Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Adventures of Jimmie Dale Part 1 (Chapter 10)

Chapter X: The Stool-Pigeon

In the subway, ten minutes before, a freckled-faced messenger boy had squeezed himself into a seat beside Jimmie Dale, yanked a dime novel from a refractory pocket, and, blissfully lost to all the world, had buried his head in its pages. Jimmie Dale’s glance at the youngster had equally, perforce, embraced the lurid title of the thriller, “Dicing with Death,” so imperturbably thrust under his nose. At the time, he had smiled indulgently; but now, as he left the subway and headed for his home on Riverside Drive, the words not only refused to be ignored, but had resolved themselves into a curiously persistent refrain in his mind. They were exactly what they purported to be, dime-novelish, of the deepest hue of yellow, melodramatic in the extreme; but also, to him now, they were grimly apt and premonitorily appropriate. “Dicing with Death"–there was not an hour, not a moment in the day, when he was not literally dicing with death; when, with the underworld and the police allied against him, a single false move would lose him the throw that left death the winner!
The risk of the dual life enforced upon him grew daily greater, and in the end there must be the reckoning. He would have been a madman to have shut his eyes in the face of what was obvious–but it was worth it all, and in his soul he knew that he would not have had it otherwise even now. To-night, to-morrow, the day after, would come another letter from the Tocsin, and there would be another “crime" of the Gray Seal’s blazoned in the press–would that be the last affair, or would there be another–or to-night, to-morrow, the day after, would he be trapped before even one more letter came!
He shrugged his shoulders, as he ran up the steps of his house. Those were the stakes that he himself had laid on the table to wager upon the game, he had no quarrel there; but if only, before the end came, or even with the end itself, he could find–HER!
With his latchkey he let himself into the spacious, richly furnished, well-lighted reception hall, and, crossing this, went up the broad staircase, his steps noiseless on the heavy carpet. Below, faintly, he could hear some of the servants–they evidently had not heard him close the door behind him. Discipline was relaxed somewhat, it was quite apparent, with Jason, that peer of butlers, away. Jason, poor chap, was in the hospital. Typhoid, they had thought it at first, though it had turned out to be some milder form of infection. He would be back in a few days now; but meanwhile he missed the old man sorely from the house.
He reached the landing, and, turning, went along the hall to the door of his own particular den, opened the door, closed it behind him–and in an instant the keen, agile brain, trained to the little things that never escaped it, that daily held his life in the balance, was alert. The room was unusually dark, even for night- time. It was as though the window shades had been closely drawn–a thing Jason never did. But then Jason wasn’t there! Jimmie Dale, smiling then a little quizzically at himself, reached up for the electric-light switch beside the door, pressed it–and, his finger still on the button, whipped his automatic from his pocket with his other hand. THE ROOM WAS STILL IN DARKNESS.
The smile on Jimmie Dale’s lips was gone, for his lips now had closed together in a tight, drawn line. The lights in the rest of the house, as witness the reception hall, were in order. This was no ACCIDENT! Silent, motionless, he stood there, listening. Was he trapped at last–in his own house! By whom? The police? The thugs of the underworld? It made little difference–the end would differ only in the method by which it was attained! What was that! Was there a slight stir, a movement at the lower end of the room–or was it his imagination? His hand fell from the electric-light switch to the doorknob behind his back. Slowly, without a sound, it began to turn under his slim, tapering fingers, whose deft, sensitive touch had made him known and feared as the master cracksman of them all; and, as noiselessly, the door began to open.
It was like a duel–a duel of silence. What was the intruder, whoever he might be, waiting for? The abortive click of the electric-light switch, to say nothing of the opening of the door when he had entered, was evidence enough that he was there. Was the other trying to place him exactly through the darkness to make sure of his attack! The door was open now. And suddenly Jimmie Dale laughed easily aloud–and on the instant shifted his position.
“Well?” inquired Jimmie Dale coolly from the other side of the threshold.
It seemed like a long-drawn sigh fluttering through the room, a gasp of relief–and then the blood was pounding madly at his temples, and he was back in the room again, the door closed once more behind him.
“Oh, Jimmie–why didn’t you speak? I had to be sure that it was you.”
It was her voice! HERS! The Tocsin! HERE! She was here–here in his house!
“You!” he cried. “You–here!” He was pressing the electric-light switch frantically, again and again.
Her voice came out of the darkness from across the room:
“Why are you doing that, Jimmie? You know already that I have turned off the lights.”
“At the sockets–of course!” He laughed out the words almost hysterically. “Your face–I have never seen your face, you know." He was moving quickly toward the reading lamp on his desk.
There was a quick, hurried swish of garments, and she was blocking his way.
“No,” she said, in a low voice; “you must not light that lamp.”
He laughed again, shortly, fiercely now. She was close to him, his hands reached out for her, touched her, and thrilling at the touch, swept her toward him.
“Jimmie–Jimmie–are you mad!” she breathed.
Mad! Yes–he was mad with the wildest, most passionate exhilaration he had ever known. He found his voice with an effort.
“These months and years that I have tried until my soul was sick to find you!” he cried out. “And you are here now! Your face–I must see your face!”
She had wrenched herself away from him. He could hear her breath coming sharply in little gasps. He groped his way onward toward the desk.
“WAIT!"–her tones seemed to ring suddenly vibrant through the room. “Wait, before you touch that lamp! I–I put you on your honour not to light it.”
He stopped abruptly.
“My–honour?” he repeated mechanically.
“Yes! I came here to-night because there was no other way. No other way–do you understand? I came, trusting to your honour not to take advantage of the conditions that forced me to do this. I had no fear that I was wrong–I have no fear now. You will not light that lamp, and you will not make any attempt to prevent my going away as I came–unknown. Is there any question about it, Jimmie? I am in YOUR house.”
“You don’t know what you are saying!” he burst out wildly. “I’ve risked my life for a chance like this again and again; I’ve gone through hell, living in squalour for a month on end as Larry the Bat in the hope that I might discover who you are–and do you think I’ll let anything stop me now! I tell you, no–a thousand times no!”
She made no answer. There was only her low, quick breathing coming from somewhere near him. He made another step toward the lamp–and stopped.
“I tell you, no!” he said again, and took another step forward–and stopped once more.
Still she made no answer. A minute passed–another. His hand lifted and swept across his forehead in an agitated way. Still silence. She neither moved nor spoke. His hand dropped slowly to his side. There was a queer, twisted smile upon his lips.
“You win!” he said hoarsely.
“Thank you, Jimmie,” she said simply.
“And your name, who you are"–he was speaking, but he did not seem to recognise his own voice–"the hundred other things I’ve sworn I’d make you explain when I found you, are all taboo as well, I suppose!”
“Yes,” she said.
He laughed bitterly.
“Don’t you know,” he cried out, “that between the police and the underworld, our house of cards is likely to collapse at any minute– that they are hunting the Gray Seal day and night! Is it to be always like this–that I am never to know–until it is too late!
She came toward him out of the darkness impulsively.
“They will never get you, Jimmie,” she said, in a suppressed voice. And some day, I promise you now, you shall have your reward for to- night. You shall know–everything.”
“When?” The word came from him with fierce eagerness.
“I do not know,” she answered gently. “Soon, perhaps–perhaps sooner than either of us imagine.”
“And by that you mean–what?” he asked, and his hand reached out for her again through the blackness.
This time she did not draw away. There was an instant’s hesitation; then she spoke again hurriedly, a note of anxiety in her voice.
“You are beginning all over again, aren’t you, Jimmie? And I have told you that to-night I can explain nothing. And, besides, it is what has brought me here that counts now, and every moment is of–”
“Yes. I know,” he interposed; “but, then, at least you will tell me one thing: Why did you come to-night, instead of sending me a letter as you always have before?”
“Because it is different to-night than it ever was before,” she replied earnestly. “Because there is something in what has happened that I cannot explain myself; because there is danger, and where I could not see clearly I feared a trap, and so I dared not send what, in a letter, could at best be only vague and incomplete details. Do you see?”
“Yes,” said Jimmie Dale–but he was only listening in an abstracted way. If he could only see that face, so close to his! He had yearned for that with all his soul for years now! And she was here, standing beside him, and his hand was upon her arm; and here, in his own den, in his own house, he was listening to another call to arms for the Gray Seal from her own lips! Honour! Was he but a poor, quixotic fool! He had only to step to the desk and switch on the light! Why should–he steadied himself with a jerk, and drew away his hand. She was in HIS house. “Go on,” he said tersely.
“Do you know, or did you ever hear of old Luther Doyle?” she asked.
“No,” said Jimmie Dale.
“Do you know a man, then, named Connie Myers?”
Connie Myers! Who in the Bad Lands did not know Connie Myers, who boasted of the half dozen prison sentences already to his credit? Yes; he knew Connie Myers! But, strangely enough, it was not in the Bad Lands or as Larry the Bat that he knew the man, or that the other knew him–it was as Jimmie Dale. Connie Myers had introduced himself one night several years ago with a blackjack that had just missed its mark as the man had jumped out from a dark alleyway on the East Side, and he, Jimmie Dale, had thrashed the other to within an inch of his life. He had reason to know Connie Myers–and Connie Myers had reason to remember him!
“Yes,” he said, with a grim smile; “I know Connie Myers.”
“And the tenement across the street from where you live as Larry the Bat–that, of course, you know.” He leaned toward her wonderingly now.
“Of course!” he ejaculated. “Naturally!”
“Listen, then, Jimmie!” She was speaking quickly now. “It is a strange story. This Luther Doyle was already over fifty, when, some eight or nine years ago, his parents died within a few months of each other, and he inherited somewhere in the neighbourhood of a hundred thousand dollars; but the man, though harmless enough, was mildly insane, half-witted, queer, and the old couple, on account of their son’s mental defects, took care to leave the money securely invested, and so that he could only touch the interest. During these eight or nine years he has lived by himself in the same old family house where he had lived with his parents, in a lonely spot near Pelham. And he has lived in a most frugal, even miserly, manner. His income could not have been less than six thousand dollars a year, and his expenditures could not have been more than six hundred. His dementia, ironically enough from the day that he came into his fortune, took the form of a most pitiable and abject fear that he would die in poverty, misery, and want; and so, year after year, cashing his checks as fast as he got them, never trusting the bank with a penny, he kept hiding away somewhere in his house every cent he could scrape and save from his income–which to- day must amount, at a minimum calculation, to fifty thousand dollars.”
“And,” observed Jimmie Dale quietly. “Connie Myers robbed him of it, and–”
“No!” Her voice was quivering with passion, as she caught up his words. “Twice in the last month Connie Myers TRIED to rob him, but the money was too securely hidden. Twice he broke into Doyle’s house when the old man was out, but on both occasions was unsuccessful in his search, and was interrupted and forced to make his escape on account of Doyle’s return. To-night, an hour ago, in an empty room on the second floor of that tenement, in the room facing the landing, old Luther Doyle was MURDERED!”
There was silence for an instant. Her hand had closed in a tight pressure on his arm. The darkness seemed to add a sort of ghastly significance to her words.
“In God’s name, how do you know all this?” he demanded wildly. “How do you know all these things?
“Does that matter now?” she answered tensely. “You will know that when you know the rest. Oh, don’t you understand, Jimmie, there is not a moment to lose now? It was easy to lure a half-witted creature like that anywhere; it was Connie Myers who lured him to the tenement and murdered him there–but from that point, Jimmie, I am not sure of our ground. I do not know whether Connie Myers is alone in this or not; but I do know that he is going to Doyle’s house again to-night to make another search for the money. There is no question but that old Doyle was murdered to give Connie Myers and his accomplices, if there are any, a chance to tear the house inside out to find the money, to give them the whole night to work in without interruption if necessary–but Doyle dead in his own house could have interfered no more with them than Doyle dead in that tenement! Why was he lured to the tenement by Connie Myers when he could much more easily have been put out of the way in his own house? Jimmie, there is something behind this, something more that you must find out. There may be others in this besides Connie Myers, I do not know; but there is something here that I am afraid of. Jimmie, you must get that man, you must get the others if there are others, and you must stop them from getting the money in that house to-night! Do you understand now why I have come here? I could not explain in a letter; I do not quite seem to be explaining now. It would seem as though there were no need for the Gray Seal– that simply the police should be notified. But I KNOW, Jimmie, call it intuition, what you will, I know that there is need for us, for you to-night–that behind all this is a tragedy, deeper, blacker, than even the brutal, cold-blooded murder that is already done.”
Her voice, in its passionate earnestness, died away; and an anger, cold, grim, remorseless, settled upon Jimmie Dale–settled as it always settled upon him at her call to arms. His brain was already at work in its quick, instant way, probing, sifting, planning. She was right! It was strange, it was more than strange that, with the added risk, the danger, the difficulty, the man should have been brought miles to be done away with in that tenement! Why? Connie Myers took form before him–the coarse features, the tawny hair that straggled across the low forehead, the shifty eyes that were an indeterminate colour between brown and gray, the thin lips that seemed to draw in and give the jaw a protruding, belligerent effect. And Connie Myers knew him as Jimmie Dale–it would have to be then as Larry the Bat that the Gray Seal must work. That meant time–to go to the Sanctuary and change.
“The police,” he asked suddenly, aloud, “they have not yet discovered the body?”
“Not yet,” she replied hurriedly. “And that is still another reason for haste–there is no telling when they will. See–here!” She thrust a paper into his hand. “Here is a plan of old Doyle’s house, and directions for finding it. You must get Connie Myers red- handed, you must make him convict himself, for the evidence through which I know him to be guilty can never be used against him. And, Jimmie, be careful–I know I am not wrong, that there is still something more behind all this. And now go, Jimmie, go! There is no time to lose!” She was pushing him across the room toward the door.
Go! The word seemed suddenly to bring dismay. It was she again who was dominant now in his mind. Who knew if to-night, when he was taking his life in his hands again, would not be the last! And she was here now, here beside him–where she might never be again!
She seemed to divine his thoughts, for she spoke again, a strange new note of tenderness in her voice that thrilled him.
“You must never let them get you, Jimmie–for my sake. It will not last much longer–it is near the end–and I shall keep my promise. But go, now, Jimmie–go!”
“Go?” he repeated numbly. “Go? But–but you?”
“I?” She slipped suddenly away from him, retreating back down the room. “I will go–as I came.”
“Wait! Listen!” he pleaded.
There was no answer.
She was there–somewhere back there in the darkness still. He stood hesitant at the door. It seemed that every faculty he possessed urged him back there again–to her. Could he let her escape him now when she was so utterly in his power, she who meant everything in his life! And then, like a cold shock, came that other thought–she who had trusted to his honour! With a jerk, his hand swept out, felt for the doorknob, and closed upon it.
“Good-night!” he said heavily, and stepped out into the hall.
It seemed for a while, even after he had gained the street and made his way again to the subway, that nothing was concrete around him, that he was living through some fantastical dream. His head whirled, and he could not think rationally–and then slowly, little by little, his grip upon himself came back. She had come–and gone! With the roar of the subway in his ears, its raucous note seeming to strike so perfectly in consonance with the turmoil within him, he smiled mirthlessly. After all, it was as it always was! She was gone–and ahead of him lay the chances of the night!
“Dicing with death!” The words, unbidden, came back once more. If they were true before, they were doubly applicable now. It was different to-night from what it had ever been before, as she had said. Usually, to the smallest detail, everything was laid open, clear before him in those astounding letters. To-night, it was vague at best. A man had been murdered. Connie Myers had committed the murder under circumstances that pointed strongly to some hidden motive behind and beyond the mere chance it afforded him to search his victim’s house for the hidden cash. What was it?
Jimmie Dale stared out at the black subway walls. The answer would not come. Station after station passed. At Fourteenth Street he changed from the express to a local, got out at Astor Place, and a few minutes later was walking rapidly down the upper end of the Bowery.
The answer would not come–only the fact itself grew more and more deeply significant. The ghastly, callous fiendishness that lured an old, half-witted man to his death had Jimmie Dale in that grip of cold, merciless anger again, and there was a dull flush now upon his cheeks. Whatever it meant, whatever was behind it, one thing at least was certain–HE WOULD GET CONNIE MYERS!
He was close to the Sanctuary now–it was down the next cross street. He reached the corner and turned it, heading east; but his brisk walk had changed to a nonchalant saunter–there were some people coming toward him. It was the Gray Seal now, alert and cautious. The little group passed by. Ahead, the tenement bordering on the black alleyway loomed up–the Sanctuary, with its three entrances and exits; the home of Larry the Bat. And across from it was that other tenement, that held a new interest for him now, where, in an empty room on the second floor, she had said, old Doyle still lay. Should he go there? He was thinking quickly now, and shook his head. It would take what he did not have to spare– time. It was already ten o’clock; and, granted that Connie Myers had committed the crime only a little over an hour ago, the man by this time would certainly be on his way to Doyle’s house near Pelham, if, indeed, he were not already there. No, there was no time to spare–the question resolved itself simply into how long, since he had already searched twice and failed on both occasions, it would take Connie Myers to unearth old Doyle’s hiding place for the money.
Jimmie Dale glanced sharply around him, slipped into the alleyway, and, crouching against the tenement wall, moved noiselessly along to the side entrance. A moment more, and he had negotiated the rickety stairs with practiced, soundless tread, was inside the squalid quarters of Larry the Bat, and the door of the Sanctuary was locked and bolted behind him.
Perhaps five minutes passed–and then, where Jimmie Dale, the millionaire, had entered, there emerged Larry the Bat, of the aristocracy and the elite of the Bad Lands. But instead of leaving by the side door and the alleyway, as he had entered, he went along the lower hallway to the front entrance. And here, instinctively, he paused a moment at the top of the steps, as his eyes rested upon the tenement on the opposite side of the street.
It was strange that the crime should have been committed there! Something again seemed to draw him toward that empty room on the second story. He had decided once that he would not go, that there was not time; but, after all, it would not take long, and there was at least the possibility of gaining something more valuable even than time from the scene of the crime itself–there might even be the evidence he wanted there that would disclose the whole of Connie Myers’ game.
He went down the steps, and started across the street; but halfway over, he hesitated uncertainly, as a child’s cry came petulantly from the doorway. It was dark in the street; and, likewise, it was one of those hot, suffocating evenings when, in the crowded tenements of the poorer class, miserable enough in any case, misery was added to a hundredfold for lack of a single God-given breath of air. These two facts, apparently irrelevant, caused Jimmie Dale to change his mind again. He had not noticed the woman with the baby in her arms, sitting on the doorstep; but now, as he reached the curb, he not only saw, but recognised her–and he swung on down the street toward the Bowery. He could not very well go in without passing her, without being recognised himself–and that was a needless risk.
He smiled a little wanly. Once the crime was discovered, she would not have hesitated long before informing the police that she had seen him enter there! Mrs. Hagan was no friend of his! One could not live as he had lived, as Larry the Bat, and not see something in an intimate way of the pitiful little tragedies of the poor around him; for, bad, tough, and dissolute as the quarter was, all were not degraded there, some were simply–poor. Mrs. Hagan was poor. Her husband was a day labourer, often out of a job–and sometimes he drank. That was how he, Jimmie Dale, or rather, Larry the Bat, had come to earn Mrs. Hagan’s enmity. He had found Mike Hagan drunk one night, and in the act of being arrested, and had wheedled the man away from the officer on the promise that he would take Hagan home. And he was Larry the Bat, a dope fiend, a character known to all the neighbourhood, and Mrs. Hagan had laid her husband’s condition to HIS influence and companionship! He had taken Mike Hagan home–and Mrs. Hagan had driven Larry the Bat from the door of her miserable one-room lodging in that tenement with the bitter words on her tongue that only a woman can use when shame and grief and anger are breaking her heart.
He shrugged his shoulders, as, back along the Bowery, he retraced his steps, but now, with the hurried shuffle of Larry the Bat where before had been the brisk, athletic stride of Jimmie Dale.
At Astor Place again, he took the subway, this time to the Grand Central Station–and, well within an hour from the time he had left the Sanctuary, including the train journey to Pelham, he was standing in a clump of trees that fringed a deserted roadway. He had passed but few houses, once he was away from Pelham, and, as well as he could judge, there was none now within a quarter of a mile of him–except this one of old Luther Doyle’s that showed up black and shadowy just beyond the trees.
Jimmie Dale’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed the place. It was little wonder that, known to have money, an attempt to rob old Doyle should have been made in a place like this! It was even more grimly significant than ever of some deeper meaning that, in its loneliness an ideal place for a murder, the man should have been lured from there for that purpose to a crowded tenement in the city instead! What did it mean? Why had it been done? He shook his head. The answer would not come now any more than it had come before in the subway, or in the train on the way out, when he had set his brain so futilely to solve the problem.
From a survey of the house, Jimmie Dale gave attention to the details of his surroundings: the trees on either side; the open space in front, a distance of fifty yards to the road; the absence of any fence. And then, abruptly, he stole forward. There was no light to be seen anywhere about the house. Was it possible that Connie Myers was not yet there? He shook his head again impatiently. Connie Myers would not have wasted any time–as the Tocsin had said, there was always present the possibility that the crime in that tenement might be discovered at ANY moment. Connie Myers would have lost no time; for, let the discovery be made, let the police identify the body, as they most certainly would, and they would be out here hotfoot. Jimmie Dale stood suddenly still. What did it mean! He had not thought of that before! If old Doyle had been murdered HERE, there would not have been even the possibility of discovery until the morning at the earliest, and Connie Myers would have had all the time he wanted!
WHAT WAS THAT SOUND! A low, muffled tapping, like a succession of hammer blows, came from within the house. Jimmie Dale darted forward, reached the side of the house, and dropped on hands and knees. One question at least was answered–Connie Myers was inside.
The plan that she had given him showed an old-fashioned cellarway, closed by folding trapdoors, that was located a little toward the rear and, in a moment, creeping along, he came upon it. His hands felt over it. It was shut, fastened by a padlock on the outside. Jimmie Dale’s lips thinned a little, as he took a small steel instrument from his pocket. Either through inadvertence or by intention, Connie Myers had passed up an almost childishly simple means of entrance into the house! One side of the trapdoor was lifted up silently–and silently closed. Jimmie Dale was in the cellar. The hammering, much more distinct now, heavy, thudding blows, came from a room in the front–the connection between the cellar and the house, as shown on the Tocsin’s plan, was through another trapdoor in the floor of the kitchen.
Jimmie Dale’s flashlight played on a short, ladderlike stairway, and in an instant he was climbing upward. The sounds from the front of the house continued now without interruption; there was little fear that Connie Myers would hear anything else–even the protesting squeak of the hinges as Jimmie Dale cautiously pushed back the trapdoor in the flooring above his head. An inch, two inches he lifted it; and, his eyes on a level with the opening now, he peered into the room. The kitchen itself was intensely dark; but through an open doorway, well to one side so that he could not see into the room beyond, there struggled a curiously faint, dim glimmer of light. And then Jimmie Dale’s form straightened rigidly on the stairs. The blows stopped, and a voice, in a low growl, presumably Connie Myers’, reached him.
“Here, take a drive at it from the lower edge!”
There was no answer–save that the blows were resumed again. Jimmie Dale’s face had set hard. Connie Myers was not alone in this, then! Well, the odds were a little heavier, DOUBLED–that was all! He pushed the trapdoor wide open, swung himself up through the opening to the floor; and the next instant, back a little from the connecting doorway, his body pressed closely against the kitchen wall, he was staring, bewildered and amazed, into the next room.
On the floor, presumably to lessen the chance of any light rays stealing through the tightly drawn window shades, burned a small oil lamp. The place was in utter confusion. The right-hand side of a large fireplace, made of rough, untrimmed stone and cement, and which occupied almost the entire end of the room, was already practically demolished, and the wreckage was littered everywhere; part of the furniture was piled unceremoniously into one corner out of the way; and at the fireplace itself, working with sledge and bar, were two men. One was Connie Myers. An ironical glint crept into Jimmie Dale’s eyes. The false beard and mustache the man wore would deceive no one who knew Connie Myers! And that he should be wearing them now, as he knelt holding the bar while the other struck at it, seemed both uncalled for and absurd. The other man, heavily built, roughly dressed, had his back turned, and Jimmie Dale could not see his face.
The puzzled frown on Jimmie Dale’s forehead deepened. Somewhere in the masonry of the fireplace, of course, was where old Luther Doyle had hidden his money. That was quite plain enough; and that Connie Myers, in some way or other, had made sure of that fact was equally obvious. But how did old Luther Doyle get his money IN there from time to time, as he received the interest and dividends whose accumulation, according to the Tocsin, comprised his hoard! And how did he get it OUT again?
“All right, that’ll do!” grunted Connie Myers suddenly. “We can pry this one out now. Lend a hand on the bar!”
The other dropped his sledge, turned sideways as he stooped to help Connie Myers, his face came into view–and, with an involuntary start, Jimmie Dale crouched farther back against the wall, as he stared at the other. It was Hagan! Mrs. Hagan’s husband! Mike Hagan!”
“My God!” whispered Jimmie Dale, under his breath.
So that was it! That the murder had been committed in the tenement was not so strange now! A surge of anger swept Jimmie Dale–and was engulfed in a wave of pity. Somehow, the thin, tired face of Mrs. Hagan had risen before him, and she seemed to be pleading with him to go away, to leave the house, to forget that he had ever been there, to forget what he had seen, what he was seeing now. His hands clenched fiercely. How realistically, how importunately, how pitifully she took form before him! She was on her knees, clasping his knees, imploring him, terrified,
From Jimmie Dale’s pocket came the black silk mask. Slowly, almost hesitantly, he fitted it over his face–Mike Hagan knew Larry the Bat. Why should he have pity for Mike Hagan? Had he any for Connie Myers? What right had he to let pity sway him! The man had gone the limit; he was Connie Myers’ accomplice–a murderer! But the man was not a hardened, confirmed criminal like Connie Myers. Mike Hagan–a murderer! It would have been unbelievable but for the evidence before his own eyes now. The man had faults, brawled enough, and drank enough to have brought him several times to the notice of the police–but this!
Jimmie Dale’s eyes had never left the scene before him. Both men were throwing their weight upon the bar, and the stone that they were trying to dislodge–they were into the heart of the masonry now–seemed to move a little. Connie Myers stood up, and, leaning forward, examined the stone critically at top and bottom, prodding it with the bar. He turned from his examination abruptly, and thrust the bar into Hagan’s hands.
“Hold it!” he said tersely. “I’ll strike for a turn.”
Crouched, on his hands and knees, Hagan inserted the point of the bar into the crevice. Connie Myers picked up the sledge.
“Lower! Bend lower!” he snapped–and swung the sledge.
It seemed to go black for a moment before Jimmie Dale’s eyes, seemed to paralyse all action of mind and body. There was a low cry that was more a moan, the clang of the iron bar clattering on the floor, and Mike Hagan had pitched forward on his face, an inert and huddled heap. A half laugh, half snarl purled from Connie Myers’ lips, as he snatched a stout piece of cord from his pocket and swiftly knotted the unconscious man’s wrists together. Another instant, and, picking up the bar, prying with it again, the loosened stone toppled with a crash into the grate.
It had come sudden as the crack of doom, that blow–too quick, too unexpected for Jimmie Dale to have lifted a finger to prevent it. And now that the first numbed shock of mingled horror and amazement was past, he fought back the quick, fierce impulse to spring out on Connie Myers. Whether the man was killed or only stunned, he could do no good to Mike Hagan now, and there was Connie Myers–he was staring in a fascinated way at Connie Myers. Behind the stone that the other had just dislodged was a large hollow space that had been left in the masonry, and from this now Connie Myers was eagerly collecting handfuls of banknotes that were rolled up into the shape of little cylinders, each one grotesquely tied with a string. The man was feverishly excited, muttering to himself, running from the fireplace to where the table had been pushed aside with the rest of the furniture, dropping the curious little rolls of money on the table, and running back for more. And then, having apparently emptied the receptacle, he wriggled his body over the dismantled fireplace, stuck his head into the opening, and peered upward.
“Kinks in his nut, kinks in his nut!” Connie Myers was muttering. “I’ll drop the bar through from the top, mabbe there’s some got stuck in the pipe.”
He regained his feet, picked up the bar, and ran with it into what was evidently the front hall–then his steps sounded running upstairs.
Like a flash, Jimmie Dale was across the room and at the fireplace. Like Connie Myers, he, too, put his head into the opening; and then, a queer, unpleasant smile on his lips, he bent quickly over the man on the floor. Hagan was no more than stunned, and was even then beginning to show signs of returning consciousness. There was a rattle, a clang, a thud–and the bar, too long to come all the way through, dropped into the opening and stood upright. Connie Myers’ footsteps sounded again, returning on the run–and Jimmie Dale was back once more on the other side of the kitchen doorway.
It was all simple enough–once one understood! The same queer smile was still flickering on Jimmie Dale’s lips. There was no way to get the money out, except the way Connie Myers had got it out–by digging it out! With the irrational cunning of his mad brain, that had put the money even beyond his own reach, old Doyle had built his fireplace with a hollow some eighteen inches square in a great wall of solid stonework, and from it had run a two-inch pipe up somewhere to the story above; and down this pipe he had dropped his little string-tied cylinders of banknotes, satisfied that his hoard was safe! There seemed something pitfully ironic in the elaborate, insane craftiness of the old man’s fear-twisted, demented mind.
And now Connie Myers was back in the room again–and again a puzzled expression settled upon Jimmie Dale’s face as he watched the other. For perhaps a minute the man stood by the table sifting the little rolls of money through his fingers gloatingly–then, impulsively, he pushed these to one side, produced a revolver, laid it on the table, and from another pocket took out a little case which, as he opened it, Jimmie Dale could see contained a hypodermic syringe. One more article followed the other two–a letter, which Connie Myers took out of an unsealed envelope. He dropped this suddenly on the table, as Mike Hagan, three feet away on the floor, groaned and sat up.
Hagan’s eyes swept, bewildered, confused, around him, questioningly at Connie Myers–and then, resting suddenly on his bound wrists, they narrowed menacingly.
“Damn you, you smashed me with that sledge on PURPOSE!” he burst out–and began to struggle to his feet.
With a brutal chuckle, Connie Myers pushed Hagan back and shoved his revolver under the other’s nose.
“Sure!” he admitted evenly. “And you keep quiet, or I’ll finish you now–instead of letting the police do it!” He laughed out jarringly. “You’re under arrest, you know, for the murder of Luther Doyle, and for robbing the poor old nut of his savings in his house here.”
Hagan wrenched himself up on his elbow.
“What–what do you mean?” he stammered.
“Oh, don’t worry!” said Connie Myers maliciously. “I’M not making the arrest, I’d rather the police did that. I’m not mixing up in it, and by and by"–he lifted up the hypodermic for Hagan to see– “I’m going to shoot a little dope into you that’ll keep you quiet while I get away myself.”
Hagan’s face had gone a grayish white–he had caught sight of the money on the table, and his eyes kept shifting back and forth from it to Myers’ face.
“Murder!” he said huskily. “There is no murder. I don’t know who Doyle is. You said this house was yours–you hired me to come here. You said you were going to tear down the fireplace and build another. You said I could work evenings and earn some extra money.”
“Sure, I did!” There was a vicious leer now on Connie Myers’ lips. “But you don’t think I picked you out by ACCIDENT, do you? Your reputation, my bucko, was just shady enough to satisfy anybody that it wouldn’t be beyond you to go the limit. Sure, you murdered Doyle! Listen to this.” He took up the letter:
“TO THE POLICE: Luther Doyle was murdered this evening in the tenement at 67 –– Street. You’ll find his body in a room on the second floor. If you want to know who did it, look in Mike Hagan’s room on the floor above. There’s a paper stuck under the edge of Hagan’s table with a piece of chewing gum, where he hid it. You’ll know what it is when you go out and take a look at Doyle’s house in Pelham. Yours truly, A FRIEND.”
Mike Hagan did not speak–his lips were twitching, and there was horror creeping into his eyes.
“D’ye get me!” sneered Connie Myers. “Tell your story–who’d believe it! I got you cinched. Twice I tried to get this old dub’s coin out here, and couldn’t find it. But the second time I found something else–a piece of paper with a drawing of the fireplace on it, and a place in the drawing marked with an X. That was good enough, wasn’t it? That’s the paper I stuck under your table this afternoon when your wife was out–see? Somebody’s got to stand for the job, and if it’s somebody else it won’t be me–get me! When I had a look at that fireplace I knew I couldn’t do the job alone in a week, and I didn’t dare blast it with ’soup’ for fear of spoiling what was inside. And since I had to have somebody to help me, I thought I might as well let him help me all the way through–and stand for it. I picked you, Mike–that’s why I croaked old Doyle in your tenement to-night. I wrote this letter while I was waiting for you to show up at the station to come out here with me, and I’m going to see that the police get it in the next hour. When they find Doyle in the room below yours, and that paper in your room, and the busted fireplace here–I guess they won’t look any farther for who did it. And say"–he leaned forward with an ugly grin–"mabbe you think I’m soft to be telling you all this? But don’t you fool yourself. You don’t know me–you don’t know who I am. So tell ’em the TRUTH! They won’t believe you anyway with evidence like that against you–and the neater the story the more they’ll think it shows brains enough on your part to have pulled a job like this!”
“My God!” Hagan was rocking on his knees, beads of sweat were starting out on his forehead. “You wouldn’t plant a man like that!" he cried brokenly. “You wouldn’t do it, would you? My God–you wouldn’t do that!”
Jimmie Dale’s face under his mask was white and rigid. There was something primal, elemental in the savagery that was sweeping upon him. He had it all now–ALL! She had been right–there was need to-night for the Gray Seal. So that was the game, inhuman, hellish, the whole of it, to the last filthy dregs–Connie Myers, to protect himself, was railroading an innocent man to death for the crime that he himself had committed! There was a cold smile on Jimmie Dale’s lips now, as he took his automatic from his pocket. No, it wasn’t quite all the game–there was still HIS hand to play! He edged forward a little nearer to the door–and halted abruptly, listening. An automobile had stopped outside on the road. Hagan was still pleading in a frenzied way; Connie Myers was callously folding his letter, while he watched the other warily–neither of the men had heard the sound.
And then, quick, almost on the instant, came a rush of feet, a crash upon the front door–an imperative command to open in the name of the law. THE POLICE! Jimmie Dale’s brain was working now with lightning speed. Somehow the police had stumbled upon the crime in that tenement; and, as he had foreseen in such an event, had identified Doyle. But they could not be sure that any one was present here in the house now–they could not see a light any more than he had. He must get Mike Hagan away–must see that Connie Myers did NOT get away. Myers was on his feet now, fear struck in his turn, the letter clutched in a tight-closed fist, his revolver swung out, poised, in the other hand. Hagan, too, was on his feet, and, unheeded now by Connie Myers, was wrenching his wrists apart.
Another crash upon the door–another. Another demand in a harsh voice to open it. Then some one running around to the window at the side of the house–and Jimmie Dale sprang forward.
There was the roar of a report, a blinding flash almost in Jimmie Dale’s eyes, as Connie Myers, whirling instantly at his entrance, fired–and missed. It happened quick then, in the space of the ticking of a watch–before Jimmie Dale, flinging himself forward, had reached the man. Like a defiant challenge to their demand it must have seemed to the officers outside, that shot of Connie Myers at Jimmie Dale, for it was answered on the instant by another through the side window. And the shot, fired at random, the interior of the room hidden from the officers outside by the drawn shades, found its mark–and Connie Myers, a bullet in his brain, pitched forward, dead, upon the floor.
“QUICK!” Jimmie Dale flung at Hagan. “Get that letter out of his hand!” He jumped for the lamp on the floor, extinguished it, and turned again toward Hagan. “Have you got it?” he whispered tensely.
“Yes,” said Hagan, in a numbed way.
“This way, then!” Jimmie Dale caught Hagan’s arm, and pulled the other across the room and into the kitchen to the trapdoor. “Quick!” he breathed again. “Get down there–quick! And no noise! They don’t know how many are in the house. When they find HIM they’ll probably be satisfied.”
Hagan, stupefied, dazed, obeyed mechanically–and, in an instant, the trapdoor closed behind them, Jimmie Dale was standing beside the other in the cellar.
“Not a sound now!” he cautioned once more.
His flashlight winked, went out, winked again; then held steadily, in curious fascination it seemed, as, in its circuit, the ray fell upon Hagan–FELL UPON THE TORN, RAGGED EDGE OF A PAPER IN HAGAN’S HAND! With a suppressed cry, Jimmie Dale snatched it away from the other. It was but a torn HALF of the letter! “The other half! The other half, Hagan–where is it?” he demanded hoarsely.
Hagan, almost in a state of collapse, muttered inaudibly. The crash of a toppling door sounded from above. Jimmie Dale shook the man desperately.
“Where is it?” he repeated fiercely.
“He–he was holding it tight, it–it tore in his hand,” Hagan stammered. “Does it make any difference? Oh, let’s get out of here, whoever you are–for God’s sake let’s get out of here!”
Any difference! Jimmie Dale’s jaws were clamped like a steel vise. Any difference! The difference between life and death for the man beside him–that was all! He was reading the portion in his hand. It was the last part of the letter, beginning with: “There’s a paper stuck under the edge of Hagan’s table–” From above, from the floor of the front room now, came the rush and trample of feet. He could not go back for the other half. And any attempt to conceal the fact that Connie Myers had been alone in the house was futile now. They would find the torn letter in the dead man’s hand, proof enough that some one else had been there. What was in that part of the letter that was still clutched in that death grip upstairs? A sentence from it, that he had heard Connie Myers read, seemed to burn itself into his brain. “IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHO DID IT, LOOK IN MIKE HAGAN’S ROOM ON THE FLOOR ABOVE.” And then, suddenly, like light through the darkness, came a ray of hope. He pulled Hagan to the cellarway, and stealthily lifted one side of the double trapdoor. There was a chance, desperate enough, one in a thousand–but still a chance!
Voices from the house came plainly now, but there was no one in sight. The police, to a man, were evidently all inside. From the road in front showed the lamp glare of their automobile.
“Run for the car!” Jimmie Dale jerked out from between set teeth– and with Hagan beside him, steadying the man by the arm, dashed across the intervening fifty yards.
They had not been seen. A minute more, and the car, evidently belonging to the local police, for it was headed in the direction of New York, and as though it had come from Pelham, swept down the road, swept around a turn, and Jimmie Dale, with a gasp of relief, straightened up a little from the wheel.
How much time had he? The police must have heard the car; but, equally, occupied as they were, they might well give it no thought other than that it was but another car passing by. There was no telephone in the house; the nearest house was a quarter of a mile away, and that might or might not have a telephone. Could he count on half an hour? He glanced anxiously at the crouched figure beside him. He would have to! It was the only chance. They would telephone the contents of the dead man’s half of the letter to the New York police. Could he get to Hagan’s room FIRST! “Look in Hagan’s room,” their part of the letter read–but it did not say for WHAT, or exactly WHERE! If they found nothing, Hagan was safe. Connie Myers’ reputation, the fact that he was found in disguise at Doyle’s house, was, barring any incriminating evidence, quite enough to let Hagan out. There would only remain in the minds of the police the question of who, beside Connie Myers, had been in old Doyle’s house that night? And now Jimmie Dale smiled a little whimsically. Well, perhaps he could answer that–and, if not quite to the satisfaction of the police, at least to the complete vindication of Mike Hagan.
But he could not drive through towns and villages with a mask on his face; and there, ahead now, lights were beginning to show. And more than ever now, with what was before him, it was imperative that Mike Hagan should not recognise Larry the Bat. Jimmie Dale glanced again at Hagan–and slowed down the car. They were on the outskirts of a town, and off to the right he caught the twinkling lights of a street car.
“Hagan,” he said sharply, “pull yourself together, and listen to me! If you keep your mouth shut, you’ve nothing to fear; if you let out a word of what’s happened to-night, you’ll probably go to the chair for a crime you know nothing about. Do you understand?–keep your mouth shut!”
The car had stopped. Hagan nodded his head.
“All right, then. You get out here, and take a street car into New York,” continued Jimmie Dale crisply. “But when you get there, keep away from your home for the next two or three hours. Hang around with some of the boys you know, and if you’re asked anything afterward, say you were batting around town all evening. Don’t worry–you’ll find you’re out of this when you read the morning papers. Now get out–hurry!” He pushed Hagan from the car. “I’ve got to make my own get-away.”
Hagan, standing in the road, brushed his hand bewilderingly across his eyes.
“Yes–but you–I–”
“Never mind about that!” Jimmie Dale leaned out, and gripped Hagan’s arm impressively. “There’s only one thing you’ve got to think of, or remember. Keep your mouth shut! No matter what happens, keep your mouth shut–if you want to save your neck! Good-night, Hagan!”
The car was racing forward again. It shot streaking through the streets of the town ahead, and, dully, over its own inferno, echoed shouts, cries, and execrations of an outraged populace–then out into the night again, roaring its way toward New York.
He had half an hour–perhaps! It was a good thing Hagan did not know, or had not grasped the significance of that torn letter–the man would have been unmanageable with fear and excitement. It would puzzle Hagan to find no paper stuck under his table when he came to look for it! But that was a minor consideration, that mattered not at all,
Half an hour! On roared the car–towns, black roads, villages, wooded lands were kaleidoscopic in their passing. Half an hour! Had he done it? Had he come anywhere near doing it? He did not know. He was in the city at last–and now he had to moderate his speed; but, by keeping to the less frequented streets, he could still drive at a fast pace. One piece of good fortune had been his– the long motor coat he had found in the car with which to cover the rags of Larry the Bat, and without which he would have been obliged to leave the car somewhere on the outskirts of the city, and to trust, like Mike Hagan, to other and slower means of transportation.
Blocks away from Hagan’s tenement, he ran the car into a lane, slipped off the motor coat, and from his pocket whipped out the little metal insignia case–and in another moment a diamond-shaped gray seal was neatly affixed to the black ebony rim of the steering wheel. He smiled ironically. It was necessary, quite necessary that the police should have no doubt as to who had been in Doyle’s house with Connie Myers that night, or to whom they had so considerately loaned their automobile!
He was running now–through lanes, dodging down side streets, taking every short cut he knew. Had he beaten the police to Mike Hagan’s room? It would be easy then. If they were ahead of him, then, by some means or other, he must still get that paper first.
He was at the tenement now–shuffling leisurely up the steps. The front door was open. He entered, and went up the first flight of stairs, then along the hall, and up the next flight. He had half expected the place to be bustling with excitement over the crime; but the police evidently had kept the affair quiet, for he had seen no one since he had entered. But now, as he began to mount the third flight, he went more slowly–some one was ahead of him. It was very dark–he could not see. The steps above died away. He reached the landing, started along for Hagan’s room–and a light blazed suddenly in his face, and a hard, quick grip on his shoulder forced him back against the wall. Then the flashlight wavered, glistened on brass buttons went out, and a voice laughed roughly:
“It’s only Larry the Bat!”
“Larry the Bat, eh?” It was another voice, harsh and curt. “What are you doing here?”
He was not first, after all! The telephone message from Pelham–it was almost certainly that–had beaten him! They were ahead of him, just ahead of him, they had only been a few steps ahead of him going up the stairs, just a second ahead of him on their way to Hagan’s room! Jimmie Dale was thinking fast now. He must go, too–to Hagan’s room with them–somehow–there was no other way–there was Hagan’s life at stake.
“Aw, I ain’t done nothin’!” he whined. “I was just goin’ ter borrow the price of a feed from Mike Hagan–lemme go!”
“Hagan, eh!” snapped the questioner. “Are you a friend of his?”
“Sure, I am!”
The officers whispered for a moment together.
“We’ll try it,” decided the one who appeared to be in command. “We’re in the dark, anyhow, and the thing may be only a steer. Mabbe it’ll work–anyway, it won’t do any harm.” His hand fell heavily on Jimmie Dale’s shoulder. “Mrs. Hagan know you?" brusquely.
“Sure she does!” sniffled Larry the Bat.
“Good!” rasped the officer. “Well, we’ll make the visit with you. And you do what you’re told, or we’ll put the screws on you–see? We’re after something here, and you’ve blown the whole game–savvy? You’ve spilled the gravy–understand?”
In the darkness, Jimmie Dale smiled grimly. It was far more than he had dared to hope for–they were playing into his hands!
“But I don’t know ’bout any game,” grovelled Larry the Bat piteously.
“Who in hell said you did!” growled the officer. “You’re supposed to have snitched the lay to us, that’s all–and mind you play your part! Come on!”
It was two doors down the hall to Mike Hagan’s room, and there one of the officers, putting his shoulder to the door, burst it open and sprang in. The other shoved Jimmie Dale forward. It was quickly done. The three were in the room. The door was closed again.
Came a cry of terror out of the darkness, a movement as of some one rising up hurriedly in bed; and then Mrs. Hagan’s voice:
“What is it! Who is it! Mike!”
The table–it was against the right-hand wall, Jimmie Date remembered. He sidled quickly toward it.
“Strike a light!” ordered the officer in charge.
Jimmie Dale’s fingers were feeling under the edge of the table–a quick sweep along it–NOTHING! He stooped, reaching farther in– another sweep of his arm–and his fingers closed on a sheet of paper and a piece of hard gum. In an instant they were in his pocket.
A match crackled and flared up. A lamp was lighted. Larry the Bat sulked sullenly against the wall.
Terror-stricken, wide-eyed, Mrs. Hagan had clutched the child lying beside her to her arms, and was sitting bolt upright in bed.
“Now then, no fuss about it!” said the officer in charge, with brutal directness. “You might as well make a clean breast of Mike’s share in that murder downstairs–Larry the Bat, here, has already told us the whole story. Come on, now–out with it!”
“Murder!"–her face went white. “My Mike– MURDER!” She seemed for an instant stunned–and then down the worn, thin, haggard face gushed the tears. “I don’t believe it!” she cried. “I don’t believe it!”
“Come on now, cut that out!” prodded the officer roughly. “I tell you Larry the Bat, here, has opened everything up wide. You’re only making it worse for yourself.”
“Him!” She was staring now at Jimmie Dale. “Oh, God!” she cried. “So that’s what you are, are you–a stool-pigeon for the cops? Well, whatever you told them, you lie! You’re the curse of this neighbourhood, you are, and if my Mike is bad at all, it’s you that’s helped to make him bad. But murder–you LIE!”
She had risen slowly from the bed–a gaunt, pitiful figure, pitifully clothed, the black hair, gray-streaked, streaming thinly over her shoulders, still clutching the baby that, too, was crying now.
The officers looked at one another and nodded.
“Guess she’s handing it straight–we’ll have a look on our own hook,” the leader muttered.
She paid no attention to them–she was walking straight to Jimmie Dale.
“It’s you, is it,” she whispered fiercely through her sobs “that would bring more shame and ruin here–you that’s selling my man’s life away with your filthy lies for what they’re paying you–it’s you, is it, that–” Her voice broke.
There was a frightened, uneasy look in Larry the Bat’s eyes, his lips were twitching weakly, he drew far back against the wall–and then, glancing miserably at the officers, as though entreating their permission, began to edge toward the door.
For a moment she watched him, her face white with outrage, her hand clenched at her side–and then she found her voice again.
“Get out of here!” she said, in a choked, strained way pointing to the door. “Get out of here–you dirty skate!”
“Sure!” mumbled Larry the Bat, his eyes on the floor. “Sure!” he mumbled–and the door closed behind him.

 

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