"I got to have me bit of coke," Pinkie answered, with a shrug of his shoulders. "An', anyway, I'm no pipe-hitter.
"It's all the same whatever way you take it!" retorted Shluker. "Well, go on with your story. You went down to Charlie's dope parlors, and jabbed a needle into yourself, or took it some other old way. I get you! What happened then?"
"It was about an hour ago," resumed Pinkie Bonn with undisturbed complacency. "Just as I was beatin' it out of there by the cellar, I hears some whisperin' as I was passin' one of the end doors. Savvy? I hadn't made no noise, an' they hadn't heard me. I gets a peek in, 'cause the door's cracked. It was French Pete an' Marny Day. I listens. An' after about two seconds I was goin' shaky for fear some one would come along an' I wouldn't get the whole of it. Take it from me, Shluk, it was some goods!"
Shluker grunted noncommittingly.
"Well, go on!" he prompted.
"I didn't get all the fine points," grinned Pinkie; "but I got enough. There was a guy by the name of Dainey who used to live somewhere on the East Side here, an' he used to work in some sweat-shop, an' he worked till he got pretty old, an' then his lungs, or something, went bad on him, an' he went broke. An' the doctor said he had to beat it out of here to a more salubrious climate. Some nut filled his ear full 'bout gold huntin' up in Alaska, an' he fell for it. He chewed it over with his wife, an' she was for it too, 'cause the doctor 'd told her her old man would bump off if he stuck around here, an' they hadn't any money to get away together. She figured she could get along workin' out by the day till he came back a millionaire; an' old Dainey started off.
"I dunno how he got there. I'm just fillin' in what I hears French Pete an' Marny talkin' about. I guess mostly he beat his way there ridin' the rods; but, anyway, he got there. See? An' then he goes down sick there again, an' a hospital, or some outfit, has to take care of him for a couple of years; an' back here the old woman got kind of feeble an' on her uppers, an there was hell to pay, an'—"
"Wot's bitin' youse, Nan?" The Pug's lisping whisper broke sharply in upon Pinkie Bonn's story.
Rhoda Gray started. She was conscious now that she had been leaning forward, staring in a startled way at Pinkie as he talked; conscious now that for a moment she had forgotten—that she was Gypsy Nan. But she was mistress of herself on the instant, and she scowled blackly at the Pug.
"Mabbe it's me soft heart dat's touched!" she flung out acidly. "Youse close yer trap, an' let Pinkie talk!"
"Yes, shut up!" said Pinkie. "What was I sayin'? Oh, yes! An' then the old guy makes a strike. Can you beat it! I dunno nothing about the way they pull them things, but he's off by his lonesome out somewhere, an' he finds gold, an' stakes out his claim, but he takes sick again an' can't work it, an' it's all he can do to get back alive to civilization. He keeps his mouth shut for a while, figurin' he'll get strong again, but it ain't no good, an' he gets a letter from the old woman tellin' how bad she is, an' then he shows some of the stuff he'd found. After that there's nothing to it! Everybody's beatin' it for the place; but, at that, old Dainey comes out of it all right, an' goes crazy with joy 'cause some guy offers him twenty-five thousand bucks for his claim, an' throws in the expenses home for good luck. He gets the money in cash, twenty-five one-thousand-dollar bills, an' the chicken feed for the expenses, an' starts for back here an' the old woman. But this time he don't keep his mouth shut about it when he'd have been better off if he had. See? He was tellin' about it on the train. I guess he was tellin' about it all the way across. But, anyway, he tells about it comm' from Philly this afternoon, an' French Pete an' Marny Day happens to be on the train, an' they hears it, an' frames it up to annex the coin before morning, 'cause he's got in too late to get the money into any bank to-day."
Pinkie Bonn paused, and stuck his tongue significantly in his cheek.
Shluker was rubbing his hands together now in a sort of unctuous way.
"It sounds pretty good," he murmured; "only there's Danglar—"
"Youse leave Danglar to me!" broke in the Pug. "As soon as we hands one to dem two boobs an' gets de cash, Pinkie can beat it back here wid de coin an wait fer me while I finds Danglar an' squares it wid him. He ain't goin' to put up no holler at dat. We ain't runnin' de gang into nothin'. Dis is private business—see? So youse just take a sneak wid yerself, an' fix a nice little alibi fer us so's we won't be takin' any chances."
"But what's the good of that?" he demurred. "French Pete and Marny Day 'll see you anyway."
"Will dey!" scoffed the Pug. "Guess once more! A coupla handkerchiefs over our mugs is good enough fer dem, if youse holds yer end up. An' dey wouldn't talk fer publication, anyway, would dey?"
Shluker smiled now-almost ingratiatingly.
"And how much is my end worth?" he inquired softly.
"One of dem thousand-dollar engravin's," stated the Pug promptly. "An' Pinkie'll run around an' slip it to youse before mornin'."
"All right," said Shluker, after a moment. "It's half past eight now. From nine o'clock on, you can beat any jury in New York to it that you were both at the same old place—as long as you keep decently under cover. That'll do, won't it? I'll fix it. But I don't see—"
Rhoda Gray, as Gypsy Nan, for the first time projected herself into the discussion. She cackled suddenly in jeering mirth.
"I t'ought something was wrong wid her!" whispered the Pug with mock anxiety. "Mabbe she ain't well! Tell us about it, Nan!"
"When I do," she said complacently, "mabbe youse'll smile out of de other corner of dat mouth of yers!" She turned to Shluker. "Youse needn't lay awake waitin' fer dat thousand, Shluker, 'cause youse'll never see it. De little game's all off—'cause it's already been pulled. See? Dere was near a riot as I passes along a street goin' to yer place, an' I gets piped off to wot's up, an' it's de same story dat Pinkie's told, an' de crib's cracked, an' de money's gone—dat's all."
Shluker's face fell.
"I said you were fools when I first came in here!" he burst out suddenly, wheeling on Pinkie Bonn and the Pug. "I'm sure of it now. I was wonderin a minute ago how you were goin' to keep your lamps on Pete and Marny from here, or know when they were goin' to pull their stunt, or where to find 'em."
Pinkie Bonn, ignoring Shluker, leaned toward Rhoda Gray.
"Say, Nan, is that straight?" he inquired anxiously. "You sure?"
"Sure, I'm sure!" Rhoda Gray asserted tersely. The one thought in her head now was that her information would naturally deprive these men here of any further interest in the matter, and that she would get away as quickly as possible, and, in some way or other, see that the police were tipped off to the fact that it was French Pete and Marny Day who had taken the old couple's money. Those two old faces rose before her again now—blotting out most curiously the face of Pinkie Bonn just in front of her. She felt strangely glad—glad that she had heard all of old Dainey's story, because she could see now an ending to it other than the miserable, hopeless one of despair that she had read in the Daineys' faces just a little while ago. "Sure, I'm sure!" she repeated with finality.
"How long ago was it?" prodded Pinkie.
"I dunno," she answered. "I just went to Shluker's, an' den we comes over here. Youse can figure it fer yerself."
And then Rhoda Gray stared at the other—with sudden misgiving. Pinkie Bonn's face was suddenly wreathed in smiles.
"I'll answer you now, Shluk," he grinned. "What do you think? That we're nuts, me an' Pug? Well, forget it! We didn't have to stick around watchin' Pete an' Marny; we just had to wait until they had collected the dough. That was the most trouble we had—wonderin' when that would be. Well, we don't have to wonder any more. We know now that the cherries are ripe. See? An' now we'll go an' pick 'em! Where? Where d'ye suppose? Down to Charlie's, of course! I hears 'em talkin' about that, too. They ain't so foolish! They're out for an alibi themselves. Get the idea? They was to sneak out of Charlie's without anybody seem' 'em, an' if everything broke right for 'em, they was to sneak back again an' spend the night there. No, they ain't so foolish—I guess they ain't! There ain't no place in New York you can get in an' out of without nobody knowin' it like Charlie's, if you know the way, an—"
"Aw, write de rest of it down in yer memoirs!" interposed the Pug impatiently—and moved toward the door. "It's all right, Shluker—all de way. Now, everybody beat it, an' get on de job. Nan, youse sticks wid Pinkie an' me."
Rhoda Gray, her mind in confusion, found herself being crowded hurriedly through the doorway by the three men. Still in a mentally confused condition, she found herself, a few minutes later—Shluker having parted company with them—walking along the street between Pinkie Bonn and the Pug. She was fighting desperately to obtain a rip upon herself. The information she had volunteered had had an effect diametrically opposite to that which she had intended. She seemed terribly impotent; as though she were being swept from her feet and borne onward by some swift and remorseless current, whether she would or no.
The Pug, in his curious whisper, was talking to her: "Pinkie knows de way in. We don't want any row in dere, on account of Charlie. We ain't fer puttin' his place on de rough, an' gettin' him raided by de bulls. Charlie's all to de good. See? Well, dat's wot 'd likely happen if me an' Pinkie busts in on Pete an' Marny widout sendin' in our visitin'-cards first, polite-like. Dey would pull deir guns, an' though we'd get de coin just de same, dere'd be hell to pay fer Charlie, an' de whole place 'd go up in fireworks right off de bat. Well, dis is where youse come in. Youse are de visitin'-card. Youse gets into deir bunk room, pretendin' youse have made a mistake, an' youse leaves de door open behind youse. Dey don't know youse, an', bein' a woman, dey won't pull no gun on youse. An' den youse breaks it gently to dem dat dere's a coupla gents outside, an' just about den dey looks up an' sees me an' Pinkie an' our guns-an' I guess dat's all. Get it?"
"Sure!" mumbled Rhoda Gray.
The Pug talked on. She did not hear him. It seemed as though her brain ached literally with an acute physical pain. What was she to do? What could she do? She must do something! There must be some way to save herself from being drawn into the very center of this vortex toward which she was being swept closer with every second that passed. Those two old faces, haggard in their despair and misery, rose before her again. She felt her heart sink. She had counted, only a few moments before, on getting their money back for them—through the police. The police! How could she get any word to the police now, without first getting away from these two men here? And suppose she did get away, and found some means of communicating with the authorities, it would be Pinkie Bonn here, and the Pug, who would fall into the meshes of the law quite as much as would French Pete and Marny Day; and to have Pinkie and the Pug apprehended now, just as they seemed to be opening the gateway for her into the inner secrets of the gang, meant ruin to her own hopes and plans. And to refuse to go on with them now, as one of them, would certainly excite their suspicions—and suspicion of Gypsy Nan was the end of everything for her.
Her hands, under her shawl, clenched until the nails bit into her palms. Couldn't she do anything? And there was the money, too, for those two old people. Wasn't there any—She caught her breath. Yes, yes! Perhaps there was a way to save the money; yes, and at the same time to place herself on a firmer footing of intimacy with these two men here—if she went on with this. But—She shook her head. She could not afford "buts" now; they must take care of themselves afterwards. She would play Gypsy Nan now without reservation. These two men here, like Shluker, were obviously ignorant that Gypsy Nan was Danglar's wife; so she was—Pinkie Bonn's hand was on her arm. She had stumbled.
"Look out for yourself!" he cautioned under his breath. "Don't make a sound!"
They had drawn into a very dark and narrow area way between two buildings, and now Pinkie kept his touch upon her as he led the way along. What was this "Charlie's"? She did not know, except that, from what had been said, it was a drug dive of some kind, patronized extensively by the denizens of the underworld. She did not know where she was now, save that she had suddenly left one of the out-of-the—way East Side streets.
Pinkie halted suddenly, and, bending down, lifted up what was evidently a half section of the folding trapdoor to a cellar entrance.
"There's only a few of us regulars wise to this," whispered Pinkie. "Watch yourself! There's five steps. Count 'em, so's you won't trip. Keep hold of me all the way. An' nix on the noise, or we won't get away with it inside. Leave the trap open, Pug, for our getaway. We ain't goin' to be long. Come on!"
It was horribly dark. Rhoda Gray, with her hand on Pinkie Bonn's shoulder, descended the five steps. She felt the Pug keeping touch behind by holding the corner of her shawl. They went forward softly, slowly, stealthily. She felt her knees shake a little, and suddenly panic seized her, and she wanted to scream out. What was she doing? Where was she going? Was she mad, that she had ventured into this trap of blackness? Blackness! It was hideously black. She looked behind her. She could not see the Pug, close as he was to her; and dark as she had thought it outside there at the cellar entrance, it appeared by contrast to have been light, for she could even distinguish now the opening through which they had come.
They were in a cellar that was damp underfoot, and the soft earth deadened all sound as they walked upon it—and they seemed to be walking on interminably. It was too far—much too far! She felt her nerve failing her. She looked behind her again. That opening, still discernible to her straining eyes, beckoned her, lured her. Better to...
Pinkie had halted again. She bumped into him. And then she felt his lips press against her ear.
"Here we are!" he breathed. "They got the end room on the right, so's they could get in an' out with out bein' seen, an so's even Charlie'd swear they was here all the time. You're too old a bird to fall down, Nan. If the door's locked, knock—an' give 'em any old kind of a song an' dance till you gets 'em off their guard. The Pug an' me 'll see you through. Go it!"
Before Rhoda Gray could reply, Pinkie had stepped suddenly to one side. A door in front of her, a sliding door it seemed to be, opened noiselessly, and she could see a faintly lighted, narrow, and very short passage ahead of her. It appeared to make a right-angled turn just a few yards in, and what light there was seemed to filter in from around the corner. And on each side of the passage, before it made the turn, there was a door, and from the one on the right, through a cracked panel, a tiny thread of light seeped out.
Her lips moved silently. After all, it was not so perilous. Nobody would be hurt. Pinkie and the Pug would cover those two men in there—and take the money—and run for it—and...
The Pug gave her an encouraging push from behind.
She moved forward mechanically. There were many sounds now, but they came muffled and indeterminate from around that corner ahead—all save a low murmuring of voices from the door with the cracked panel on the right.
It was only a few feet. She found herself crouched before the door—but she did not knock upon it. Instead, her blood seemed suddenly to run cold in her veins, and she beckoned frantically to her two companions. She could see through the crack in the panel. There were two men in there, French Pete and Marny Day undoubtedly, and they sat on opposite sides of a table, and a lamp burned on the table, and one of the men was counting out a sheaf of crisp yellow-back banknotes—but the other, while apparently engrossed in the first man's occupation, and while he leaned forward in apparent eagerness, was edging one hand stealthily toward the lamp, and his other hand, hidden from his companion's view by the table, was just drawing a revolver from his pocket. There was no mistaking the man's murderous intentions. A dull horror, that numbed her brain, seized upon Rhoda Gray; the low-type brutal faces under the rays of the lamp seemed to assume the aspect of two monstrous gargoyles, and to spin around and around before her vision; and then—it could only have been but the fraction of a second since she had begun to beckon to Pinkie and the Pug—she felt herself pulled unceremoniously away from the door, and the Pug leaned forward in her place, his eyes to the crack in the panel.
She heard a low, quick-muttered exclamation from the Pug; and then suddenly, as the lamp was obviously extinguished, that crack of light in the panel had vanished. But in an instant, curiously like a jagged lightning flash, light showed through the crack again—and vanished again. It was the flash of a revolver shot from within, and the roar of the report came now like the roll of thunder on its heels.
Rhoda Gray was back against the opposite wall. She saw the Pug fling himself against the door. It was a flimsy affair. It crashed inward. She heard him call to Pinkie:
"Shoot yer flash on de table, an' grab de coin! I'll fix de other guy!"
Were eternities passing? Her eyes were fascinated by the interior beyond that broken door. It was utterly dark inside there, save that the ray of a flashlight played now on the table, and a hand reached out and snatched up a scattered sheaf of banknotes; and on the outer edge of the ray two shadowy forms struggled and one went down. Then the flashlight went out She heard the Pug speak:
Commotion came now; cries and footsteps from around that corner in the passage. The Pug grasped her by the shoulders, and rushed her back into the cellar. She was conscious, it seemed, only in a dazed and mechanical way. There were men in the passage running toward them—and then the passage had disappeared. Pinkie Bonn had shut the connecting door.
"Hop it like blazes!" whispered the Pug, as they ran for the faint glimmer of light that located the cellar exit. "Separate de minute we're outside!" he ordered. "Dere's murder in dere. Pete shot Marny. I put Pete to sleep wid a punch on de jaw; but de bunch knows now some one else was dere, an' Pete'll swear it was us, though he don't know who we was dat did de shootin'. I gotta make dis straight right off de bat wid Danglar." His whispering voice was labored, panting; they were climbing up the steps now. "Youse take de money to my room, Pinkie, an' wait fer me. I won't be much more'n half an hour. Nan, youse beat it fer yer garret, an' stay dere!"
They were outside. The Pug had disappeared in the darkness. Pinkie was closing, and evidently fastening, the trap-door.
"The other way, Nan!" he flung out, as she started to run. "That takes you to the other street, an' they can't get around that way without goin' around the whole block. Me for a fence I knows about, an' we gives 'em the merry laugh! Go on!"
She ran—ran breathlessly, stumbling, half falling, her hands stretched out before her to serve almost in lieu of eyes, for she could make out scarcely anything in front of her. She emerged upon a street. It seemed abnormal, the quiet, the lack of commotion, the laughter, the unconcern in the voices of the passers-by among whom she suddenly found herself. She hurried from the neighborhood.
XIII. THE DOOR ACROSS THE HALL
It was many blocks away before calmness came again to Rhoda Gray, and before it seemed, even, that her brain would resume its normal functions; but with the numbed horror once gone, there came in its place, like some surging tide, a fierce virility that would not be denied. The money! The old couple on that doorstep, stripped of their all! Wasn't that one reason why she had gone on with Pinkie Bonn and the Pug? Hadn't she seen a way, or at least a chance, to get that money back?
Rhoda Gray looked quickly about her. On the corner ahead she saw a drug store, and started briskly in that direction. Yes, there was a way! The idea had first come to her from the Pug's remark to Shluker that, after they had secured the money, Pinkie would return with it to the Pug's room, while the Pug would go and square things with Danglar. And also, at the same time, that same remark of the Pug's had given rise to a hope that she might yet trace Danglar to night through the Pug—but the circumstances and happenings of the last few minutes had shattered that hope utterly. And so there remained the money. And, as she had walked with Pinkie and the Pug a little while ago, knowing that Pinkie would, if they were successful, carry the money back to the Pug's room, just as was being done now precisely in accordance with the Pug's original intentions, she had thought of the Adventurer. It had seemed the only way then; it seemed the only way now—despite the fact that she would be hard put to it to answer the Adventurer if he thought to ask her how, or by what means, she was in possession of the information that enabled her to communicate with him. But she must risk that—put him off, if necessary, through the plea of haste, and on the ground that there was not time to-night for an unnecessary word. He had given her, believing her to be Gypsy Nan, his telephone number, which she, in turn, was to transmit to the White Moll—in other words, herself! But the White Moll, so he believed, had never received that message—and it must of necessity be as the White Moll that she must communicate with him to-night! It would be hard to explain—she meant to evade it. The one vital point was that she remembered the telephone number he had given her that night when he and Danglar had met in the garret. She was not likely to have forgotten it!
Rhoda Gray, alias Gypsy Nan, scuffled along. Was she inconsistent? The Adventurer would be in his element in going to the Pug's room, and in relieving Pinkie Bonn of that money; but the Adventurer, too, was a thief-wasn't he? Why, then, did she propose, for her mind was now certainly made up as to her course of action, to trust a thief to recover that money for her?
She smiled a little wearily as she reached the drug store, stepped into the telephone booth, and gave central her call. Trust a thief! No, it wasn't because her heart prompted her to believe in him; it was because her head assured her she was safe in doing so. She could trust him in an instance such as this because—well, because once before, for her sake he had foregone the opportunity of appropriating a certain diamond necklace worth a hundred times the sum that she would ask him—yes, if necessary, for her sake—to recover to-night. There was no...
She was listening in a startled way now at the instrument. Central had given her "information"; and "information" was informing her that the number she had asked for had been disconnected.
She hung up the receiver, and went out again to the street in a dazed and bewildered way. And then suddenly a smile of bitter self-derision crossed her lips. She had been a fool! There was no softer word—a fool! Why had she not stopped to think? She understood now! On the night the Adventurer had confided that telephone number to her as Gypsy Nan, he had had every reason to believe that Gypsy Nan would, as she had already apparently done, befriend the White Moll even to the extent of accepting no little personal risk in so doing. But since then things had taken a very different turn. The White Moll was now held by the gang, of which Gypsy Nan was supposed to be a member, to be the one who had of late profited by the gang's plans to the gang's discomfiture; and the Adventurer was ranked but little lower in the scale of hatred, since they counted him to be the White Moll's accomplice. Knowing this, therefore, the first thing the Adventurer would naturally do would be to destroy the clew, in the shape of that telephone number, that would lead to his whereabouts, and which he of course believed he had put into the gang's hands when he had confided in Gypsy Nan. Had he not told her, no later than last night, that Gypsy Nan was her worst enemy? He did not know, did he, that Gypsy Nan and the White Moll were one! And so that telephone had been disconnected—and to-night, now, just when she needed help at a crucial moment, when she had counted upon the Adventurer to supply it, there was no Adventurer, no means of reaching him, and no means any more of knowing where he was!
Rhoda Gray walked on along the street, her lips tight, her face drawn and hard. Failing the Adventurer, there remained—the police. If she telephoned the police and sent them to the Pug's room, they would of a certainty recover the money, and with equal certainty restore it to its rightful owners. She had already thought of that when she had been with Pinkie and the Pug, and had been loath even then to take such a step because it seemed to spell ruin to her own personal plans; but now there was another reason, and one far more cogent, why she should not do so. There had been murder committed back there in that underground drug-dive, and of that murder Pinkie Bonn was innocent; but if Pinkie were found in possession of that money, and French Pete, to save his own skin from the consequences of a greater crime, admitted to its original theft, Pinkie would be convicted out of hand, for there were the others in that dive, who had come running along the passage, to testify that an attack had been made on the door of French Pete and Marny Day's room, and that the thieves and murderers had fled through the cellar and escaped.
Her lips pressed harder together. And so there was no Adventurer upon whom she could call, and no police, and no one in all the millions in this great pulsing city to whom she could appeal; and so there remained only—herself.
Well, she could do it, couldn't she? Not as Gypsy Nan, of course—but as the White Moll. It would be worth it, wouldn't it? If she were sincere, and not a moral hypocrite in her sympathy for those two outraged old people in the twilight of their lives, and if she were not a moral coward, there remained no question as to what her decision should be.
Her mind began to mull over the details. Subconsciously, since the moment she had made her escape from that cellar, she found now that she had been walking in the direction of the garret that sheltered her as Gypsy Nan. In another five minutes she could reach that deserted shed in the lane behind Gypsy Nan's house where her own clothes were hidden, and it would take her but a very few minutes more to effect the transformation from Gypsy Nan to the White Moll. And then, in another ten minutes, she should be back again at the Pug's room. The Pug had said he would not be much more than half an hour, but, as nearly as she could calculate it, that would still give her from five to ten minutes alone with Pinkie Bonn. It was enough—more than enough. The prestige of the White Moll would do the rest. A revolver in the hands of the White Moll would insure instant and obedient respect from Pinkie Bonn, or any other member of the gang under similar conditions. And so—and so—it—would not be difficult. Only there was a queer fluttering at her heart now, and her breath came in hard, short little inhalations. And she spoke suddenly to herself:
"I'm glad," she whispered, "I'm glad I saw those two old faces on that doorstep, because—because, if I hadn't, I—I would be afraid."
The minutes passed. The dissolute figure of an old hag disappeared, like a deeper shadow in the blackness of a lane, through the broken door of a deserted shed; presently a slim, neat little figure, heavily veiled, emerged. Again the minutes passed. And now the veiled figure let herself in through the back door of the Pug's lodging house, and stole softly down the dark hall, and halted before the Pug's door. It was the White Moll now.
From under the door, at the ill-fitting threshold, there showed a thin line of light. Rhoda Gray, with her ear against the door panel, listened. There was no sound of voices from within. Pinkie Bonn, then, was still alone, and still waiting for the Pug. She glanced sharply around her. There was only darkness. Her gloved right hand was hidden in the folds of her skirt; she raised her left hand and knocked softly upon the door-two raps, one rap, two raps. She repeated it. And as it had been with Shluker, so it was now with her. A footstep crossed the floor within, the key turned in the lock, and the door was flung open.
"All right, Pug," said Pinkie Bonn, "I—"
The man's words ended in a gasp of surprised amazement. With a quick step forward, Rhoda Gray was in the room. Her revolver, suddenly outflung, covered the other; and her free hand, reaching behind her, closed and locked the door again.
There was an almost stupid look of bewilderment on Pinkie Bonn's face.
Rhoda Gray threw back her veil.
"My Gawd!" mumbled Pinkie Bonn—and licked his lips. "The White Moll!"
"Yes!" said Rhoda Gray tersely. "Put your hands up over your head and go over there and stand against the wall—with your face to it!"
Pinkie Bonn, like an automaton moved purely by mechanical means, obeyed.
Rhoda Gray followed him, and with the muzzle of her revolver pressed into the small of the man's back, felt rapidly over his clothes with her left hand for the bulge of his revolver. She found and possessed herself of the weapon, and, stepping back, ordered him to turn around again.
"I haven't much time," she said icily. "I'll trouble you now for the cash you took from Marny Day and French Pete."
"My Gawd!" he mumbled again. "You know about that!"
"Quick!" she said imperatively. "Put it on the table there, and then go back again to the wall!"
Pinkie Bonn fumbled in his pocket. His face was white, almost chalky white, and it held fear; but its dominant expression was one of helpless stupefaction. He placed the sheaf of banknotes on the table, and shuffled back again to the wall.
Rhoda Gray picked up the money, and retreated to the door. Still facing the man, working with her left hand behind her back, she unlocked the door again, and this time removed the key from the lock.
"You are quite safe here," she observed evenly, "since there appears to be no window through which you could get out; but you might make it a little unpleasant for me if you gave the alarm and aroused the other occupants of the house before I had got well away. I dare say that was in your mind, but"—she opened the door slightly, and inserted the key on the outer side—"I am quite sure you will reconsider any such intentions—Pinkie. It would be a very disastrous thing for you if I were caught. Somebody is 'wanted' for the murder of Marny Day at Charlie's a little while ago, and a jury would undoubtedly decide that the guilty man was the one who broke in the door there and stole the money. And if I were caught and were obliged to confess that I got it from you, and French Pete swore that it was whoever broke into the room that shot his pal, it might go hard with you, Pinkie—don't you think so?" She smiled coldly at the man's staring eyes and dropped jaw. "Good-night, Pinkie; I know you won't make any noise," she said softly—and suddenly opened the door, and in a flash stepped back into the hall, and closed and locked the door, and whipped out the key from the lock.
And inside Pinkie Bonn made no sound.
It was done now. Rhoda Gray drew in her breath in a great choking gasp of relief. She found herself trembling violently. She found her limbs were bearing her none too steadily, as she began to grope her way now along the black hall toward the back door. But it was done now, and—No, she was not safe away, even yet! Some one was coming in through that back door just ahead of her; or, at least, she heard voices out there.
She was just at the end of the hall now. There was no time to go back and risk the front entrance. She darted across the hall to the opposite side from that of the Pug's room, because on that side the opening of the door would not necessarily expose her, and crouched down in the corner. It was black here, perhaps black enough to escape observation. She listened, her heart beating wildly. The voices outside continued. Why were they lingering there? Why didn't they do one thing or the other—either go away, or come in? There wasn't any too much time! The Pug might be back at any minute now. Perhaps one of those people out there was the Pug! Perhaps it would be better after all to run back and go out by the front door, risky as that would be. No, her escape in that direction now was cut off, too!
She shrank as far back into the corner as she could. The door of the end room on this side of the hall had opened, and now a man stepped out and closed the door behind him. Would he see her? She held her breath. No! It—it was all right. He was walking away from her toward the front of the hall. And now for a moment it seemed as though she had lost her senses, as though her brain were playing some mad, wild trick upon her. Wasn't that the Pug's door before which the man had stopped? Yes, yes! And he seemed to have a key to it, for he did not knock, and the door was opening, and now for an instant, just an instant, the light fell upon the man as he stepped with a quick, lightning-like movement inside, and she saw his face. It was the Adventurer.
She stifled a little cry. Her brain was in turmoil. And now the back door was opening. They—they might see her here! And—yes—it was safer—safer to act on the sudden inspiration that had come to her. The door of the room from which the Adventurer had emerged was almost within reach; and he had not locked it as he had gone out—she had subconsciously noted that fact. And she understood why he had not now—that he had safeguarded himself against the loss of even the second or two it would have taken him to unlock it when he ran back for cover again from the Pug's room. Yes-that room! It was the safest thing she could do. She could even get out that way, for it must be the room with the low window, which she remembered gave on the back yard, and—She darted silently forward, and, as the back door opened, slipped into the room the Adventurer had just vacated.
It was pitch black. She must not make a sound; but, equally, she must not lose a second. What was taking place in the Pug's room between Pinkie Bonn and the Adventurer she did not know. But the Adventurer was obviously on one of his marauding expeditions, and he might stay there no more than a minute or two once he found out that he had been forestalled. She must hurry—hurry!
She felt her way forward in what she believed to be the direction of the window. She ran against the bed. But this afforded her something by which to guide herself. She kept her touch upon it, her hand trailing along its edge. And then, halfway down its length, what seemed to be a piece of string caught in her extended, groping fingers. It seemed to cling, but also to yield most curiously, as she tried to shake it off; and then something, evidently from under the mattress, came away with a little jerk, and remained, suspended, in her hand.
It didn't matter, did it? Nothing mattered except to reach the window. Yes, here it was now! And the roller shade was drawn down; that was why the room was so dark. She raised the shade quickly—and suddenly stood there as though transfixed, her face paling, as in the faint light by the window she gazed, fascinated, at the object that still dangled by a cord from her hand.
And it seemed as if an inner darkness were suddenly riven as by a bolt of lightning—a hundred things, once obscure and incomprehensible, were clear now, terribly clear. She understood now how the Adventurer was privy to all the inner workings of the organization; she understood now how it was, and why, the Adventurer had a room so close to that other room across the hall. That dangling thing on an elastic cord was a smeared and dirty celluloid eye-patch that had once been flesh-colored! The Adventurer and the Pug were one!
Her wits! Quick! He must not know! In a frenzy of haste she ran for the bed, and slipped the eye-patch in under the mattress again; and then, still with frenzied speed, she climbed to the window sill, drew the roller shade down again behind her, and dropped to the ground.
Through the back yard and lane she gained the street, and sped on along the street—but her thoughts outpaced her hurrying footsteps. How minutely every detail of the night now seemed to explain itself and dovetail with every other one! At the time, when Shluker had been present, it had struck her as a little forced and unnecessary that the Pug should have volunteered to seek out Danglar with explanations after the money had been secured. But she understood now the craft and guile that lay behind his apparently innocent plan. The Adventurer needed both time and an alibi, and also he required an excuse for making Pinkie Bonn the custodian of the stolen money, and of getting Pinkie alone with that money in the Pug's room. Going to Danglar supplied all this. He had hurried back, changed in that room from the Pug to the Adventurer, and proposed in the latter character to relieve Pinkie of the money, to return then across the hall, become the Pug again, and then go back, as though he had just come from Danglar, to find his friend and ally, Pinkie Bonn, robbed by their mutual arch-enemy—the Adventurer!
The Pug-the Adventurer! She did not quite seem to grasp its significance as applied to her in a personal way. It seemed to branch out into endless ramifications. She could not somehow think logically, coolly enough now, to decide what this meant in a concrete way to her, and her to-morrow, and the days after the to-morrow.
She hurried on. To-night, as she would lay awake through the hours that were to come, for sleep was a thing denied, perhaps a clearer vision would be given her. For the moment there—there was something else—wasn't there? The money that belonged to the old couple.
She hurried on. She came again to the street where the old couple lived. It was a dirty street, and from the curb she stooped and picked up a dirty piece of old newspaper. She wrapped the banknotes in the paper.
There were not many people on the street as she neared the mean little frame house, but she loitered until for the moment the immediate vicinity was deserted; then she slipped into the alleyway, and stole close to the side window, through which, she had noted from the street, there shone a light. Yes, they were there, the two of them—she could see them quite distinctly even through the shutters.
She went back to the front door then, and knocked. And presently the old woman came and opened the door.
"This is yours," Rhoda said, and thrust the package into the woman's hand. And as the woman looked from her to the package uncomprehendingly, Rhoda Gray flung a quick "good-night" over her shoulder, and ran down the steps again.
But a few moments later she stole back, and stood for an instant once more by the shuttered window in the alleyway. And suddenly her eyes grew dim. She saw an old man, white and haggard, with bandaged head, sitting in a chair, the tears streaming down his face; and on the floor, her face hidden on the other's knees, a woman knelt—and the man's hand stroked and stroked the thin gray hair on the woman' s head.
And Rhoda Gray turned away. And out in the street her face was lifted and she looked upward, and there were myriad stars. And there seemed a beauty in them that she had never seen before, and a great, comforting serenity. And they seemed to promise something—that through the window of that stark and evil garret to which she was going now, they would keep her dreaded vigil with her until morning came again.
XIV. THE LAME MAN
Another night—another day! And the night again had been without rest, lest Danglar's dreaded footstep come upon her unawares; and the day again had been one of restless, abortive activity, now prowling the streets as Gypsy Nan, now returning to the garret to fling herself upon the cot in the hope that in daylight, when she might risk it, sleep would come, but it had been without avail, for, in spite of physical weariness, it seemed to Rhoda Gray as though her tortured mind would never let her sleep again. Danglar's wife! That was the horror that was in her brain, yes, and in her soul, and that would not leave her.
And now night was coming upon her once more. It had even begun to grow dark here on the lower stairway that led up to that wretched, haunted garret above where in the shadows stark terror lurked. Strange! Most strange! She feared the night—and yet she welcomed it. In a little while, when it grew a little darker, she would steal out again and take up her work once more. It was only during the night, under the veil of darkness, that she could hope to make any progress in reaching to the heart and core of this criminal clique which surrounded her, whose members accepted her as Gypsy Nan, and, therefore, as one of themselves, and who would accord to her, if they but even suspected her to be the White Mall, less mercy than would be shown to a mad dog.
She climbed the stairs. Fear was upon her now, because fear was always there, and with it was abhorrence and loathing at the frightful existence fate had thrust upon her; but, somehow, to-night she was not so depressed, not so hopeless, as she had been the night before. There had been a little success; she had come a little farther along the way; she knew a little more than she had known before of the inner workings of the gang who were at the bottom of the crime of which she herself was accused. She knew now the Adventurer's secret, that the Pug and the Adventurer were one; and she knew where the Adventurer lived, now in one character, now in the other, in those two rooms almost opposite each other across that tenement hall.
And so it seemed that she had the right to hope, even though there were still so many things she did not know, that if she allowed her mind to dwell upon that phase of it, it staggered her—where those code messages came from, and how; why Rough Rorke of headquarters had never made a sign since that first night; why the original Gypsy Nan, who was dead now, had been forced into hiding with the death penalty of the law hanging over her; why Danglar, though Gypsy Nan's husband, was comparatively free. These, and a myriad other things! But she counted now upon her knowledge of the Adventurer's secret to force from him everything he knew; and, with that to work on, a confession from some of the gang in corroboration that would prove the authorship of the crime of which she had seemingly been caught in the act of committing.
Yes, she was beginning to see the way at last—through the Adventurer. It seemed a sure and certain way. If she presented herself before him as Gypsy Nan, whom he believed to be not only one of the gang, but actually Danglar's wife, and let him know that she was aware of the dual role he was playing, and that the information he thus acquired as the Pug he turned to his own account and to the undoing of the gang, he must of necessity be at her mercy. Her mercy! What exquisite irony! Her mercy! The man her heart loved; the thief her common sense abhorred! What irony! When she, too, played a double role; when in their other characters, that of the Adventurer and the White Moll, he and she were linked together by the gang as confederates, whereas, in truth, they were wider apart than the poles of the earth!
Her mercy! How merciful would she be—to the thief she loved? He knew, he must know, all the inner secrets of the gang. She smiled wanly now as she reached the landing. Would he know that in the last analysis her threat would be only an idle one; that, though her future, her safety, her life depended on obtaining the evidence she felt he could supply, her threat would be empty, and that she was powerless—because she loved him. But he did not know she loved him—she was Gypsy Nan. If she kept her secret, if he did not penetrate her disguise as she had penetrated his, if she were Gypsy Nan and Danglar's wife to him, her threat would be valid enough, and—and he would be at her mercy!
A flush, half shamed, half angry, dyed the grime that was part of Gypsy Nan's disguise upon her face. What was she saying to herself? What was she thinking? That he did not know she loved him! How would he? How could he? Had a word, an act, a single look of hers ever given him a hint that, when she had been with him as the White Moll, she cared! It was unjust, unfair, to fling such a taunt at herself. It seemed as though she had lost nearly everything in life, but she had not yet lost her womanliness and her pride.
She had certainly lost her senses, though! Even if that word, that look, that act had passed between them, between the Adventurer and the White Moll, he still did not know that Gypsy Nan was the White Moll—and that was the one thing now that he must not know, and...
Rhoda Gray halted suddenly, and stared along the hallway ahead of her, and up the short, ladder-like steps that led to the garret. Her ears—or was it fancy?—had caught what sounded like a low knocking up there upon her door. Yes, it came again now distinctly. It was dusk outside; in here, in the hall, it was almost dark. Her eyes strained through the murk. She was not mistaken. Something darker than the surrounding darkness, a form, moved up there.
The knocking ceased, and now the form seemed to bend down and grope along the floor; and then, an instant later, it began to descend the ladder-like steps—and abruptly Rhoda Gray, too, moved forward. It wasn't Danglar. That was what had instantly taken hold of her mind, and she knew a sudden relief now. The man on the stairs—she could see that it was a man now—though he moved silently, swayed in a grotesquely jerky way as though he were lame. It wasn't Danglar! She would go to any length to track Danglar to his lair; but not here—here in the darkness—here in the garret. Here she was afraid of him with a deadly fear; here alone with him there would be a thousand chances of exposure incident to the slightest intimacy he might show the woman whom he believed to be his wife—a thousand chances here against hardly one in any other environment or situation. But the man on the stairs wasn't Danglar.
She halted now and uttered a sharp exclamation, as though she had caught sight of the man for the first time.
The other, too, had halted—at the foot of the stairs. A plaintive drawl reached her:
"Don't screech, Bertha! It's only your devoted brother-in-law. Curse your infernal ladder, and my twisted back!"
Danglar's brother! Bertha! She snatched instantly at the cue with an inward gasp of thankfulness. She would not make the mistake of using the vernacular behind which Gypsy Nan sheltered herself. Here was some one who knew that Gypsy Nan was but a role. But she had to remember that her voice was slightly hoarse; that her voice, at least, could not sacrifice its disguise to any one. Danglar had been a little suspicious of it until she had explained that she was suffering from a cold.
"Oh!" she said calmly. "It's you, is it? And what brought you here?"
"What do you suppose?" he complained irritably. "The same old thing, all I'm good for—to write out code messages and deliver them like an errand boy! It's a sweet job, isn't it? How'd you like to be a deformed little cripple?"
She did not answer at once. The night seemed suddenly to be opening some strange, even premonitory, vista. The code messages! Their mode of delivery! Here was the answer!
"Maybe I'd like it better than being Gypsy Nan!" she flung back significantly.
He laughed out sharply.
"I'd like to trade with you," he said, a quick note of genuine envy in his voice. "You can pitch away your clothes; I can't pitch away a crooked spine. And, anyway, after to-night, you'll be living swell again."
She leaned toward him, staring at him in the semi-darkness. That premonitory vista was widening; his words seemed suddenly to set her brain in tumult. After to-night! She was to resume, after to-night, the character that was supposed to lay behind the disguise of Gypsy Nan! She was to resume her supposedly true character—that of Pierre Danglar's wife!
"What do you mean?" she demanded tensely.
"Aw, come on!" he said abruptly. "This isn't the place to talk. Pierre wants you at once. That's what the message was for. I thought you were out, and I left it in the usual place so you'd get it the minute you got back and come along over. So, come on now with me."
He was moving down the hallway, blotching like some misshapen toad in the shadowy light, lurching in his walk, that was, nevertheless, almost uncannily noiseless. Mechanically she followed him. She was trying to think; striving frantically to bring her wits to play on this sudden and unexpected denouement. It was obvious that he was taking her to Danglar. She had striven desperately last night to run Danglar to earth in his lair. And here was a self-appointed guide! And yet her emotions conflicted and her brain was confused. It was what she wanted, what through bitter travail of mind she had decided must be her course; but she found herself shrinking from it with dread and fear now that it promised to become a reality. It was not like last night when of her own initiative she had sought to track Danglar, for then she had started out with a certain freedom of action that held in reserve a freedom to retreat if it became necessary. To-night it was as though she were deprived of that freedom, and being led into what only too easily might develop into a trap from which she could not retreat or escape.
Suppose she refused to go?
They had reached the street now, and now she obtained a better view of the misshapen thing that lurched jerkily along beside her. The man was deformed, miserably deformed. He walked most curiously, half bent over; and one arm, the left, seemed to swing helplessly, and the left hand was like a withered thing. Her eyes sought the other's face. It was an old face, much older than Danglar's, and it was white and pinched and drawn; and in the dark eyes, as they suddenly darted a glance at her, she read a sullen, bitter brooding and discontent. She turned her head away. It was not a pleasant face; it struck her as being both morbid and cruel to a degree.
Suppose she refused to go?
"What did you mean by 'after to-night'?" she asked again.
"You'll see," he answered. "Pierre'll tell you. You're in luck, that's all. The whole thing that has kept you under cover has bust wide open your way, and you win. And Pierre's going through for a clean-up. To-morrow you can swell around in a limousine again. And maybe you'll come around and take me for a drive, if I dress up, and promise to hide in a corner of the back seat so's they won't see your handsome friend!"
The creature flung a bitter smile at her, and lurched on.
He had told her what she wanted to know—more than she had hoped for. The mystery that surrounded the character of Gypsy Nan, the evidence of the crime at which the woman who had originated that role had hinted on the night she died, and which must necessarily involve Danglar, was hers, Rhoda Gray's, now for the taking. As well go and give herself up to the police as the White Moll and have done with it all, as to refuse to seize the opportunity which fate, evidently in a kindlier mood toward her now, was offering her at this instant. It promised her the hold upon Danglar that she needed to force an avowal of her own innocence, the very hold that she had but a few minutes before been hoping she could obtain through the Adventurer.
There was no longer any question as to whether she would go or not.
Her hand groped down under the shabby black shawl into the wide, voluminous pocket of her greasy skirt. Yes, her revolver was there. She knew it was there, but the touch of her fingers upon it seemed to bring a sense of reassurance. She was perhaps staking her all in accompanying this cripple here to-night—she did not need to be told that—but there was a way of escape at the last if she were cornered and caught. Her fingers played with the weapon. If the worst came to the worst she would never be at Danglar's mercy while she possessed that revolver and, if the need came, turned it upon herself.
They walked on rapidly; the lurching figure beside her covering the ground at an astounding rate of speed. The man made no effort to talk. She was glad of it. She need not be so anxiously on her guard as would be the case if a conversation were carried on, and she, who knew so much and yet so pitifully little, must weigh her every word, and feel her way with every sentence. And besides, too, it gave her time to think. Where were they going? What sort of a place was it, this headquarters of the gang? For it must be the headquarters, since it was from there the code messages would naturally emanate, and this deformed creature, from what he had said, was the "secretary" of the nefarious clique that was ruled by his brother. And was luck really with her at last? Suppose she had been but a few minutes later in reaching Gypsy Nan's house, and had found, instead of this man here, only the note instructing her to go and meet Danglar! What would she have done? What explanation could she have made for her nonappearance? Her hands would have been tied. She would have been helpless. She could not have answered the summons, for she could have had no idea where this gang-lair was; and the note certainly would not contain such details as street and number, which she was obviously supposed to know. She smiled a little grimly to herself. Yes, it seemed as though fortune were beginning to smile upon her again—fortune, at least, had supplied her with a guide.
The twisted figure walked on the inside of the sidewalk, and curiously seemed to seek as much as possible the protecting shadows of the buildings, and invariably shrank back out of the way of the passers-by they met. She watched him narrowly as they went along. What was he afraid of? Recognition? It puzzled her for a time, and then she understood: It was not fear of recognition; the sullen, almost belligerent stare with which he met the eyes of those with whom he came into close contact belied that. The man was morbidly, abnormally sensitive of his deformity.
They turned at last into one of the East Side cross streets, and her guide halted finally on a corner in front of a little shop that was closed and dark. She stared curiously as the man unlocked the door. Perhaps, after all, she had been woefully mistaken. It did not look at all the kind of place where crimes that ran the gamut of the decalogue were hatched, at all the sort of place that was the council chamber of perhaps the most cunning, certainly the most cold-blooded and unscrupulous, band of crooks that New York had ever harbored. And yet—why not? Wasn't there the essence of cunning in that very fact? Who would suspect anything of the sort from a ramshackle, two-story little house like this, whose front was a woe-begone little store, the proceeds of which might just barely keep the body and soul of its proprietor together?
The man fumbled with the lock. There was not a single light showing from the place, but in the dwindling rays of a distant street lamp she could see the meager window display through the filthy, unwashed panes. It was evidently a cheap and tawdry notion store, well suited to its locality. There were toys of the cheapest variety, stationery of the same grade, cheap pipes, cigarettes, tobacco, candy—a package of needles.
"Go on in!" grunted the man, as he pushed the door—which seemed to shriek out unduly on its hinges—wide open. "If anybody sees the door open, they'll be around wanting to buy a paper of pins—curse 'em!—and I ain't open to-night." He snarled as he shut and locked the door. "Pierre says you're grouching about your garret. How about me, and this job? You get out of yours to-night for keeps. What about me? I can't do anything but act as a damned blind for the rest of you with this fool store, just because I was born a freak that every gutter-snipe on the street yells at!"
Rhoda Gray did not answer.
"Well, go on!" snapped the man. "What are you standing there for? One would think you'd never been here before!"
Go on! Where? She had not the faintest idea. It was quite dark inside here in the shop. She could barely make out the outline of the other's figure.
"You're in a sweet temper to-night, aren't you?" she said tartly. "Go on, yourself! I'm waiting for you to get through your speech."
He moved brusquely past her, with an angry grunt. Rhoda Gray followed him. They passed along a short, narrow space, evidently between a low counter and a shelved wall, and then the man opened a door, and, shutting it again behind them, moved forward once more. She could scarcely see him at all now; it was more the sound of his footsteps than anything else that guided her. And then suddenly another door was opened, and a soft, yellow light streamed out through the doorway, and she found that she was standing in an intervening room between the shop and the room ahead of her. She felt her pulse quicken, and it seemed as though her heart began to thump almost audibly. Danglar! She could see Danglar seated at a table in there. She clenched her hands under her shawl. She would need all her wits now. She prayed that there was not too much light in that room yonder.
XV. IN THE COUNCIL CHAMBER
The man with the withered hand had passed through into the other room. She heard them talking together, as she followed. She forced herself to walk with as nearly a leisurely defiant air as she could. The last time she had been with Danglar—as Gypsy Nan—she had, in self-protection, forbidding intimacy, played up what he called her "grouch" at his neglect of her.
She paused in the doorway. Halfway across the room, at the table, Danglar's gaunt, swarthy face showed under the rays of a shaded oil lamp. Behind her spectacles, she met his small, black ferret eyes steadily.
"Hello, Bertha!" he called out cheerily. "How's the old girl to-night?" He rose from his seat to come toward her. "And how's the cold?"
Rhoda Gray scowled at him.
"Worse!" she said curtly-and hoarsely. "And a lot you care! I could have died in that hole, for all you knew!" She pushed him irritably away, as he came near her. "Yes, that's what I said! And you needn't start any cooing game now! Get down to cases!" She jerked her hand toward the twisted figure that had slouched into a chair beside the table. "He says you've got it doped out to pull something that will let me out of this Gypsy Nan stunt. Another bubble, I suppose!" She shrugged her shoulders, glanced around her, and, locating a chair—not too near the table—seated herself indifferently. "I'm getting sick of bubbles!" she announced insolently. "What's this one?"
He stood there for a moment biting at his lips, hesitant between anger and tolerant amusement; and then, the latter evidently gaining the ascendency, he too shrugged his shoulders, and with a laugh returned to his chair.
"You're a rare one, Bertha!" he said coolly. "I thought you'd be wild with delight. I guess you're sick, all right—because usually you're pretty sensible. I've tried to tell you that it wasn't my fault I couldn't go near you, and that I had to keep away from—"
"What's the use of going over all that again?" she interrupted tartly. "I guess I—"
"Oh, all right!" said Danglar hurriedly. "Don't start a row! After to-night I've an idea you'll be sweet enough to your husband, and I'm willing to wait. Matty maybe hasn't told you the whole of it."
Matty! So that was the deformed creature's name. She glanced at him. He was grinning broadly. A family squabble seemed to afford him amusement. Her eyes shifted and made a circuit of the room. It was poverty-stricken in appearance, bare-floored, with the scantiest and cheapest of furnishings, its one window tightly shuttered.
"Maybe not," she said carelessly.
"Well, then, listen, Bertha!" Danglar's voice was lowered earnestly. "We've uncovered the Nabob's stuff! Do you get me? Every last one of the sparklers!"
Rhoda Gray's eyes went back to the deformed creature at Danglar's side, as the man laughed out abruptly.
"Yes," grinned Matty Danglar, "and they weren't in the empty money-belt that you beat it with like a scared cat after croaking Deemer!"
How queer and dim the light seemed to go suddenly—or was it a blur before her own eyes? She said nothing. Her mind seemed to be groping its way out of darkness toward some faint gleam of light showing in the far distance. She heard Danglar order his brother savagely to hold his tongue. That was curious, too, because she was grateful for the man's gibe. Gypsy Nan, in her proper person, had murdered a man named Deemer in an effort to secure—Danglar's voice came again:
"Well, to-night we'll get that stuff, all of it—it's worth a cool half million; and to-night we'll get Mr. House-Detective Cloran for keeps—bump him off. That cleans everything up. How does that strike you, Bertha?"
Rhoda Gray's hands under her shawl locked tightly together. Her premonition had not betrayed her. She was face to face to-night with the beginning of the end.
"It sounds fine!" she said derisively.
Danglar's eyes narrowed for an instant; and then he laughed.
"You're a rare one, Bertha!" he ejaculated again. "You don't seem to put much stock in your husband lately."
"Why should I?" she inquired imperturbably. "Things have been breaking fine, haven't they?—only not for us!" She cleared her throat as though it were an effort to talk. "I'm not going crazy with joy till I've been shown."
Danglar leaned suddenly over the table.
"Well, come and look at the cards, then," he said impressively. "Pull your chair up to the table, and I'll tell you."
Rhoda Gray tilted her chair, instead, nonchalantly back against the wall—it was quite light enough where she was!
"I can hear you from here," she said coolly. "I'm not deaf, and I guess Matty's suite is safe enough so that you won't have to whisper all the time!"
The deformed creature at the table chortled again.
"Damn you, Bertha!" he flung out savagely. "I could wring that neck of yours sometimes, and—"
"I know you could, Pierre," she interposed sweetly. "That's what I like about you—you're so considerate of me! But suppose you get down to cases. What's the story about those sparklers? And what's the game that's going to let me shed this Gypsy Nan stuff for keeps?"
"I'll tell her, Pierre," grinned the deformed one. "It'll keep you two from spitting at one another; and neither of you have got all night to stick around here." He swung his withered hand suddenly across the table, and as suddenly all facetiousness was gone both from his voice and manner. "Say, you listen hard, Bertha! What Pierre's telling you is straight. You and him can kiss and make up to-morrow or the next day, or whenever you damned please; but to-night there ain't any more time for scrapping. Now, listen! I handed you a rap about beating it with the empty money-belt the night you croaked Deemer with an overdose of knockout drops in the private dining-room up at the Hotel Marwitz, but you forget that! I ain't for starting any argument about that. None of us blames you. We thought the stuff was in the belt, too. And none of us blames you for making a mistake and going too strong with the drops, either; anybody might do that. And I'll say now that I take my hat off to you for the way you locked Cloran into the room with the dead man, and made your escape when Cloran had you dead to rights for the murder; and I'll say, too, that the way you've played Gypsy Nan and saved your skin, and ours too, is as slick a piece of work as has ever been pulled in the underworld. That puts us straight, you and me, don't it, Bertha?"
Rhoda Gray blinked at the man through her spectacles; her brain was whirling in a mad turmoil. "I always liked you, Matty," she whispered softly.
Danglar was lolling back in his chair, blowing smoke rings into the air. She caught his eyes fixed quizzically upon her.
"Go on, Matty!" he prompted. "You'll have her in a good humor, if you're not careful!"
"We were playing more or less blind after that." The withered hand traced an aimless pattern on the table with its crooked and half-closed fingers, and the man's face was puckered into a shrewd, reminiscent scowl. "The papers couldn't get a lead on the motive for the murder, and the police weren't talking for publication. Not a word about the Rajah's jewels. Washington saw to that! A young potentate's son, practically the guest of the country, touring about in a special for the sake of his education, and dashed near 'ending it in the river out West if it hadn't been for the rescue you know about, wouldn't look well in print; so there wasn't anything said about the slather of gems that was the reward of heroism from a grateful nabob, and we didn't get any help that way. All we knew was that Deemer came East with the jewels, presumably to cash in on them, and it looked as though Deemer were pretty clever; that he wore the money-belt for a stall, and that he had the sparklers safe somewhere else all the time. And I guess we all got to figuring it that way, because the fact that nothing was said about any theft was strictly along the lines the police were working anyway, and a was a toss-up that they hadn't found the stuff among his effects. Get me?"
Get him! This wasn't real, was it, this room here; those two figures sitting there under that shaded lamp? Something cold, an icy grip, seemed to seize at her heart, as in a surge there swept upon her the full appreciation of her peril through these confidences to which she was listening. A word, in act, some slightest thing, might so easily betray her; and then—Her fingers under the shawl and inside the wide pocket of her greasy skirt, clutched at her revolver. Thank God for that! It would at least be merciful! She nodded her head mechanically.
"But the police didn't find the jewels—because they weren't there to be found. Somebody got in ahead of us. Pinched 'em, understand, may be only a few hours before you got in your last play, and, from the way you say Deemer acted, before he was wise to the fact that he'd been robbed."
Rhoda Gray let her chair come sharply down to the floor. She must play her role of "Bertha" now as she never had before. Here was a question that she could not only ask with safety, but one that was obviously expected.
"Who was it?" she demanded breathlessly.
"She's coming to life!" murmured Danglar, through a haze of cigarette smoke. "I thought you'd wake up after a while, Bertha. This is the big night, old girl, as you'll find out before we're through."
"Who was it?" she repeated with well-simulated impatience.
"I guess she'll listen to me now," said Danglar, with a little chuckle. "Don't over-tax yourself any more, Matty. I'll tell you, Bertha; and it will perhaps make you feel better to know it took the slickest dip New York ever knew to beat you to the tape. It was Angel Jack, alias the Gimp."
"How do you know?" Rhoda Gray demanded.
"Because," said Danglar, and lighted another cigarette, "he died yesterday afternoon up in Sing Sing."
She could afford to show her frank bewilderment. Her brows knitted into furrows, as she stared at Danglar.
"You—you mean he confessed?" she said.
"The Angel? Never!" Danglar laughed grimly, and shook his head. "Nothing like that! It was a question of playing one 'fence' against another. You know that Witzer, who's handled all our jewelry for us, has been on the look-out for any stones that might have come from that collection. Well, this afternoon he passed the word to me that he'd been offered the finest unset emerald he'd ever seen, and that it had come to him through old Jake Luertz's runner, a very innocent-faced young man who is known to the trade as the Crab."
Danglar paused—and laughed again. Unconsciously Rhoda Gray drew her shawl a little closer about her shoulders. It seemed to bring a chill into the room, that laugh. Once before, on another night, Danglar had laughed, and, with his parted lips, she had likened him to a beast showing its fangs. He looked it now more than ever. For all his ease of voice and manner, he was in deadly earnest; and if there was merriment in his laugh, it but seemed to enhance the menace and the promise of unholy purpose that lurked in the cold glitter of his small, black eyes.
"It didn't take long to get hold of the Crab"—Danglar was rubbing his hands together softly—"and the emerald with him. We got him where we could put the screws on without arousing the neighborhood."
"Another murder, I suppose!" Rhoda Gray flung out the words crossly.
"Oh, no," said Danglar pleasantly. "He squealed before it came to that. He's none the worse for wear, and he'll be turned loose in another hour or so, as soon as we're through at old Jake Luertz's. He's no more good to us. He came across all right—after he was properly frightened. He's been with old Jake as a sort of familiar for the last six years, and—"
"He'd have sold his soul out, he was so scared!" The withered hand on the table twitched; the deformed creature's face was twisted into a grimace; and the man was chuckling with unhallowed mirth, as though unable to contain himself at, presumably, the recollection of a scene which he had witnessed himself. "He was down on his knees and clawing out with his hands for mercy, and he squealed like a rat. 'It's the sixth panel in the bedroom upstairs,' he says; 'it's all there. But for God's sake don't tell Jake I told. It's the sixth panel. Press the knot in the sixth panel that—'" He stopped abruptly.
Danglar had pulled out his watch and with exaggerated patience was circling the crystal with his thumb.
"Are you all through, Matty?" he inquired monotonously. "I think you said something a little while ago about wasting time. Bertha's looking bored; and, besides, she's got a little job of her own on for to-night." He jerked his watch back into his pocket, and turned to Rhoda Gray again. "The only one who knew all the details Angel Jack, and he'll never tell now because he's dead. Whether he came down from the West with Deemer or not, or how he got wise to the stones, I don't know. But he got the stones, all right. And then he tumbled to the fact that the police were pushing him hard for another job he was 'wanted' for, and he had to get those stones out of sight in a hurry. He made a package of them and slipped them to old Luertz, who had always done his business for him, to keep for him; and before he could duck, the bulls had him for that other job. Angel Jack went up the river. See? Old Jake didn't know what was in that package; but he knew better than to monkey with it, because he always thought something of his own skin. He knew Angel Jack, and he knew what would happen if he didn't have that package ready to hand back the day Angel Jack got out of Sing Sing. Understand? But yesterday Angel Jack died-without a will; and old Jake appointed himself sole executor-without bonds! He opened that package, figured he'd begin turning it into money—and that's how we get our own back again. Old Jake will get a fake message to-night calling him out of the house on an errand uptown; and about ten o'clock Pinkie Bonn and the Pug will pay a visit there in his absence, and—well, it looks good, don't it, Bertha, after two years?"
Rhoda Gray was crouched down in her chair. She shrugged her shoulders now, and infused a sullen note into her voice.
"Yes, it's fine!" she sniffed. "I'll be rolling in wealth in my garret—which will do me a lot of good! That doesn't separate me from these rags, and the hell I've lived, does it—after two years?"
"I'm coming to that," said Danglar, with his short, grating laugh. "We've as good as got the stones now, and we're going through to-night for a clean-up of all that old mess. We stake the whole thing. Get me, Bertha—the whole thing! I'm showing my hand for the first time. Cloran's the man that's making you wear those clothes; Cloran's the only one who could go into the witness box and swear that you were the woman who murdered Deemer; and Cloran's the man who has been working his head off for two years to find you. We've tried a dozen times to bump him off in a way that would make his death appear to be due purely to an accident, and we didn't get away with it; but we can afford to leave the 'accident' out of it to-night, and go through for keeps—and that's what we're going to do. And once he's out of the way—by midnight—you can heave Gypsy Nan into the discard."
It seemed to Rhoda Gray that horror had suddenly taken a numbing hold upon her sensibilities. Danglar was talking about murdering some man, wasn't he, so that she could resume again the personality of a woman who was dead? Hysterical laughter rose to her lips. It was only by a frantic effort of will that she controlled herself. She seemed to speak involuntarily, doubtful almost that it was her own voice she heard.
"I'm listening," she said; "but I wouldn't be too sure. Cloran's a wary bird, and there's the White Moll."
She caught her breath. What suicidal inspiration had prompted her to say that! Had what she had been listening to here, the horror of it, indeed turned her brain and robbed her of her wits to the extent that she should invite exposure? Danglar's face had gone a mottled purple; the misshapen thing at Danglar's side was leering at her most curiously.
It was a moment before Danglar spoke; and then his hand, clenched until the white of the knuckles showed, pounded upon the table to punctuate his words.
"Not to-night!" he rasped out with an oath. "There's not a chance that she's in on this to-night—the she-devil! But she's next! With this cleaned up, she's next! If it takes the last dollar of to-night's haul, and five years to do it, I'll get her, and get—"
"Sure!" mumbled Rhoda Gray hurriedly. "But you needn't get excited! I was only thinking of her because she's queered us till I've got my fingers crossed, that's all. Go on about Cloran."
Danglar's composure did not return on the instant. He gnawed at his lips for a moment before he spoke.
"All right!" he jerked out finally. "Let it go at that! I told you the other night in the garret that things were beginning to break our way, and that you wouldn't have to stay there much longer, but I didn't tell you how or why—you wouldn't give me a chance. I'll tell you now; and it's the main reason why I've kept away from you lately. I couldn't take a chance of Cloran getting wise to that garret and Gypsy Nan." He grinned suddenly. "I've been cultivating Cloran myself for the last two weeks. We're quite pals! I'm for playing the luck every time! When the jewels showed up to-day, I figured that to-night's the night—see? Cloran and I are going to supper together at the Silver Sphinx at about eleven o'clock—and this is where you shed the Gypsy Nan stuff, and show up as your own sweet self. Cloran'll be glad to meet you!"
She stared at him in genuine perplexity and amazement.
"Show myself to Cloran!" she ejaculated heavily. "I don't get you!"
"You will in a minute," said Danglar softly. "You're the bait—see? Cloran and I will be at supper and watching the fox-trotters. You blow in and show yourself—I don't need to tell you how, you're clever enough at that sort of thing yourself—and the minute he recognizes you as the woman he's been looking for that murdered Deemer, you pretend to recognize him for the first time too, and then you beat it like you had the scare of your life for the door. He'll follow you on the jump. I don't know what it's all about, and I sit tight, and that lets me out. And now get this! There'll be two taxicabs outside. If there's more than two, it's the first two I'm talking about. You jump into the one at the head of the line. Cloran won't need any invitation to grab the second one and follow you. That's all! It's the last ride he'll take. It'll be our boys, and not chauffeurs, who'll be driving those cars to-night, and they've got their orders where to go. Cloran won't come back. Understand, Bertha'?"
There was only one answer to make, only one answer that she dared make. She made it mechanically, though her brain reeled. A man named Cloran was to be murdered; and she was to show herself as this—this Bertha—and...
"Yes," she said.
"Good!" said Danglar. He pulled out his watch again. "All right, then! We've been here long enough." He rose briskly. "It's time to make a move. You hop it back to the garret, and get rid of that fancy dress. I've got to meet Cloran uptown first. Come on, Matty, let us out."
The place stifled her. She got up and moved quickly through the intervening room. She heard Danglar and his crippled brother talking earnestly together as they followed her. And then the cripple brushed by her in the darkness, and opened the front door—and Danglar had drawn her to him in a quick embrace. She did not struggle; she dared not. Her heart seemed to stand still. Danglar was whispering in her ear:
"I promised I'd make it up to you, Bertha, old girl. You'll see—after to-night. We'll have another honey-moon. You go on ahead now—I can't be seen with Gypsy Nan. And don't be late—the Silver Sphinx at eleven."
She ran out on the street. Her fingers mechanically clutched at her shawl to loosen it around her throat. It seemed as though she were choking, that she could not breathe. The man's touch upon her had seemed like contact with some foul and loathsome thing; the scene in that room back there like some nightmare of horror from which she could not awake.
XVI. THE SECRET PANEL
Rhoda Gray hurried onward, back toward the garret, her mind in riot and dismay. It was not only the beginning of the end; it was very near the end! What was she to do? The Silver Sphinx—at eleven! That was the end—after eleven—wasn't it? She could impersonate Gypsy Nan; she could not, if she would, impersonate the woman who was dead! And then, too, there were the stolen jewels at old Jake Luertz's! She could not turn to the police for help there, because then the Pug might fall into their hands, and—and the Pug was—was the Adventurer.
And then a sort of fatalistic calm fell upon her. If the masquerade was over, if the end had come, there remained only one thing for her to do. There were no risks too desperate to take now. It was she who must strike, and strike first. Those jewels in old Luertz's bedroom became suddenly vital to her. They were tangible evidence. With those jewels in her possession she should be able to force Danglar to his knees. She could get them—before Pinkie Bonn and the Pug—if she hurried. Afterward she would know where to find Danglar—at the Silver Sphinx. Nothing would happen to Cloran, because, through her failure to cooperate, the plan would be abortive; but, veiled, as the White Moll, she could pick up Danglar's trail again there. Yes, it would be the end—one way or the other—between eleven o'clock and daylight!
She quickened her steps. Old Luertz was to be inveigled away from his home about ten o'clock. At a guess, she made it only a little after nine now. She would need the skeleton keys in order to get into old Luertz's place, and, yes, she would need a flashlight, too. Well, she would have time enough to get them, and time enough, then, to run to the deserted shed in the lane behind the garret and change her clothes.
Rhoda Gray, as Gypsy Nan, went on as speedily as she dared without inviting undue attention to herself, reached the garret, secured the articles she sought, hurried out again, and went down the lane in the rear to the deserted shed. She remained longer here than in the attic, perhaps ten minutes, working mostly in the darkness, risking the flashlight only when it was imperative; and then, the metamorphosis complete, a veiled figure, in her own person, as Rhoda Gray, the White Moll, she was out on the street again, and hastening back in the same general direction from which she had just come.
She knew old Jake Luertz's place, and she knew the man himself very intimately by reputation. There were few such men and such places that she could have escaped knowing in the years of self-appointed service that she had given to the worst, and perhaps therefore the most needy, element in New York. The man ostensibly conducted a little secondhand store; in reality he probably "shoved" more stolen goods for his clientele, which at one time or another undoubtedly embraced nearly every crook in the underworld, than any other "fence" in New York. She knew him for an oily, cunning old fox who lived alone in the two rooms over his miserable store—unless, of late, his young henchman, the Crab, had taken to living with him; though, as far as that was concerned, it mattered little to-night, since the Crab, for the moment, thanks to the gang, was eliminated from consideration.
She reached the secondhand store—and walked on past it. There was a light upstairs in the front window. Old Luertz therefore had not yet gone out in response to the gang's fake message. She knew old Luertz's reputation far too well for that; the man would never go out and leave a gas jet burning—which he would have to pay for!
There was nothing to do but wait. Rhoda Gray sought the shelter of a doorway across the street. She was nervously impatient now. The minutes dragged along. Why didn't 'the man hurry and go out? "About ten o'clock," Danglar had said—but that was very indefinite. Pinkie Bonn and the Pug might be as late as that; but, equally, they might be earlier!
It seemed an interminable time. And then, her eyes strained across the street upon that upper window, she drew still farther back into the protecting shadows of the doorway. The light had gone out.
A moment more passed. The street door of the house opposite to her—a door separate from that of the secondhand store-opened, and a bent, gray-bearded man, stepped out, peered around, locked the door behind him, and scuffled down the street.
Rhoda Gray scanned the dingy and ill-lighted little street. It was virtually deserted. She crossed the road, and stepped into the doorway from which the old "fence" had just emerged. It was dark here, well out of the direct radius of the nearest street lamp, and, with luck, there was no reason why she should be observed—if she did not take too long in opening the door! She had never actually used a skeleton key in her life before, and...
She inserted one of her collection of keys in the lock. It would not work. She tried another, and still another-with mounting anxiety and perplexity. Suppose that—yes! The door was open now! With a quick glance over her shoulder, scanning the street in both directions to make sure that she was not observed, she stepped inside, closed the door, and locked it again.
Her flashlight stabbed through the darkness. Narrow stairs immediately in front of her led upward; at her right was a connecting door to the secondhand shop. Without an instant's hesitation she ran up the stairs. There was no need to observe caution since the place was temporarily untenanted; there was need only of haste. She opened the door at the head of the stairs, and, with a quick, eager nod of satisfaction, as the flashlight swept the interior, stepped over the threshold. It was the room she sought—old Luertz's bedroom.
And now the flashlight played inquisitively about her. The bed occupied a position by the window; across one corner of the room was a cretonne hanging, that evidently did service as a wardrobe; across another corner was a large and dilapidated washstand; there were a few chairs, and a threadbare carpet; and, opposite the bed, another door, closed, which obviously led into the front room.
Rhoda Gray stepped to this door, opened it, and peered in. She was not concerned that it was evidently used for kitchen, dining-room and the stowage of everything that overflowed from the bedroom; she was concerned only with the fact that it offered no avenue through which any added risk or danger might reach her. She closed the door as she had found it, and gave her attention now to the walls of old Luertz's bedroom.
She smiled a little whimsically. The Crab had used a somewhat dignified term when he had referred to "panels." True, the walls were of stained wood, but the wood was of the cheapest variety of matched boards, and the stain was of but a single coat, and a very meager one at that! The smile faded. There were a good many knots; and there were four corners to the room, and therefore eight boards, each one of which would answer to the description of being the "sixth panel."
She went to the corner nearest her, and dropped down on her knees. As well start with this one! She had not dared press Danglar, or Danglar's deformed brother, for more definite directions, had she? She counted the boards quickly from the corner to her right; and then, the flashlight playing steadily, she began to press first one knot after another, in the board before her, working from the bottom up. There were many knots; she went over each one with infinite care. There was no result.
She turned then to the sixth board from the corner to her left. The result was the same. She stood up, her brows puckered, a sense of anxious impatience creeping upon her. She had been quite a while over even these two boards, and it might be any one of the remaining six!
Her eyes traversed the room, following the ray of the flashlight. If she only knew which one, it would—Was it an inspiration? Her eyes had fixed on the cretonne hanging across one of the far corners from the door, and she moved toward it now quickly. The hanging might very well serve for an other purpose than that of merely a wardrobe! It seemed suddenly to be the most likely of the four corners because it was ingeniously concealed.
She parted the hanging. A heterogeneous collection of clothing hung from pegs and nails. Eagerly, hastily now, she brushed these aside, and, close to the wall, dropped down on her knees again. The minutes passed. Twice she went over the sixth board from the corner to her right. She felt so sure now that it was this corner. And then, still eagerly, she turned to the corresponding board at her left.
It was warm and close here. The clothing hanging from the pegs and nails enveloped her, and, with the cretonne hanging itself, shut out the air, what little of it there was, that circulated through the room.
Over the board, from the tiniest knot to the largest, her fingers pressed carefully. Had she missed one anywhere? She must have missed one! She was sure the panel in question was here behind this hanging. Well, she would try again, and...
What was that?
In an instant the flashlight in her hand was out, and she was listening tensely. Yes, there was a footstep—two of them—not only on the stairs, but already just outside the door. It seemed as though a deadly fear, cold and numbing, settled upon her and robbed her of even the power of movement. She was caught! If it was Pinkie Bonn and the Pug, and if this corner hid the secret panel as she still believed it did, this was the first place to which they would come, and they would find her here amongst the clothing—which had evidently been the cause of deadening any sound on those stairs out there until it was too late.
She held her breath, her hands tight upon her bosom. There was no time to reach the sanctuary of the other room—the footsteps were already crossing the threshold from the head of the stairs. And then a voice reached her—the Pug's. It was the Pug and Pinkie Bonn.
"Strike a light, Pinkie! Dere's no use messin' around wid a flash. De old geezer'll be back on de hop de minute he finds out he's been bunked, an' de quicker we work de better."
A match crackled into flame. An air-choked gas jet, with a protesting hiss, was lighted. And then Rhoda Gray's drawn face relaxed a little, and a strange, mirthless smile came hovering over her lips. What was she afraid of? The Pug was the Adventurer, wasn't he? This was one of the occasions when he could not escape the entanglements of the gang, and must work for the gang instead of appropriating all the loot for his own personal and nefarious ends; but he was the Adventurer. The White Moll need not fear him, even though he appeared, linked with Pinkie Bonn, in the role of the Pug! So there was only Pinkie Bonn to fear.