention by rapping and
bringing the old Hollander to the door.

He turned, and retracing his steps, sauntered nonchalantly along, passed
by the house again—and slipped into the lane. Circumstances, as he found
them, alone could govern his actions.

Billy Kane took stock now of the surroundings. The frame building was an
old affair, and the floors therefore would be outrageously creaky. Billy
Kane scowled. The prospect of creaky floors and protesting boards was
not a pleasant one. And then the scowl vanished, and a smile flickered
across his lips. From somewhere at the back of the house there came
suddenly the throbbing notes of a violin. The smile broadened. That was
Savnak, doubtless, and, for the moment at least, it was the violin,
rather than pinochle, that was engaging the two men. Personally, under
the circumstances, he, Billy Kane, was very much in favor of the violin.
The violin would help a good deal—if it became a question of creaky
floors!

He moved silently forward now farther into the lane, keeping close to
the wall in the darker shadows of the house. The old Hollander and his
crony were obviously in the back room. He glanced sharply up and down
the length of the building. He could see nothing. It was intensely dark.
The wall of the house was blank. There were no windows opening on the
lane.

An expression, grimly quizzical, settled on his face. It was a queer
setting for a robbery, this unpretentious, even tumble-down, little
shop, with its back-room living quarters! But the unpretentiousness of
the old Hollander’s surroundings in no way argued poverty! He had known
of Vetter by reputation, quite apart even from any connection with the
East Side. The man had a clientele among the best in the city. He was an
authority on diamonds. He dealt only in the choicest stones, and he was
absolutely reliable and honest. The world of fashion had made a path to
Vetter’s door, not he to theirs. In this ten-thousand-dollar
consignment, for instance, there would probably not be more than fifty
or sixty stones, not enough to make a small handful, but not one of
them, probably, would be worth less than a hundred dollars, and most of
them would be worth a great deal more.

Billy Kane reached the end of the building, and found that a board
fence, some seven or eight feet high, continued on down the lane,
obviously enclosing the back yard of the place. The violin throbbed on.
The notes came clear and sweet, entirely unmuffled now, as though from
an open window. He stood there for a moment listening. The playing was
exquisite. It was some plaintive, haunting melody given life by a master
touch. He remembered Whitie Jack’s description of the expatriated
musician. Without question Savnak could “fiddle”; the man, in spite of
having come a moral cropper, was, if he, Billy Kane, were any judge,
little short of a genius.

Glancing sharply about him once more, Billy Kane, with a lithe spring,
caught the top of the fence, and drew himself cautiously up until he
could peer over. He hung there motionless for a moment. A few yards away
from him, in a slightly diagonal direction, and between himself and the
back door, was the window of the rear room; and, as he had suspected,
the window was open. He could see inside; that is, in a restricted
sense. A man, it was Savnak of course, chin on his violin, standing, was
swaying gently to and fro on his feet to the tempo of the music, his
back to the window; and at the table, side face to the window, but with
his back toward Billy Kane, Vetter, the old Hollander, white-haired, sat
rapt in attention, staring at the violinist.

Billy Kane drew himself further up, and straddled the fence. The
position of the two men rendered him safe from observation. The notes of
the violin, in a tremolo, died softly away. The old Hollander dug his
knuckles across his eyes; and his words, spoken in perfect English,
evidently the language common to the two men of diverse nationalities,
reached Billy Kane distinctly:

“You are wonderful, my old friend Savnak. It is divine. My friend, you
are wonderful.”

The violinist shrugged his shoulders.

“Once,” he said, “I could really play. Yes, I tell you, you who will
believe me, that I could sway the people, that I could do with them as I
would, that I——” He stopped abruptly, and shrugged his shoulders again.
“But what is the use of memories? Memories! They are bad! They leave a
bad taste! Let us forget them! You were to show me the great purchase
that arrived to-day.”

“These!” The old Hollander took from his pocket what looked like a soft,
pliable, chamois-skin pocketbook, which he opened and laid on the table,
disclosing a cluster of gems that, nesting on a snowy bed of wadding,
sparkled and scintillated as the rays of the gas jet above the table
fell upon them; and then, impulsively closing the pocketbook again, he
pushed it a little away from him. “They can wait!” he said. “By and by,
we will look at them one by one. But they do not feed the soul, my
Savnak, like your music. Play some more. They are not worth one of your
notes.”

“Are they not?” Savnak’s voice seemed tinged with bitterness. “The soul
may be well fed, Vetter, but that does not keep one often enough from
tightening the belt! I think I would be fortunate to make the
exchange—my gift, such as it is, for your diamonds.”

“You do not mean what you say!” the old Hollander replied, shaking his
head reprovingly. “I know better! But I do not like to hear you talk
like that. Things are not so bad with you now. You are moody. Play some
more, my friend.”

“As you will!” Again Savnak shrugged his shoulders. He nestled his chin
on the violin. “It will be something gay, then, and lively—eh,
Vetter?—to chase the blue devils away.”

The notes of the violin rose again. Billy Kane began to lower himself
from the fence into the backyard. His mind was made up now. Since there
were two of them there, a warning surely was all that was necessary. The
window was not much more than shoulder high from the ground, and he had,
then, only to cross the yard and call to Vetter through the window. His
appearance there would no doubt startle and alarm the old Hollander half
out of his wits, but that was exactly what would cause the man to guard
his diamonds all the more zealously for the rest of the night. Once
warned, the two men in there between them ought certainly to be able to
take care of themselves and that chamois pocketbook.

Billy Kane dropped softly to the ground, straightened up, took a step
forward—and stopped as though rooted to the spot. There had come a cry
from Vetter. The violin broke off with a jerky, high-pitched, screaming
note. Then silence. Billy Kane raised himself on tiptoes. He could just
see in through the window; no more. It seemed like some picture flashed
on a cinema screen, quick, instantaneous. A third man, hat drawn far
over his face, was standing by the table, covering Vetter and Savnak
with a revolver. The man snatched up the chamois pocketbook, reached
above his head, turned out the gas—and the room and window were in
blackness.

It had happened with the suddenness and swiftness of a lightning flash,
so quick that the brain stumbled a little in a dazed way in an effort to
grasp its significance. And then Billy Kane wrenched his automatic from
his pocket. The thief, when or in whatever way he had got into the
house, must necessarily make his escape either by the front door, or by
the back door and through the yard here. If it were the latter, which
seemed the more likely, he, Billy Kane, had the man at his mercy; if it
were the former, the man would probably reach the street, in any case,
before he, Billy Kane, could get over the fence and rush down the lane.

Billy Kane was moving swiftly in the direction of the back door. He had
to choose one way or the other. He could not attempt to guard both exits
at the same time! If the man——

Vetter’s voice rose in a furious cry from the room:

“It is by the front, Savnak, he has gone! Quick! I hear him going out!
Quick! The street!”

“Yes! Quick! The street!” Savnak, like a parrot, in a shrill, hysterical
voice, was echoing the other’s words. “Quick! Chase him! And shout for
the police!” A chair fell over. The two men were evidently floundering
their way to the door. “Curse him for turning out the light!”

Billy Kane whirled, and dashed for the fence. As he straddled the top,
he saw a figure, thrown into relief on the lighted street, speed past
the head of the lane—and then, with a wry smile at a sudden realization
of his own impotence, he dropped to the lane, and, instead of running
now, made his way slowly and cautiously forward, hugged close against
the wall. If he ran out of the lane into the arms of Vetter and Savnak,
besides hampering the pursuit by distracting their attention from the
fugitive, he invited the decidedly awkward and very natural suspicion of
being connected with the thief himself; and the police would be very apt
to listen with their tongues in their cheeks to any explanation that the
Rat might offer to account for his presence in the lane at that
particular moment! And if there was any one thing that he wished to
avoid to-night, it was a complication with the police that would
inevitably interfere with his freedom of action during the next few
hours.

Came a wild cry now from both Vetter and Savnak from the front of the
house; and then the two men, yelling at the top of their voices, both
hatless, Savnak, apparently unconscious in his excitement that he was
brandishing his violin frantically in one hand and his bow in the other,
tore madly down the street in pursuit of their quarry.

Billy Kane slipped out to the street. Doors of tenements and houses were
beginning to open; heads were beginning to be thrust out through upper
windows; the street was beginning to assume a state of pandemonium. A
block down, the quarry, well in the lead of the old Hollander and the
violinist, leaped suddenly into a waiting automobile, and vanished
around the corner.

Billy Kane turned away. He felt a curiously chagrined resentment against
this so-called Mole, that was quite apart from his angry resentment of
the fact that the old Hollander had been victimized. He had expected
something quite different from the Mole! Red Vallon—and she, too—had
given the Mole a reputation for cleverness, craft and cunning; but,
instead of having shown any cleverness, or even a shred of originality,
the Mole, or his minion, had perpetrated nothing more than a bald, crude
theft that any house-breaker, or broken-down old “lag” could have pulled
off with equal lack of finesse! Well, anyway, for the moment so far as
he was concerned, the affair was at an end, and he could only await
developments. It all hinged on Red Vallon now—on Red Vallon, who
proposed in turn to rob the robber—on Red Vallon, who, later on, would
keep an appointment with him, Billy Kane, in the Rat’s den!

As he turned a corner, Billy Kane consulted his watch. It was still
early, just a trifle after eight—too early for that interview with
Peters yet. He might as well go back to Two-finger Tasker’s then. It was
scarcely likely that _she_ was still there, but, if she were, so much
the better! She could hardly hold him responsible for failure; and, in
any case, she would realize that there was still the chance of
recovering the stones by, in turn again, outwitting Red Vallon, if the
gangster had been successful. If she were not there, Two-finger Tasker’s
was as good a place as any in which to put in the time.

He reached the dance hall, and found, as he had half expected, that she
had already gone. He sat down at a table, ordered something from the
waiter, and, apparently absorbed in the dancers, who had now begun to
gather, he made a sort of grimly-reassuring inventory of his equipment
for the night’s work that still lay ahead of him—his mask, his
automatic, Whitie Jack’s skeleton keys, were in his pockets. His lips
twisted in a curious smile. The Mole, Vetter, the diamonds, the old
violinist—all these seemed suddenly extraneous, incidents thrust upon
him, dragged irrelevantly into his existence. They sank into
inconsequential obtrusions in the face of the stake for which he was now
about to play: his freedom, a clean name again, the end of this devil’s
tormenting masquerade, his life or, perhaps, another man’s life—Peters’?

Half an hour passed. Once more he looked at his watch. A few minutes
later he consulted it again. And then at a quarter to nine he rose from
the table, and left Two-finger Tasker’s resort.



XV—THE ALIBI


Twenty minutes later, having satisfied himself that the immediate
neighborhood was free of passers-by for the moment, and that he had not
been observed, he tried the street door of the tenement that had been
the subject of Whitie Jack’s earlier investigations. The door was
unlocked, and he stepped silently into the vestibule, and closed the
door softly behind him.

He stood for a moment listening, and taking critical note of his
surroundings. A single incandescent burning here in the lower hall
supplied ample illumination. The stairs were directly in front of him,
and on the right of the hallway. There was a closed door, also on the
right and just at the foot of the stairs, and from behind this there
came the murmur of voices. There was no other sound.

He moved quietly forward, mounted the stairs, gained the landing, and,
with more caution now, turned back along the hall, making for the door
on the right—Peters’ door, according to Whitie Jack—that, if in the same
relative location as the one below, would be at the foot of the next
flight of stairs. A faint light came up through the stair well, but the
end of the hall itself beyond the second flight of stairs was in
blackness. He nodded grimly in satisfaction. He would not need any light
to find Peters’ door!

His lips pressed hard together. He had reached the door now, and now he
crouched against it, his ear to the panel. He listened intently. A
sudden doubt came and tormented him and obsessed him. What, if by any
chance Peters had someone with him! A bead of moisture oozed out on his
forehead, and he brushed it hurriedly away. He was not so callous now!
Behind that door lay, literally, life and death; behind that door, if it
proved necessary, he meant to take a man’s life, a miserable life, it
was true, a murderer’s life, a life that had no claim to mercy, but
still a man’s life. Had he ever laid claim to being callous? But that
did not mean that his resolution was being undermined. The issue
to-night was clearly defined, ultimate, final, and he had accepted that
issue, and he would see it through. His lips relaxed a little in a smile
of self-mockery. Well, suppose Peters were _not_ alone he, Billy Kane,
had only to wait until the visitor conjured up by his doubts had gone.

He steadied himself with a mental effort. His nerves were getting a
little too high strung. To begin with, there wasn’t anybody in there
with Peters. He would have heard voices if there had been, and he had
heard none. He glanced around him now, but the act was wholly one of
exaggerated caution. Here at the end of the hall he could see nothing.
Opposite him was probably the door of the other apartment on this floor
that Whitie Jack had said was unoccupied. There was no fear of
interruption. He took his automatic from his pocket, tried the door
cautiously, and finding it locked, knocked softly with his knuckles on
the panel.

There was no response. He knocked again, a little louder, more
insistently. There was still no response. Billy Kane was gnawing at his
under lip now. Not only had Peters no visitor, but even Peters himself
was not there! Out of the darkness it seemed as though a horde of
mocking devils were suddenly jeering at him in unholy glee. He had
somehow been very sure that everything to-night would go as he had
planned, and, instead, there had been nothing so far but stark futility.

But the night was not ended yet! He thrust the automatic abruptly back
into his pocket. There was still time for Peters to come. It was only a
little after nine. And Peters would have a visitor after all—a visitor
waiting there inside that room for him!

Billy Kane drew Whitie Jack’s bunch of skeleton keys from his pocket,
and, crouching now low down in front of the door, inserted one of the
keys in the lock. It would not work. He tried another with the same
result. He was not an adept at lock-picking as yet! He grinned without
mirth at the mental reservation—and suddenly drew back from the door,
retreating into the deeper blackness at the end of the hall. Here was
Peters now, and Peters would have much less trouble in opening the door!

Footsteps were ascending the stairs. A figure, in the murky light from
the stair well, gained the landing, and came forward along the hall.
Billy Kane’s sudden smile held little of humor. It was not Peters. It
was Whitie Jack’s tenant of the third floor, Savnak, the old violin
player, hugging his violin case under his arm, and as he came into the
shadows, feeling out with his other hand for the banisters of the second
flight of stairs. Fifteen feet away, flattened against the wall, himself
secure from observation, in the darkness, Billy Kane, in a sort of grim
philosophical resignation, watched what was now little more than a
shadowy outline, as the other went on up the stairs to the third floor.

A door above slammed shut. Billy Kane returned to Peters’ door. Again he
tried a key, and still another, until, with a low-breathed ejaculation
of satisfaction, he finally unlocked the door. He exchanged the keys for
his automatic once more; and once more his hand on the doorknob, he held
tense and motionless, listening. From below there came again the sound
of footsteps on the stairs. It was Peters at last, probably; but, if it
was Peters, Peters was _not_ alone. The footsteps of two men were on the
stairs.

Futility again! The door was unlocked, but it availed him nothing at all
now. He had meant to go in and wait for Peters, but it would be a fool
play from any angle to go in there now if Peters had anybody with him.
Nor was there time to lock the door again. He had returned the bunch of
keys to his pocket, and it would take a moment to sort out the right
one, and there was not that moment to spare. The footsteps were already
on the landing. Billy Kane drew back once more silently and swiftly to
the front of the hall. He was tight-lipped now. It seemed as though
every turn of the luck had gone against him. Peters was certain to
notice that the door was unlocked. What effect would that have on
Peters? What would the man do, and——

Billy Kane was staring down the hall in a numbed, dazed way. Two men had
come into the radius of light from the stair well, and were moving
quickly along the hall in his direction. He brushed his hand across his
eyes. That little horde of devils were at their jeers of unholy mirth
again. Peters! There was no such man as Peters! Peters was a myth! The
whole cursed night was a series of damnable hallucinations. This wasn’t
Peters—it was Red Vallon, and Birdie Rose.

Out of the darkness he watched them, his mind fogged. What were they
doing here? Why had they become suddenly so quiet and stealthy as they
went up that second flight of stairs—where Savnak had gone!
Savnak—Vetter—the diamonds—Red Vallon! He remembered the tribute paid to
the Mole’s cleverness, a tribute that, in his estimation as an
eyewitness to the theft, had come far from being borne out in practice.
Was there something that he had not seen, something behind that bald,
crude scene which he had witnessed? His brain was stumbling on, groping,
striving for understanding. He remembered the code message—the Mole was
to divert suspicion to someone else. Had the Mole in some way outwitted
Red Vallon? Birdie Rose and Red Vallon obviously believed that the old
violinist had the diamonds—there was no other possible explanation to
account for their presence here hard on Savnak’s trail. And if that were
so, it would go hard with Savnak, very hard, indeed, when, believing
Savnak was lying, Red Vallon failed to secure the stones. Red Vallon was
not a man to trifle with; Red Vallon was perhaps the most dangerous and
unscrupulous gangster in New York, and——

Billy Kane was creeping forward, and mounting the stairs step by step
with infinite caution. They had disappeared now into Savnak’s room,
presumably.

He had no choice, had he? The man-handling they would give Savnak would
be little short of murder. Murder! His lips tightened. There was to have
been murder in that room below there—wasn’t there? But that was
different—one man was guilty, the other innocent. Much as it meant to
him to settle with Peters, he had no choice but to let that go to-night
now, if necessary—to let it go, if necessary, until to-morrow, or until
he could formulate some other plan, for it was not likely that he could
frustrate Red Vallon now, and still be left quietly to return to a
reckoning with Peters.

His fingers closed in a sudden spasmodic clutch over the stock of his
automatic. He had passed Peters’ door, and left it unlocked, and Peters
might come in the meantime. Well, it didn’t matter now! His own luck was
out! The night had done nothing but toss him hither and thither like a
shuttlecock in mockery and sport. And at the last fate had played him
this most scurvy trick of all. He could not stand aside and see an
innocent man left to the mercy of a devil like Red Vallon, and so,
instead of playing Billy Kane to Peters, he was playing the man in the
mask to Red Vallon and Birdie Rose! And that jeering horde of imps out
of the darkness were shrieking in his ears again!

He slid his mask over his face. He had reached the door over Peters’
flat, which Whitie Jack had described as Savnak’s. Red Vallon had failed
to close it tightly behind him—perhaps unwilling to risk the chance of
any additional sound. It was slightly ajar. A dull glow of light, as
though from an inner room, seeped through the aperture. Came a sharp,
startled exclamation, and then Red Vallon’s voice, snarling viciously:

“Come on! Come across! And come—_quick_!”

Billy Kane pushed the door open inch by inch, and suddenly slipped into
the room. He was quite safe, providing he made no noise that would
betray his presence. Across from him, at an angle that kept him out of
the line of light, was the open door of what was obviously the front
room of the apartment. Savnak had evidently been flung violently down
into a chair; Birdie Rose’s fingers were crooked, claw-like, within an
inch of the violinist’s throat; and Red Vallon, leaning on a table in
front of the two, was leering at Savnak in ugly menace. Savnak was
speaking, low and earnestly, but Billy Kane could not catch the man’s
words. Red Vallon interrupted the other with scant ceremony.

“Can that!” he snarled. “It don’t go! That stagehand of yours ain’t got
the goods—_you_ got ’em. We’re wise to your game. We know you, Birdie
and me, and you know we know it. How long you been cultivating the old
Dutchman, and waiting for something worth while like to-night to break
loose? Pinochle and a violin! Pretty nifty, that violin stunt! It helped
a lot—we got in the same as that boob of yours did—while you was making
enough noise fiddling to let an army in without being heard. Sure, you
got a tricky nut on your shoulders, all right! It’s too bad, though, you
don’t know enough not to stack up against a better crowd! And the guy
turned out the gas to help him in his get-away, did he? Yes, he did—like
hell! That’s where he slipped you the sparklers, old bucko! Well, we’ve
got your number, ain’t we? We hung around after that to give you a
chance to finish out the play. We’re with you there! Nothing suits us
better than to have the police chasing some guy they don’t know, and
that ain’t got the white ones anyhow! Come on now, come across!”

Billy Kane, like a man bewildered, mentally stunned, stood there
motionless. A singsong refrain repeated itself crazily over and over
again in his brain: “Savnak was the Mole! Savnak was the Mole!” He
lifted his hand and swept it across his eyes. Savnak’s face in there in
that room was working in a sort of livid fury. Yes, of course—Savnak was
the Mole. It was quite clear now, quite plain—and the Mole was not
lacking quite so much after all in craft and cunning! So Red Vallon had
been in Vetter’s, too, had he? There came a sudden, grim set to Billy
Kane’s lips. Well, at least, the diamonds were _here_ now!

Savnak was speaking again.

“Who put you wise to this?” he demanded sullenly.

“I dunno!” said the gangster indifferently. “I got orders, that’s all.
Mabbe some of our crowd piped you off making your play with Dutchy
during the last month, and figured two and two made twenty-three—for
you; or mabbe one of your own bunch whispered out loud. I dunno! Are you
coming across without getting hurt, or aren’t you?”

Billy Kane was moving softly toward the inner door. Savnak had
apparently regained his composure. He looked from one to another of his
captors, and forced a smile.

“Look here,” he said ingratiatingly, “we’re all in this. Suppose we play
fair. I’m willing to split.”

“D’ye hear that, Birdie?” jeered Red Vallon, with a nasty laugh. “He
wants a split! Well, give him one—mabbe it’ll help him to get a move on!
Twist his pipes a little more—that’s the sort of split he won’t argue
over!”

Birdie Rose’s two hands closed with a quick, ugly jerk on Savnak’s
throat. There was a gurgling cry.

“Wait!” Savnak choked out. “Wait! It’s—it’s all right, boys.” He rubbed
his throat, as Birdie Rose released him. “I know when I’m beaten.” He
shrugged his shoulders in a sort of philosophically fatalistic way, and,
reaching into his inside coat pocket, threw Vetter’s chamois pocketbook
down on the table.

“That’s the stuff!” grunted Red Vallon maliciously. “But seeing it’s
you, we’ll just take a look at it to make sure you’re _honest_!” He
picked up the pocketbook, opened it, nodded and chuckled over the
gleaming array of diamonds, and closed the pocketbook again. “Well, I
guess that’ll be all for to-night, _Mister_ Savnak, and——” His words
ended in a sudden gasp.

Billy Kane was standing in the doorway, his automatic covering the men.

“Don’t move, please, any of you!” Billy Kane’s voice, gruffly
unrecognizable, was facetiously debonair.

Birdie Rose’s face had gone a pasty white; Savnak, hunched in his chair,
stared helplessly; Red Vallon, his jaw dropped, still holding the
pocketbook, found his voice.

“The man in the mask!” he mumbled.

“I was a little late for the tombola myself at Vetter’s to-night,” said
Billy Kane coolly. “I understand you were all there. I only got as far
as the back yard when the gathering broke up, and I was a little
disappointed because I had a hunch that I held the winning number.
However, if you, there, with the pocketbook, whatever your name is, will
just toss the prize over here, I’m willing to overlook any slight
irregularity there might have been in the drawing.”

Red Vallon did not answer.

The muzzle of Billy Kane’s automatic lifted to a level with the
gangster’s eyes.

“Did you hear me?” The facetiousness was gone from Billy Kane now. His
voice rasped suddenly. “_Toss it over!_”

With an oath, Red Vallon flung the pocketbook over the table.

Billy Kane caught it deftly with his left hand.

“Thank you!” said Billy Kane politely. He tucked the chamois case into
his pocket, and reached out for the doorknob. “I think that is
all—gentlemen,” he said softly; “except to wish you—good-night!”

In a flash he had shut the door upon them, and, turning, was running
across the outer room. But Red Vallon, too, was quick. Before Billy Kane
reached the door leading into the hall, he heard the window of the front
room flung up—and Red Vallon’s voice:

“Quick, boys, come in! The man in the mask! Head him off! Jump for it!
He’s going downstairs!”

Billy Kane’s jaws clamped hard, as he swung through the door to the head
of the stairs. It was true! He remembered that Red Vallon had said he
had some of his gang with him. He could hear them now. They were running
into the lower hall; and, though he was taking the stairs three and four
at a time, they would meet on the lower staircase, if he kept on. His
escape was cut off. There was only one chance—Peters’ door—it was
unlocked—Peters’ door, before Red Vallon above opened the door of
Savnak’s flat and saw him.

It had been a matter of seconds, no more; but seconds that had seemed of
interminable duration. He was at the foot of the stairs now. Came the
pound of approaching feet from below. Red Vallon, whether because he had
not had time, or because he was wary of a trap, had not opened the door
into the hall above yet. Billy Kane, cautious of any sound, slipped
through the door into Peters’ flat, half drew back in sudden dismay—then
grimly closed the door behind him softly, and, working with desperate
haste now, and still silently, took out his skeleton keys and locked it.
He turned, then, with his automatic flung out in front of him—and faced
toward the door that opened on his left. He knew it, of course! But it
had been too late to turn back. He was doubly trapped! His lips,
thinned, curved in a bitter smile. If there was any murder to be done
here in this flat to-night, it was likely now to be his own—not Peters’!
_There was a light in that room!_ Peters must have come in while he,
Billy Kane, was upstairs. He was between two fires. A cry, any alarm
given by Peters, would bring Red Vallon and his blood-fanged pack
bursting through that door behind him. Was Peters deaf? True, he, Billy
Kane, had slipped as silently through the door as he could, and had
locked it as silently as he could, but he must have made some noise!

Feet raced by in the hall, and went thumping up the stairs. It was
strange that Peters had not heard him! It was stranger still that Peters
did not hear the commotion now that Red Vallon’s pack was making!

Billy Kane moved forward stealthily until he could see into the lighted
room—and stood suddenly still. He felt the blood leave his face. He
lifted his hand to his eyes in a queer, jerky, horrified motion; and
then, with a low cry, he ran forward into the other room. The place was
in confusion. It was a bedroom, and bureau drawers had been wrenched out
and thrown around; every possible receptacle that might have concealed
the smallest object had been ransacked and looted, and the contents
strewn in wild disorder everywhere about—and on the floor a man lay
sprawled, dead, murdered, a brutal wound in the side of his head from a
blow that had apparently fractured the skull.

He knelt for a moment over the man. It was Peters. He rose, then, and
stood there, fighting to rouse his brain from blunted torpor, to force
it to resume its normal functions. Peters had been lying here dead, all
the time that he, Billy Kane, had been waiting outside there in the
hall! It must have taken quite a little while to have accomplished this
murder and ransack the room. Peters, therefore, must have left the
Ellsworth house earlier than usual, since the murderer, allowing for the
length of time he would have required for his work, must have completed
it and made his escape before he, Billy Kane, had arrived here at nine
o’clock. It was very strange, horribly strange—to _find_ Peters
murdered! Who was it, who had done it? Who was it, other than himself,
who could have had any motive? What did it mean? What was it that Peters
had had here, that had been the object of such a frantic search? Billy
Kane drew his breath in suddenly, sharply. What could it be save _one_
thing! The Ellsworth rubies! That was it, wasn’t it—_rubies_!

A sound from somewhere out in the hall brought surging back upon him a
realization of his own imminent peril. There must be some way out, he
must find a way. If he knew Red Vallon at all, he knew that he, Billy
Kane, would never leave by the door! Well, a fire escape then, perhaps!

Quick now, every faculty alert, he ran noiselessly from room to room,
and from window to window. He returned a moment later to the hall door,
his face a little harder set and strained. There was no escape by the
windows. There was nothing, except an increasing sound of disturbance
that seemed to be affecting all parts of the house. Nothing, save Red
Vallon’s voice just outside the door, talking, evidently, to some of his
men:

“He _ain’t_ got out—and he ain’t going to get out till we’ve searched
every flat in the place! He’s most likely on this floor, and Birdie and
me’ll tackle this door here first; but you go down there and tell those
people below to shut up their row, and some of you look through their
rooms. Beat it!”

Footsteps scurried away. The doorknob was tried. Billy Kane’s lips were
a thin line. There was no physical way of escape. Was there a way of
wits? His wits against Red Vallon’s! He stood there motionless, a queer,
grim look creeping into his face, as the door now was shaken violently.
And then, suddenly, he jerked his mask from his face, and thrust it into
his pocket. Yes, there was a way, but a way that held a something of
ghastly, abysmal irony in it. He could prove an alibi—he had a witness
to it.

The door quivered, but held, under a crashing blow. Then Red Vallon’s
growling voice:

“Get out of the road, Birdie, and let me at it! I’ll bust it in!”

And then Billy Kane spoke.

“Is that you, Red?” he demanded harshly.

There was a surprised gasp from the hall without, a second’s tense
silence, and then Red Vallon’s voice again, heavy with perplexity and
amazement:

“Who in hell are you?”

Billy Kane unlocked the door, flung it open, and stepped back. The hall
had been lighted now, evidently to facilitate Red Vallon’s search, and
the light fell full upon Billy Kane through the doorway.

“The Rat!” The gangster’s little red-rimmed eyes blinked helplessly—then
suddenly narrowed. “What are you doing here?”

“You fool!” snarled Billy Kane angrily. “I thought I recognized your
voice! You gave me a scare! What are you doing here? What’s all this
cursed noise about?”

“What’s it about?” repeated Red Vallon mechanically. He spoke
automatically, as though through force of habit at the Rat’s command.
“The Mole lives upstairs. He got those diamonds from Vetter; then Birdie
and me took ’em from him, and not five minutes ago that blasted man in
the mask turned the trick on us, and”—his voice changed with a jerk, and
became suddenly truculent—“it’s _damned_ funny where he got to!”

“Come in here, both of you!” ordered Billy Kane peremptorily. “Come in
here, and shut that door! Now”—as they obeyed him—“that’s the story, is
it, Red? Well, listen to mine!” His voice grew raucous, menacing,
unpleasant. “This is the second time to-night you’ve run foul of my
plans with your infernal diamonds and your piker hunts, and if trouble
comes from this, look out for yourself! Five minutes ago, you said.
Well, I wish he’d beaned you while he was at it! You’ve put an _hour’s_
work of mine to the bad! How long do you think this disturbance is going
on, before the police butt in? Take a look in that room, there!”

The two men took a step forward, and shrank suddenly back. Birdie Rose’s
face had gone gray. He looked wildly at Billy Kane.

“My Gawd!” whispered Red Vallon.

“I said something to you to-night about needing an object lesson, so
that it would sink into you that when I said the limit I meant it,” said
Billy Kane evenly. “Well, you’ve got it now! Do you know who that man
is?”

Red Vallon shook his head. Birdie Rose was nervously plucking at a
package of cigarette papers that he had drawn from his pocket.

“His name is Peters,” said Billy Kane curtly. “Peters was the butler at
Ellsworth’s. Jackson’s pal. Get me? I found this”—the ruby, from his
vest pocket, was lying now in the open palm of Billy Kane’s hand. “Do
you understand what ‘limit’ means now, Red? I found this. He wouldn’t
talk, and so——” Billy Kane shrugged his shoulders coolly, and his hand
jerked forward, pointing to the disordered room. “I hadn’t found any
more of them when you messed it up with your noise.”

Red Vallon circled his lips with his tongue.

“Let’s get out of here!” he said hoarsely.

“We’ll have to now, thanks to you!” snapped Billy Kane shortly. “That’s
the only room that’s been searched, and you’ve queered any chance of
doing anything more now.” He whirled impetuously on Red Vallon, and
shook his fist in the gangster’s face. “You see what you’ve done! Even
if the police haven’t got wise to the row, those people in the
apartments downstairs will call them in the minute they get a chance.
Yes, we’ve got to beat it! You and your diamonds are likely to give us a
ride by the juice route up in that little armchair in Sing Sing. If your
man gets away it’s a small matter now. Anybody that’s caught here will
have to stand for—_this_. You go first, Birdie, and call the crowd off,
and _scatter_ the minute you’re outside the house. I don’t want it
published in the papers that I was with Peters in his expiring moments!
Tumble? I can trust you two, because”—Billy Kane’s smile was unhappy—“if
anything leaks, I’ll know _where_ it leaked from! Get the idea? Now,
beat it, Birdie! We’ll give you a couple of minutes ahead of us.”

The man went out. Billy Kane walked coolly to the door, took the
skeleton key from the inside of the lock, and fitted it again to the
outside.

“Come on, Red!” he said.

He locked the door, and put the bunch of keys in his pocket. It was
comparatively quiet in the house now. A door of one of the lower
apartments opened cautiously, but closed instantly again, as Billy Kane,
with the gangster beside him, went down the stairs. In another moment
they were out on the street, and had turned the first corner.

The gangster was muttering to himself:

“There’s Birdie and me. But Savnak won’t dare let a peep out of him,
’cause he was in on the diamond pinch himself. I’ll get that guy with
the mask yet, if I swing for it. Spilled every blasted bean in the
bag—that’s me!” His voice took on a sudden, half cringing, half
deferential note. “It wasn’t my fault, Bundy—honest! You know that! You
ain’t sore, are you, Bundy?”

Billy Kane pushed his hat to the back of his head. The night air was
cool, even crisp, but his hatband was wringing wet. He brushed his damp
hair back from his forehead. It was strange that he should have murdered
Peters, after all!

He answered gruffly.

“Forget it!” said Billy Kane, alias the Rat.



XVI—TWENTY-FOUR HOURS LATER


From above, faintly, through the flooring, came the tap-tap, tap-tap of
the old Italian cobbler’s hammer. Billy Kane, from his hands and knees,
straightened up, easing his body from the discomfort of his cramped
position; and, as he listened, he toyed now with the steel jimmy,
commandeered from Whitie Jack, that was in his hand. He had been even
more assiduous in his own tapping, at least for the last hour or more,
than was the old fellow above there. The old fellow seemed to work all
day—and all night. It was night now—or, rather, evening. If there was
any sound heard from the street it would be attributed to the old
cobbler, of course, which was just as well.

The murky light from the single incandescent across the room threw the
sparse furnishings of the Rat’s den into uncouth shadows on the walls,
and threw his own shadow into a grotesque, shapeless blotch upon the
floor. From the street level, down through the cellar-like stairway to
this underground abode, seeping in through the closed door, came the
muffled roll of traffic, and a footstep now and then on the pavement
like the echo of some sound that was detached, far distant.

He resumed his work, tapping with infinite pains with the butt of his
steel jimmy on board after board of the flooring. And now this board or
that seemed to give back a more resonant sound than its fellows, and he
tapped it again, and still again, only to shake his head finally, and
pass on to the next board.

There were other secrets in this crime hole besides that ingenious door
and its tunnel to the shed and lane behind; secrets that _she_ had
plainly stated existed, and had as plainly stated were no secrets to
her; secrets that she wielded in such a manner as to complicate a
situation that was already one of extreme peril and desperate enough.
They were the Rat’s secrets; and for the moment he was the Rat, and
self-preservation made the possession of those secrets vitally essential
to him.

The net seemed to be drawing closer around him; at moments it seemed to
be strangling him. He had built so heavily on Peters. And Peters was
dead. And he, Billy Kane, was still the Rat. It was difficult enough to
carry out the rôle, as it was—but if the Rat should unexpectedly return!
Where was the Rat? If he could glean a hint of when the Rat might
probably return, or of the Rat’s whereabouts! Surely those secrets
hidden here somewhere would answer, in a measure at least, those
questions. Or, if not, then the fuller and more intimate knowledge they
must give him of the Rat would make his assumed rôle more secure, safer
as long as he was forced to play it, since they would place in his hands
the trumps that would enable him to preserve this character he had
usurped as he came more and more into direct contact with that malignant
Crime Trust of which the legitimate Rat was obviously one of the leading
spirits. And she, that strange, mysterious being, whom he had come to
call the Woman in Black, whose hatred, a hatred that was boundless, more
bitter, more deliberate, more merciless than, it seemed, any human could
hold for another, he had acquired through this abhorrent proxy that fate
had thrust upon him—surely these things hidden here, if he could but
find them, must too, in a measure at least, explain what lay between her
and the devil in human guise whose part he, Billy Kane, was compelled to
play.

He worked on, his ear attuned to the sound as the steel jimmy tapped the
flooring, his mind feverishly, insistently active. He had counted on
forcing the truth from Peters last night. Instead, he had found the old
butler murdered, and had only managed to escape destruction himself at
the hands of Red Vallon and the underworld through a spurious alibi that
was in itself a ghastly thing. He, as the Rat, stood now the
self-confessed murderer of Peters! Yes, the net seemed to be drawing its
strands so tightly about him sometimes that they strangled him, and
strangled his soul, and made his courage falter.

Peters was dead, murdered—and to have made the man talk he would have
gone the limit himself. He had meant to wring the truth from Peters’
lips at any cost. But a dead man couldn’t talk!

It was not warm in the room, nor was he overheated by his exertions, but
Billy Kane, with the back of his hand, swept away a bead of moisture
that had oozed out upon his forehead. Who was it who had murdered
Peters? And why? His brain had wrestled with that problem since last
night. There seemed to be but one answer, one solution. Peters’
connection with the Ellsworth murder, the search that had been made in
Peters’ bedroom, and carried no further than that single room,
indicating that what had been sought had been found, seemed to be proof
positive that the author of the crime was at least conversant with the
details of David Ellsworth’s murder, if he were not, indeed, as seemed
even more likely, one of those who had actually participated in that
murder himself. And with this as a premise the motive behind Peters’
murder was apparently clear enough. Nearly fifteen thousand dollars and
a fortune in rubies had been taken from the steel vault in the Ellsworth
home. Peters might have been the temporary custodian, in whole or in
part, of the proceeds of the robbery, or he might only have been in
possession of his share. In either case it was enough to account for his
having been double-crossed and murdered by one of his own accomplices,
or else by some one sufficiently well informed about the Ellsworth
murder to know that Peters had at least a tempting enough portion of the
“goods” in his flat to make a visit there very much worth while.

Billy Kane smiled a little grimly now, as, moving forward, he pushed the
bed to one side in order to continue his examination of the flooring.
That had been his solution; but, strangely enough, the newspapers for
once had had no solution to offer. The known presence of so many
men—when Red Vallon’s gang had invaded the house—indicated quite
clearly, the papers said, that it was the work of an organized band;
but, apart from that, they were frankly mystified. But because Peters
had been the butler of David Ellsworth, and had been murdered just three
nights after his master had been murdered, the morning papers had flung
clamorous headlines across their front pages, and had filled their
columns with every detail that had even the remotest bearing upon the
affair. They, however, scarcely hinted at even a possible connection
between the two crimes, for the very simple reason that Peters had
obviously been attacked by a gang, whereas, in the case of David
Ellsworth, they _knew_ that the old millionaire had been done to death
by his private secretary, Billy Kane!

He had read the papers, all of them. But out of the welter of words
there had been only one thing that had possessed any value for him in
the shape of information, and even that had been of a negative
character. Some reporter had unearthed the fact that a stranger, whose
description answered in a general way to Whitie Jack, had been seen
loitering around the neighborhood of Peters’ apartment during a good
part of the previous day. The description was not accurate enough to
identify Whitie Jack positively; but as Whitie Jack _had_ been there,
and there on his, Billy Kane’s instructions, he had immediately sent the
man away that morning, and had told him to keep under cover until
further orders.

The steel jimmy tapped with persistent inquisitiveness along another
board. Billy Kane’s lips were tight now. Peters’ death had seemed at
first to have robbed him of all he had been building upon; and during
the hours alone here in this den last night, facing what looked like the
ruin of the final chance and hope of establishing his own innocence, of
clearing his own name, of bringing to justice the wantons who had struck
down old David Ellsworth, he had known those bitterest of hours where
the will weakens, and courage seems a useless thing and a mockery. But
he had fought through those hours, and the morning had brought its
reward. Peters’ murder had broken the thread of evidence, but equally,
it seemed, after all, it had knitted it together again—there was the Man
with the Crutch.

His lips relaxed a little in an ironical smile. The papers had
overlooked the Man with the Crutch! It was Red Vallon who, all
unconsciously, had joined together the broken thread. The gangster had
come here to the den that noon. There had been a marked increase of
deference in the man’s attitude and manner, a sort of unholy admiration,
awe, respect and fear. The man, hardened though he was himself, was
still visibly affected by the fact that he stood in the presence of the
Rat, alias Bundy Morgan, who, as he believed, had coolly and
imperturbably given gruesome evidence that, to gain his ends, he would
neither hesitate nor stop at murder. Red Vallon had not forgotten, and
was not likely to forget, his “object lesson!”

Red Vallon had told his story furtively, leaning across the table,
talking in a guarded whisper. He had got it straight enough from one of
his own men, who the police in turn believed was one of their own stool
pigeons. Shortly before the confusion incident to the exit of Red
Vallon’s men on the previous night, the exact hour not positively
established, a man with a crutch, and carrying a small hand bag, was
known to have crept cautiously out of the apartment house where Peters
had his flat. After that the man had disappeared. “The police have
elected the cripple as the guy that waltzed off with the swag while the
rest of the bunch made a noise to smear up his tracks,” Red Vallon had
said, with a malicious grin. “What’s the matter with pushing a good
thing along, Bundy? What’s the matter with pushing out a few feelers,
and trying to spot this crutch gazabo? The Pippin’s the one that put me
wise, and the Pippin can make good nosing him out if any one can.”

There had come upon Billy Kane an overwhelming surge of relief. More
than anything else on earth that he had suddenly wanted at that moment
was—the Man with the Crutch.

“Yes!” he had answered gruffly, afraid almost to trust his voice.

“Sure!” Red Vallon had responded. “I thought you’d be strong for it!
Mabbe it won’t last long, ’cause the guy ought to be able to clear
himself unless we can hitch it onto him for keeps, but there’s nothing
like heaving a little dirt in the eyes of the bulls, and shooting ’em
off on the wrong lay. It’ll keep ’em guessing for a while anyhow. You
leave it to me, Bundy. I owe you something for queering your game last
night, though I guess there wasn’t any more of them rubies there besides
the one you found, for the Pippin says the bulls didn’t get anything,
and I owe you something for the lemon I’ve handed you so far in falling
down on spotting the ruby collection in any of the speak-easy joints;
but I won’t fall down here. You leave it to me! I’ll pull some slick
stuff this time!”

The steel jimmy tapped on. Billy Kane’s face was set. The Man with the
Crutch! Was there any doubt but that the Man with the Crutch was not
only Peters’ murderer, but, more vital still, one who, in Peters’ stead
now, embodied the clue to the hell-hatched plot that had cost David
Ellsworth his life, and had craftily woven the evidence of murder around
him, Billy Kane? The Man with the Crutch! If only Red Vallon and the
Pippin did not fail, then— The steel jimmy, almost perfunctorily, tapped
over the same board again; and then Billy Kane suddenly bent lower, his
ear close to the floor. He tapped once more. There was no doubt of it!
The sound was unquestionably and distinctly _hollow_. He felt his pulse
quicken. Off and on during the day he had covered almost the entire
flooring of the room. He had started with the flooring. Only the
flooring and the walls could contain any hidden recess. He had not
touched the walls yet, and it might not be necessary now!

He was examining the board critically. It was a short board, rough and
uneven, about ten inches wide, that ran to the edge of the wall. There
seemed to be no sign of any secret spring, either on the adjacent
flooring or on the wall, nor did the board itself appear to be in any
way loose or show any evidence of ever having been removed before. He
frowned as he tapped it again and found that, quite as unmistakably as
before, the hollow sound came back to him; and then, inserting the point
of the jimmy in the joint at the end of the board, he gave the board a
sharp wrench. It came away readily, but with it came a weary smile to
Billy Kane’s lips. Nothing! The under flooring had rotted away, which
accounted for the hollow sound, and he was rewarded with nothing more
than a hole bounded both in depth and width by the floor joists which
rested on the ground. Half angry, half ironically amused, he reached
forward to replace the board—and, straightening up suddenly, listened.

Someone was coming down the steps from the street.

In an instant he had the board and bed back in place, and the steel
jimmy in his pocket. And now a cigarette was drooping languidly from his
lips, as, in answer to a low knock, he crossed the room, and halted in
front of the door.

“Who’s there?” he demanded.

“It’s de Cadger,” a voice answered.

Billy Kane opened the door. The Cadger, unknown to him personally, was
known to him by reputation. As one of those details vital to the
preservation of the rôle he played, he had stored up in his memory
during the past few days the name of every one connected with the Crime
Trust that he had heard mentioned either by Red Vallon or others. The
Cadger was one of the lesser breed; a stage hand, in the expressive
vernacular of the underworld.

The Cadger, a shrivelled, unkempt figure, his coat collar turned up over
a collarless shirt, an aggressively checkered peak cap pulled far down
over his eyes, thrust an envelope unceremoniously into Billy Kane’s
hand.

“Dis is fer youse, Bundy,” he said hurriedly, already turning and making
his way up the steps to the street again. “See youse later! I gotta go
to Gannet’s joint fer his kit.”

Billy Kane closed the door, and locked it. He had not heard from Red
Vallon since noon, nothing in reference to the Pippin’s quest for the
Man with the Crutch. He tore the envelope open eagerly, the thought
uppermost in his mind that this was a message from Red Vallon now; and
then, staring at the sheet of paper which he had extracted from the
envelope, he dropped, suddenly tight-lipped, into the chair by the table
under the light.

It wasn’t from Red Vallon. It was a message like the one Red Vallon had
showed him the night before, a message in the Crime Trust’s cipher. He
turned instinctively in his chair, glancing toward the secret door at
the rear of the room, as though he half expected to see it open, and see
that slim little figure in black enter, as though he half expected to
hear her cool, softly modulated voice that veiled, even as did the clear
ripple in her laugh, menace and contempt. And then he laughed aloud in a
short, hard way. A fool! Was he? Well, she had come in through that door
before, hadn’t she, when something was in the wind?

His eyes reverted to the sheet of paper. He knew what it was! The
headquarters of the Crime Trust had been broken up, and some of the
leaders had even taken to cover since the night Karlin had been arrested
by the police; but all the cogs in that Machiavellian machinery had not
stopped, and plans formulated and set in motion in the past were still
to be carried to their ultimate conclusions as they matured day by day.
There was not the slightest doubt but that this was one of their devil’s
schemes. Red Vallon—or was it the owner of those great, dark, steady
eyes?—had said enough to make him understand that, when temporarily
scattered, temporarily wary of the police, some unhallowed “managing
director” carried on their work, and communicated with the different
members of the gang by means of these cipher messages.

And now as he stared at the missive in his hand, angry flush rose slowly
to his cheeks, and he half made as though to tear the paper into shreds.
God knew, he had enough to do to keep his own life in his own body
without this; there was scarcely a moment of the day or night when he
was not battling with all the wits he possessed to save himself from
discovery—from the police as Billy Kane, from the underworld as the
spurious Rat—and his brain was already sick and tormented beyond
endurance with the struggle. Why, then, should he decipher this? If he
did, he could not sit idly by and, in the possession of the details of
some purposed crime, permit that crime to be enacted! It was the moral
obligation flung in his face again, just as it had been on the night he
had trapped Karlin, just as it had been last night when he had snatched
Vetter’s diamonds from Red Vallon’s maw, and not through any threat of
_hers_ held over his head, as she so thoroughly believed! She wasn’t
here now—was she?

He laid the paper down upon the table, and smoothed it out. Tear it up!
His short laugh was a jeer flung at himself. Certainly, he could tear it
up, and he would know nothing about it, except that he had shirked and
turned his back like a coward upon the responsibility that was already
his! He _could_ read the cipher, if he wanted to; he had seen her work
one out the night before.

“I thought I’d settled this sort of thing with myself before!” he
muttered grimly, and taking a pencil from his pocket he began to work
out the cipher.

It took some time, perhaps twenty minutes; and then he was studying a
second sheet of paper upon which he had written the decoded message:

    The Cadger and Gannet will report to you at nine o’clock. The
    Ninth Street house will be empty. Dayler and servants out this
    evening. Secure sealed manila envelope in wall safe, left of
    mantel, in library. Combination: Two right, eighteen; one left,
    eight; one right, twenty-eight. Police on trail to-morrow.

The Cadger’s “see youse later,” then, was to be taken literally, and
not, as he had supposed, as simply a common and slang expression of
adieu! Billy Kane looked at his watch. It was not quite eight o’clock.
There was an hour, then, before the Cadger and this Gannet, another of
the Cadger’s ilk, would report here ready to follow his leadership in a
burglarious raid. Billy Kane stood up; and, in a sort of mechanical and
reassuring inventory, his hands felt over the outside of his pockets,
over the skeleton keys they contained, the steel jimmy, the flashlight,
the automatic, and the soft, slight bulge made by the neatly folded
mask—and, too, over another bulge that was made by a certain chamois
pocketbook. This latter brought a frown. He had not found a way yet to
return Vetter’s diamonds. It wasn’t so easy a thing to do when, if the
Rat’s hand showed in the matter, it was certain destruction for the Rat,
alias Bundy Morgan, and, for the moment, alias Billy Kane! But Vetter
and Vetter’s diamonds were extraneous things just now, weren’t they?

He extinguished the light, crossed to the door, unlocked it, stepped
out, locked the door behind him, made his way up the steps, and started
briskly off along the street. He did not know what the contents of that
“manila envelope” were, nor who Dayler was, nor the Crime Trust’s
motive—he was _supposed_ to know all that—he knew only that there was
some devil’s scheme on foot that would be worthy of the Crime Trust in
its scope and proportions. And the Crime Trust did not interest itself
in _little_ things!



XVII—THE MAN WITH THE CRUTCH


Billy Kane smiled with grim irony, as he walked rapidly down the block.
She was not here to-night with her cool, contemptuous voice bidding him
to do this thing. It was evident, therefore, that she was not quite as
infallible as she apparently believed herself to be! For once, she was
not acquainted beforehand with the Crime Trust’s movements, it seemed!
Perhaps it was because, for once, the Rat might not have had anything to
do with originating the plan that was afoot to-night, for she had
certainly always appeared to be thoroughly informed where the Rat was
concerned!

He shrugged his shoulders suddenly, dismissing her from his thoughts. He
would better concentrate his mind on the work in hand! The secret lay in
the manila envelope. That the envelope contained something of great
value, or was of great value to someone, was obvious; to Dayler,
probably, since it was in Dayler’s carefully guarded possession. He
shrugged his shoulders again. He could tell better about that in the
course of another hour—when the envelope was in his pocket instead of
Dayler’s safe! To balk this organized gang of super-criminals was
sufficient for the moment! Once more his shoulders lifted. He perhaps
was not even entitled to any great credit to-night in fulfilling his
“moral obligations!” For once, there appeared to be neither any great
danger, nor any great difficulty. The house was empty; it was not very
far away; he had an hour in which to work undisturbed; and at the
expiration of that time he should be back in his room, and ready to set
out with the Cadger and Gannet to rob an _empty_ safe. If he with the
two men then entered the house, and, for their pains, found the manila
envelope already gone, certainly there could be no suspicion to rest
upon him!

Billy Kane had reached the Bowery now. He went in through the side
entrance of a corner saloon. Here, a minute’s search in the telephone
directory supplied him with the number of Dayler’s house on Ninth
Street. After that, he made his way over to Washington Square, crossed
the Square, gained the lower end of Fifth Avenue, practically deserted
now at this hour, and, a moment later, turning into Ninth Street, headed
down the block in the direction of Sixth Avenue.

It was one of the old aristocratic neighborhoods of New York, but
changed now a great deal with the changing years. What had once been
classed as mansions had in many cases been metamorphosed into lodging
and boarding houses; but the “mansions” were still here, big,
substantial, commodious stone dwellings. Nor had the boarding houses
entirely ousted a certain unobtrusive type of wealth and means from
their midst, and it argued not at all that this Dayler, for instance,
because he had his residence here, was not well to do, even exceedingly
well to do.

The street was quiet. Billy Kane located the house he sought. He passed
by it, noting that it had a basement entrance, a flight of stone steps
to the front door, that it was entirely in darkness, and, returning, he
mounted the steps quietly and without any attempt at concealment, found
the outer vestibule door unlocked, opened it—after making pretense of
ringing the doorbell for the benefit of anyone on the street who might
have paid him any notice—stepped inside, and closed the door behind him.
The inner door was locked. His skeleton keys came into play. Still far
from an adept in their use, he was several minutes at this work. Then he
stepped forward into the hall of the house itself.

His flashlight stabbed a lane of light through the darkness. The stairs
leading to the upper floors of the house were ahead of him and on his
right; on his left, opening off the hall, which seemed to run almost the
depth of the house, were several doors, all of which were closed. The
house was empty, the cipher message had assured him of that, but
nevertheless he moved now with extreme caution to the first door on his
left. He knew nothing of the plan of the house, but it was at least
logical to assume that the library was on this floor, and the library
was the objective of his search.

He opened the door slightly, quietly, then drew sharply back, and stood
tense and motionless, listening. There was a dull, faint glow of light
in there, not as though the room itself were illuminated, but as though
the light came from, perhaps, another room beyond. But there was no
sound. A minute passed, and still he stood there, alert, his ears
strained to catch the slightest noise. And then, reassured, he pushed
the door wider open, and stepped over the threshold. That a light might
have been left burning, either intentionally or inadvertently, presented
in itself nothing of the unusual, or——

He was drawing his hand across his eyes like a man dazed from a blow.
The light had gone in the winking of an eye. It was pitch black. He was
still involuntarily staring, through darkness now, toward the front end
of the room. The light had not come from that direction, it had come
through a portièred archway in quite the opposite direction, but for the
moment his mind was chaotic, out of control. The room was a
drawing-room, a large, stately sort of a drawing-room, and there had
been a huge pier glass, gilt-framed, between the heavily curtained front
windows. What he had seen could not have been a fantasy, nor due to
disordered imagination. His eyes, the instant he had entered the room,
had gone straight to that glass because it reflected the light from the
other room. The surface of the glass had been blank as his eyes had
first fallen upon it, and then, like a flash, enduring for but the
minutest fraction of a second, the reflection of a figure, a man’s
figure, a man’s figure _with a crutch_, had swept across it—and the
light in the other room had gone out.

And now Billy Kane acted quickly. The time that he had stood there,
inert, mentally stunned, had been but a matter of seconds exaggerated
into seemingly interminable, measureless hours. Swiftly, silently, he
reached the archway, and, sheltering himself behind the folds of the
portières, but in a position to command the other room with his
automatic, which he had whipped from his pocket, he stood still and
listened. There was only the quick, fierce pounding in his own eardrums,
in tempo with the mad race of blood through his veins. The Man with the
Crutch!

How or why the man came to be here, or what the other had to do with
what was afoot to-night, scarcely entered his mind. It did not matter!
Nothing mattered—save to get the Man with the Crutch. Everything else
paled into insignificance. It was the _same_ man that had murdered
Peters; there would not be _two_ men with crutches who prowled
stealthily at night in other people’s houses! But that it was Peters’
murderer was significant now only because it identified the man as one
who held the secret of David Ellsworth’s murder; the man who, if he,
Billy Kane, could but get to grips with him, would tell what he knew to
the last word, or one or the other of them would never leave this house
alive. It was the man who could end this hideous masquerade that he,
Billy Kane, was forced to assume; the man who could clear his name of
the foul blot that had cost him friends, the companionship of honest
men, and that was like at any instant to cost him his life.

There was no sound.

And then Billy Kane’s voice rang suddenly, imperatively through the
silence:

“Hands up!”

His flashlight bored through the darkness, circling the room in front of
him. The room—it was the library beyond doubt—was empty. His jaws
locked. He had taken a chance. It had failed. But now his glance fell
upon the door, diagonally across the library from him, that, from its
position, obviously opened on the hall. He could have sworn that the
doors opening on the hall were all closed when he had entered the house.
This one was ajar now!

He crossed the library with a bound, swung the door wide, and peered out
into the hall. He could see nothing; but now, from somewhere below, he
caught a sound as of a boot heel thudding on a bare floor—or, perhaps,
the tap of a crutch!

Along at the rear of the hall his flashlight focused on the head of a
basement stairway. He ran for this now; and then, with more caution,
wary of offering himself as a target for a shot that would put an end to
any hope of getting within reach of the other, his flashlight out, he
began to pick his way downstairs. Halfway down, he caught another sound.
From the front of the house, softly and cautiously though it was done,
there came the unmistakable opening and closing of the basement door.

Billy Kane took the remaining stairs in a leap, and, his flashlight
pointing the way, dashed along the hallway below. He reached the door,
and pulled at it. Then, with an angry, muttered exclamation, he stood
there for an instant hesitant. The man had managed to lock the door
behind him! Mechanically his hand went toward his pocket for his
skeleton keys, but stopped halfway as, turning suddenly, he raced back
upstairs. It would take too long to try out key after key. There was a
better way. There was the front door. He had left that unlocked when he
came in. He gained this now, jerked it open, lunged through the little
vestibule, snatched at the knob of the outer door—and wrenched at it
viciously like a madman in mingled rage and chagrin. It was locked! It
had not been locked even when he had come in!

Calmer in an instant, he took his keys from his pocket and worked with
feverish haste at the lock. It would possibly take less time to run into
the drawing-room, get a window open, and jump to the ground, but he did
not dare do that. He had to come back here with the Cadger and Gannet in
a little while, and he dared not risk anything that would imperil his
rôle in the eyes of the underworld. Even a number of people coming and
going from the house, if they acted naturally, entering by the door as
though they had a right to enter, would never attract the slightest
notice from either neighbors or passers-by. That was what doors were
for! But a man leaping out through one of the front windows would invite
certain attention, suspicion, and instant investigation.

Another key! Would he never get one that would fit! This wasn’t the door
he had opened before. A minute, perhaps two, perhaps even three, must
have gone by! God, how clumsy his fingers were! The man must have had
amazing agility for a cripple, and the craft and cunning of a devil to
come up here instantly on leaving the basement and lock this door! Would
he never get the—yes, he had it now! He swung the door open, and from
the top step his glance swept the street in both directions. And then
there came a sort of bitter philosophical acceptance of a situation that
he had already more than half expected. The Man with the Crutch had had
too much time. There was no sign of him now.

But there was still a chance! Billy Kane closed the door behind him,
went quietly down the steps to the pavement—there was still the
inviolability of the house to be preserved—walked along without undue
haste until far enough away to preclude the chance of any connection
being established between himself and the house he had just left, and
then broke into a run. There was still a chance. But it was a slim one.
He knew that. The man must have gone toward either Sixth Avenue or Fifth
Avenue. It was more likely Sixth Avenue; there would be more people
there, more traffic, more opportunity to “lose himself.” It was the
logical thing to do. Lower Fifth Avenue at night was almost as deserted
as a tomb; the man could have been seen there blocks away.

Perhaps fifteen minutes passed. At the expiration of that period Billy
Kane returned to the Dayler residence, and for the second time that
night coolly and quite casually mounted the steps, and again entered the
house. His search had been futile. He had circuited the blocks in the
neighborhood, and hunted up and down the adjacent section of Sixth
Avenue; and the more he had hunted the more he had realized the futility
of what he was doing, though, at that, he had even, as a last hope,
returned by Fifth Avenue. And now he was back in the house again, and
quite conscious that this, too, was likely now to prove as barren of
results as his search had been. The man had got away, and with the man
in all likelihood had gone, too, the manila envelope from the wall safe
in the library! What else had the other been in the library for?

Billy Kane shrugged his shoulders, as, using his flashlight again, he
stepped from the hall into the drawing-room, and from there through the
archway into the library. There was the one possibility that he had come
upon the Man with the Crutch and interrupted the other in his work
_before_ the envelope had been secured. That was the one possibility
that remained, and that was the one possibility that had prompted him to
come back.

He stood for a moment now beside the table that occupied the center of
the room, his flashlight creeping in a slow, inquisitive circle around
the walls. And now the round white ray, arrested, held on the mantel
opposite the archway. On either side of the mantel, shoulder high, and
projecting out a little from the wall, were what appeared to be
bric-a-brac, or, perhaps, liqueur cupboards, with leaded glass doors.
“Wall safe, left of mantel,” the message had said. He smiled a little
grimly in appreciation and understanding, as he moved over and halted
before the left-hand cupboard. It was a rather neat ambush for a wall
safe, this idea of Dayler’s—whoever Dayler might be!

The leaded glass door opened readily. The ray of the flashlight flooded
the interior. Billy Kane’s smile was gone. He was quite sure now that he
was too late. The cupboard was used for liqueurs, but the liqueurs in
turn were evidently used for the purpose of veiling the little nickel
dial of a safe that protruded from the wall at the rear of the cupboard,
for the bottles were all pushed now to one side, and the dial, with a
sort of diabolical mockery, it seemed, winked back reflected rays from
the glare of the flashlight. It was blatantly apparent now that this had
been the object of the other’s visit to the house, and it was almost as
equally apparent that the man had got what he had come for. And yet——

“Two right, eighteen; one left”—almost perfunctorily, muttering the
combination, Billy Kane had reached in and was twirling the knob of the
dial—“eight; one right, twenty-eight.”

The little steel door swung noiselessly open. Billy Kane stared into the
miniature safe, bewildered. And then he laughed a little. A minute
before and he would not have given a penny for his chances! The other
had got only so far as to move the bottles to one side. He had beaten
the Man with the Crutch by the very narrow margin of time it would have
taken to manipulate the combination! Perhaps, though, the other hadn’t
known the combination, and was just about to set to work to force the
safe! Well, it didn’t matter! The manila envelope lay there, sealed,
intact.

He took the envelope from the safe, closed the door, and locked it—and
whirled suddenly around from his position in front of the mantel. His
flashlight, jerked upward, played full upon the archway. A cool,
disdainful laugh rippled low through the room—a woman’s laugh. Billy
Kane did not move. The chill that had clutched at his heart, the fear of
discovery, was gone almost as quickly as it had come. He had nothing to
dread on that score from—the Woman in Black! And it was not the first
time she had come upon him unexpectedly! And it was she who stood there
now; and she still stood full in the glare of his flashlight, a
bewitching, entrancing, mysterious little figure, whose great dark eyes
were fixed on him, half in a deliberate, speculative way, and half in a
sort of contemptuous mockery.

It was she who broke the silence.

“I wonder if it’s true, Bundy?” she said softly.

He felt the blood surge hot into his cheeks. He knew a sudden bitter
rebellion at the contempt in those steady eyes, the same bitter
rebellion he had known last night in her presence, a rebellion against
the fate that caused him, through reason of being the counterpart of
some incarnate fiend, to stand in her eyes as that actual fiend himself,
as the one who in some way had done her, or hers, irreparable wrong, as
the embodiment of all that was loathsome and hideous to her. He was the
Rat to her, as to everybody else. The envelope crackled in his fingers,
as he clenched his hand. Would he always have to play the Rat—to her!
What would that perfect oval face, beautiful even now in its fearless
contempt, look like in softer mood?

“Is what true?” he demanded gruffly.

She came toward him across the room.

“That you are really playing the game,” she said slowly. “It’s not much
credit to you, of course, since you are doing it through fear, but
still——” She shrugged her shoulders daintily, as she stood beside him.
“Do you know, Bundy, that lately you seem to have changed somehow. I do
not know just how, and I cannot account for it. It puzzles me.”

“Forget it!” growled Billy Kane, alias the Rat. “And I don’t know what
game you’re talking about, either!”

“Oh, yes, you do!” she answered. “I told you that I would hold you
responsible for any crime committed by your accomplices that it lay
within your power to circumvent. That was the chance I gave you, and you
seem to be taking it. I thought I would test you out to-night when you
might imagine that I was ignorant of what was going on, and that you
might, therefore, count on escaping the consequences as far as I was
concerned. You were to come here with the Cadger and Gannet at nine
o’clock to rob that safe. You are here alone long before that hour, and
you have robbed the safe. I presume, at least I am going to give you
credit for it, that it is because you are playing the game I referred
to, and are checkmating your partners, and preventing the crime from
being carried any further.”

There was silence for a moment.

“I think you had better put out that flashlight,” she said.

He must play the Rat. His soul jeered at him ironically. He snapped off
the light.

“How did you get wise to this?” he flung out.

“About to-night? Why, it was one of your own pet schemes, wasn’t it,
Bundy—all worked out quite a while ago? That’s how I knew! Well, am I
right about the reason for you being here alone? And, if so, how did you
propose to square yourself with your cronies of the underworld?”

“By coming back here with the Cadger and Gannet, of course,” he replied
curtly, “and letting them fall for the idea that someone had beaten us
all to it.”

“Yes,” she said calmly. “Well, I quite approve, Bundy. And I’ll take
that envelope now, please! You won’t have any further use for it, and
I’ll attend to the rest of this affair.”

He handed her the envelope. He asked nothing better than that she should
assume any further responsibility that might be connected with its
contents. As far as he was concerned there were matters of far greater
moment now. There was the Man with the Crutch! And that was a matter in
which he had very cogent reasons for desiring to play a lone hand. His
lips tightened. It was fairly evident that she had not been in the house
the first time he had entered but he wanted to be sure.

“When did you get in here?” he snapped. “Followed me, I suppose!”

“About five minutes ago,” she said quietly. “And you left the door
unlocked—though I had a key. No, I didn’t follow you! Why should I? I
knew that you would be here at nine o’clock anyway, and I simply came a
little ahead of time. I really hoped, you see, that you would do the
same—and for more reasons than the one I have just mentioned.”

“What do you mean?” he grunted.

“I haven’t seen you since last night, you know,” she said deliberately.
“What about the diamonds that were stolen from Vetter?”

“I’ve got them,” he answered shortly.

“_Vetter_ hasn’t!” There was a cold, unpleasant inflection in her voice.

“Well, what do you expect!” He forced a raucous note into his voice. He
was not sure that it sounded genuine. It was not easy to play the Rat
with her! “Think it over! It’s not so soft a job to get them back to him
without leaving a trail behind that might trip me up! See?”

She appeared to consider this for a moment.

“That is true,” she said at last. “Well, have you got them here?”

“Yes.” He reached into his pocket and took out the chamois pocketbook.
He laughed brusquely, as he held it out to her. “If you can handle that
envelope, maybe you can handle the sparklers, too!”

“I can—and I will,” she said simply, as she took the pocketbook from
him. “That’s only fair. I told you once that I would put no difficulties
in the way of your keeping yourself solid—if you could!—with your fellow
yeggs. And that applies equally to to-night. You may bring the Cadger
back here. You will find the house empty.”

“Thanks!” he said grimly. “I’ll move along then; I’ve got just about
enough time left. And would you mind _locking_ the front door when you
go out? I’d like the Cadger to get all the run that’s coming to him for
his money.”

He stepped forward to pass her, but she laid a detaining hand on his
arm.

“Wait!” she said tersely. “I agreed to look after this envelope, but
even so you are not through yet to-night, Bundy. I know where Mr. Dayler
is this evening, and I am going to bring him back here to his own house
myself. But I will give you time first to play out your little farce
with your two thugs, and send them about their business. Say, ten
o’clock. Mr. Dayler  and myself will be here at that time—and so will
you.”

“Will I?” inquired Billy Kane insolently. “Whats the lay? A trap?”

“No—an experiment,” she said evenly. “I would like to find out if there
is really anything _human_, if there is a shred of decency left in you.
I want you to see your crime for once from your victim’s standpoint. It
may help you, if you _are_ human, to keep on ‘playing the game’; and
that will help you, if you can keep out of the clutches of the
underworld, to keep out of the electric chair at Sing Sing. You quite
understand, Bundy? At ten o’clock! And I should not even mind if you are
found here in this room—in the dark—when Mr. Dayler and myself enter the
house—at ten o’clock. And now I think you had better hurry, Bundy.”

There was a twisted smile on Billy Kane’s lips. He was the Rat, and the
Rat would be here, or anywhere else at ten o’clock—if she said so. There
was no comment to make. The Rat had no choice.

“All right!” he said gruffly, and moved past her to the door, and out to
the hall; and a moment later, reaching the street, he swung into a
hurried stride, heading back for the Rat’s den.



XVIII—MIRRORED YEARS


It was quite dark here in Dayler’s library, yet he had sat so long in
this chair that his eyes seemed to have accommodated themselves to the
darkness, and it seemed as though he could distinguish every object in
the room. Surely, interminably as the minutes dragged themselves out,
the quarter-hour that had stood between ten o’clock and the time he had
sent the Cadger and Gannet away was up now! His flashlight winked
through the blackness, played on the dial of his watch, and the
blackness fell again. It still lacked five minutes of the hour.

Strange how his mind worked! There was no speculation as to precisely
why she had demanded his presence here, there was only intolerant, angry
impatience because she had done so. If it had not been for her, he could
have been making vital use of every one of these minutes! There was
nothing else to have hindered him! It had been almost childishly easy to
pull the wool over Gannet’s and the Cadger’s eyes. He had let the Cadger
and Gannet take all the initiative—apparently. The two men had forced
the basement door, and then, going upstairs, had opened the front door
for him, which he, strolling down the street a few minutes later, had
entered as casually as he had already done before on two occasions that
night. After that, the three of them, clustered around the mantel, the
Cadger manipulating the dial of the safe while Gannet held the
flashlight, had made the discovery in _common_ that the safe had been
already looted. He had joined in the dismay, chagrin and fury of his
companions; he had joined in the frantic search of desks and drawers,
which he had inaugurated, and which he had permitted to endure for a
full half hour. At the expiration of that time he had coded a terse
cipher report, and had handed it to the Cadger and Gannet for delivery.
They were to leave the house, himself last, a few minutes apart in order
to avoid arousing any attention; and the Cadger and Gannet, obediently
and unsuspiciously, had gone. And he had remained!

It had been very simple. And there remained no trace of the search that
had been made. His eyes now, so strangely accustomed to the darkness,
reassured him on that score. He had warned the men not to leave any
traces behind them!

He stirred uneasily in his chair. All this had been essential,
necessary, vital, in order to preserve his rôle of the Rat from
suspicion, and himself from subsequent and quick disaster at the hands
of the underworld; but the minutes that were slipping away from him now,
as he sat here impotent, were priceless. Red Vallon and the Pippin at
any moment might run the Man with the Crutch to earth, and his hands
were tied. He had no concern with the effect that the loss of the
envelope might have had on this Dayler; he was utterly indifferent to
either the contents of that envelope, or Dayler’s connection with it. It
seemed to plumb the very depths of irony that she appeared to labor
under the impression she might somehow, in this way, arouse his better
nature and touch some softer human chord within him! He was concerned
more with the connection between that envelope and the Man with the
Crutch; and very much more with the contents of that handbag the Man
with the Crutch had carried away from Peters’ flat the night before; and
still more again with the Man with the Crutch himself! The man had
tricked him here tonight, slipped through his fingers this time, but——

The front door was being opened. Billy Kane stood up, shrugging his
shoulders. He was in a truculent mood now, impatient to be gone,
prompted even now to go, restrained only by the cooler counsel of common
sense. She had the whip-hand over him. A word from her, and he would be
in exactly the same case as if he had failed in the play he had just
made with the Cadger and Gannet. Voices reached him; hers, quiet and
controlled; a man’s, gruff, irritated, sharply antagonistic.

And then the door from the hall opened, and the lights in the library
went on. Billy Kane’s eyes, passing swiftly over the trim little figure
in black across the room, met and held those of a man who, startled now,
stepped hastily back, only to discover that his companion had quietly
and swiftly closed the door behind them.

The man’s lips were suddenly compressed and hard, though the color had
ebbed a little from his face.

“Please sit down over there at the table, Mr. Dayler,” she requested
softly.

“No!” exclaimed the man angrily. “I’ll do nothing of the kind! What’s
the meaning of this? You inveigled me back here by hinting at some kind
of story, and you run me, in my own house, into the presence of a thug!”

She shook her head.

“It is true that I asked this—gentleman”—she hesitated over the choice
of the word, while her eyes in a sort of mocking humor inventoried Billy
Kane’s none too reputable appearance and attire—“to come here; but it is
equally true that I have ‘some kind of a story’ that I think will
interest you. Bundy, you might try and _persuade_ Mr. Dayler to sit
down!”

A grim smile came to Billy Kane’s lips. He was a pawn too, like this
Dayler; a pawn to be moved about at will by this outrageously
courageous, imperturbable, and, yes, in spite of his own irritation,
adorable little personage. He turned his attention now to Dayler. The
other could have been no more than forty-five, yet his hair was not
merely prematurely gray, it was white, as a very old man’s is white; his
face, clean shaven, was kindly, though drawn now in tense lines about
the lips and forehead.

“Sit down!” Billy Kane ordered curtly. He was fingering his automatic,
playing up to the cue she had given him.

Dayler hesitated; and then abruptly stepped forward and flung himself
into a chair at the table, his back to the mantel.

“Well?” he challenged. “You got me out of my club on the pretext of
having something to say about a man named Keats whom I once knew; but
from the look of things it appears to be much more likely that, with my
own house affording you protection, I am to be coolly robbed of my
watch, money, and such other valuables as you may be able to lay your
hands on!”

The slim little figure had slipped gracefully into a chair, facing
Dayler on the opposite side of the table. She smiled curiously.

“But, at least, I will keep my promise first, and tell you about this
Keats,” she said. “Buck Keats, wasn’t it, Mr. Dayler? And, as your
servants may be back in another half hour or so, we won’t waste any time
in getting to the story. It goes back about twenty years. At that time
you were in the Yukon, and pretty well away from civilization, and you
had been prospecting all summer with your partner, a man quite a little
older than you were, a man named Laynton, Joe Laynton—Square Joe, they
called him in that country, and you ought to know why. He was a big
man—in his body and in his soul—a God’s nobleman, wasn’t he, Mr.
Dayler?”

Dayler was leaning forward, staring at her in a strange, puzzled way.

“How do you know all this?” he demanded sharply.

She shook her head again.

“I may not be quite accurate in the little details,” she went on. “You
will overlook that. You and Laynton delayed your return to Dawson too
long that fall. You were caught in bad weather. Your provisions ran low.
Laynton met with a nasty accident with an axe. In reaching up above his
head to cut some branches for fuel, the axe in some way glanced off and
inflicted a very serious and a very ugly wound in his shoulder and
chest. Things went from bad to worse. For days Laynton could do nothing
but lie in his blood-soaked bunk. Provisions ran still lower. The winter
was settling down hard. You had already delayed too long, and now
Laynton couldn’t go. And yet you woke up one morning to find his bunk
empty.”

She paused. Billy Kane’s eyes, as he stood beside the table, passed from
one to the other. Her small gloved hand, resting on the arm of her
chair, had closed tightly; and into Dayler’s face, grown haggard now,
had come the look of a dumb beast in hurt.

“On a sheet of paper on the table”—her voice was lower now—“Laynton had
left a message for you, the kind a brave man would leave, explaining it
all, and bidding you take the one chance you had and go without him. And
piled on the table beside the sheet of paper was his money, quite a few
hundred dollars. You went to the door of the shack, and you followed the
tracks in the snow. And you found him, and you found his revolver beside
him. You were already weak and half delirious yourself for lack of food,
and I think this crazed you and unhinged your mind. You buried him in
the snow, and picked up the revolver and put it in your pocket. You took
the paper and the money and what food there was, and you ran, like the
madman you then were, away from the shack. I do not know how long you
wandered, nor how you existed, nor the number of miles you put between
yourself and the man who had given his life for you; but eventually you
were found by a trapper, and the trapper’s name was Keats, Buck Keats, a
man with a very unsavory record. You spent some time with Keats. You
recovered your physical health, but your mind remained affected. What
had taken place was temporarily a blank to you. Keats robbed you of
Laynton’s money and most of your own, and he stole that paper which
later on was to mean so much to you. He preferred, if anything were ever
known, that you, and not he, should be credited with having stolen
Laynton’s money, and he further helped out that suggestion by getting
you, after some months, out of the country, by having you, in a word,
disappear. I imagine you were like a child in his hands. I am sure you
do not even know how you got there, but the spring found you, quite
normal in all respects save a broken memory, working at anything you
could get to do in Mexico, and living there under the name of Dayler.
Your proper name is Forbes, John Forbes, isn’t it?”

Dayler’s head was forward on the table, and buried in his hands. And
Billy Kane, meeting her glance, read through a sudden mist in the brown
eyes, a bitter condemnation of himself that he did not quite fully
understand. He was not the Rat, was he? He was only playing the Rat in a
fight for his life, and to win back a name of his own! How should he
understand!

“I am taking too long,” she said hurriedly. “Your awakening came then.
You read in a paper of the discovery of a brutal and revolting crime in
the Yukon—the murder of Joe Laynton. The snow had melted, and a trooper
of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police had found the body. If ever there
was a _prima facie_ case of murder it was there: The axe wound,
presupposing a quarrel, the blood-soaked bunk, the final wound from a
revolver shot, the absence of any weapon left in the possession of the
dead man, the fact that he had apparently been stripped of his money,
and, most damning of all, that _you_ had disappeared. It all came back
to you in a flash then; and, like the last straw, adding to this array
of evidence already against you, you realized that you were now living
under an _assumed_ name. The letter, written and signed by Laynton, that
would have saved you, was gone. You naturally did not know that it had
been stolen from you; you believed that you had lost it. It would take a
very brave man, and a man that was very sure of himself indeed, to judge
you for what you did then. Without that paper, you, an innocent man,
were already as good as hanged if you gave yourself up. You continued to
live on as Dayler. Twenty years went by. You prospered. You lived in all
quarters of the globe. No breath of suspicion ever associated John
Dayler with John Forbes. But you knew, because you knew the record of
the Royal Northwest Mounted, that the Men Who Never Sleep had not
forgotten the case, nor given over the search—and that they never would.
But at last, with the long lapse of years, you felt yourself secure; and
finally, a few years ago, you came here and settled in New York.”

Dayler’s head came up. He passed his hand across his eyes.

“How do you know all these things?” he asked again.

“Does it matter?” she answered. “They are true, aren’t they?”

“Yes, they are true.” His voice was scarcely audible.

“It was Keats who found you, not the Royal Northwest Mounted,” she
continued. “Keats had long ago left the Yukon, and had settled in
Chicago—a drunkard. He was an old man now, and down and out, living from
hand to mouth. I do not know how he found you; I only know that after
all these years he decided to make restitution, though counting no doubt
on you giving him some money in return for the letter. However, be that
as it may, two days ago a man brought you a sealed envelope, which he
said a man named Keats, who had just died in Chicago, had confessed, as
he was dying, to have stolen from you, and that Keats, as a last
request, had asked that it be given back to you. You opened the
envelope, and found that it contained Laynton’s letter. With this in
your possession at last you were absolutely secure, even in the very
improbable event of anything ever being done by the police. Why then,
after twenty years, should you voluntarily open the case and disrupt the
associations you had formed, and your life as you had molded it in all
that time? In any event, you would consider long and carefully before
taking so vital and momentous a step. I do not know what your final
decision was, or even if you have come to one yet; but, pending such a
decision, you—” She motioned suddenly across the table. “But first, will
you please open the table drawer in front of you, Mr. Dayler.”

He obeyed her, a sort of slow wonder in his movements. The drawer, open,
disclosed, among other supplies of stationery, a pile of long, manila
envelopes.

She motioned again—this time to the envelopes.

“You sealed the letter up again, in one of those envelopes and put it
away. And that brings us to to-night. I would like to have you show that
letter to”—she indicated Billy Kane with a curt nod of her head—“this
man here.”

For an instant Dayler did not move, then he stiffened back in his chair,
his eyes narrowed.

“I begin to see!” His jaws snapped hard together. “So that’s what you
are after! You propose to steal that paper from me, and then blackmail
me with it afterwards. It is the letter that you want!”

“And perhaps you will get it for us?” she suggested softly.

There was a grim sort of finality in Dayler’s short, unpleasant laugh.

“_No!_” he said.

“Well then”—she still spoke softly—“suppose I were to tell you that the
Men Who Never Sleep have been advised that Dayler and John Forbes are
one, and that they are travelling down from the Canadian West now, and
that to-morrow you will be arrested—_and that the letter is already
gone._”

“Gone!” It came in a startled cry. Dayler half rose from his chair, but
dropped back again quite coolly, a sarcastic smile suddenly on his lips.
“Clever!” he said ironically. “Quite a pretty little ruse to get me to
indicate the whereabouts of that paper! Perhaps you will try something
else now!”

“Bundy”—she turned calmly to Billy Kane—“open the door of that little
cupboard on the left of the mantel.”

Billy Kane stepped across the room in a sort of mechanical obedience,
and opened the leaded glass door—just as Dayler, his self-assurance
shaken now, jumped from his chair, and rushed to the mantel.

“Perhaps”—her voice came calmly again from the table—“Mr. Dayler prefers
to look for himself, after all, Bundy!”

The man seemed to be fighting desperately for a grip upon himself, and
again his jaws snapped hard together.

“No!” he cried. “It’s another trick to get the combination of that safe,
to get me to open it! Do you think I’m a fool to let that paper go now,
even at the cost of my life, after you have so kindly warned me that I
am to be arrested to-morrow? You would have done better not to have
talked quite so much!”

“Open the safe, Bundy!” she instructed evenly. “Watch him, Mr. Dayler,
and satisfy yourself.”

The dial whirled deftly, swiftly, under Billy Kane’s fingers. The steel
door swung open.

“_Gone!_ My God, it is gone!” Dayler’s cry now was broken, almost
inarticulate. His head half buried in the cupboard, he was staring into
the empty safe. And then he reeled back to the table, and stood there
clawing at its edge, gray to the lips, looking from one to the other.

“I have not quite finished my story,” she said quietly. “It is quite
true that Keats is dead; but he did not die two or three days ago, he
has been dead well over a month. Nor did he die from natural causes. He
was murdered. There is a gigantic Crime Ring in this country, whose
headquarters are here in New York, that is as implacable and heinous as
it is far-spread and powerful. Keats, far under the influence of liquor
in a low dive one night and in maudlin self-admiration at the idea of
making restitution to you, became drunkenly confidential, and his
‘confidant,’ as it happened, was an old broken-down yegg of about his
own age, too old for active work at his sordid trade, a pensioner, a
hanger-on, as it were, of this Crime Ring, who made himself as valuable
as he could in any way that he could. He reported the story. Keats was
promptly murdered—not so much for the sake of the paper, for that could
easily have been taken from him without resorting to murder, but that
there should be no Keats, with his change of heart, ready to take the
witness stand in your behalf, and therefore render the paper of no value
to them at all. The Crime Ring did not, however, act with the same haste
as far as you were concerned. That is not their way! They watched you,
they became thoroughly conversant, intimately acquainted with you, and
your house, and your mode of living. It was necessary that they should
do so before the next move could be decided upon. It was essential that
you should know that the document was still in existence, and it was
equally essential that you should know Keats was dead and would
therefore never be able to help you with his testimony. The actual
delivery of the document into your hands was the really clever and
finished play to make, for it not only accomplished those ends
naturally, simply, and without possibility of alarming you, but your
temporary possession of the letter would also psychologically enhance
its value in your eyes and make the shock of its subsequent loss all the
greater—and you all the more _generous_! But unless they could be sure
of recovering it—if for instance you had a safe-deposit vault where you
would likely place it—that plan would not do at all, and some other must
be devised. They satisfied themselves on that score, however; and the
discovery of that wall safe, and, incidentally, its combination, made it
as certain as anything is humanly certain that they would know where to
find the letter again when they wanted it. And, finally, there was the
police, the men of the Royal Northwest Mounted, to be put upon your
trail. It was only when you stood facing arrest for murder, and only
when that paper was all that stood between you and the hangman’s noose,
that it was worth—well, perhaps you will say what it is worth? That is
the situation to-night, Mr. Dayler.”

The man was rocking on his feet, still clawing at the edge of the table
for support. He seemed to have lost all self-control.

“Blackmail!” he said, through dry, twitching lips.

“And without any come-back!” She shrugged her shoulders. “You are rated
at a quarter of a million. What will you give for that paper?”

Dayler did not answer at once. He reached out behind him, felt for the
arm of his chair, and sat down heavily. He spoke at last, brushing his
hand nervously across his forehead.

“I—I’ll give—ten thousand dollars,” he said hoarsely.

“You do not place a very complimentary value on your life,” she said
evenly.

“Twenty.” His hand still nervously brushed at his forehead.
“Twenty-five.”

Her laugh rippled through the room. It was low and coolly disdainful,
but it seemed to Billy Kane, standing by the mantel, tight-lipped,
watching the scene, that it held, too, a queer, underlying, tremulous
note.

Dayler wet his lips.

“Thirty-five.”

“That paper is the only thing that will save you,” she explained
monotonously. “Is money any good to you—unless you live?”

It was Dayler who laughed now, but it was hysterically. His hands would
not remain still. He had let his head alone now, and, instead, kept
laying his hands on the table in front of him, by turns opening and
clenching them, and they left damp prints on the top of the table.

“Fifty—I—I’ll make it fifty thousand dollars,” he whispered.

She shook her head.

“My God!” It was a helpless cry. Dayler stretched out his arms
imploringly. “You don’t understand! It’s not easy for me to get even
that amount. I’m not worth what you think I am. I—I’ve gone the limit.”

Her voice was still monotonous.

“Are you _sure_?” she asked.

“Give me—give me time, and—and I might make it a little more.” There was
no doubt of the agonized sincerity in the man’s voice. “Perhaps—sixty.”

“No!” she said. She was on her feet now, her voice breaking a little. “I
want more than that—what it will perhaps be harder for you to give than
sixty thousand dollars. I want your forgiveness for what I have just
made you suffer—for this scene here. I had reasons, reasons that I
believed justified me.” She glanced at Billy Kane. “I do not think you
would understand, and I am afraid you would not see the justification in
them even if I tried to explain, and so”—she had drawn the manila
envelope from the bodice of her dress, and was holding it out to him—“I
can only ask you to forgive me.”

He took the envelope wonderingly, rising slowly to his feet. He was like
a man dazed. Stupefaction, incredulity, a mighty relief, mingled their
expressions in his face. He turned the envelope over and over; and then,
opening it, extracted a folded piece of paper from within. And then for
the second time his laugh rang through the room, but now it was a laugh
like the laugh of a man that was insane, high-pitched, sustained.

“Go on!” he cried wildly. “Go on with your hellish tricks! What’s next?”

Billy Kane had involuntarily stepped closer to the table. He drew in his
breath sharply now, in an amazed, startled way. Dayler was holding a
_blank_ piece of paper in his hands!

And she, too, was leaning tensely forward. He glanced at her. She turned
her head toward him; and out of a face that was as white as death, her
dark eyes burned full of fury and bitter condemnation, as they fixed
upon him.

“I see it now!” Her lips were quivering with passion. She steadied her
voice with an obvious effort. “I gave you credit for too much! I caught
you at your work just a second too late. I thought you were taking an
envelope out of the safe, whereas you were attempting to put one _in_!
The one you took out was already in your pocket. You were checkmating
your miserable accomplices unquestionably—but it was for your own ends!
You were playing the traitor to them and to me at the same time. You
meant, with your cold-blooded cunning, to use that paper against Mr.
Dayler for your own private gain. You lied to me! It wasn’t an empty
safe to which you meant to introduce the Cadger and Gannet; there was a
little more finesse, it clouded the issue a little more to put a dummy
envelope there. And it was so easy! Just one of those envelopes taken
from the drawer there, and a piece of paper slipped inside!” She paused
an instant, surveying him with merciless eyes. “I hardly suppose that
you would be fool enough not to have already put it in a safer place
than your pocket, but if you still have it there—_hand it over!_”

Billy Kane did not move. Somehow he was not paying undivided attention
to her. It was the Man with the Crutch who seemed to be standing there
in her place, grinning at him—only he could not see the man’s face. And
then, with a mental jerk, he pulled himself together. He could not tell
her that he had almost caught someone else in the act of stealing the
paper, but that the “some one else” had got away. It would sound
ridiculous! She would laugh in his face! He could not tell her that,
like a thunderbolt falling upon him, there had just come the realization
that the Man with the Crutch had stolen the paper after all. He could
not explain the Man with the Crutch, Peters’ murder, a hundred other
things, so that she would believe him, without telling her that he was
Billy Kane. And he could not tell her that he was Billy Kane! The old,
hard, ironical, mirthless smile came to his lips. He was—the Rat!

“Maybe you’d like to search me!” he snarled insolently.

She turned to Dayler. The man had sunk into his chair again and was
smiling now, but in a horribly apathetic sort of way.

“Mr. Dayler,” she said quietly, “it does not matter in the least if he
has got rid of it for the moment. I promise you that paper will be in
your possession again by to-morrow morning.” She swung on Billy Kane,
and pointed to the door. “I think you heard what I said, Bundy”—her
voice was ominously low now, strained with menace—“I will give you until
to-morrow morning to produce that paper. The alternative is the electric
chair.”

She was still pointing to the door.

He shrugged his shoulders. What was the use! The net was closing tighter
about him, tighter than ever before, and the strands now were like some
devil’s tentacles that would not let go. He swung on his heel abruptly,
and without a word left the room.



XIX—A HOLE IN THE WALL


Once in the street, Billy Kane started hurriedly in the direction of the
Bowery. He hastened on, his mind in a state of chaotic turmoil.
Presently he turned into the cross street, a block away from the Rat’s
den. He had until morning. It was thoughtful of her to have given him
that much time! The Man with the Crutch had the paper, of course. Red
Vallon and the Pippin had had since noon to find the man. If the man
were not found by morning the rôle of the Rat would be at an end. There
was something damnably ironical in that! He had wanted the rôle of the
Rat to end. And now he didn’t want it to end on account of this Man with
the Crutch, who was disastrously likely to bring that end about! He
needed the rôle now more than ever in order to use it against this Man
with the Crutch, because the other held the knowledge that would enable
him, Billy Kane, to cast off the rôle forever; yet if he didn’t find the
man, and even before morning, the rôle, and quite as certainly forever,
would be cast off for him!

He swept his hand across his eyes. His brain seemed to be working in
some silly, sing-song cycle, and yet it was quite logical. And then his
shoulders squared. For the night at least he was still the Rat, and the
underworld was at the Rat’s beck and call. If Red Vallon and the Pippin
could not find the Man with the Crutch, he would unleash the underworld
to help them pick up the scent. First, however, he must get in touch
with Red Vallon. But that should not be difficult, for Red Vallon,
whether he had had any success or not, was certain to make a report
before the night was very much older, and—

Billy Kane halted suddenly, and turned around, as a low voice hailed
him. A man was hurrying along behind him. He smiled grimly. A little
luck, at least, seemed to be breaking for him at the start. Here was Red
Vallon now. Billy Kane, in apparent indifference, started on again in
the direction of the den.

“Hello!” he said gruffly, as the gangster caught up with him and fell
into step alongside.

Red Vallon chuckled low.

“We got him!” he said. There was hoarse elation in the gangster’s voice.

A fierce uplift swept in an almost overmastering surge upon Billy Kane.
His answer, however, was little more than a grunt of approval.

“You have—eh?” he said.

“You bet your life!” exclaimed the gangster jubilantly. “You know
Marlot’s saloon? Well, the guy lives next door in that old motheaten
shack. Some place! The police have been leery of it for a long while.
There’s mostly a bunch of slick-fingers hang out there. Get me? He’s got
the back room—used to be the kitchen, I guess. He’s a smooth one, all
right! He’s got a private entrance of his own when he doesn’t want to go
in or out by the front; the old back door opens right into his room from
the yard. Savvy?”

Billy Kane nodded his head shortly in affirmation. He took a cigarette
from his pocket, and lighted it nonchalantly.

“But, say”—the elation in the gangster’s voice was growing still more
pronounced—“that ain’t all! The Pippin spotted his nibs through the
window from the yard a few minutes ago. Say, what do you think, Bundy!
The cripple hobbles across the room, and pulls the old washstand away
from the wall, and lifts up an innocent-looking piece of the wall paper
that you’d think was stuck down for fair. The Pippin had only a rip in
the window shade to see through, and he couldn’t see very well, but he
could see a dinky little hole there in the wall, and a satchel inside,
and the cripple takes something out of his pocket and slips it into the
hole, and smooths the wall paper back again. The Pippin beat it out of
there then, and found me, and he’s just wised me up.”

It was quite dark here on the street, but even so Billy Kane kept his
face turned slightly away from the gangster. The blood was racing in one
mad, ungovernable flood of feverish excitement through his veins. It
seemed somehow as though a weight that had been unendurable, an actual
physical burden beyond his strength to bear, had suddenly been lifted
from his shoulders. The Man with the Crutch! From the prior events of
the evening, from what Red Vallon had just said, there was no
possibility that the Pippin had stumbled upon _another_ man with a
crutch. This was the one, without question, without room for a single
shadow of a doubt. And he as good as had the man now! He flicked the ash
from his cigarette with his forefinger, and nodded curtly again.

“Figure it out for yourself,” said Red Vallon, a sort of eager
self-complacency in his voice. “Of course, the man had nothing to do
with that murder last night, but the police know he was around there
lugging a satchel, and you add to that the crook dump where he lives,
and a guy that has a nifty little hiding place in the wall with a
satchel in it—and where does he get off? I ain’t throwing any bouquets
at myself, Bundy, but I told you I’d pull something good this trip, and
I guess you got to hand it to me for delivering the goods. Pipe this,
Bundy! The police think the Pippin’s a stool-pigeon anyhow. Well, five
minutes ago I sent the Pippin to tip off the police, while I beat it up
here to put you wise. Get me? With all that stuff against the guy, he
ain’t got a hope. He goes up for that murder, and that lets you out,
Bundy.”

Billy Kane stood still. They had reached the cellarlike entrance to the
Rat’s den, but he made no move to descend the short, cavernous stairway.
A little way up the block the street lamp seemed suddenly to be swirling
around and around in swift, lightning-like irregular flashes. The blood
that had rushed hotly, madly through his veins but an instant before was
cold and sluggish now, as though some icy tourniquet were at work upon
his heart, stilling its action.

“That lets you out, Bundy.” The words mocked and jeered at him. Let him
out! It was ruin, disaster, death—unless in some way he could forestall
this move of Red Vallon. He fought desperately for control of himself.
That envelope, her threat, his own desire to get at the man, were like
issues fading into the background. He knew that the man _was_ the
murderer of Peters, and if the police, whether they caught the man or
not, found what he believed they would find in that satchel—some at
least of those rubies from the Ellsworth vault—then Red Vallon, this man
standing here, who with horrible callousness, but equally with the
genuine motive of protecting the Rat, was ironically planning, while
believing him innocent, to send the guilty man to his death, would know
absolutely beyond question that the Rat had _not_ killed Peters last
night, that last night’s alibi was a lie, and that he, Billy Kane, was
the man in the mask, at whose throat Red Vallon and his gang asked
nothing better than to hurl themselves like a pack of starving wolves!

To get rid of Red Vallon! Any excuse—anything! To get rid of the
man—without an instant’s delay!

He shoved out his hand to the gangster.

“I won’t forget this, Red!” he said earnestly. “Take it from me, I won’t
forget it! But you beat it now, Red. That Dayler game went wrong
to-night—the Cadger’ll tell you about it, if you see him—and I haven’t
got a minute. See—Red?”

“Sure! All right!” agreed the gangster heartily. “Well, so long, Bundy!”

Billy Kane shook hands again—with a grip that was hard and eloquent.

“So long, Red!” he said.

The gangster turned away. Billy Kane dove down the stairs, opened the
door of the den, locked it behind him, darted across the room in the
darkness, and in another minute, crawling through the tunnel from the
secret door, gained the shed and the street at the rear. He ran
breathlessly now. What did it matter if any one saw him! Time alone was
all that counted! If he could not beat the police in the race to that
room he was as good as dead already!

His mind worked swiftly, incisively, as he ran. The Pippin had had, say,
ten minutes’ start, but it was only a few blocks to that house next door
to Marlot’s saloon, and it would take a little while at least for the
police to make their preparations before acting on the Pippin’s
information. The chances lay with him, Billy Kane. The man might, or
might not, be there. It did not matter in so far as the main issue was
concerned. It was that handbag and its contents that were the vital
factor now—and, yes, if he got that, the envelope too—they would both
almost certainly be in the same hiding place—inasmuch as that hiding
place was a crafty one. If the man _were_ there, then it seemed as
though irony would have piled itself on irony to-night, for he would
automatically for the time being become the _ally_ of the man with whom
he asked only a deadly reckoning! He did not want the police to get the
Man with the Crutch. Whatever the story the man might tell to account
for his connection with Peters, it was certain that he would not be fool
enough to tell the truth about the murder of David Ellsworth! And if the
police had the Man with the Crutch in custody, then he, Billy Kane, was
irrevocably barred from that reckoning which he meant to have.

He had been perhaps five minutes. He was trying the door now of a
wretched, two-story frame building, that hugged, as its right-hand
neighbor, a saloon that was almost as disreputable in appearance as
itself. The door was unlocked. He stepped inside, and, feeling his way
in the darkness, but still moving rapidly, passed down a narrow hall. By
the sense of touch he was aware that there were rooms on only one side,
the left-hand side, and that there were two of them. He brought up
abruptly against a door now that made the end of the passage; the door
of the rear room of the house obviously, and obviously, therefore, the
“home” of the Man with the Crutch. It was silent everywhere in the
house. He smiled a little grimly. He knew the place well enough by
reputation to account for that silence. It was a crooks’ nest, a crooks’
lodging house, and, being night, the tenants had gone to work!

He slipped his mask over his face, and rapped on the door. There was no
answer. He rapped again; and then his skeleton keys came into play. The
man had obviously returned here from Dayler’s to get rid of that
envelope, though probably not at once, for it must have been then that
the Pippin had seen him; but now apparently he had gone out again.

The door yielded upon the trial of the third key. Billy Kane flung it
open, stepped inside, and his flashlight played through the blackness.
As he had expected, the room was empty. He locked the door again, and
crossed quickly to the rear door. This he found opened inward. He looked
out. This took a few seconds, but an accurate knowledge of his
surroundings was worth even more than that should he be caught here. The
door opened on practically a level with the ground; and it had an
old-fashioned latch, with heavy iron handles, loop-shaped, below the
thumb-pieces. He closed the door, and bolted it, smiling appreciatively
as he noted that the bolt moved both readily and silently, as though in
carefully oiled grooves.

His flashlight played around the room again now. The window shade was
drawn. He located the washstand—and frowned suddenly in perplexity. A
crutch leaned against the washstand. His face cleared the next instant.
Why shouldn’t the man have an extra one? Perhaps he had to buy them in
pairs, though he used only one at a time.

Billy Kane stepped swiftly to the washstand, and, preparatory to pulling
it away from the wall, lifted up the crutch—and the next instant was
examining the latter critically. It was extremely heavy. He whistled low
under his breath. It was not only a crutch, it was a murderous weapon!
The shaft of the thing, though painted a wood color, was solid iron! He
set it down and pulled out the washstand; then, picking up the crutch
again, he slashed it along the line of the wall where the washstand had
been. A large piece of the wall paper came away, disclosing a neatly
constructed little hiding place, some two feet long by a foot in depth.
A queer, twisted smile was on Billy Kane’s lips. In there lay only two
articles—but they were a manila envelope, and a small handbag.

He snatched up the envelope, and tore it open. A glance at the faded
writing was enough; it was Joe Laynton’s letter of twenty years ago. He
stuffed it into his pocket; and, almost more eagerly than before,
reached into the aperture again, and took out the handbag. But now his
fingers seemed to have gone clumsy with excitement as he fumbled with
the catches. No, it was locked. Well, his steel jimmy would soon settle
that! He pried the bag open, and stood staring at its contents. And the
contents were not rubies! And then he laughed a little, as he lifted out
and examined a package of banknotes. It did not matter, did it—the
rubies or the money! It linked the Man with the Crutch with the
Ellsworth murder just the same. This was the money, and apparently
intact, that had been in the Ellsworth vault; the paper bands pinned
around the packages, and marked in red ink with the amount in each
package, had been pinned there and marked by himself!

It was strange, very strange! He restored the steel jimmy to his pocket,
and attempted to fasten the bag with its end catches, but the frame had
been bent in prying the bag open, and the catches would not work easily.
It was very strange! How had this Man with the Crutch, so intimately
connected with Peters’ and David Ellsworth’s murders, come also to be so
intimately conversant with the Crime Trust’s game with Dayler?

His mind kept striking off at tangents, as he struggled with the bag. He
could not carry a bag that would gape open! Once he got it to the den,
that hole in the flooring, that he had thought so futile a reward for
his search, would not be so futile after all. The bag would fit very
nicely, and very securely, in there! Iron crutches weren’t usually made
in _pairs_. That was queer, too! Was it an iron crutch that was the
blunt instrument that had caused Peters’ death—and David Ellsworth’s?
Why had the man used that dummy envelope to-night, and—

His flashlight was out. Footsteps were creeping cautiously along the
hall outside. The police! The bag would have to do as it was now; but at
least one catch was partially fastened. He tucked it under his arm, and
for the fraction of a second, while he thrust the flashlight back into
his pocket, he stood still; and then, a sudden, curious smile on his
lips, he reached out and picked up the crutch again, and stole silently
over to the rear door. The smile was lost as his lips thinned into a
straight line. Yes, they were already here too! Well, the crutch might
perhaps still serve the same purpose!

His ear to the panel, a whisper reached him:

“Put your shoulder to it, Jerry, and push with me, when I get the bar in
the crack of the door.”

“All right,” another voice whispered. “The others will have been around
at the front long ago. Are you ready?”

The door creaked under a sudden pressure; and as suddenly from the wall
at the edge of the door, Billy Kane reached out and released the bolt.
The door swung violently open, and two figures, their balance lost,
sprawled and staggered into the room. And in a flash Billy Kane, as he
leaped through the doorway, snatched at the door, slammed it shut,
jabbed the crutch, as a lock-bar, through the iron loop of the door
handle, its end extending well over the frame of the doorway—and
sprinted across the yard.

There was a yell, and a battering thud on the door behind him, as he
reached a fence at the end of the yard, swung himself to the top and
dropped to the lane beyond. And then, as he ran, there came a crash of
broken glass. They had evidently forsaken the door for the window!

For a hundred yards Billy Kane ran at top speed along the lane; and
then, removing his mask, the bag concealed under his coat, he emerged
into the intersecting street, and dropped into a casual and quiet
stride.

He smiled queerly.

They would be looking for a cripple who, having sacrificed his crutch to
save his life, could at best but limp and hobble painfully along!



XX—THE CAT’S-PAW


It was black with a blackness that seemed to possess tangible substance,
as though it wrapped itself around and enveloped the body with a pall
whose very texture could be felt. It was unknown ground, and the foot
reached out uncertainly, wary of where next it might find lodgment, and
the hands stretched out, as a blind man’s hands stretch out, feeling for
hidden things through space. It was dank and musty, and in the nostrils
was an earthy, cavernous smell; and there was a silence that seemed
guarded by the very bowels of the earth itself. And in the silence and
the darkness peril lurked—a peril that merged courage into foolhardiness
for one who would invite it, and set the nerves on edge, and kept the
muscles taut like tight-strung bow strings, and stimulated the senses
into abnormal activity until the eyes peopled the darkness with phantoms
that were not there, and the ears created sounds that did not exist.

Billy Kane’s face, under the mask, was drawn in hard, strained lines; he
raised his right hand, that gripped his automatic, and drew the back of
his hand across his forehead. Foolhardiness! Yes, that was it! He was a
fool to come here, to take the risk! He knew Wong Yen’s by reputation as
one of the most infamous Chinese underground dives in the Bad Lands; he
remembered it concretely from that incident of a few nights ago when
Laverto had had young Clancy drugged here. Was that only a few nights
ago? He shook his head. Since those few nights ago he no longer measured
the passing of time by normal standards; he had lived all his life since
those few nights ago!

He moved forward through the blackness, cautiously, silently. Where was
the next wall? Or was there any wall at all? His hands, reaching out as
far as they could stretch, touched nothing. This was below the ordinary
cellar level; it was a sub-cellar, a chain of sub-cellars. How many men
had entered here, yes, and women too—and disappeared? A murder hole! And
up above him somewhere was New York—millions of people, taxicabs,
crowded sidewalks, theatres, and, yes, churches, places where people
worshipped. Incredible!

He had heard of places like this, and so had the public; and the public
smiled in self-sufficient tolerant amusement. Well, why not, where even
the police were ignorant! Everybody admitted that the Chinese quarter
was full of ridiculously imitated catacombs perhaps; but what did it
matter if in a block of houses the inmates burrowed from cellar to
cellar like rats, and built mysterious doors and passageways, and threw
about everything the disguise of wicked and shuddering things—when it
was only disguise! It was good for business. The gape-wagons and the
slumming conductors profited and so did the Celestials; and the
slummers, satiated with thrills, the women drawing their skirts closely
around their silk-clad ankles, the men surreptitiously feeling in their
pockets to assure themselves that their watches and valuables were still
in their possession, got their money’s worth. Everybody was satisfied,
and the public smiled.

Billy Kane’s fingers tightened on the butt of his automatic. Back
somewhere behind him in the darkness a Chinaman still guarded a door
that neither slummer nor police had ever entered; but the guard was a
gagged and huddled thing on the floor now, still senseless probably from
the blow on the head from this same pistol butt. There had been no other
way. The man was not far behind—just at the entrance so skilfully
disguised by an ordinary coal bin. Was there still another guard in
front of him? More than one? If he only dared to use his flashlight for
a second! A fool to come here where, if caught, he would not have a
chance of escape, was he? Well, perhaps—only there was a man’s life at
stake.

Perhaps he was already too late! Red Vallon had said, though, that there
wasn’t any hurry about “bumping off” the Wop, that they had him safe in
here “with his bean tapped to keep him quiet until they finished the
rest of the game.” It was less than an hour ago that Red Vallon had said
that, and it was only eight o’clock now, and the “rest of the game,” to
give it every chance of success, would not be played out for still
another hour yet, not before old Barloff had closed up for the night. He
wasn’t too late, he couldn’t be too late—there was a man’s life at
stake: only an ex-convict’s, a man out from Sing Sing but a few hours
ago. Just a prison bird! But the Wop was innocent this time and——

Was that a sound there from somewhere in front of him? Billy Kane stood
still. Nothing! No; a dozen sounds that were not really sounds at all.
His ears were full of uncanny noises.

The back cellar entrance beneath a Chinese tea-shop, and after that the
rear of the coal bin! Billy Kane was laughing to himself, but the laugh
was void of mirth. There was a grim, horrible sort of irony about it
all. Believing him, Billy Kane, to be the Rat, Red Vallon had _reported_
the accomplishment of the first stage in the execution of the plan with
gusto. After that, deft questioning had elicited from the gangster the
secret of this entrance to Wong Yen’s, and then luck, and then the guard
taken unawares. The guard could hardly be blamed. The guard naturally
enough, had little reason to suspect the approach to that coal bin of
any one who had not the “open sesame” to what was beyond, and he had
been lurking there where the boards of the bin ingeniously slid apart,
and had shown not the slightest uneasiness at his, Billy Kane’s,
presence until it was too late. Then there had been a steep, narrow
passage downward, and then—_this_. Beyond, near or far, he did not know
which, these sub-cellars hid the real thing that the so-called
underground Chinatown above counterfeited, hid debauchery and vice, and
cradled crime, and here the poppy reigned, and the dregs of humanity
skulked fearful of the sunlight.

“They had flung the Wop into a corner and left him until they got around
to finishing the job,” Red Vallon had explained callously. The Wop,
therefore, must be somewhere near at hand. But he, Billy Kane, could see
nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing.

His physical faculties strained and alert, subconsciously Billy Kane’s
mind was milling over that conversation with the gangster of an hour
ago, and upon him, in spite of his own present peril, there came a cold
and merciless fury. It was more to-night than the ordinary moral
obligation, more than the mere responsibility to render abortive the
crimes that came to his knowledge through his tenure of this rôle of the
Rat, that was actuating him now; it was the callous, damnable brutality
of the scheme that, linked with its hellish ingenuity, seemed to outrage
every instinct of manhood he possessed, and fired him with an
overmastering desire, not only to frustrate the crime itself, but to
take toll in a personal, physical way, if he could, from those who were
enacting it.

It was one of those plans, conceived by the Rat, that waited patiently
for its hour of maturity to arrive, and then was executed and carried
through to its fulfilment by the minions of that Directorate of crime of
which the Rat appeared to be the most versatile and vicious member, but
without the Rat, necessarily, taking any further active part in it. And
he, Billy Kane, who fate had seen fit to mold with features that were
evidently a counterpart of that master rogue’s, who was for the moment
accepted and obeyed as the Rat, and was supposed to be the originator of
the plan itself, could not very well ask Red Vallon, for instance, for
details! Therefore he did not know all the details, but he knew enough!

He had wormed quite a little out of Red Vallon without the gangster
suspecting anything more than that he, Billy Kane as the Rat, was taking
particular pains to see that the stage was properly set, and that the
possibility of failure was reduced to its absolute minimum. It was very
simple. It required simply a man’s life—the murder of the Wop.

He knew something of the Wop, for the Wop’s story was common property.
The Wop, in the old days, five years ago, before he had gone “up the
river” for a “job” in the line which was his particular specialty, was
known both as a tough customer and as one of the cleverest “box-workers”
in the safe-cracking profession. The testimony of one Ivan Barloff had
been mainly responsible for the Wop’s capture and conviction, and the
Wop had travelled to Sing Sing with a thirst for vengeance gnawing at
his soul, and with the threat quivering on his twisted lips that he
would get even with the other when he got out again. Nor had the five
years of prison hell seemed to assuage any of the Wop’s desire to square
accounts! He had repeated his threat many times in prison, and he had
been indifferent as to who heard him. The feud was no secret to the
police. That was the gist of it.

As for Ivan Barloff, Billy Kane was somewhat more precisely informed,
both because the time he, Billy Kane, had spent on the East Side in
carrying out David Ellsworth’s philanthropies could hardly have been
passed without at least a hearsay acquaintanceship with so well-known a
character in that quarter as Ivan Barloff, and because, too, Red Vallon,
in that last interview, had seemed to take a malicious delight in
exploiting his own vastly more intimate knowledge of the little old
Russian of many parts. On his own account he knew, naturally, only what
the public knew and believed about the man: Barloff was a sort of father
to the flock, a very numerous flock, of Poles and Russians of the
uneducated and illiterate class. He was all things to them. He was
counselor and confidant, he was money lender, he was entrusted with what
money they had as savings for investment, he wrote their letters, he
collected their rents, being a kind of owners’ sub-agent, and he lived
amongst them, alone, in a little old frame house that was sandwiched in
among the ramshackle tenements that housed so many of his compatriots in
that section. In appearance he was a very dirty and unkempt old man, and
ostensibly he was as honest as he was dirty—and he was accepted as such
by public, police and compatriots alike.

Red Vallon, however, had thrown quite a different light on the other’s
character. The man possessed the craft and cunning of a devil, and a
devil’s inhumanity. He had fed like a leech on the guileless trust of
his ignorant clientele. He had made money—a great deal of money.
Thousands were stored away in his rickety old safe, that was so rickety
it disarmed suspicion; and, preserving his secret, he patronized no
bank, but covered his constantly increasing fortune with the guise of
squalor and poverty, which he kept on a level scarcely, if any, above
that of those he filched.

The man was a miser of the most sordid and cold-blooded sort. A nickel
was not too mean a thing to scheme for, if by any means he could lay his
hands upon it. Also, the man had other remunerative relationships, very
carefully selected relationships, with others than those with whom he
openly associated. To a select few of the underworld he acted at times
as “fence,” receiving such stolen goods as he could readily dispose of
among his compatriots, who, innocent of any guilty knowledge, bought the
articles eagerly at a greatly reduced figure, imagining, if they stopped
to imagine at all, that the articles represented unredeemed pledges on
money loaned here and there by Barloff.

Billy Kane’s lips twisted in a thin smile there in the darkness. It was
a deal such as that, so he had gleaned from Red Vallon, that had
originated the feud between Ivan Barloff and the Wop. The Wop had
brought some of the proceeds of one of his predatory safe-breaking raids
to Barloff, and a bargain was concluded between them; but in some way
that night Barloff became aware that the police had followed the Wop to
his, Barloff’s, house. Barloff was taking no chances. He promptly
cleared his own skirts at the expense of five years in Sing Sing for the
Wop. He scurried to the nearest police station with the stolen articles,
and with unctuous righteousness explained that he was suspicious as to
how the Wop had come by them, but had bought them to pull the wool over
the Wop’s eyes so as to enable him, Barloff, to communicate with the
police, and give the police a chance to make an investigation. Barloff
got away with it, and the Wop got his ride “up the river.” It was
perhaps not unnatural that the Wop had sworn revenge, and had made no
secret of it!

Billy Kane’s twisted smile deepened. It was all very simple. It involved
simply the taking of a man’s life—the Wop’s—which was a very small
matter in the eyes of that Crime Trust which was running rampant now
through the underworld. Also, the Rat was a man of large vision. He
builded ahead and waited patiently. Barloff was known by the Rat to have
a great deal of money in ready cash. It would not have been a very
difficult matter perhaps to have robbed the old Russian at any time, but
there was always the certainty of an investigation as an aftermath, and
investigations sometimes had a tendency to lead in awkward directions.
Much better, therefore, and much safer, that the trend of the
investigation, and its limits, should be fixed in advance—by the Rat.
And so they had waited for the Wop to regain his freedom.

They had not waited five years, however, for the scheme probably had not
occurred to the Rat until perhaps a few months ago. But now the Wop
being free at last, the Wop’s first act of freedom was to be made to
appear that of putting his oft-repeated threat into execution. Barloff
was to be lured out of his house on some specious pretext, the house
would then be entered, and a forged note in the Wop’s scrawl, carefully
prepared beforehand, jeering in its tone and to the effect that the Wop
would have got Barloff as well as Barloff’s cash if the latter had not
been fortunate enough to have been out of the house at the time, would
be left pinned, say, to the wall. There would not be much room for
investigation! The Wop, being dead, would not make any defense. The Wop
would never be found; and as the natural thing for the Wop to do was to
disappear after leaving his defiant message behind him, who was to
imagine that such disappearance was not of the Wop’s own free will and
design? The Wop was the cat’s-paw!

The blackness was absolute. Billy Kane was feeling out again with both
hands. He seemed to have lost in a measure even his sense of direction.
He was either in a very much wider passage than that through which he
had entered, or else the excavation around him was actually itself one
of the sub-cellars. If he could but get the touch of a wall again to
guide him! Yes, here it was! It swerved sharply, almost at right angles,
to the left. He followed it, moving slowly, scarcely more than a few
inches at a time.

It was strange how his brain worked on ceaselessly, seemingly oblivious
to his immediate surroundings, seemingly concerned with things
extraneous to his present danger! And yet that was not altogether true.
One thing had a bearing on another; and one thing led to another. It was
like the cogs of wheels fitting into each other as they turned around
and around. This tenure of the Rat’s rôle, that was no less dangerous,
was apposite. Where was the Rat? While he, Billy Kane, fought to free
himself from the stigma of David Ellsworth’s murder, while he fought for
his own good name and his own life on that score, this rôle of the Rat,
while it afforded temporary sanctuary from the police, forced him into
perils that——

His lips compressed tightly. He had stumbled over something soft and
yielding. His outstretched hand, though it saved him, slipped along the
wall and came up against another wall, again at right angles, but this
time where, obviously, the walls made a corner. He stooped down, and
felt over the obstruction that his foot had encountered. It was a man’s
body. It moved now, and writhed a little at his touch. It was the Wop
almost certainly, the Wop “flung into a corner” out of the way like a
sack of meal. But the man was still alive. Thank God for that! He had
been afraid that the initiatory stage of the work might have been only
too well accomplished.

His hands felt upward along the bound body, and touched the other’s
face, and felt the cloth gag twisted and knotted around the man’s mouth.
His hands felt still a little higher up—to the close-cropped prison
hair. It was the Wop beyond question. He took a knife from his pocket.

“Don’t make a sound!” he breathed, as he removed the gag, and cut away
the cords from around the other’s feet and hands. “You’re the Wop,
aren’t you?”

The man’s affirmation was almost inarticulate. Billy Kane slipped his
arm around the other’s shoulders and lifted the man into a sitting
posture. He had a flask of brandy in his pocket, brought purposely for
the Wop’s benefit, and he held the flask now to the other’s lips. The
stimulant seemed to inject new life and strength into the man.

“Who—who are you?” the Wop asked weakly.

“Don’t talk!” Billy Kane cautioned. “The one thing to do is to get out
of here now. Do you think you can walk at all?”

“Yes,” the man answered. “I—I’m not as bad as all that.”

“Try, then,” said Billy Kane.

The progress was slow, pitifully slow. The Wop, despite his own
assertion, was both weak and cramped, and at first he was almost a dead
weight, as he clung with an arm flung around Billy Kane’s shoulders; but
gradually he appeared to get back his strength. They stopped every two
or three yards both to rest and listen. Again Billy Kane held the flask
to the other’s lips. Again they went on.

“My Gawd, it’s—it’s black in here!” the Wop mumbled, and shivered a
little.

Billy Kane made no answer. He was taking care now not to lose touch with
the walls. The ground under foot was beginning to rise steeply. He
caught his foot and almost fell over a huddled thing on the earth—the
Chinese guard. A certain murk seemed to be penetrating the blackness. He
stopped again, felt out in front of him, and listened intently for a
moment, and then he placed his lips to the Wop’s ear.

“There’s an opening here into a coal bin,” he whispered. “Get down on
your hands and knees and crawl through. Straight across from the coal
bin there’s a short flight of steps up to a door that opens on the
alley. We’ll make a break for it now. Keep close to me. And don’t make a
noise. There’s a cellar stairway to the room above, and the room above
isn’t likely to be empty! Understand?”

“Yes,” said the Wop.

“Come on, then,” said Billy Kane.

He crawled through the opening with the Wop at his heels, and rose to
his feet, then gripping at the Wop’s arm, he stole across the cellar,
gained the steps and, an instant later, stepped out into a dark and
narrow alleyway. He did not pause here; he hurried the Wop down the
alleyway, and halted only when within a few yards of the first
intersecting street: just far enough back in the alleyway to keep well
beyond the radius of light from the adjoining thoroughfare.

Neither man spoke for a moment. After the silence of that death trap
behind them, the roar of an elevated train from Chatham Square near by
seemed to Billy Kane a din infernal, and greater only by a little than
the rattle of wheels, the clatter of horses’ hoofs, and the
multitudinous noises of ordinary traffic. He could just make out the
Wop’s features. One side of the man’s face was streaked with clotted
blood stains; but apart from that the Wop now showed little outward
evidence of the attack that had been made upon him. He stood there now,
quite steady on his feet, his eyes studying Billy Kane’s mask in a
puzzled way.

“Say,” said the Wop, a sudden huskiness in his voice. “I owe you
something. What’s your name?”

Billy Kane shook his head.

“Never mind about that,” he said quietly. “There’s something else that’s
of vastly greater importance so far as you are concerned. Do you know
why they got after you to-night, or who it was that got you in that
trap?”

“No,” said the Wop.

“I’ll tell you, then,” said Billy Kane. “It was because you threatened
to get even with Ivan Barloff.”

“Barloff!” The Wop’s fists clenched, and he stepped closer to Billy
Kane. “So it was Barloff, was it? He must have had the fear of God in
him, then, to make him spend any money—even to hire thugs! Barloff, eh?
Well, I’m going to see Barloff pretty soon!”

“No, you’re not!” said Billy Kane crisply. “That’s exactly why I am
telling you this. It isn’t Barloff. It’s a crowd that knew of your
threat, and _they’re_ getting after Barloff, and framing you up for the
job. They’re planting a little evidence against you in Barloff’s place
in exchange for Barloff’s cash, and with you finished off via the murder
route, they expect the police to throw up their hands after a while and
admit you’ve made a clean get-away—with the swag.”

The Wop’s face was close to Billy Kane’s, and the Wop’s face was
suddenly pinched and white. He touched his lips with his tongue. And
then, as suddenly, the blood flushed back, and he thrust out his under
jaw truculently.

“They would, eh—the dirty swabs!” he snarled. “Who are they? I’ll make
’em crawl for this!”

Billy Kane smiled grimly.

“No, I guess not!” he said softly. “You’re very much better out of it.
But I promise you they’ll not get away with it if you’ll do what you are
told now.”

The Wop knuckled his forehead in a perplexed way.

“What do you want me to do?” There was a lingering sullen note in the
Wop’s voice.

“Just this,” said Billy Kane quietly. “I want you to get out from under.
You’re not looking for another five years in Sing Sing, are you?”

The Wop flinched. He drew his knuckles again across his eyes.

“No,” he said hoarsely.

Billy Kane nodded.

“Quite so!” he said calmly. “Well, then, it is simply a question of
establishing an alibi for you that will be absolutely hole-proof from
now until, say, midnight. Where can you go?”

“I know Gus Moray, that runs the Silver King saloon,” said the Wop.
“He’d swear to it, all right.”

“Yes; whether you were there or not!” said Billy Kane dryly. “That’s not
good enough! If anything breaks wrong to-night you’ve got to have
something better than an alibi in a dive like that to stack up against
what will look like open-and-shut evidence against you. You’ve got to
get on a higher plane than that.”

The Wop shook his head.

“I ain’t been a very regular church attendant,” he said, with a sickly
grin, “and——” He stopped short, and suddenly leaned toward Billy Kane.
“Say, would a minister do?”

“It would be an improvement,” admitted Billy Kane, with a smile.

“Well, I got it, then!” announced the Wop. His hesitancy had vanished.
He seemed eager, almost anxious now. The iron of five years of prison
was evidently far too poignant a memory to risk it being turned into
reality again. “I got it! There’s a guy named Mister Claflin that ran
one of them mission joints down around where I uster hang out before I
went up. He’s all right! He’s the only soul on God’s earth came near me
when I was doing my spaces. Twice he came up to Sing Sing to see me. He
didn’t hold no prayer meeting with me neither, but he’s got a grip in
his hand that makes a fellow feel he ain’t all dirt. He’s white, he is!”

“Do you know where he lives?” inquired Billy Kane crisply.

“No,” said the Wop, and was suddenly downcast. “And he ain’t at the
mission any more, ’cause he told me he’d got a regular layout uptown
somewhere.”

“No matter!” said Billy Kane cheerfully. “Any drug store has a
directory. You can find the address there. Got any money?”

The Wop felt through his pockets, and the red flared into his face
again.

“Frisked!” he flung out savagely.

Billy Kane handed the other a banknote.

“Spend this on the first taxi you can grab,” he said. “You’ve got to get
there as soon as you can, and you’ve got to keep under cover getting
there. If Mr. Claflin is not at home, wait in his house for him. Don’t
let them sidetrack you. And make it a point of establishing the hour you
get there, either with the minister himself, or whoever happens to be at
home. And stay there until midnight anyhow. Understand?”

“Yes,” said the Wop.

“Well, then,” said Billy Kane, “beat it!”

The Wop hesitated.

“Say, ain’t I going to know who you are?” he blurted out. “Say, I ain’t
anything but a crook, just a damned crook with a prison record, but—but
I’d like to pay what I owe. Ain’t you going to give me the chance?”

“You’ve got it now.” Billy Kane’s hand went to the other’s shoulder.
“It’s a rotten road to Sing Sing. You’re out of it now—stay out of it.”
He gave the Wop a friendly push toward the street. “We’ve no more time
to lose. Beat it!” he said, and without giving the Wop time to reply, he
turned abruptly, and ran back along the alleyway.



XXI—WITHOUT MERCY


Billy Kane went on to the intersecting street at the other end of the
alleyway, removed his mask, and stepped out on the sidewalk. He looked
at his watch under a street lamp, and smiled whimsically in surprise. It
was still only half-past eight. All told, he could not have been in Wong
Yen’s more than fifteen minutes, hardly that, in fact, and it seemed as
though he had been there half the night!

Well, it was Barloff’s now! Barloff’s was a little farther uptown, a
little deeper over in the East Side. Billy Kane’s smile, from whimsical,
became tinged a little with weariness, became a little wan, as he walked
along. He was the victim of a plot himself, that was aimed at his life,
that sought to throw the guilt of a crime upon his shoulders, just as
the Wop was. And circumstances not only permitted, but seemed to force
him constantly into these byways to save others, while he himself stood
condemned in the eyes of the public as a murderer and a thief; and there
was bitter irony in the thought that he could not clear his own name,
that he seemed powerless to help himself, while the mantle of one of the
underworld’s archcriminals, which temporarily afforded him sanctuary
from the police, supplied him with almost unlimited information and the
means of helping others!

His brows knitted suddenly into a puzzled frown. Was that altogether
true?

There seemed to be a most strange coincidence in these excursions,
forced or voluntary, of his into the byways of criminal things, a
coincidence that always seemed in some way to link up his own plight
with these other criminal schemes in which he became involved. There was
the night that Peters had been murdered, for instance, which had led him
to the knowledge that the Man With The Crutch was at least a co-murderer
of David Ellsworth. And then the attempt at blackmail of two nights ago
had again disclosed the hand of the Man With The Crutch, and, more
significant still, had enabled him, Billy Kane, to recover the cash
stolen from the library vault on the night of the Ellsworth murder. Who
was this Man With The Crutch—this man with a crutch whose shaft was
stained to resemble grained wood and so disguise the murderous iron of
which it actually consisted, and which, he was sure now, was the weapon
that had brought both David Ellsworth and Peters to their deaths?

Billy Kane shook his head. It was a curious chain of coincidence, but it
could be only coincidence. And there was a limit to that. To-night, for
instance, it would put a pretty severe strain upon the imagination to
conceive of any connection between the Wop and the Man With The Crutch!
And yet——

He shrugged his shoulders. He would have said the same thing two nights
ago, wouldn’t he? It was very strange! It was all strange! He seemed to
be existing in a sphere of unreality. There was the Man With The Crutch,
whom neither police nor underworld could find since that raid on the
man’s room; there was the constant, ominous swirl and eddy of hidden and
unseen things on every hand; there was the Rat—and there was the Woman
in Black!

His face softened suddenly. He had not seen _her_ since yesterday
morning when she had entered the Rat’s den through the secret door, and
he had returned to her Dayler’s letter. She had not been in a pleasant
mood at what she believed had been his trickery; and, failing to have
restored that letter to her, she would have turned him, whom she, like
every one else, believed to be the Rat, incontinently over to the
police. What was the hold she had upon the Rat? Where was she to-night?
How was it that her hand had not already showed in this attempt upon the
Wop, since she seemed to have always in her possession the details of
the Rat’s schemes?

He shrugged his shoulders again. What was the use! To-night, at least,
she could harbor no delusion that he was acting under any spur of hers!
No, that wasn’t it—that wasn’t what was troubling him. What troubled him
was that she should think him what he was, or, rather, all that he was
not! Strange that her opinion of him, even when his back was against the
wall and his life was literally in jeopardy at every turn, should make
any difference! Strange that the loathing and contempt in those brown
eyes, that were fearless and deep and steady, should haunt him, and add
to his own abhorrence of the rôle he played because he must let her
think him the Rat! Well, what did it matter? What was she to him? What
was she becoming to him? He laughed a little uncertainly. There was no
need to answer that question, was there—even if he could? What did
anything matter unless he could clear his own name, which was now mired
deeper than the Rat’s!

He turned a corner, walked on the length of a block, and on the next
corner, drawing back into a doorway out of the radius of the street
lamp, paused a moment to get his bearings. He smiled a little grimly. If
the affair ever came to her knowledge, would she give the Rat credit
this time for a spontaneous change of heart in saving the Wop’s life,
and saving Ivan Barloff’s cash? He scowled suddenly. The latter
proposition did not altogether please him. Barloff was not far removed
in guilt from those who proposed to victimize Barloff! There would be a
certain ironical justice in robbing from Barloff the cash that Barloff
had all too patiently, a great portion of it at least, robbed from
others! But Red Vallon and his pack were not to get it, were they? It
was the lesser evil to warn Barloff, that was all. In the main,
therefore, the night’s work was over, since the Wop was safe, for five
minutes’ conversation with Barloff would end the whole affair now, so
far as he, Billy Kane, was concerned.

He glanced down the street. Just a little ahead, on the opposite side,
huddled in between two six-story tenements, was Barloff’s squat, dingy,
little house. There was a faint glow of light, as though it came from
somewhere far in the interior, showing through the single front window
on the ground floor. Billy Kane considered this thoughtfully for a few
seconds. Barloff was at home evidently, but the probability was that
one, at least, of Red Vallon’s men was on watch in front of the house.
In fact, it wasn’t probability; it was a certainty. Barloff, according
to Red Vallon, was to receive a fake telephone message that would lure
him out of the house, and someone undoubtedly would be waiting to report
the old Russian’s exit. It therefore, to say the least of it, would
be—Billy Kane’s smile was mirthless—unwise for the Rat to walk up to
Barloff’s front door under the existing conditions!

He might have telephoned. He shook his head, as he crossed the road,
and, keeping in the shadows, stepped into the cross street. He preferred
to interview Barloff via Barloff’s back yard. He was still obsessed with
the desire to take personal toll from all concerned in the miserable
night’s work, but he realized that impulse and sane action did not
always go hand in glove. He could not afford to play fast and loose with
this rôle of the Rat, or take any unnecessary risks, but he could
satisfy himself to the extent, at least, of a personal interview with
Barloff, who was perhaps after all the most despicable of the lot, and
put into the puny, shrivelled soul of the man a fear that would make for
some degree of future righteousness!

A lane, as he had expected, ran in the rear of the tenements and
Barloff’s house. Billy Kane slipped into this, located Barloff’s house,
low-lying against the sky line between the taller buildings, swung
himself over the fence, dropped noiselessly to the ground, and for a
moment stood there motionless.

The yard was very small, and, but a few feet in front of him, a light
from the open and uncurtained window of Barloff’s rear room streamed out
across the intervening space. Voices reached him, but he could not
distinguish the words; neither, from where he stood, could he see anyone
in the room, though the window was quite low, little more than breast
high from the ground.

And then a form inside the room passed across the window space, a
woman’s form; and again a voice reached him, a woman’s voice, and Billy
Kane drew in his breath sharply. He still could not distinguish the
words, but he had recognized the voice.

Once again he had jumped too hastily to conclusions in so far as she was
concerned—it was the Woman in Black. There was no question as to why she
was there; it was obvious that she had simply forestalled him in warning
the old Russian; but—a perplexed frown furrowed Billy Kane’s
forehead—her hand would have showed a little late in the game to have
saved the Wop!

He stole forward, keeping in the shadows of the side fence, reached the
rear wall of the house, edged across to the side of the window where he
could both see and hear, and crouched there. His eyes swept the interior
in a swift, comprehensive survey. It was a sordid, ill-furnished,
bare-floored room, and very dirty. A seedy old morris chair in the
center of the room supplied the only suggestion of comfort or luxury,
and that an incongruous one, that the place possessed. Apart from that,
there was a huge and aged safe, a relic of the days when such things
were locked with keys, which was backed up against one wall; and near an
open door, which apparently led into the front room, there was a
battered desk with an equally battered swivel chair—and that was all,
unless the telephone that stood upon the desk might be included in the
furnishings. There was, however, another door, also open, which faced
the safe, and which apparently gave on a passageway that in turn opened
on the back yard. Billy Kane glanced around him. Yes, there was a rear
door here, just a little to his right.

His eyes reverted to the interior of the room. _She_ was still pacing up
and down its length from the desk to the window and back again. Perhaps
it was the effect of the green-shaded incandescent bulb that dangled
over the desk, but, as she turned facing the window, he saw that her
face, drawn in sharp, pinched lines, was very white, and that in the
dark brown eyes, all softness gone from them now, there was a hard and
bitter light. And at the desk, the old Russian, a gray-bearded and
threadbare figure in dirty and grease-spotted clothes, huddled deep down
in his chair, and wrung his hands together, and with little, black,
shifty eyes, that peered over the rims of steel-bowed spectacles,
followed her about in a fascinated sort of way, and the while he kept
circling his lips with his tongue.

“The Wop! The Wop!” he shrilled out suddenly, and seemed to cower lower
in his chair. “Yes, yes, I am afraid! My God, I am afraid! He is strong.
He would have no pity on an old man. He has sworn it. I know! I have
been afraid of this day. Why did they let him out? They know, too! And I
was only honest—everybody knows that. He was a thief. What else could an
honest man do except what I did? He—he will kill me, and——”

“The Wop is dead.” Her voice was low, bitter, hard, and yet, too, it
seemed to hold impatience and irritation directed against the Russian.
“I have told you that. It is not the Wop you have to fear now. The Wop
is dead.”

“But you are not sure, not positive, not absolutely positive of it!”
Barloff was wringing his hands the harder; and his tones, rather than
being assertive, seemed to be pleading for a denial.

“I am positive enough of it,” she answered evenly, “to see that the one
who is responsible pays for it to-night! It is my fault”—her voice
caught a little, but hardened instantly—“I trusted where I was a fool to
trust, and I have paid for it with another’s life. But that has nothing
to do with you. You know now that the telephone message you received a
little while ago was simply to lure you out of the house at half past
nine in order that they might have a clear field in which, without
contradiction, to make it appear that the robbery they are planning was
the Wop’s work. It is scarcely nine o’clock yet. You have plenty of time
in which to act. You can appeal to the police, or——”

Billy Kane was no longer paying any attention to her words. Tense,
strained, he stood there. He seemed to be trying to lash his brain into
virility, into activity. He seemed to be groping out in an ineffectual
mental way for some means to avert a disaster that he realized was
closing down upon him. She believed the Wop was dead. She naturally held
the Rat responsible—and he was the Rat, so far as she was concerned. She
had warned him, without mincing words, that if any crime in which the
Rat was involved was carried through to its fulfilment she would hold
him responsible and hand him over to the police. She had reason to
believe that he had already tried to double cross her once; she now
believed that to-night he had tried to do it again. She would leave
here, and go straight to the police. The police, then, would not only be
looking for Billy Kane, they would be looking for the Rat—and they would
get Billy Kane! And that would be the end of it all!

The end of it—when he already knew who the murderer of David Ellsworth
was; when, apart from the collection of rubies, he had already recovered
the proceeds of the Ellsworth vault robbery; when, if he could only
cling for a few days more to this rôle he played, he might hope to clear
his own name, to stand foursquare with the world again, and to bring to
justice those who had taken old David Ellsworth’s life. Somehow, in some
way, he must prevent her from carrying out what was now her obvious
intention of unmasking the Rat. But he dared not show himself in front
of the house to intercept her when she went out—he dared not show
himself as the Rat out there. To bring the underworld down upon him was
only to invite a swifter destruction from another source.

He gnawed in perplexity at his lips, staring into the room. She kept
pacing up and down. Barloff had risen from his seat, and in a curious,
cringing way, standing now by the rickety old safe, was fondling it and
patting it with his hands.

“Yes, yes!” Barloff was crooning. “I thank you—I thank you! I do not
know who you are, but I thank you! I have not much, very little, very,
very little, but I am an old man, and what would become of me if I lost
my little? The police, yes, the police——”

The old Russian, his back now to the window, was still talking, more to
himself than to her. She came close to the window this time and Billy
Kane suddenly showed himself. She was very clever, very self-centered,
very sure of herself. If she was startled, she gave no sign of it. She
came still closer until she leaned for a moment against the sill.

“Out here—the lane—when you leave!” he whispered quickly.

She nodded her head, but her lips had tightened in a forbidding little
smile as she turned away again,

Billy Kane drew back from the window. There was a sense of relief upon
him; but also a vague, disquieting, and very much stronger sense of
something else that he could not quite define; only that between them
there always seemed to stand that barrier of a forbidding smile, and
that cool, contemptuous light in the brown eyes that very often changed
from contempt to loathing and abhorrence. He shrugged his shoulders
suddenly. He was a fool—that was all!

Her voice drifted out to him, dying away as he neared the fence:

“I am going now, Mr. Barloff, and I should advise you not to waste any
time in taking whatever precautions you intend to take. You had better
communicate at once with the police, and——”

Billy Kane swung himself over the fence, and stood there waiting in the
lane. A minute, two, three passed, and then he caught the sound of a
light step, and she stood before him in the darkness.

“Well?” she said curtly. “I am here, Bundy. What do you want?”

He was the Rat, alias Bundy Morgan, in her eyes, and it was the Rat who
spoke.

“I heard you in there,” he said gruffly. “You’re going to beat it for
the police, and wise them up about me. Well, you want to can that stunt,
because I’ve got a little explanation to make. See?”

“You do not need to make any explanation,” she answered evenly. “My
stupidity is at an end! That enigmatic little memo of yours was a better
safeguard in itself than the hiding place in which you had secreted it,
for I did not understand it until I saw a few lines in the paper this
evening giving a short résumé of the Wop’s somewhat unedifying career,
and stating that he had been released from prison. I was too late to
save the Wop himself, but was not too late to prevent you from climbing
in through that window, and carrying out the rest of your abominable
scheme.”

“I went there to warn Barloff myself,” said Billy Kane.

She laughed icily.

“Do you expect me to believe that, after you have murdered a man so that
you could put the onus of another crime upon him! This is the end
to-night! I was mad to trust you at all. I was madder still to give you
another chance, when I caught you playing a double game both with your
own criminal associates and with me when you stole that letter from
Dayler two nights ago!” She came a little closer to him. Both hands were
tightly clenched. Her lips quivered a little; her voice choked. “I did
not know what it was like to feel guilty of murder, to feel that one had
taken another’s life. I know now. My folly in giving you a moment’s
freedom has made me as guilty as you. But the end has come. Do you
understand? You might put me out of the road, too, here in this lane,
but that would not change the result any. You know that. You know in
that case that the police would be after you anyway—that I have taken
care of that. On the other hand, you may run for it now, and you may
make it a question of hours, or a question of days, but as soon as the
police lay hands on you your career is finished.”

There was a strange stirring within Billy Kane’s soul. She was very
close to him, so close that he could see the pinched, haggard look in
her face, and see the lips quiver again, and see the clenched hands rise
to her eyes as though to shut out the abhorrent sight of him from her,
and to shut out perhaps, too, the pictured sight of a man murdered, and
for whose life she not illogically held herself accountable.

His hands gripped hard—hard as the mental grip in which he held himself.
A sudden yearning, an almost uncontrollable impulse was upon him to
reach out and sweep this lithe, fearless little figure that had become
so mysteriously a part of his life, a greater part than he had ever
realized before, into his arms. She would struggle like a wild cat, and
fight with every ounce of strength, yes, and hatred, that was in her,
but he could hold her because he was the stronger, and tell her that he
was not the Rat, and—— He swallowed hard. And then what? Tell her that
he was Billy Kane? A wan smile came to his lips. She would perhaps
prefer the Rat! The Rat, publicly at least, was known as the less
infamous of the two! He laughed a little harshly.

“Forget it!” he said roughly. “I’ve played straight with you, and before
you go spilling any beans to the police you’d better get onto yourself.
You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“I know that the Wop was murdered to-night in Wong Yen’s by you, or your
orders,” she said passionately. “I know that the Wop is dead—that is
enough!”

“Nix!” said Billy Kane, alias Bundy Morgan, alias the Rat. “The Wop
isn’t dead, and he isn’t in Wong Yen’s either. I pulled him out of
there.”

She stared at him, coming still closer in the darkness until he could
feel her breath upon his face. It was a long minute before she spoke.

“I do not believe you!” she said in a dead voice.

He shrugged his shoulders.

“I did not expect you to!” The Rat’s tones were insolent now. “But you
can prove it, can’t you? The Wop’s safe. He’s at a minister’s house. The
minister’s name is Claflin. I don’t know the address, but you can easily
find it. It wouldn’t do me any good to lie to you, would it? You can’t
drag me to the police by force, and whether you squealed to them in the
next ten minutes, or half an hour later after finding out I was lying,
I’d be just as bad off, wouldn’t I?”

She drew back—but her eyes were still fixed steadily upon him.

“Yes,” she said.

“Well?” demanded Billy Kane.

“I can find this minister’s house in that half hour, I think,” she said
in a low voice. “And the Wop—if he is there.” Her voice hardened. “You
are quite right, Bundy, it will have done you no good to have lied. I
promise you that! If I do not find the Wop, the police will find—_you_!”

She was gone.



XXII—THE FIGHT


Billy Kane stood in the lane for a moment, staring after her through the
darkness and his lips puckered in a sort of impotent little smile. She
would find the Wop, of course, and thereafter the old relationship
between them would be reëstablished, and——.

He whirled suddenly, and in an instant was astride the top of the fence,
his face set and hard, as there came, low but unmistakably from the
interior of Barloff’s house, the sound of blows and the rending of wood,
as though a door were being violently forced. A glance showed him that
the window had been closed and the shade drawn down. Barloff had
evidently got that far in safeguarding himself, only Red Vallon’s
Apachés had struck, perhaps suspicious of _her_ visit, without waiting
for the old Russian to go out! What else could those blows mean but an
attack on Barloff? Certainly, Barloff must still be in there, for
Barloff, warned, wasn’t going out; he was going to appeal, by telephone
presumably, to the police.

Billy Kane’s mind was racing, as he whipped his mask from his pocket,
adjusted it over his face, dropped to the ground, and ran across the
yard. The night’s work obviously now, was far from over yet! He had
still to play, after all, that other rôle of his in the underworld—the
man in the mask! Red Vallon had said that the Pigeon, French Marr and
the Cadger were to carry out the robbery inside the house. That made
three to one! His one chance then was to take them by surprise.

He was working now with Whitie Jack’s skeleton keys at the rear door.
The Cadger was an expert safeworker, just as the Wop was, and that was
part of the game to make it appear to be the Wop’s work. The Wop was
safe now, of course, but—he bit at his lips, cursing his clumsiness with
the keys—old Barloff certainly wasn’t! They had intended to get Barloff
out of the house, but if, without waiting for that, they struck with
Barloff there, they would not stand on any more ceremony with the old
man than they had with the Wop, since the Wop was to stand for it
anyway. It was strange, ominously strange, that there was no outcry from
Barloff, that even the sound of blows and splintering wood had ceased!

The door gave under his hand. He pushed it open cautiously, a bare half
inch at a time. In front of him was a small room, obviously the kitchen,
that connected with the rest of the house only by the side door of
Barloff’s rear room from which the light now filtered in across the
kitchen floor. He stole silently forward in the direction of the lighted
doorway and halted, as, a little back from the edge of the door jamb, he
stared in amazement into the room beyond.

The door near Barloff’s desk that led into the front room hung shattered
on its hinges, its panels broken and splintered, but the only occupant
of the room was Barloff himself. The man was standing there, a hatchet
in his hand, surveying the wreckage, and mumbling inaudibly to himself.

And then suddenly there came a twisted smile of comprehension to Billy
Kane’s lips. Old Barloff laid the hatchet down on the desk, and, rubbing
his hands together in a sort of fiendish exaltation, a malicious grin on
his cunning and crafty face, ran over to the safe and knelt before it.
His mumble became quite audible now:

“The Wop! The Wop! Dead—eh? And all these little rentals, these nice
little rentals, just in! And. if they are stolen—eh? I am a poor man—eh?
I could not replace them. And so they would be mine—mine. She’s sure he
is dead. She said so—that they murdered him. But she did not see it with
her own eyes. If she comes back and tells the police that, I will say
that the Wop must have escaped the trap they set for him, for with my
own eyes I saw him, and since he is dead he will not be able to deny
that. Yes, yes, Barloff, your old brain is still your best friend! And
the others—ha, ha! They have planted it on the Wop—ha, ha! It would be a
pity to disappoint them—and lose the rentals. Yes, yes, Barloff, that is
so, is it not? Certainly, the Wop has robbed you, and tried to get
revenge on you, too, because you were honest enough to go to the police
five years ago!”

The man had the safe open now, and was snatching books and papers from
the interior, and throwing them in a litter upon the floor. And now he
had an old tin cash box in his hands. He laid this on the floor and
opened it, and in a sort of hideous rapacity seemed to gloat over it. He
dipped in his hands and lifted out banknotes, and let them filter
through his fingers, and rubbed his hands together, and buried them
again in the money; while behind the steel-bowed spectacles his little
black eyes glittered with feverish exaltation again, and his whole body
seemed to quiver in unholy, greedy worship.

Billy Kane’s jaw locked hard. The man’s whole life was a damnable
hypocrisy—a rogue’s alias. Thousands the man had somewhere, and, by
comparison, the paltry hundreds in the cash box, if hundreds even there
were, seemed to hold up as to a mirror the man’s soul, stripped bare,
until it stood out in all its naked, shrivelled miserliness, its godless
grovelling to the only god it knew!

“The rentals—all the rentals!” mumbled Barloff again. “I am a poor
man—how can I pay them over to-morrow when they have been stolen from me
to-night, and I have nothing left? Yes, yes, Barloff, you are getting
old, but you are not yet a fool!”

The man was suddenly all haste. He snatched up the cash box, and ran to
the piece of furniture which had struck Billy Kane as so incongruous an
adjunct to the furnishings of the room—the old morris chair. He turned
this over on its back, there was a faint click of a hidden spring, and
the bottom underneath the seat gaped outward on what were evidently
ingeniously concealed hinges. Billy Kane’s eyes, behind his mask,
narrowed in grim humor, as he caught a glimpse of piles of neatly
stacked banknotes in the hollow bottom of the chair, that was a sort of
spacious, boxlike compartment—and then the old miser had thrust in the
cash box, closed the seat again, and righted the chair. Old Barloff,
after all, did not place all his faith in a presumptive burglar’s
chivalry for the obvious helplessness of the rickety old safe!

Barloff was rubbing his hands together unctuously once more, as he
hurried back now to the desk. The desk was close to the already
splintered door that led to the front of the house, and Barloff,
catching up the hatchet in one hand, pulled the portable telephone
instrument toward him with the other, and snatched the receiver from its
hook.

“The police—quick—quick!” he called into the transmitter, his voice
pitched in a well-simulated scream of terror, and brought the hatchet
down with a crash on the splintered panels.

Billy Kane made no movement save that his lips twitched a little. The
low, cunning trickery of the man produced a sort of nauseating disgust,
and, too, a sort of merciless anger; but, given enough rope now, Barloff
was in a fair way to hang himself, and it would afford him, Billy Kane,
a very genuine pleasure to adjust, as he now proposed to do, the noose
that would accomplish that hanging!

Barloff was still raining his hatchet blows on the door; and then
suddenly, evidently having got his connection, he was screaming again,
between blows, into the mouthpiece of the telephone:

“Is that the police?——Yes, yes!——Quick——This is Ivan Barloff——Barloff,
Barloff, Barloff——yes, Barloff——Quick——Help!——For God’s sake, help!——It
is the Wop!——Do you hear?——The Wop!”

Barloff slammed the receiver back on the hook, and flung the hatchet
down on the floor. It was quiet in the room now except that the old man
was talking again to himself, in a sort of triumphant glee:

“Ha, ha—got to escape from the Wop now—got to escape——yes, yes, Barloff,
you have done well, very well—but you must hurry now—yes, hurry.”

Billy Kane drew silently back into the darkness at the far side of the
kitchen. There was still a little more rope left to give Barloff for
Barloff’s undoing! He, Billy Kane, had no intention of interfering with
the hypocritical old scoundrel’s self-styled escape, nor of preventing
Barloff now from rushing, for instance, to the police to amplify his
tale; but Barloff, to “escape” and carry out his ruse successfully,
could not rush out through the door supposed to be barred by the Wop and
so reach the street that way! Barloff then, if Barloff were logical, had
a choice of the kitchen and back door, or the window.

The light in Barloff’s room went out. Billy Kane smiled in satisfaction.
With the kitchen in complete darkness now there was no chance of his
being seen if Barloff came that way, and—no, it was the window! The sash
creaked as the window was opened. There was a low thud as the man
dropped to the ground, and then the sound of the other’s footsteps
running across the yard toward the fence.

Billy Kane laughed a little, grimly under his breath, as he stepped
instantly forward and entered the room old Barloff had just vacated. It
was his turn now at the telephone! A hint to the police as to where the
money was, and, with the Wop’s alibi thoroughly established, Barloff
would be condemned by his own story. It would require only a moment to
telephone, and then he would make his own get-away; also, it would be
ten minutes at least before the police from the nearest station could
answer Barloff’s call, but if, in the meanwhile, the Cadger and his pack
arrived, they would not only get nothing, but would run a very excellent
chance of being trapped by the police, and——.

Billy Kane with his hand groping out through the darkness for the
telephone, stood suddenly tense and still; and then, as suddenly,
actuated partly by some intuitive sense of danger, and partly because
some indefinable sound of movement caught his ear, he swerved, throwing
his body sharply to one side. There was a swish like the ugly sweep of
some weapon cutting through the air from a ferocious, full-arm swing, a
queer numbness from a glancing blow on the side of his head, a crash
upon the desk, a metallic clatter on the floor—and then he lunged
forward, and his hands, pawing out, touched and closed on a man’s form
in front of him.

Billy Kane’s head was dizzy and swirling. He was conscious that arms
which were like bands of steel were around him, and that his own arms,
to keep from being torn apart and his hold on the other loosened, were
straining until they hurt in their sockets. It seemed as though in the
pitch blackness they were reeling around the room in the crazy, jerky,
unbalanced dance of some mad orgy! A voice was snarling in his ear,
snarling vicious oaths, snarling in a fury that seemed ungovernable,
beyond all license, that seemed to have taken possession of the other,
body and soul, and made the other’s strength demoniacal. That was it! It
could not be anything else. That was what made the man so strong. The
man was mad—a madman! He tried to think, as he gasped and panted for his
breath. It wasn’t the Cadger, or French Marr, or the Pigeon, for then
there would have been three of them. Who was it? His brain was sick and
swimming, and refused its functions. He could not think very well. He
must fight—that was all—fight!

It seemed to Billy Kane as though hours were passing. It seemed as
though gradually, very gradually, his strength was oozing away, and that
his hands were slipping from around the man’s back. He clenched his
teeth together. He remembered suddenly that murderous swish through the
air. It seemed to steady him, to bring to him, too, a sudden fury in
place of that unnerving giddiness. He wanted to strike; to strike, as
murderously as he had been struck, at this thing whose hot, tainted
breath was on his cheek, at this thing that snarled like a beast as it
struggled and fought. He wanted to strike, only the giddiness from the
blow on his head was back again, and——.

The other had wrenched himself free. Billy Kane flung his weight forward
to retain his hold, and with the impact both men reeled, tripped on the
littered floor, lost their balance, and, locked together, crashed to the
ground.

They rolled over once, and then the other’s snarl became a vicious
laugh. The giddiness was coming in quick flashes over Billy Kane now,
and he felt his hands wrenched and torn away from the other, and he felt
the other’s body upon him now like some crushing, insupportable weight.
He reached out in the darkness in a desperate, frantic effort to close
again, to protect himself from the short-arm jabs that were raining into
his face. His fingers touched the man’s bare, collarless throat, slipped
on the throat—and suddenly held. There was a string, or a cord, or
something around the man’s neck. It was very curious! But his fingers
had hooked in between the cord and the flesh, and he clung there
tenaciously. If he could only twist it, and twist it hard enough, he
could choke the other! He wasn’t strong enough to do anything else—just
twist at the cord—and choke the other—and——

There was a sound that seemed to come from the front of the house, like
the opening of a door, and then voices—unmistakably voices. But the
other had heard it too. The man was struggling now to get away, not to
strike any more blows, just to wrench and tear himself loose from that
cord that Billy Kane had twined around his hands and fingers. And then
the cord gave with a sudden snap, the man sprang to his feet, and,
without a sound, like a shadowy form just visible in the darkness, flung
himself out through the window.

The cord was still twined around Billy Kane’s fingers as he lay,
half-dazed, his head swimming weakly, flat on his back on the floor. He
shook it free from his hand and raised himself up into a sitting
posture, as he smiled in a queer, bitter way. There was a light in the
front room now, and he was too exhausted to reach the window as his late
antagonist had done, unless he stumbled and lurched there, and then he
would be heard in the front room.

It was the end of the Rat, alias Bundy Morgan—and it was the end of
Billy Kane. It was probably the Cadger and his crowd out there, but, at
least, they would not take him alive. His hand dove into his pocket for
his automatic and encountered the brandy flask that had already stood
the Wop in such good stead. He snatched it from his pocket, and, his
mask already awry on his face, carried the flask to his lips, and drank
eagerly.

The stimulant whipped through his veins in a fiery tide. It cleared his
brain. No, it wasn’t the Cadger out there—the Cadger and his crowd would
be scared off for good now—there were two men—he could see them coming
through the doorway—and he heard old Barloff’s voice.

He drank again greedily, shifting the flask to his left hand, while his
right dove once more into his pocket, and this time secured his
automatic. He drew his mask back over his face. The light over the desk
went on, and, sitting there on the floor, Billy Kane blinked in the
sudden glare at old Barloff and a police officer.

“Don’t move, please, either of you, except to put your hands up!” said
Billy Kane in a low voice.

There was a startled exclamation from the officer, as his hands went up
above his head; while a gray, blank look spread over the old miser’s
face, as he, too, obeyed with equal celerity.

It was very curious! Billy Kane frowned in a puzzled way. It was very
curious—not so much that he should be sitting there on the littered
floor, with the side of his head trickling a warm flow of blood down
under the neck of his shirt, and holding a brandy flask in one hand, and
holding up two men at the point of his automatic with the other; it
wasn’t so much that, it was an object on the floor near the desk that
looked like a round piece of grained wood, about an inch in diameter and
three feet in length.

He thrust the flask into his pocket, and, over his mask, rubbed the back
of his hand across his eyes. It wasn’t a vagary of his sick brain, was
it? Well, he would know in a minute as soon as he lifted it and felt its
weight. No, that wasn’t necessary, he remembered that _metallic_ clatter
upon the floor. He knew what the thing was. It was the iron shaft of the
crutch that he had seen two nights ago—a detachable shaft probably—the
weapon that he was satisfied had already murdered David Ellsworth, and
murdered Peters.

His mind was clear now and working in lightning flashes. His assailant
had been the one man in the world upon whose throat he had prayed to get
his fingers—the Man with the Crutch! Well, his fingers had been there,
only he had been, at a disadvantage, weak and dizzy from the blow from
that thing there, and—yes, this was curious too! He was watching the two
men, his automatic covered them unswervingly; but out of the corner of
his eye he could not help but see that red patch on the floor beside
him, that looked like an ordinary flannel chest protector, and to which
the cord that he had torn from his antagonist’s neck was still attached.
He reached for it and thrust it into his pocket, as he rose slowly, and
a little unsteadily, to his feet.

He eyed the two men now for a long calculating second. Yes, his brain
was quite clear now—exhilaratingly clear. And the mental exhilaration
seemed to bring in its train a new physical strength as well. In a flash
he saw the way out now, and with it, too, the means of slipping
Barloff’s self-knotted noose around the miserly old Russian’s throat.
But he must work quickly. There was not an instant to spare. This
officer could not have come in answer to Barloff’s telephone call, for
he realized that, long as it had seemed, his fight here in the room
could not have lasted in reality more than two or three minutes, and it
had begun almost on the instant that Barloff had run from the house.
There would not, therefore, have been time for the telephone call to
have been answered, for the nearest police station was too far away, and
besides, in that event, there would have been more than one officer.
Barloff had probably encountered the policeman out on the street, and,
carrying out his devilishly inspired plan, had poured his story into the
officer’s ears, and rushed the other back to the house. But in that
case, the men from the station would be on their way here now, and the
leeway left him, Billy Kane, in which to act must, even now, be narrowed
to the very perilous margin of but another four or five minutes—perhaps
less!

“Move to the wall, face it, and keep your hands up!” ordered Billy Kane
curtly.

The officer, with a chagrined scowl and a shrug of his shoulders,
obeyed. Barloff, white and trembling, and thoroughly frightened, needed
no urging.

“You’ve got the drop on me,” snarled the officer. “But don’t worry, my
bucko, I know who you are! That mask ain’t doing you any good! There’s a
free ride and board coming to you again!”

Billy Kane’s automatic was pressed into the small of the officer’s back.
With his free hand he deftly relieved the other of a pair of handcuffs
and a revolver.

“That’s all right!” said Billy Kane coolly. “Now, Barloff, stick your
right hand out behind you!” He slipped one of the steel cuffs over the
Russian’s wrist. “Now you, officer! No, your _right_ hand! I know it’s
customary in making an arrest to leave your right hand free, but in the
circumstances I am forced to inconvenience you a little in your
movements.” He snapped the other cuff shut. “Thank you! You may both
turn around now!” He stepped back, hurled the officer’s revolver out
through the window, and picked up the weapon whose blow, luckily for
him, he had partially evaded. He had in no way been mistaken. It was the
iron shaft of the crutch, and it was ingeniously fashioned with a spring
catch that obviously fitted into a socket in the now missing armpiece of
the crutch. It served him now as a support. He leaned upon it, using it
as a cane, as he swayed a little on his feet. “I can only spare a
moment,” he said engagingly to the officer; “but possibly I can make
that moment well worth your while. We’ll talk quickly, if you please. I
imagine that you were on your beat out there on the street when Barloff
here found you. Am I right?”

“Where else would I be?” said the officer gruffly.

“That’s what I wanted to make sure of,” returned Billy Kane pleasantly.
“And that’s why I want to get through here in a hurry—before your
reinforcements arrive. What story did this man tell you?”

“Say,” said the officer shortly, “you’ve got your nerve with you! But
you can’t get away with it! I tell you, I know you! You might as well
take that mask off. You’re the Wop.”

“You’re jumping at conclusions,” said Billy Kane calmly, “because
Barloff here has told you the Wop had broken in and robbed him. Well,
ask Barloff, then!” He turned on Barloff. “I’m not the Wop, am I,
Barloff?”

The old man shook his head.

“No, you’re not.” Barloff swallowed hard; he was evidently floundering
in a perplexed mental maze. “But my money’s gone, and the Wop was here.
I saw him. I saw him. Maybe you’re a pal of his.”

“I am for to-night,” said Billy Kane quietly. “When did you see the Wop?
What did you tell this officer here?”

“Oh, you are, are you!” Barloff seemed suddenly relieved. He shook his
free fist at Billy Kane. “So you’re a pal of the Wop’s, are you! Well, I
don’t know where you came from, but I saw the Wop just as plainly as I
see you now.” He edged around and addressed the officer eagerly. “I was
sitting at the desk there, officer, just as I told you, and that door
was open, and there was a light in that front room. The Wop must have
got the front door open without my hearing him. I saw him stealing
across that room out there. I rushed to the door, and shut it, and
called for help. He began to smash it in and I grabbed up the telephone
and called the police, and then ran for the window, and got out by the
lane to the street where I found you. He would have killed me. He swore
he would when he went to prison.” His voice changed suddenly into a
whining wail. “He’s got my money! Look at the floor—look at the safe!
He’s got my money, and run with it when he heard us coming.” He began to
claw frantically at the officer’s sleeve. “The Wop’s got it! Look,
officer, this pal of his has been hurt! Look at the side of his
head—that’s why he didn’t get away too—that’s why we found him here on
the floor!”

“You talk as though you’d been frisked of a million!” Billy Kane was
tauntingly sarcastic now. “How much did you have, anyway?”

“How much! How much!” howled Barloff. “Enough to ruin me! All this
month’s rentals that I had just collected. Three hundred and
eighty-seven dollars!”

“Three hundred and eighty-seven dollars!” Billy Kane mimicked the other
admirably. “You don’t mean to say you’d keep three hundred and
eighty-seven dollars in that crazy old safe that’s falling to pieces, do
you?”

“Where else would I keep it?” Barloff was shaking his fist again. “Yes,
I kept it there! And that’s where it was to-night—and it’s gone
now—gone!”

“Is that all you had?” Billy Kane’s sneer was irritatingly contemptuous.

“All!” shrieked Barloff. “All—yes, it is all! But it is enough! I am a
poor man, and the money was not mine, and I cannot replace it, and——”

He choked suddenly, and shrank back, dragging the officer with him a
step. Billy Kane had moved abruptly to the morris chair, and had toppled
it over on the floor.

“You pitiful liar! You haven’t seen the Wop in five years!” rasped Billy
Kane, and the iron shaft in his hand crashed through the false bottom of
the chair. A package of banknotes tumbled out on the floor, another, and
yet another. A second blow dislodged the cash box, and a further rain of
banknotes. “You thought the Wop was dead, and that you could make him
stand for this, did you!” rasped Billy Kane again. “You yellow cur—so
that you could steal those few miserable rentals yourself!”

“My God!” gasped the officer. Barloff was a grovelling thing at his
side. He jerked the other toward him, and stared into the white, working
features.

Billy Kane backed to the window, and there was an abrupt change in his
voice as he addressed the officer.

“I’m going now,” he said softly. “I am not quite sure of the technical
charge against your prisoner, but I imagine it is just plain theft—of
three hundred and eighty-seven dollars. And it might be interesting,
too, to know where so poor a man got that small fortune there on the
floor! Perhaps Barloff will tell you! As for the Wop, he has never been
near this place, and you will find him at the Reverend Mr. Claflin’s
house, where he has been all evening. I think that’s all, officer,
except”—Billy Kane had straddled the window sill—“except that I
apologize to you for anything in the shape of lèse majesty of which I
may have been guilty, but as I have certain personal reasons that
justify me in not desiring to appear publicly in the matter, I am sure
you will admit I had no other——”

Billy Kane did not finish his sentence. He dropped hurriedly to the
ground, and ran, or, rather, half ran, half stumbled his way to the
fence and lane. Someone was at the front door again—obviously the police
detail from the station.

He made his way along the lane, and from that lane into another. He was
still weak and progress was slow, and for half an hour he kept under
cover. When he finally emerged into the open he was blocks away from
Barloff’s house, and very much closer to a certain temporary sanctuary
in the heart of the underworld!

Ten minutes later, behind locked doors, he was sitting at the
dilapidated table under the single incandescent light, in the Rat’s den.
Before him lay a small red flannel sack, that might have passed for an
ordinary chest protector, and which he had cut open with his knife. He
raised his hand, and passed it across his eyes. The Wop and Barloff were
extraneous considerations now. There was something far more vital to
think about, but his brain was refusing its functions again. He was very
tired—very tired and weak. There was the Man with the Crutch, the man
who, he knew now, had killed Peters and David Ellsworth, the man who had
looted David Ellsworth’s vault of its money and its priceless rubies,
the man for whose guilt he, Billy Kane, was held accountable, the man
with whom he had fought to-night. In a numbed way, because his mind was
in a sort of torpor, Billy Kane was dimly conscious that there was no
more any mere coincidence in this repeated appearance of the Man with
the Crutch. He knew now that Jackson, the footman, had only been an
underling. It was curious, singular, sinister. Who was the man? What did
it mean? The man wasn’t even lame, was he? He remembered the
extraordinary agility the other had showed two nights ago—and why was
the shaft of the crutch detachable?—and the man hadn’t fought like a
crippled man to-night—and there had been no sign of the upper portion of
the crutch, either!

Billy Kane’s head sank forward a little on his shoulders. He raised
himself with a jerk, and stared at the red flannel sack in front of him.
A score of magnificent rubies scintillated in fiery flashes under the
light.

“They’re not all here,” mumbled Billy Kane, with a twisted smile.
“They’re not all here—not yet.”



XXIII—THE RENDEZVOUS


It was night again in the underworld.

Billy Kane slipped suddenly into the dark shadows of a doorway. Fifty
yards ahead of him, up the poorly lighted, narrow and miserable street,
three men had paused on the sidewalk, and were engaged in what was
apparently an animated discussion. Billy Kane’s eyes narrowed in a
puzzled, perturbed, and yet grim way, as he watched them. He had
followed them for an hour now—from a saloon, where he had found them, to
a disreputable pool room, and from there again to a saloon, and now
here.

He did not understand. It was one of those strange portals, so
extraneous to the aim of clearing his name of the murder of David
Ellsworth, and yet, too, so essentially a corollary of the Rat’s rôle
that he played here in the underworld, at which he was knocking again.
His lips curled in a queer smile. How long would it be before the end?
And what would that end be? In his possession now, save for a portion of
the rubies, perhaps half of them, was everything that the murderers of
David Ellsworth had stolen from the old philanthropist’s vault on that
night which seemed now to belong to some past age and incarnation. He
knew now that the Man with the Crutch was the actual murderer—but there
he faced a blank wall. He had even fought with the man in the blackness
of old Barloff’s room last night, not knowing until too late who his
assailant was, and the man had got away.

His hand at his side clenched. It could not endure very long—this
impossible situation in which he found himself with that strange,
unknown woman, who, believing him to be the Rat, held the threat of Sing
Sing over his head. And there was the Rat himself whose name and
personality and home, such as it was, he had usurped during the latter’s
absence, an absence that might terminate at any moment. And there were
the police who dragged the city and the country from end to end for
Billy Kane. From anyone of these three sources, swift as a lightning
stroke, without an instant’s warning, the end might come with that goal
of life still unreached, and, greater than life, his honor, still
unreclaimed. And it seemed to-night somehow that his chances were
bitterly small, that somehow the odds seemed to be growing and
accumulating against him. He was on another errand now, because he could
not help himself. He was allowing precious moments that should have been
devoted to the one chance he had, that of searching ceaselessly,
pitilessly, remorselessly, for the Man with the Crutch, to be directed
into other channels—because he could not help himself.

He stepped out from the shelter of the doorway, and started forward
again along the street. The three men had turned from the sidewalk, and
had disappeared inside a dingy, black and tumble-down tenement. Billy
Kane’s lips tightened a little. It was a hard neighborhood, nestling
just off the Bowery—as hard almost as the three characters themselves
who had just vanished from sight. There were a few pedestrians here on
the side street, a few figures that skulked along in the semi-darkness,
rather than walked, but not many; and for the most part, though it was
still early, not more than nine o’clock, the buildings that flanked the
street were dark and unlighted.

Billy Kane jerked his slouch hat farther down over his eyes as he walked
along. He did not understand. Two hours ago he had been sitting in the
Rat’s den with Whitie Jack—who had ventured out of hiding again, safe
now since the interest of the police in Peters’, the butler’s, murder
had become definitely centered in the Man with the Crutch—and someone
had knocked at the door. Whitie Jack had answered the knock, and had
brought back the message that Bundy Morgan was wanted at the telephone
in a little shop across the street. He, Billy Kane, in his rôle of the
Rat, alias the said Bundy Morgan, had perforce answered, and, as he had
picked up the receiver, he had instantly recognized the voice of the
woman whom he knew by no other name than the one he himself had given
her—the Woman in Black. He was subconsciously rehearsing the rather
one-sided conversation now, as he moved along.

“Is that you, Bundy?” she had asked. “And do you know who is speaking?”

“Yes,” he had answered.

“Listen, then!” Her voice had been quiet, deliberate, and yet pregnant
with a curiously sharp, imperative command. “Find Clarkie Munn and Gypsy
Joe at once, and shadow them to-night. Do not let them out of your
sight. And see that you do not fail! Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he had replied mechanically; “but——”

That was all. She had hung up the receiver at the other end of the line.

He had heard of Clarkie Munn and Gypsy Joe in the days when he had
frequented the Bad Lands on old David Ellsworth’s philanthropic
missions, for the very simple reason that they were notorious and
outstanding criminal characters even in the heart and center of the
worst crime and vice in the city. They were both lags, both men with
prison records, and marked by the police. Also they were versatile. They
had in turn been apaches, gangsters, box-workers, poke-getters and
second-story sneaks; and they were credited with measuring human life
purely as a commercial commodity—worth merely what they could get for
it.

He had heard of Clarkie Munn and Gypsy Joe—who hadn’t?—but as to their
lair, or where they were to be found, he had not had the slightest
inkling. Whitie Jack, however, had solved that problem for him. He had
sent Whitie Jack out to run them down, and Whitie had returned within an
hour with the report that they were in a certain far from reputable
saloon, and that they had been joined by the Cherub. He, Billy Kane, had
never heard of the Cherub, but an adroit leading question or two had set
Whitie Jack’s glib tongue in motion. The Cherub had proved a topic that
had aroused an unbounded enthusiasm in Whitie Jack.

“Dey ain’t got nothin’ on de Cherub—none of ’em has,” Whitie Jack had
asserted, switching his cigarette butt from one corner of his mouth to
the other in order to permit of an admiring grin. “He’s de angel kid—he
is! Youse’d think he spent his life handin’ around hymn books an’
leadin’ de singin’ down at de mission joints—only he don’t! If he got
enough for it he’d pull a gun an’ blow yer bean off, an’ youse wouldn’t
believe it was him even while he was doin’ it, he’d look dat innocent.
Believe me, Bundy! He’s got ’em all skinned, an’ he ain’t got no limit
except de sky. Mabbe some day de police’ll get wise, but dey ain’t
fallen to de sweet little face of him wid his baby eyes yet. But, aw,
say, wot’s de use! Youse know him as well as I do. Youse’d think dey’d
just lifted him out of a dinky little cradle an’ soused him all over wid
Florida water—dat’s de Cherub. But de guy dat knows him ducks his
nut—dat’s all.”

Billy Kane shook his head in a sort of savage perplexity. He had
dismissed Whitie Jack then, picked up Clarkie Munn, Gypsy Joe and the
Cherub, and had followed them here. He had come abreast of the tenement
in which they had disappeared now, and he looked quickly around him.
There was no one on the street close enough to pay any particular
attention to his movements; and there was no doorbell to ring, for in
that locality the formality of entering a tenement, where humans hived
instead of lived, and where at all hours the occupants came and went as
a matter of course, consisted in pushing the door open without further
ceremony. His hand slipped into the side pocket of his coat, and his
fingers closed in a reassuring touch upon his automatic. For what
particular reason he was to watch Gypsy Joe and Clarkie Munn he was as
much as ever in the dark; but one thing was clear—there was only one way
to keep in touch with his quarry.

He stepped from the sidewalk, and, with well-simulated unconcern, pushed
the tenement door open, entered, closed the door softly behind him, and
stood still, listening intently. The place was gloomy and dark, and
heavy with a musty, unsavory odor of garlic and rank, stale tobacco; but
ahead of him, along what seemed like a narrow passage flanking the
stairs, a faint glow of light struggled out into the blackness, as
though from a partially opened door, and from this direction a murmur of
men’s voices reached him.

He moved stealthily forward for a few steps; and then halted abruptly,
and pressed back against the wall. Yes, here were the men he sought. In
so far as locating them in the tenement was concerned, he was in luck.
The hallway had widened out beyond the staircase, and from where he now
stood, through a half-opened door, a door that was in poverty-stricken
and disreputable repair, whose panels, smashed and broken probably in
some fracas of former days, were patched with strips of cardboard that
in turn, hanging by a tack or two, gaped blatantly, he could make out
Clarkie Munn’s dark, scowling, unshaven features, as the man sat
sprawled out on a chair in the centre of the room; also, Clarkie Munn
was swearing viciously:

“Well, where’s Shaky Liz—eh? Where’s Shaky Liz? Who’s right now about
comin’ back here? Her tongue’s been hangin’ out fer a drink now fer two
weeks, an’ she’s bust loose. Dat’s wot she’s done—yes, an’ probably
queered de whole lay too! I told youse so! I told youse youse’d have to
show me about Shaky Liz before I’d go de limit. See! I ain’t fer any
juice chair up de river—not yet! Savvy?”

“Aw, shut up!” The words were clipped off; the voice was almost a boyish
treble. “Can yer croakin’, Clarkie, youse give me a pain! Youse came
back here because I said so—dat’s why! I had to steer clear of Shaky Liz
while she put de stunt across, an’ we got to know now if de girl fell
fer it all right.”

“Yes,” growled Clarkie Munn, “an’ Shaky Liz has gone an’ got drunk, an’
spilled de beans! I know her!”

“If she has,” purred the other, and there was something of finality made
the more horrible by the boyish tones, “she gets hers—instead of de
other, dat’s all. An’ anyway, youse have no kick comin’! Youse an’ Gypsy
here, an’ me, an’ Shaky Liz has all got a century apiece to start wid.
We can’t lose, can we?”

“Sure, we can!” complained Clarkie Munn. “We can lose de other two
hundred dat’s comin’ when de job’s done, can’t we?”

Another voice spoke in a curiously meditative, raucous way:

“I never thought I’d be workin’ fer him. He handed me one once dat I
ain’t fergot. But dere ain’t no one dares to touch him now—he’s too big.
Youse’d get smeared off de map. He’s got de coin, but he’s no good
anyway else, except dat he’s sharper’n hell. D’ye remember de roll he
coughs up when he peels us dem century notes dat night? Say, I guess he
packs dat along wid him all de time. Say, I wish we had him wid de girl
to-night—I guess we’d get our two hundred apiece, all right, all right.”

Clarkie Munn sat suddenly bolt upright in his chair, staring across the
room, obviously at the last speaker.

“I’d be wid youse, Gypsy!” he said eagerly. “Him an’ me don’t belong to
de same lodge neither. We’re all right, we are, fer dirty work, dat’s
where we stand; but where do we ever get a look-in when dere’s anything
juicy goin’! But youse’d have to know he had de roll on him. Youse
wouldn’t get anywhere unless youse did. I’d be wid youse, Gypsy. I wish
something like dat’d break loose.” He swung around in his chair. “Eh,
Cherub?”

“Youse give me a pain!” murmured the boyish voice.

“When youse gets a chance to get dat guy, youse’ll get a chance to hang
yer hat in a bathroom suite in de swellest joint in town, an’ use a
limousine fer a gape wagon, an’ wear white spats an’ yellow gloves in
summer time. Can de wish stuff!”

Billy Kane, hugging close against the wall, moved silently farther on
toward the rear of the hall until he was beyond the radius of light from
the doorway of the room. The street door had opened, and a footstep,
hesitant, scuffling, was out there somewhere behind him. The step came
nearer, and now he could make out a woman’s form, that, either in
reality or as an illusion due to the uncertain light, seemed to sway a
little unsteadily as she walked. Opposite the door she stood still, and
now in the fuller light Billy Kane could see her quite distinctly.
Obviously, it was the woman they had referred to as Shaky Liz—an old,
unkempt, hag-like creature, who blinked sore, red-rimmed eyes in
apparent astonishment and consequent indecision at the partially open
door and the light from within. And then she stepped forward into the
room, and the next moment the door closed with a slam behind her, and
with the slam her voice rose in a curious, gurgling cry that seemed to
mingle terror and an unbridled fury.

In an instant, Billy Kane had retraced his steps, and was crouching
against the closed door. He could see now even better than before. The
gaping strip of cardboard that did duty for the smashed panel, dislodged
still farther by the violent slam of the door, afforded him an almost
unrestricted view of the interior. Clarkie Munn had not moved from his
chair, and a little away from him, legs swinging from a dilapidated,
rickety table, Gypsy Joe, black-visaged and swarthy, sucked
indifferently at a cigarette; but over in the far corner of the room by
the bed, the woman, her hat knocked to the floor, her tangled gray hair
draggling about her eyes, was engaged in a violent struggle with a small
boyish figure, who had her by the throat and was shaking her head
savagely back and forth. Billy Kane drew in his breath. He remembered
Whitie Jack’s description of the Cherub in action—and it was literally
true. The blue eyes were bland and round and seemed to smile, the young
face was the face of a guileless youth in repose, and yet the boy—he
couldn’t be much more than a boy—was in a passion worthy of an incarnate
fiend.

“Youse have been out hittin’ de can, have youse?” snarled the Cherub.
“I’ll teach youse! Do youse think I’ve spent two weeks hangin’ around
dis dirty hole of yers, an’ standin’ fer youse being me sick, disabled
grandmother wid me supposed to be doin’ me best to keep bread in yer
mouth, an’ playin’ poor, an’ having to listen to her tryin’ to get me
jobs, an’ handin’ me de soft, goody-goody talk—d’ye think I’m standin’
fer dat just to have youse go out an’ kick de stuffin’ outer de whole
lay! I’ll teach youse!”

“It’s a lie!” screamed Shaky Liz. She shook herself suddenly free, and
with crooked fingers clawed like a wild cat at the Cherub’s face. “I
didn’t crab no game! It’s a lie! I got it all fixed before I went out. I
guess I got a right to a drink now, ain’t I?”

The Cherub warded off her attack with a vicious sweep of his fist.

“Yes!” he snarled again. “An’ suppose she’d seen youse! Or suppose she’d
come back here by any chance an’ found de poor bedridden grandma gone
out fer a drink—eh! Blast youse, couldn’t youse wait a few hours more?
De whole outfit ’ud be glad if youse had drunk yerself to death den!”

Shaky Liz dashed the hair out of her eyes, and swept her hands in a half
angry, half expostulating gesture toward the others.

“I didn’t queer no game!” she insisted truculently. “I guess I know wot
I’m doin’; an’ youse ain’t comin’ in here to pull no rough-house
business neither!”

“Aw, let her alone, an’ give her a chance to tell her story,” drawled
Gypsy Joe from the table. “We ain’t got all night to stay here.”

“Sure!” said the Cherub softly, and smiled beneficently, as he sat down
on the edge of the bed and calmly lighted a cigarette. “Go on, Liz,
spill it!”

The old hag stared at him for a moment in silence, as she dug again at
her dishevelled locks.

“Youse dirty little runt!” She found her voice at last, and in spite of
her scowl there was a grudging note of admiration in her tones. “Youse
are pretty slick, ain’t youse?”

“Sure!” admitted the Cherub imperturbably. “If I wasn’t, youse wouldn’t
have a hundred dollars in yer kick now, an’ two hundred more comin’
to-morrow—if youse ain’t queered it fer yerself. Go on, give us de
dope!”

Shaky Liz preened herself. She adjusted the threadbare bodice of her
dress that seemed to bulge and sag uncomfortably, picked up her hat, and
smirked at her audience.

“It’s all right!” She wagged her head secretively. “Youse don’t any of
youse need to worry. When de Cherub pipes me off this afternoon dat de
stunt is to be pulled to-night, I sends fer her as soon as he gets out
of de way, an’ she comes on de run. She don’t suspect nothing, ’cause
wid two weeks’ acquaintance she——”

“Can dat!” interrupted the Cherub politely. “We all knows dat fer two
weeks youse an’ me has been gettin’ acquainted wid her, an’ feedin’ on
her jellies, an’ dat I’m de errin’ child dat’s taken a shine to her an’
dat mabbe can be influenced fer good—if she tried hard enough. Wot did
she say when she comes here dis evening?”

“Wot did she say?” repeated Shaky Liz, with a sudden and malicious grin.
“Why, she falls fer it, of course! Wot d’ye expect? Me, I was lyin’ dere
on de bed when she blows in. She asks me how I was, an’ I says I ain’t
no worse dan usual, but dat it’s me young grandson dat’s troublin’ me,
an’ how I ain’t got no one to tell it to except her, an’ how I dunno as
I durst tell even her. An’ den she says I oughter know well enough dat I
can trust her, an’ dat she won’t say nothin’, an’ den I gives her de
spiel. I says I ain’t slept all de last night thinkin’ about it. I tells
her it wouldn’t do no good me talkin’ to youse, ’cause I ain’t got any
influence wid youse an’ she has, an’ besides dat I was afraid of Gypsy
an’ Clarkie if dey got wise to me. An’ I tells her wot a good boy youse
are, too, Cherub, an’ how though mabbe youse might be better it ain’t
all yer fault ’cause youse’re easily led by bad company, but dat youse
have stood by yer old grandmother. Savvy?”

“De one bright spot in me life,” said the Cherub sweetly, “is dat me own
grandmother is dead, an’ don’t know de raw deal I’m handin’ her. She
looked just like youse, too—not!”

Shaky Liz scowled.

“Youse close yer face!” she flung out. “I tells her dat me grandson has
got pulled in by two of de toughest crooks in New York.” Shaky Liz’s
scowl became a grin. “Dat’s youse, Clarkie, an’ youse, Gypsy. I tells
her who youse are, an’ dat last night youse three was here, an’ dat
youse all thought I was asleep, but dat I heard youse whisperin’
together, an’ dat Clarkie an’ Gypsy was persuadin’ me little boy to pull
a trick down to Kegler’s dock on de East River, ’cause dey didn’t dare
do it demselves on account of de police bein’ leery about dem ever since
dey comes down from Sing Sing de last time. I tells her how I hears
youse two crooks explainin’ dat Kegler’s got a bunch of coin in his safe
to pay off some sand barges dat he had expected yesterday, but dat had
got held up down de Sound, an’ dat instead of takin’ de money back to de
bank he was lettin’ it rust in his box, knowin’ dat de barges’d be along
de day after to-morrow, an’ dat youse had de combination of de safe, an’
de key to de front door, an’ dat dere wouldn’t be nobody around dere,
an’ dat, anyway, nobody’d suspect me little lad, an’ dat he was to go
down dere alone at ten o’clock to-night an’ make de haul, an’ den meet
Clarkie an’ Gypsy uptown somewhere fer de split.”

Gypsy Joe, on the table, circled his lips approvingly with the tip of
his tongue.

“Dat’s de stuff, Shaky!” he commended. “Don’t youse mind dese guys, dey
ain’t neither of dem got anything on youse. I’m fer youse, old gal!”

Shaky Liz grinned complacently.

“Me, I was cryin’ good an’ hard by dis time,” she said, and grinned
again, “an’ she had a face dat white youse’d think she was goin’ to pull
de faint act. I says I ain’t slept all de last night tryin’ to think wot
to do, an’ dat’s why I sent fer her. An’ she asks me if I’m sure de boy
was goin’ to do it. An’ I says I am. An’ she asks me where he is, an’ I
says I don’t know, an’ dat I don’t know where to find him; dat he went
out just before I sent fer her, an’ dat he says he won’t be back till
late to-night, an’ dat’s wot makes me sure he’s goin’ to do it. Sure, I
was cryin’ good an’ hard den—savvy?

“An’ I says he’s a good boy, an’ if I tells de police dat’ll finish him;
an’ I says I’m sick an’ can’t walk, an’ can’t go down dere myself, an’
dat she’s de only one I dares trust, an’ besides dat she’s got a lot of
influence wid de boy, an’ dat I knows she can persuade him not to fall
fer it, an’ den nobody’ll know anything about it. An’ she says: ‘Yes, of
course—I’ll do anything. But where is he? Where can I find him?’ An’ I
says dere ain’t only one place I knows, an’ dat’s down to Kegler’s, an’
dat he’ll be all alone dere, an’ dat if she gets dere before ten o’clock
she’ll be in time to try an’ stop him. An’ she bends over me, an’ pats
me hands, she does, an’ she says: ‘Don’t youse worry, Mrs. Cox,’ she
says. ‘I’ll go.’ An’ I says: ‘An’ youse won’t tell nobody, nor take
nobody down dere, so’s anybody’d know about me little lad’s disgrace?’
An’ she says: ‘No, I’ll go alone; an’ I’m sure I can promise youse it’ll
be all right.’ An’ den she goes away. Dat’s all!” Shaky Liz was fumbling
with the bodice of her dress again, and suddenly pulled out a black,
square-faced bottle. “Dat’s all!” she announced with a cackle. “An’ I
guess I gotta right to dis if I wants it—ain’t I?”

“Youse can bet yer life youse have!” agreed Gypsy Joe with fervent
heartiness—and reached for the bottle.

In a flash the Cherub was up from the bed, and between them.

“Nix on dat, Gypsy!” he said sharply. “Shaky’s end is all right, I
guess; but _we_ ain’t through yet. Nix on dat—get me!” He stepped closer
to both Clarkie Munn and Gypsy Joe. “Now, den,” he said briskly, “since
we’re satisfied wid Shaky, we’ll get down to tacks—eh? Everybody makes
sure dey knows dere own play, an’ we don’t make no renigs. I goes down
dere, an’ youse two are trailin’ out of sight behind, an’ she
buttonholes me, an’ I gets her inside widout youse if I can, but anyway
we gets her inside widout any noise, an’ de trap-door where dey shoots
de sweepings from de warehouse into de water under de dock does de
trick. If dere’s enough weight on her she’ll be dere forever. An’ dere’s
one thing more. Nix on de easy-fingered stuff wid any safe business, or
anything loose lying around dat looks like meat! Savvy? To-morrow
morning de place looks like it did when dey left it to-night. De girl’s
disappeared, dat’s all—an’ dere’s nothing to show dat Kegler’s dock had
anything to do wid it. Get me? Dey’ll never find her, an’ dat’s wot’s
wanted, an’ why we’re gettin’ two hundred apiece more.”

Gypsy Joe removed the cigarette from his mouth, watched the blue spiral
of smoke from its tip curl upward for a moment, and pursed his lips in a
ruminative pucker.

“I wonder wot de Rat had it in fer her fer as hard as dat?” he said,
with a shrug of his shoulders. “She must have——”

The—_Rat!_ She—the _girl_ they were talking about! The room seemed
suddenly to swirl before Billy Kane’s eyes, the figures inside to become
but blurred, jerky objects—and then it was black around him.
Automatically he was stepping backward with a catlike tread;
automatically he was feeling his way along the black hallway. And then
the cool evening air fanned his face, and he was in the street.



XXIV—AGAINST TIME


Billy Kane put his hand to his forehead, and brought it away wringing
wet with great drops of sweat. It had come like a blow without warning
upon him, staggering him for an instant with horror—and then his brain
had cleared as if by magic. It was cruelly clear now.

The girl that they meant to murder was—the Woman in Black. He had had no
thought of that while they talked in there, not until Gypsy Joe had
mentioned the Rat. And then it had seemed as though the pieces of a
puzzle had been suddenly fitted together as by some unseen hand, and
bare to his brain, naked, an ugly picture stood out in hideous
perspective. He knew too well that the Rat had an incentive for getting
rid of her. And he knew why. And it was _she_ who had telephoned him,
Billy Kane, to watch Gypsy Joe and Clarkie Munn to-night. Who else would
know of anything afoot concerning those two except the “she” to whom
Shaky Liz had told her damnable Judas story?

And he saw now why, and understood her instructions to him to watch
Clarkie and Gypsy Joe. If she failed in her efforts through moral
persuasion to prevent the Cherub from committing what she believed was
to be a robbery, she still, through him, Billy Kane, could look for the
recovery of the cash, and still keep the young hound, that she believed
in and was trying to save, out of the hands of the police, and do it
with a clear conscience since she would be in a position to return the
proceeds of the theft. And then, too, perhaps, there had entered into
her calculations the element of self-protection. She expected the Cherub
to go alone, but if by any chance his pals went too, those pals were
Clarkie Munn and Gypsy Joe—and he, Billy Kane, in that case, would be on
their heels. And he understood, too, why she had not been more explicit
over the telephone. She had not actually anticipated trouble, and she
had respected her promise to the old hag to keep the Cherub’s name out
of it.

He was running now, making across town in the direction of the East
River. He did not know where Kegler’s dock or warehouse was, but Kegler
was evidently a rather large dealer in sand, and any directory in the
first drug store he passed would supply that information.

His mind worked on—curiously self-explanatory of his own actions. It had
seemed pure impulse at the time that had prompted him to retreat so
precipitately from the tenement; but he realized now that it was his
brain subconsciously, but logically, at work. He, as the Rat, could not
call in the police to raid that room where the inmates would denounce
him as the author and instigator of the very crime for which he demanded
their arrest; and to have gone into the room alone himself and have
attempted to hold them up at the point of his pistol, while it might
have been spectacular and dramatic, would have been little less than the
act of a fool. It was not so easy for one man to hold up three others,
to say nothing of a woman who was quite as abandoned, and certainly as
full of trickery, and cunning, and resource as her male companions.
There would have been, then, only one other alternative—to have gone in
there coolly as the Rat, and call off the game that he was supposed to
have started. But he had already learned that they had no love for the
Rat, even though he was their employer in the present instance, and that
secretly they were asking for nothing better than just such a favorable
chance as that would be to “get” him, and to get, too, the large amount
of cash that they credited him with having on his person.

His lips were tight, as he ran. He was conscious that he would not have
hesitated to take the risk, to take any risk, if there had been no other
way of saving her. But there was another way, a very much simpler, more
common sense and natural a way; the way he was taking now. He had only
to go to this Kegler’s dock where she would be waiting for the Cherub,
and warn her. That was all. He had ample time if he hurried, since
_they_ had not started yet.

Time! Yes, he had time enough. Cool, deliberate reason reassured on that
point, but the thought brought him a little panic-struck catch of
breath. It might have been better, perhaps, if he had gone to the
Bowery, or perhaps over into Lower Broadway, in the hope, say, of
getting a taxi that would have saved him many minutes. He shook his
head, and called himself a fool for allowing his mind to wander to
inconsequent things. There were not many taxis hunting fares on the
Bowery, and who ever heard of an empty taxi on Lower Broadway at this
hour of night! And, besides, it was not half past nine yet, and she was
not to be there until ten. And yet—time! He flirted the moisture from
his forehead again, as, reaching a small drug store on a corner, he
turned, and entered, and asked for the directory.

He was out again in scarcely a minute. He had found Kegler’s in the
directory without difficulty, but not without certain new misgivings.
Kegler’s was much farther along the East River than, somehow, and
entirely without reason, he had imagined it would be. He began to run
again, and again that twinge of panic seized him. True, he had a start
on the others; true, they had just as far to go as he had, but with the
distance that he knew now there was to cover, and the limit that existed
in the time in which to cover it, it became more than probable they
would have arranged for some special means of conveyance, whereas he had
none.

Billy Kane dropped suddenly from a run into a slow, even nonchalant
walk. A short distance ahead of him, a small, and apparently, an old and
second-hand car was coughing and chugging laboriously at the curb in
front of the lighted window of a little grocery store. A few steps more,
and he saw that the car was empty. Billy Kane’s lips broadened in a hard
smile. It might be reprehensible to steal a car for a few hours; but, as
between a car and a human life that he knew depended on him alone, he
experienced no pangs of conscience. It was the way out!

He edged over to the curb as he approached the machine, and, close to
the car now, glanced around. In through the store window he could see a
man, back turned, evidently the car’s owner, leaning over the counter,
talking to the proprietor of the store. Billy Kane, wary of attracting
premature notice from the pedestrians here and there along the street,
reached out calmly, opened the door without haste, and with a deliberate
air of proprietorship slipped into the driver’s seat—but in the next
instant he had thrown in the gears, and the machine shot from the curb
like a mad animal stung to frenzy.

A yell went up behind him; there came to him the glimpse of a man’s
figure rushing wildly out through the store door into the street; and
then another yell, that was echoed from different directions along the
street. The car took the first corner on little better than two wheels.
The yells died away behind. At the next intersecting street Billy Kane
turned again, and thereafter for a few blocks zigzagged his course,
until, satisfied that he had thrown any immediate pursuers off his
track, he headed again over toward the East River.

And now as he drove more quietly, confident that he need no longer fear
the element of time, his mind harked back again to that scene in the old
hag’s room, and there came a puzzled frown furrowing his forehead, and a
queer strained look into his face. It was not so clear after all! The
picture in the large was there. The patient, cold-blooded winning of her
confidence in order to lure her without suspicion or hesitation to her
death was clear enough, as was also the hideous betrayal of that
confidence, a betrayal that plumbed the depths of human infamy, and
whose unscrupulous ingenuity and vile cunning was so typical of the Rat;
but the details, examined more critically, seemed somehow foggy and
obscured, and seemed to hint at something he did not quite understand.
It was not that it was evidence of the Rat’s return. That thought did
not trouble him, for certainly he, of all others, who had so
unceremoniously possessed himself of the Rat’s den and all the Rat’s
belongings, should be the first to know of it if the other had put in an
appearance again; and the fact that the plot had reached its
consummation to-night he did not consider to have any bearing on that
point either. Many of the Rat’s plans, begun in the past, as he, Billy
Kane, had only too good reason to know, had reached their climax since
the Rat himself had been away. This was probably one of them. Certainly
it had been begun more than two weeks ago, as both Shaky Liz and the
Cherub had said, and that was before he, Billy Kane, had assumed the
Rat’s rôle, and, therefore, quite logically it seemed, before the Rat
had gone away. It was not that—once started, the unholy quartet to whom
the Rat had entrusted his dirty work was quite capable of carrying it
through to its detestable conclusion—but it seemed strange that,
adventurous as the Rat was and much as he undoubtedly desired to get the
Woman in Black out of his way, he would have dared to do this. What she
held over the Rat’s head, he, Billy Kane, did not know; but he knew the
Rat was well aware that, in event of her disappearance, certain evidence
would be forthcoming against him within twenty-four hours. That had been
her protection, a protection with which she had appeared to be
thoroughly satisfied, and she had taken occasion more than once to give
that warning to him, Billy Kane, in the belief that she was warning the
Rat himself. There seemed to be only one answer then to this move on the
Rat’s part. In some way, unknown to her, he must have come into
possession of that evidence, or in some way have rendered abortive the
means by which, in event of her disappearance, it would be brought to
light.

The car rattled and jangled along. It was a miserable contraption,
seedy, and badly down at the heels, but so that its engine functioned he
asked nothing better. He was near the river front now, and in the region
of warehouses and buildings that, remote from the bridges and the
regular trend of traffic, showed no lights at night, and where the
streets were utterly deserted, and where occasionally he caught glimpses
of the river itself like a silver thread under the moonlight. He ran
still more slowly now, studying his location with all possible care.
Kegler’s dock, according to the directory, was still farther on, of
course, but he realized that, well as he knew his New York, this was
somewhat out of the ordinary radius, and that it would be all too easy
to miss his way.

He shook his head a little in perplexity. There was another thing—one of
the little details. Shaky Liz, Gypsy Joe, Clarkie Munn and the Cherub
were not in the ranks of the Crime Trust as Red Vallon, and the Cadger,
and Vannet, for instance, were, and where the Rat might naturally be
expected to work upon a basis of mutual trust. It seemed strange that
the Rat, in executing a plan like this, would give, not one, but four
outsiders a hold on him, for if their tongues were ever loosened it
meant the death house in Sing Sing for the Rat to a certainty. Nor did
the fact that they themselves were accomplices wholly justify this
seeming lapse from cunning on the Rat’s part. Accomplices before now had
been known to turn State’s evidence! It was queer! The Rat probably had
a very good reason—only it seemed a little queer!

Billy Kane shrugged his shoulders. Enough of that! He was peering out of
the car now with growing anxiety, and with the realization forcing
itself upon him that, if he had not actually lost his way, he at best
had a very confused knowledge of his exact whereabouts. His lips
tightened. It was growing late, too; it must be getting perilously near
ten o’clock. He had had no doubt but that, from the address in the
directory, he could easily find the place, and he was still sure it was
farther on; but the quarter here was outrageously dark, and a plethora
of turnings, that seemed to be nothing more than private trafficways for
various wharfs and warehouses, made an exceedingly nasty complication.
He nosed the machine along, his face growing more set and anxious every
moment. It was black here—black—nothing but a cursed blackness. If there
were only someone about—someone from whom he could ask directions! But
there was nothing, no one, only the black, looming shapes of buildings,
and even these were becoming more scattered now; and the only signs of
life were the whistles and churnings of passing craft on the river.

The minutes passed. A sense of helplessness, of impotency, that brought
a cold chill to his heart, was upon him now. Down here on the river
front he was hopelessly lost. There was no light in the ramshackle car
that he had appropriated—it wasn’t equipped with anything that even
approached a modern device. He stopped the car, lighted a match, and
looked at his watch.

_Ten minutes of ten!_

Ten minutes! There were ten minutes left! He started the car again
mechanically. There were ten minutes between her and a trap-door that
opened into the silvery streak of water out there, whose shimmering now
had lost its beauty and seemed like the hideous, insinuating, silky
movement of some ghastly reptile. Ten minutes stood between her and that
trap-door; and he, fool that he was, had lost his way! And yet he could
hardly blame himself; the East River front at night was—but what did it
matter whether he blamed himself or not!

A low cry of bitter hurt came from his compressed lips. It wasn’t only
the Woman in Black! Her deadly peril now, the almost certainty of her
death, brought him, in an overwhelming surge of anguish and fear the
consciousness that it was the woman he loved. He remembered the
abhorrence and contempt she held for him in those steadfast, fearless
brown eyes of hers, and he loved her for that abhorrence and contempt.
It seemed to typify her, as somehow she seemed to typify a purity and a
courage that was soul deep—for that contempt and abhorrence was for the
man whom she believed to be the Rat, who in turn typified the dregs and
lees of all that was vile. But he, Billy Kane, was not the Rat, and some
day, as he was conscious now, he had hoped to stand before her in his
own person, and with his own name cleared. His hands gripped on the
steering wheel until it seemed as though the taut-drawn skin would burst
over the knuckles. He remembered the poise of that dainty head, the
curve of the full, white, rounded throat, and he saw her now in—— No! He
would not let his brain complete that thought. It would drive him mad.
He was already in a state bordering on frenzy, almost out of
self-control. Ten minutes! There could be very few of those ten minutes
left now!

A cry came from him again, but this time one of sudden hope. To his
right, from a large building at the head of one of those trafficways
that led to the river bank itself, he caught sight of a lighted window.
In an instant the machine was tearing forward in that direction; and in
a minute more he had leaped out, and was pounding frantically with his
fists at the door of the building. This wasn’t Kegler’s, he knew that;
but here was some sign of life at last in the deserted neighborhood.

A step sounded from within. It seemed to drag. It seemed as though it
were covering some interminable distance inside there. And then the door
opened, and an old, decrepit man, who perhaps held down a sort of
pensioned night watchman’s job, a lantern in hand, stuck out his head.

“I’ve lost my way,” said Billy Kane quickly. “Can you tell me where
Kegler’s place is?”

“You mean the sand docks?” inquired the other.

“Yes,” said Billy Kane.

The man stepped out from the doorway, and pointed back along the river.

“That’s it over there,” he said. “The one beyond our wharf down here.”
He glanced at the car. “But you can’t get through here with that car
because this bit of road don’t connect—see? You’ll have to go back a bit
the way you came.”

Billy Kane held his watch under the lantern’s light. There were neither
the five, nor the four, nor the three minutes that he had dared hope
might still remain. It was already after ten o’clock!

“Can I get down from here on foot—it’s shorter this way, isn’t it?”
asked Billy Kane between closed teeth.

“Yes, sure, you can,” said the man. “But you won’t find no one there.
They was expecting some barges in, but they haven’t come yet, and——”

Billy Kane had already swung away from the other, and was making for the
river.

“Thanks!” he called out over his shoulder, as he ran. “I’ll leave the
car here till I get back.”

He heard some reply from the other, but he could not make out the words.
Whatever they were, they were inconsequent now. He, Billy Kane, unless
by some miracle, was too late to warn her—and too late perhaps even to
save her. He knew fear now as he had never known it before, but it was
not fear for himself. And he knew a passion that seemed to find its
roots in the very soul of him. If he was too late—at least there would
be a reckoning, come what might! His lips twitched in a queer, distorted
smile. It was strange! This fear and this passion, though they were
supreme within him, seemed curiously under control, and he was
abnormally cool and calm now, and his brain, as though lashed into
virility by some powerful stimulant, was working swiftly, incisively,
leaping in flashes from premises to conclusions.

It was certain that they were already there, but there was still a
chance that they had not yet had time to do her any harm. And it must be
his wits, not blundering force, that would be its own undoing, that must
turn that chance to account. He must play the Rat now in exactly the
same way as, when back there in the tenement, the thought had flashed
across his mind that he might have played it in the old hag’s room. The
chances of success, it was true, were a hundredfold slimmer now than
they would have been then; but now it was forced upon him as the only
way, and then it had seemed an unnecessary and uncalled-for risk to
take. It was the one way now. It might fail, but it would gain him
access inside that dark, looming building across the open stretch of
brick-and-sand-strewn yard where he was running now; and once inside, if
it were not already too late, there must be some way out for her. And if
it were too late—well then, the Cherub, and Gypsy Joe, and Clarkie Munn
would not have to press the Rat for payment for their work!

Again the distorted smile flickered on his lips. He had his bearings
now, both literally and mentally. He ran without caution, making almost
unnecessary noise, and reached the door of the building; a building
that, he could discern now, made the shore end of a long dock, and
which, according to the old watchman’s directions, was obviously
Kegler’s place.

The building was in utter and complete darkness. He dismissed the
possibility that she was still anywhere without, still waiting for the
Cherub’s arrival, as too improbable to warrant the waste of even a
second, and making still more noise at the door now, he tried it, found
it unlocked, pushed it open, stepped inside and closed it behind him. A
quick, startled exclamation, from a long way off, it seemed, reached
him, and then a sibilant whisper:

“Who’s dat?”

“Clarkie—Gypsy!” Billy Kane called softly. “Are you there?”

“Gawd!” a voice ejaculated hoarsely.

A light went on somewhere over Billy Kane’s head. He was in a short
passage that was flanked on either side by what were evidently the
business offices of the concern, and at the end of this passage now a
door was suddenly swung open. Gypsy Joe was standing in the doorway.

“De Rat!” he exclaimed in heavy amazement, and mechanically fell back as
Billy Kane advanced.



XXV—THE OLD WAREHOUSE


Billy Kane’s eyes were apparently blinking in the abrupt transition from
darkness to the glare of light; but with the knowledge that it might
literally mean the difference between life and death to him—and her—no
single detail of his surroundings was escaping him. The door ahead of
him, a heavy, cumbersome affair, opened inwards toward him, and was now
swung full back against the wall, but if the evidence of that iron loop
on the door jamb could be trusted, the door was equipped with a massive
bolt. Gypsy Joe was still to a large extent blocking the doorway, but he
could see that the huge, lighted space beyond was a sort of storage
warehouse, windowless, of course, or else he would have seen a light
from outside. And the switches, the electric-light switches—the one for
the bulb over his head in this passage here, and the one for the light
in that room ahead of him! They were vital too! He could not see any in
the position where he might naturally expect to find them—by the door
where Gypsy Joe stood. He glanced back over his shoulder. Yes, there was
one there at the side of the front door, a switch for the passage light
undoubtedly; but Gypsy Joe had certainly not used that one, so there
must be another then, as well, inside the storage room.

He had been perhaps the matter of a bare few seconds in traversing the
length of the passage, and now as he stepped across the threshold into
the warehouse itself, the Cherub and Clarkie Munn had joined Gypsy Joe,
and were staring at him with scowling, startled, uncertain faces—but
Billy Kane’s eyes were not on the three men. The blood seemed to leap
through his veins in a great surging tide, and upon him was the sense of
a mighty uplift. It was not too late! It was not too late! His brain
seemed to seize upon those words and reiterate them in a sing-song way.
A woman’s form lay upon the floor, and she was bound and gagged; but
dark eyes met his, and in the eyes was a softer light than he had ever
seen there before when they had been fixed on him. “For once,” they
seemed to say, “you have not failed. I told you to watch Gypsy Joe and
Clarkie Munn, and you are just in time.”

The Cherub laughed suddenly and a little noisily, as from unstrung
nerves.

“Say, youse gave us a jolt!” he said. “Wot’s de idea? I suppose youse
came along to make sure dat we earned yer money, eh, an’ dat dere
wouldn’t be no fluke about her bein’ bumped off fer keeps? Well, if
youse had been about a minute an’ a half later youse’d have missed de
trap-door scene, ’cause it’d have been all over.”

Billy Kane’s eyes had met the girl’s again. The soft light in them had
gone, and in its place had come a horror, and sudden accusation, and a
bitter misery; and her face, already deathly white as she lay there,
seemed now to tinge with gray.

Billy Kane shook his head in response to the Cherub, as he turned and
faced the three men. They were edging a little closer to him. He caught
a surreptitious nudge that passed between Gypsy Joe and Clarkie Munn. He
moved back a step—but it was a step that brought him nearer to the girl.
If he could hold them in a state of puzzled suspense with its consequent
indecision for a moment, that was all he asked. And he was counting on a
sort of frank audaciousness for that.

“Well?” prompted the Cherub, a sudden, curious silkiness in his tones.
“Did I call de turn?”

“Maybe he’s come down to pay us off,” suggested Gypsy Joe smoothly.
“Dere’s nothin’ slow about de Rat.”

“I’ll tell you,” said Billy Kane quietly. He took his knife from his
pocket, and coolly opened it; then nonchalantly, but with a swift, lithe
movement, stooped and cut the cords that bound the girl’s wrists. He
pressed the knife into her hand—she needed no further hint that she
could free her own ankles—and, as he straightened up again, his eyes
swept the wall by the door. Yes, they were there—two electric-light
switches. He faced the trio again.

“Well, wot do youse know about dat!” observed Clarkie Munn, with an
unpleasant grin.

“I’ll tell you, Clarkie,” Billy Kane lied calmly. “I’m leery that
somebody’s split, and I’m afraid the police know too much. Understand?
I’m not taking any chances, and the game’s off—that’s all.”

The Cherub’s bland, blue eyes seemed to shade a darker hue.

“Dat’s all right, den,” said the Cherub sweetly. “But wot about us?
Mabbe youse can call de game off if youse likes, ’cause it’s yer game,
but where does we come in? ’Tain’t our fault de job’s crimped—dat’s up
to youse. Does we get paid or not?”

“Dat’s de talk, Cherub!” applauded Clarkie Munn, an undisguised snarl in
his voice.

Billy Kane shrugged his shoulders.

“Who said you wouldn’t get paid?” he demanded roughly. “We’ll attend to
that when we get out of here. Do you want to hang around and get
pinched?”

“No,” said the Cherub, and smiled. “No, we don’t want to get pinched—an’
we ain’t worryin’ none about it either, not about gettin’ pinched down
here. It’s a cinch youse wouldn’t have risked comin’ here if de bulls
had been followin’ a yard behind. We knows youse too well fer dat,
Bundy! Get me? An’ youse ain’t comin’ across when youse gets out of
here, youse are comin’ across right now! An’ youse”—he whirled suddenly
on the girl, who had risen to her feet and was backing toward the
door—“youse stand where youse are! I ain’t sure we are through wid youse
yet, no matter wot Bundy says—see?” He jerked his head at his two
companions, though his eyes never for an instant left Billy Kane’s face.
“Wot about it, fellers? If she gets out of here she knows too much, an’
we got to fade away outer New York anyway, whether de bulls are on now
or not. An’ dat takes de coin—all de coin we can get. Well, de Rat
always carries a wad, but if we pinches it an’ lets de Rat loose
afterwards he’s got a bunch behind him dat’ll nose us out where de bulls
couldn’t, an’ we’ll get ours. Dat’s de size of it. Do we play fer table
stakes, or hedge de bets?”

It was coming now, as Billy Kane had known inevitably that it would
come. There was no answer needed from either Clarkie Munn or Gypsy Joe.
It was written in the ugly menace in their faces, and had been from the
moment they had recovered their startled surprise at his entry into the
place.

Billy Kane flung a quick glance around him. The girl was a little behind
him, close to those electric-light switches, her way clear to the front
door, save for the peril of that lighted passage down which she must
run. In front of him, just out of arm’s reach, the Cherub’s bland eyes
smiled into his with a sort of hideous serenity; while over the Cherub’s
shoulders, one on each side, showed the vicious faces of the other
two—and, under cover of the Cherub’s body, Clarkie Munn’s hand seemed to
be stealing in the direction of his hip pocket.

Billy Kane seemed suddenly to go to pieces and to lose his nerve. His
tongue circled his lips with nervous repetition. He put out his hands in
an imploring attitude, and stumbled a step forward toward the Cherub,
and caught a glint of light on a revolver barrel in Clarkie Munn’s hand,
as it came stealing now from the latter’s pocket.

“Wait—wait a minute, Cherub!” Billy Kane whispered thickly, and licked
at his lips again, and stumbled forward another step. “Wait!” he
whispered—and then, swift as the winking of an eye, Billy Kane flung his
body forward with all his weight upon the Cherub, hurling the Cherub
back upon Clarkie Munn, and whirling, whipped a lightning left full into
Gypsy Joe’s face on the other side. There was a flash, the deafening
roar of a report, as the Cherub reeled into Clarkie Munn’s revolver;
then a scream of agony, and the Cherub, grasping at his leg with both
hands, went to the floor.

“The switches there—beside you!” Billy Kane shouted at the girl. “Put
out the lights—both switches! Quick! Run for it!”

Gypsy Joe, recovering his balance, and with a bellow like a maddened
bull was charging forward; Clarkie Munn’s hand had swung upward
again—and then the place was in darkness. A second late, Clarkie Munn’s
revolver cut a vicious flame-tongue through the black, but Billy Kane
had flattened himself out on the floor, and was wriggling rapidly
backward toward the door and the now dark passageway.

There was a moan, then a shrill scream in the Cherub’s voice, and
coincidentally a torrent of blasphemy from Gypsy Joe, as the latter,
quite obviously, in his rush and in the blackness now, had stumbled none
too gently into the wounded man.

“Youse fool! Curse youse, youse fool!” shrieked the Cherub. “Ain’t youse
got a pocket torch? Ain’t either of youse got a torch? Flash a torch on
him, an’——”

Billy Kane was across the threshold now; and now, rising to his knees,
he groped out for the edge of the door, found it, and, as he slammed it
shut, it seemed to cut in two, as a knife might cut it, the sudden,
white, piercing ray of a flashlight that leaped out from the interior of
the warehouse. And then in another second he had shot the bolt home in
its grooves, and, in the darkness, leaning heavily for an instant
against the door to recover himself, he stared down the black passage
for the girl, and could see nothing.

There came an abortive rush against the door; snarls and oaths came
muffled from within. He moved a step forward along the passage. They
were a negligible quantity in there now. The door would hold, and when
they succeeded in getting out and making their way along the side of the
dock perhaps, they would be more concerned in getting to cover
themselves than anything else; and besides they would have a wounded man
to hamper their movements. It was she now, the Woman in Black, that
concerned him.

“Where are you?” he called quickly. “Where are you?”

A draft of air touched his face. The front door at the farther end of
the passage was being opened.

“I am here, Bundy.”

It was her voice, but there was something of cold, merciless forbidding
in it. He halted instinctively. He did not quite understand.

“Bundy, are you listening?” came the level tones again. “This is the
end, absolutely and finally the end to-night. You have saved my life,
but I owe you no thanks for that. You saved it, after hiring thugs to
take it, you thing of loathing, because you dared do nothing else, since
you say you believe the police got wind enough of this thing tonight to
scare you off. Very well, Bundy—but there is more, isn’t there, that the
police do not know? Well, they will know it, and certain secrets in that
den of yours, the moment I can reach them. I have warned you often
enough. I am through, Bundy, this is the end of the Rat to-night,
nothing shall stop that—but I am still a fool. I am still giving you
warning of what I mean to do now. I am still giving you a chance to save
yourself if you can; the rather slim chance that the police will not be
able to run the man who was known as the Rat to earth! And I am giving
you that chance because—well because, even in spite of yourself, I am
still alive.”

“No!” he cried. “You do not understand. Wait!” He was groping down the
black passage, as he heard the front door shut quickly, and heard a
footstep running, receding, outside. “Wait!” he cried again. “For God’s
sake, wait!”

There was no answer. He knew there would be none. He had heard her
running away out there, hadn’t he? He reached the door, and looked
out—and hung there hesitant—and called again—and there was no answer. He
listened. He could not hear her footsteps any more. There was no sound
from anywhere, not even from that warehouse door behind him. They
weren’t hammering on that any more.

And then Billy Kane laughed in a short, bitter, mirthless way, and
started, running at top speed, in the direction in which he had left his
purloined and dilapidated car. The end! The end of the Rat! He laughed
again in the same bitter mirth, as he ran. It was the end of more than
that! It was the end of hope—of her—of that love that had come to him
upon the thresholds of these strange doors of the night. It was the end
of Billy Kane! And whether as the Rat now, or as Billy Kane, the police
would be equally hard upon his trail. He stood in far worse case now
than on the night of David Ellsworth’s murder, for now the underworld,
that would be combed for the Rat, and where the Rat was too well known
to have it offer the slightest hope of escaping detection, was closed to
him as a refuge. He knew what she meant to do—to tell her story to the
police, to expose all the criminal acts and affiliations of the bona
fide Rat, and to lead them to the Rat’s den, and expose the secrets that
she had so often hinted were hidden there.

He clenched his hands as he ran. The end! No! Not yet! Not until they
had him, and they had not got him yet! He did not know which way to
turn; but while he still had his freedom there was still the hope of
running down the murderer of David Ellsworth—and there were the proceeds
of that robbery now, most of them, in the Rat’s den. That was what
seemed to stand out as immediately vital now—to get those things—that
money and those rubies. He had staked everything on the hope that some
day he could hand over to justice both the proceeds of that crime and
the murderer as well—hand them over _together_, as a complete
vindication of his own name—and even now, in this hour that seemed
blackest of all, he still dared to cling to that hope. He knew who the
murderer was, and he had already recovered a large share of what had
been stolen. He still hoped to find the murderer, and he still hoped to
find the remainder of those rubies, and so carry out his original plan.
His jaws locked. His mind was made up. He would go! And, yes, he had far
better than an even chance of getting there in time. She would take
longer to reach the police and lead them to the den than it would take
him to reach it—thanks to the car that, grim irony! he had stolen on her
account. Afterward his position would be desperate enough; but now,
without an instant’s loss of time, he had to gain the den and get away
again before they trapped him there.

He reached the car. The old night watchman had evidently retired inside
the building again, for there was no sign of the man. He experienced a
certain sense of relief at this, as he cranked the obsolete machine; and
then he was in the driver’s seat again, and the car was roaring along
the road. He drove fast, with mad haste, with reckless disregard for the
ill-lighted road. There could be no accident comparable in disaster to
his failure to put the miles behind him swiftly enough to insure him the
few minutes leeway he asked for in the den.

He bent over the wheel, tense, rigid, strained. The minutes sped away. A
glimmer of hope came to him for that “afterward.” He could use the car
again; get out of the city again before the chase got too hot. He could
certainly hide in that way during the night, and that would give him the
night in which to think. He had not time to think now—only that as he
drew in toward the centre of the city he must keep as much as possible
to the unfrequented streets, both because he must ignore such a thing as
speed laws, and because he was driving a stolen car.



XXVI—THE LAST PORTAL


Billy Kane had no means of knowing how long he had been, when he finally
leaped from the car at the corner of the lane on the street at the rear
of the den. He knew only that, beyond any question of doubt or
uncertainty, he had outdistanced her. With a quick glance around him to
make sure that he was not observed, he slipped into the lane; and in an
instant more, through the shed, and the underground tunnel, and the
secret door that so craftily opened on the board joints of the rough
panelling, he had gained the interior of the den. He ran across it,
turned on the dangling incandescent over the rickety table, and running
to the street door made sure that it was locked.

He turned then, pushed the bed aside, and pulled up the plank in the
flooring that he had loosened once in his search for the secret hiding
places of the room, and that had since served him in that capacity as a
private depository of his own. From the aperture he lifted out the hand
bag containing the banknotes stolen from the Ellsworth vault, and the
red flannel sack containing the rubies, which he had torn from around
the neck of the Man with the Crutch last night, replaced the plank, set
the bed back in its original position, and carried the hand bag and sack
to the table. He opened the bag, tossed in the red flannel sack—and
stood for an instant eyeing the bag with a frown of distrust. He
remembered that it did not close very well, that he had bent the catches
with his steel jimmy that night when he had forced the bag open in the
room of the Man with the Crutch, and that it was now quite liable to
gape apart without warning—in which case, should the contents be seen by
anyone, and they could not help but be seen if such an accident should
occur in the presence of anyone within eyeshot, it would be likely to
prove, not only awkward, but disastrous for the possessor of the bag.
His frown cleared. There was still room in the bag for, say, a shirt;
and, than a shirt there was nothing better to disguise the contents
underneath.

He walked over to the old bureau, that was flanked on one side by the
secret door to the den, and on the other by the cretonne hanging that,
stretched diagonally across the corner of the room, served the Rat as a
wardrobe. There was the shirt that he had worn on the night when he had
first come here, the night he had been wounded by the police. Whitie
Jack had washed the blood stains out, and had shoved it in the top
bureau drawer.

He pulled the drawer open, bent over it, reached in for the shirt,
straightened up—and the shirt dropped from his fingers. He did not move.
Something cold, and round, and hard was pressed none too gently against
the nape of his neck. His eyes had lifted to the mirror in front of him
mechanically, and he stood there staring into it now like a man dazed
and numbed. An arm was stretched out from behind the cretonne curtains,
and a hand held a revolver against his head. It was like some uncanny
moving picture that he was watching. For now the cretonne hanging moved;
and now a figure moved out from behind the hanging, and stood behind
him, Billy Kane, and stared, too, into the mirror, over his, Billy
Kane’s, shoulder. There were two faces in the glass now, two faces that
in form and features seemed identical—or else it was some strange mirage
that caused a double reflection of his own face. And then one of the
faces smiled malevolently, leeringly. It wasn’t his own face that
smiled. He wasn’t smiling—though his lips moved.

“The Rat!” he said, below his breath.

He felt a hand slip into his pocket, and remove his automatic. And then
the other spoke:

“Remarkable resemblance, isn’t it—Billy Kane? And the recognition
appears to be mutual—Billy Kane! I’ve been waiting here quite a while
for you this evening.”

Billy Kane did not answer. The Rat! The Rat was back! It was the moment,
arrived at last, that had haunted him from the moment he had taken upon
himself the other’s personality here in the underworld; but though he
was more at the other’s mercy with that revolver muzzle boring into his
neck, more helpless than he had thought to be when this time should
arrive, more powerless where, instead, he had told himself a hundred
times that at the worst it could be but a fight man to man, he found
himself far more unmoved now than he had anticipated he would be. He
found himself curiously composed. There seemed even a grim, sardonic
humor stirring in his soul. What did it matter now? To-night he had no
further use for the Rat’s mantle—she had seen to that by now. To-night
the whole house of cards had toppled anyway, and the ultimate worst had
happened, save only that the police had not yet got their steel
bracelets around his wrists. And yet there was a significance in the
cold menace of the other’s tone, and a still deeper significance, that
he did not like, in the other’s ostentatious repetition of his, Billy
Kane’s, name. It was obvious that Billy Kane was no stranger to the Rat!

“Get back to that table, and sit down there!” ordered the Rat curtly.

Billy Kane, because he had no choice, obeyed. It was like some weird,
extravagant hallucination of the brain. He was looking up from his chair
into what seemed to be his own face—only as he studied it now,
fascinated by it, he saw what no mirror had ever shown him was a part of
his own identity. The face was a little older, a little more drawn, and
there was an expression in the eyes, a smoldering something, a devil’s
malignity that burned out through the half-closed lids, leaving the
pupils like fever spots behind. And he remembered now that she had
commented upon the freshness of his face on that first night when they
had met.

“You fool!” sneered the Rat suddenly. “So you played the Rat, did you?
And did you think I didn’t know? Well, you seem to have liked it—Billy
Kane—and so I guess you’d better finish out the act, and play it until
the end. You can manage that, can’t you—say, for another ten
minutes—until the Rat is dead!”

Billy Kane’s hands tightened on the table edge. It was not only the
words, it was the eyes, and the face that were working now, that seemed
to possess some deadly eloquence.

“What do you mean?” Billy Kane steadied his voice.

“It won’t take long to tell you,” said the Rat roughly. “You’ve been
here long enough to know that apart from the old cobbler and his wife
upstairs, who mind their own business and are always deaf when they
don’t want to hear, this place is sound-proof to revolver shots. Well,
the game is up to-night. Your game—and my game! I’ve got one or two
little things to do here, and then I’m going; but I’m going to leave the
Rat behind—dead.”

Billy Kane’s fingers began to drum a light tattoo on the table. It was
strange that he could force his fingers to do that with an air of such
apparent unconcern. He was laboring under no delusions. He was fully
conscious that there was no bluff in the other’s words, that he was
actually sitting there and facing death in the most literal sense of the
term. The Rat’s reputation was quite enough in itself to make it certain
that the man would not hesitate in putting his threat into execution.
And then, besides, there were strange stirrings in his mind now that
were not comforting things. The Rat, cognizant of it all the time, had
deliberately let him, Billy Kane, play the role—and the drama was to end
with the Rat’s death. It seemed horribly logical. It would let the Rat
out of _her_ clutches to-night, for instance, and leave only a dead Rat
as prey for the police. He started involuntarily. Was that it? His
fingers stopped their movements. Suppose he warned the Rat that the
police were coming now? No! That would only cause the Rat to hurry—and
to shoot the sooner. Well then, suppose the police found _two_ Rats
here? It would not save Billy Kane, but it would end the career of one
of the most infamous scoundrels in the United States—and it would pay
his debt to her! If he could only stave the man off a little, fence for
time!

He could have laughed out wildly at the mocking irony of it. He was
praying now for the police to come! She would lead them, or some of
them, through that secret door, wouldn’t she?—though they would guard
both doors, take no chances, even while they would hardly expect to find
anyone here. The Rat was standing with his back to the secret door, and
Billy Kane’s eyes swept past the other now in a well-simulated vacant,
wavering way—and fell again upon the Rat.

The man was leaning a little farther over the table now, his lips parted
in a vicious smile. It was as though, innate in the other, was an unholy
joy to be derived from a victim’s plight, a joy that he sought to
augment by making his victim writhe the more if he could.

“And so you played the Rat, did you?” The Rat was sneering again. “Well,
you found out a lot more than was good for you, didn’t you? There was a
woman, wasn’t there? Maybe she didn’t introduce herself because she
thought you knew her well enough; but maybe you’re entitled to know
something about her, because she’s one of the reasons why you’re going
to snuff out in a few minutes.” His voice rose suddenly in a furious
burst of blasphemy. “Blast her!” he snarled. “She went too far! She
thought she could make me dance every time she cracked her little whip,
did she? She’ll wish now, if there’s any wishing where she’s gone, that
she’d stayed up on the Avenue with the rest of the swells where she
belongs, and left her infernal, nosey charities on the East Side alone.
Margaret Blaine—the banker’s daughter! Ha, ha! She had it in for me
because a girl she was interested in down here went and jumped in the
river. See? She swore she’d put me through one way or another for that.
And then she stumbled on a pal of mine the night he croaked off, and
found some papers on him that put me to the bad for fair. And that wised
her up to a lot more. And then, curse her, she tumbled to the game here,
and—well, I guess you know the hand she played.” He laughed raucously.
“I guess you’d ought to! But you needn’t worry about it any more! She’s
gone out—Billy Kane—understand? She went out—for keeps—at ten o’clock
to-night.”

Billy Kane’s eyes stole to the secret door again. He remembered the
fascination with which he had watched it slowly open on the night he had
lain there on the bed, and Karlin, in the hands of the police now, had
sat at the bedside, and Red Vallon had been here at the table. And it
seemed now as though the door moved again as it had moved that night.
But he could not be sure. Perhaps it was his imagination that was father
to the wish—and he dared not look steadily, or too long in that
direction.

He brushed his hand across his eyes. He understood well enough now why
the Rat had been indifferent to what Shaky Liz, or the Cherub, or any of
them, might hold over him—there would be no Rat, if he, Billy Kane, in
the Rat’s stead, were murdered. And the Rat believed, of course, that
she—her name was Margaret—Margaret Blaine—that she was dead. But he,
Billy Kane, was playing for time, wasn’t he? And the Rat, in his hideous
propensity for a cat-and-mouse game, seemed quite willing to talk.

“You killed her!” Billy Kane’s ejaculation was one of stunned
incredulity. “But—but she threatened me, when she thought I was you, by
saying that if anything happened to her the evidence against you would
be produced just the same.”

“Sure, she did!” leered the Rat. “In twenty-four hours after her
disappearance. And it’ll be twenty-four hours all right before they have
any proof of that. It wasn’t pulled off where a howl would go up ten
minutes after she snuffed out! Sure, in twenty-four hours! Well, I’m in
no hurry, am I? In twenty-four _minutes_ the Rat—that’s you—won’t need
to care what busts loose! It’ll save _me_ a lot of trouble if they find
the Rat sprawled out on the floor with a bullet through him, won’t it?”

The door! Had it moved inward a bare fraction of an inch, as it had that
other night? There would have been time by now, just time, for her and
the police to have got here. Was that a widening crack along that panel
there—or only a shadow flung with taunting malice by the murky light?
No—it moved now! He was sure of it. It moved!

He forced himself to laugh in a short, nervous way.

“I don’t see how that lets you out,” he mumbled. “What’s to become of
you if the Rat’s found dead?”

The Rat was moving back from the table to the side wall of the den.

“I’ll show you,” said the Rat, with an ugly grin. “And don’t move—you
understand? I’m a dead shot, and I’m not risking anything by being a few
feet farther away. You’d only go out a little sooner, and miss something
that’ll maybe sweeten your last moments—see?” His revolver still
covering Billy Kane, he raised his left hand and pressed against the
wall. A small panel door swung outward. “There’s nothing in there!”
mocked the Rat. “That’s the secret she was forever talking about having
discovered, and that’s the place she looted all right, and where she got
the dope about a lot of our plans, and kept me from wising up the crowd
about it in order to save my own skin. But there’s a thing or two she
didn’t know.” His hand crept farther along the wall, and pressed
suddenly against it again, and now a full board-length of the panelling
slid away. Something metallic fell with a thud to the floor—and then
Billy Kane was on his feet, clinging with a fierce, unconscious grip to
the table.

He had forgotten the police and that secret door at the far end of the
room, forgotten the peril in which he stood, forgotten that ugly black
muzzle of a revolver in the other’s hand. His mind and brain seemed to
be reeling. Some inhuman devil’s trick was being played upon him. That
was one of those iron crutch shafts, painted to resemble grained wood,
that the Rat was picking up—yes, and fitting it now with deft,
accustomed fingers to the armpiece! The Rat—the Man with the Crutch—the
murderer of David Ellsworth—the man whose very rôle he had taken upon
himself and played!

“You!” he cried, and swayed at the table. And then passion seized him.
“You hound of hell!” he shouted hoarsely. “The Man with the Crutch—it
was you who killed David Ellsworth!”

“Sit down!” The Rat’s lips were thinned, merciless; the revolver edged
forward. “Well, what about it! Why don’t you say Peters, too? You stuck
your nose pretty deep into that!”

Billy Kane mechanically sank back in his chair.

“So you’ve got it, have you?” jeered the Rat. “Sure, the Man with the
Crutch was me! And you, you fool, through your cursed interference with
Red Vallon, put the police on my trail for Peters’ murder. Well, I’m
going to let you be the Man with the Crutch too—as well as the Rat.
That’ll let me out on both counts!” He stood the crutch up against the
wall, and from the opening drew forth some clothes and flung them down
beside the crutch. “Get the idea? This is the costume that goes with the
crutch—sort of reserve stock. Understand? It wasn’t always convenient to
come here as the Rat, or leave here as the Man with the Crutch—or the
other way around, if you like. I’ll leave the stuff there where it’ll
show up, and the police can put two and two together the same as you
have. And that answers your question as to what is to become of me. I am
a gentleman of several parts, and I can spare _two_ of them. What’s left
is none of your business, and anyway I’m getting tired of this, and I’m
pretty near ready to go. But there’s one thing more—there were some
rubies you were looking for, weren’t there, besides the ones you’ve been
taking charge of and so kindly placed in that bag there a few minutes
ago without giving me the trouble of making you hand them over?” Again
his left hand, thrust back of him, sought the interior of the opening,
and came out with a number of small plush trays piled one on top of
another, the topmost flashing and scintillating now with its score of
fiery, blood-red stones. “You were looking for these, weren’t you?”
prodded the Rat, with a chuckle. “Well, you had ’em here with you all
the time!”

Billy Kane was fighting desperately for self-control. Could they hear
outside there? The man was condemning himself out of his own mouth! God,
could they _hear_ out there—did they understand that this man had
murdered David Ellsworth, and that Billy Kane was clear! He met the
Rat’s eyes with deliberate defiance now. More! Everything! The man must
be led into telling everything—he had not told enough yet to make it
sure—and perhaps they had not heard it all.

“And Peters,” he rasped out. “You killed Peters, too—Peters, who helped
you kill David Ellsworth! Weren’t you satisfied with your share, that
you had to steal his?”

The Rat had advanced to the table, and, setting down the trays, always
with his revolver covering Billy Kane, had begun to pour the contents of
one tray at a time into the open hand bag. He stopped now, and stared at
Billy Kane in a sort of contemptuous surprise.

“So that’s the way you doped it out, is it?” he said, and laughed
raucously. “And you’re kind to Peters, aren’t you? Peters, who wouldn’t
harm a fly! I killed Peters because his evidence at the inquest finished
Billy Kane for fair, and I didn’t want that evidence changed. It was
_me_ Peters saw coming down the back stairs and entering the library
that night—only he thought it was you. Do you take me for a fool? I knew
you’d see the report in the papers, and that, knowing there was
something wrong about Peters’ story, you’d hunt Peters out and have a
show-down, and that between you there was a chance of you getting at
more of the truth than I wanted, and that Peters would then retract his
evidence. Get me?

“I wasn’t for letting you out. I’d been banking on you to do a lot for
me. The only guy that was in with me on that deal was Jackson—and he’s
dead—just as the Rat is going to be. I spotted you long ago when you
used to nose around here for that old fool who pitched his money away. I
watched you quite a while before I was dead sure I could pass for
you—and then I warmed up to Jackson. The rest was easy. We croaked old
Ellsworth, and planted you. That gave me the coin I wanted to do what I
was getting ready for—to pull out of this Rat’s game forever. It was
getting too fierce with that cursed woman on my heels. So before I
pulled the Ellsworth trick, I set things going to get her too, and
passed the word around that I was going away for a while, so’s there’d
be no chance of her tumbling to anything—and I stood pat as the Man with
the Crutch. And then you acted like a Christmas tree shaking itself in
my lap. There were a lot of things coming along with certain friends of
mine, and with you playing the Rat and getting away with it, and with
you there to stand for it if anything broke wrong, it looked like a
cinch to nose them out at the tape on the little deals I’d started for
them, and that would let me get away with the whole wad myself. See?”

The Rat was pouring the rubies from the trays into the hand bag again,
his eyes glinting with a curious rapacious craftiness; and then, coming
to one of the trays whose corner had been cut off, he laughed outright
in a sort of self-complacent mirth.

“Do you remember this?” he taunted. “The night I croaked old Ellsworth I
beat it for here on the quiet the minute I left the house, and I put the
trays and half of the stones into that hiding place there, and then I
changed my clothes and wore my crutch over to where I lived when I
wasn’t at home here, and hid the rest of the stuff there. You know that,
all right! Blast you, you got it, and you nearly queered me! The Rat was
supposed to be away then—see? Well, that night when I was limping around
with my crutch, I was told the Rat was back—and it didn’t take me long
to find out your game. It looked like a piece of luck that was too good
to be true! It suited me—I was for it hard. The only thing I was afraid
of was that you might quit, so I left that ruby and the piece of tray
for you on the table. I thought I knew you. It would give you a start,
all right—but it would look as though this was where you were going to
get the clue you needed, and you’d stick for fair.”

The Rat attempted to close the bag, and snarled at the bent catches. He
finally fastened one of them partially, tossed the bag on the floor
behind him, and, his face suddenly working again, flung his revolver arm
out toward Billy Kane.

“If you’ve got anything to say before you go out—say it!” He was biting
off his words. “Don’t think that because I’ve been talking a lot to you
that I’m bluffing. I wouldn’t have opened up if I’d been bluffing, would
I? And, besides, there’s another count on which you’re due to snuff out.
The game’s up all around. I stalled on ringing down the curtain on the
girl and on you as long as I thought there was a chance of my getting
something out of those schemes that you kept butting in on. But you
queered that, too, away back on the night you put Karlin in bad, and the
police got him. Karlin’s begun to weaken and talk a little. That’s the
finish of the gang, and any more pickings for me. Sooner or later
Karlin’ll spill everything he knows, and he knows a lot, to save
himself; and then they’ll be looking for the Rat on several other
counts. So I passed the word to put the game with the girl through for
to-night—while I took care of you.”

Billy Kane felt his face whiten. He knew that round, black muzzle would
spit its tongue-flame in a moment. With the Rat’s hand around it, it
seemed curiously like the head of a snake that was coiled to strike. Had
they heard out there? Here was the bag that contained everything, all
that had been taken from David Ellsworth’s vault, and here was the
murderer, self-confessed. Had they heard? Had she heard? Would they
remember, would _she_ remember that Billy Kane’s name was cleared? And
if they were out there, why didn’t they come in? Were they going to
stand there and see him shot down—see another murder committed? No! He
understood. The slightest sound from the direction of that secret door
would be but the signal for the Rat to fire. It was up to
him—somehow—some way—to give them a chance to act. It was up to him in
some way to beat the Rat to that first shot, that would not be delayed
many seconds now.

He eyed the Rat for a moment steadily; appraised again the cold-blooded,
callous implacability in the other’s face—and then Billy Kane squared
his shoulders, and his hands on the table slid back a little until the
thumbs extended over the edge, and he laughed coolly.

“It’s the limit, is it, Bundy?” he said quietly. “Well, then, I’ll take
it standing up, you cur, if you don’t mind.”

The Rat nodded indifferently.

It seemed as though Billy Kane, for all his apparent coolness and
composure, was not equal to his self-appointed task. He half rose to his
feet, and sank back heavily in his chair again, and his hands, as though
to steady himself, clutched with seemingly desperate energy farther over
the table’s edge—and then, in a flash, the table was in mid-air between
the two men, and, as it hurtled forward, Billy Kane, crouched low,
leaped for the other, as the Rat, with an oath, sprang to one side to
avoid the table.

A red flame blinded Billy Kane’s eyes, an acrid smell filled his
nostrils, and seemed to stifle him, and make his head swim dizzily, and
his left side seemed curiously numb and dead, but his hands had reached
their mark, and had closed like steel vises around the Rat’s throat. And
he hung there, hung there because a fury and a seething passion gave him
superhuman strength—hung there as cries resounded through the room, and
there came the rush of feet—hung there as he crashed downward to the
floor dragging the Rat with him—hung there as an utter blackness came
and settled upon him.

                                  ————

It was strange and very curious. He opened his eyes. He was in bed, and
someone was sitting there very quietly, with head bent over and resting
on the back of his outstretched hand. He tried to remember. He should
have been on the floor in the den, shouldn’t he? And where was the Rat?
Had they got the Rat? His eyes opened a little wider. That dark head
there seemed strangely familiar. His side hurt him brutally. He
remembered that shot now. A sort of grim humor came upon him. He was
back where he had started from on that first night in the underworld—in
bed with a pistol-shot wound. The Rat must have got him after all. But
the Rat—the Rat! He started up in bed involuntarily.

There came a little cry. The dark head was raised. It was the Woman in
Black. No, that wasn’t her name. It was Margaret—Margaret Blaine. He
wanted to call her that. He tried to speak. He was very weak.

“You mustn’t try to move,” she said softly. “You have been very badly
hurt, though, thank God, not dangerously so. And it’s all right—I know
you want to know that. They’ve got the Rat—for the murder of David
Ellsworth. We heard it all last night, and did not dare to move while he
kept that revolver on you, and I was mad with fear.”

“Yes,” said Billy Kane weakly. “It’s morning now, isn’t it?”

Cool fingers closed his lips.

“Yes, but don’t talk,” she said, with a sudden attempt at severity—and,
as suddenly, her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, I did not know last
night—I did not understand—and you risked your life to save mine.”

Her life! He was not so weak but that he could understand that. His hand
groped out for hers. It seemed as though he had always loved her—only
those strange doors of the night had stood between. But now—now there
was something in her eyes, behind that film of tears and those wet
lashes, that made him dare.

“Your life! Would you trust me with it again—for always?” he whispered.

Again the cool fingers closed his lips.

“Billy, you are to be absolutely quiet,” she said. “Those are the very
strictest orders.”

But her head was nestling on the pillow against his cheek, and there was
a great gladness in his heart.


                                THE END


                                  ————

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*Greyfriars Bobby.* By Eleanor Atkinson.
*Gun Brand, The.* By James B. Hendryx.

*Hand of Fu-Manchu, The.* By Sax Rohmer.
*Happy House.* By Baroness Von Hutten.
*Harbor Road, The.* By Sara Ware Bassett.
*Havoc.* By E. Phillips Oppenheim.
*Heart of the Desert, The.* By Honorè Willsie.
*Heart of the Hills, The.* By John Fox, Jr.
*Heart of the Sunset.* By Rex Beach.
*Heart of Thunder Mountain, The.* By Edfrid A. Bingham.
*Heart of Unaga, The.* By Ridgwell Cullum.
*Hidden Children, The.* By Robert W. Chambers.
*Hidden Trails.* By William Patterson White.
*Highflyers, The.* By Clarence B. Kelland.
*Hillman, The.* By E. Phillips Oppenheim.
*Hills of Refuge, The.* By Will N. Harben.
*His Last Bow.* By A. Conan Doyle.
*His Official Fiancee.* By Berta Ruck.
*Honor of the Big Snows.* By James Oliver Curwood.
*Hopalong Cassidy.* By Clarence E. Mulford.
*Hound from the North, The.* By Ridgwell Cullum.
*House of the Whispering Pines, The.* By Anna Katharine Green.
*Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker.* By S. Weir Mitchell, M.D.
*Humoresque.* By Fannie Hurst.

*I Conquered.* By Harold Titus.
*Illustrious Prince, The.* By E. Phillips Oppenheim.
*In Another Girl’s Shoes.* By Berta Ruck.
*Indifference of Juliet, The.* By Grace S. Richmond.
*Inez. (III. Ed.)* By Augusta J. Evans.

*Infelice.* By Augusta Evans Wilson.
*Initials Only.* By Anna Katharine Green.
*Inner Law, The.* By Will N. Harben.
*Innocent.* By Marie Corelli.
*In Red and Gold.* By Samuel Merwin.
*Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, The.* By Sax Rohmer.
*In the Brooding Wild.* By Ridgwell Cullum.
*Intriguers, The.* By William Le Queux.
*Iron Furrow, The.* By George C. Shedd.
*Iron Trail, The.* By Rex Beach.
*Iron Woman, The.* By Margaret Deland.
*Ishmael. (III.)*  By Mrs. Southworth.
*Island of Surprise.* By Cyrus Townsend Brady.
*I Spy.* By Natalie Sumner Lincoln.
*It Pays to Smile.* By Nina Wilcox Putnam.
*I’ve Married Marjorie.* By Margaret Widdemer.

*Jean of the Lazy A.* By B. M. Bower.
*Jeanne of the Marshes.* By E. Phillips Oppenheim.
*Jennie Gerhardt.* By Theodore Dreiser.
*Johnny Nelson.* By Clarence E. Mulford.
*Judgment House, The.* By Gilbert Parker.

*Keeper of the Door, The.* By Ethel M. Dell.
*Keith of the Border.* By Randall Parrish.
*Kent Knowles: Quahaug.* By Joseph C. Lincoln.
*Kingdom of the Blind, The.* By E. Phillips Oppenheim.
*King Spruce.* By Holman Day.
*Knave of Diamonds, The.* By Ethel M. Dell.

*La Chance Mine Mystery, The.* By S. Carleton.
*Lady Doc, The.* By Caroline Lockhart.
*Land-Girl’s Love Story, A.* By Berta Ruck.
*Land of Strong Men, The.* By A. M. Chisholm.
*Last Straw, The.* By Harold Titus.
*Last Trail, The.* By Zane Grey.
*Laughing Bill Hyde.* By Rex Beach.
*Laughing Girl, The.* By Robert W. Chambers.
*Law Breakers, The.* By Ridgwell Cullum.
*Law of the Gun, The.* By Ridgwell Cullum.





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