Keeban (Little, Brown and Company)/Chapter 21

XXIDORIS ENTERS THE GLASS ROOM.

You see, I had remained sure up to this time that there were two of them. Now and then, for short periods, I had questioned myself about it; but always my certainty of Jerry, as somebody distinct from Keeban, won over my doubt. I would never grant that Jerry, my brother, could be guilty of what Keeban had done.

Then, if they were only one, why would Jerry warn me and send me to prevent the plan of Keeban, as he had sent me to the Sencort Trust?

"Here's Jerry!" I said to myself, and that jump of my heart encouraged me. "He's playing Keeban. He's come for me."

The normals nodded or gazed at him; he gave hardly a glance at them. He looked to Doris and came over to me.

My pulse had stopped jumping then, when I saw him closer. "He's not Jerry!" I warned myself. "He's Keeban!" And then my senses did another roundabout. "He's Keeban and Jerry, too!" For here was a body which I was sure was Jerry's and some one else possessed it. That some one must be the soul we'd called Keeban—Jerry and I. Here was Keeban who'd robbed Dorothy Crewe and thrown her in the street; here was Keeban who had shot Win Scofield for his insurance and had knocked me on the head when I called at Cheron Street; here was Keeban who had tried to kill, by poison gas, Strathon, Géroud and Teverson and the Sencort directors in their room. And here—in the sense, at least, that I felt him physically present—was Jerry, who had been brother of mine for twenty-five years. And his present purpose was to finish me.

"Well, Steve," he said, "You did a good job."

"All right, I guess," I replied.

"Damn good," he granted to me. "You got any idea of what you beat me out of?"

"No," I said, doing my best to stand up to him; and while I talked to him, I thought, "He warned me. He told me to do it. That wasn't Keeban, of course. Jerry had the body then. Jerry must come into him at times. Then Jerry knows and goes horrified at what Keeban does. Jerry himself sent me that warning to try to stop him. He did the same in the killing of Win Scofield."

He went on talking, "You beat me out of more than you'd make in the bean business if you lived as many more years as you're going to live minutes. You like that girl over there?"

I didn't reply to that; but he went on as if I had.

"Good you do. She's traveling right along with you. Plenty of space for two in the old glass room. Now Stenewisc, he was simply a fool."

"Stenewisc, who made the gas?" I asked him. I was trying to keep him talking for the general reason that every minute gained was another minute lived; and besides, below everything else in my mind, was the idea that something might turn this body back from Keeban to Jerry again. I got to figuring like this:

"Years ago, when we were at college, he started being Keeban for a couple of short periods which confused him afterwards. He was Jerry nearly all the time. Then he stopped turning into Keeban until that night of the Sparlings' dance. He became Keeban for a time, then he was Jerry again when he came home to talk to me, after which he went back to being Keeban. He has stayed Keeban most of the time since, especially through that Scofield business; but once or twice he became Jerry. But now, except when he sent those two notes to me, he's been Keeban all the time."

"Stenewisc, he never had any sense," he went on to me. "He had the gas during the war. But would he sell it to the army or to the English or the French or, if he didn't like that side, would he sell to the other? He would not. He wouldn't help any government anywhere; he wouldn't help a government even to wipe out the rest. He was set to do the wiping himself, personally. He had his big idea."

I kept quiet; and he stood close. This was like Jerry himself, this impulse to talk on.

"He figured he could croak everybody—give him a little more time and plenty of gas. Everybody in New York, anyway." Keeban laughed. "Lot of good that would do. Get up!" he told me.

I got up.

"Get up!" he said to Doris; and she arose.

The normals formed before us and behind and so we started to march to the glass room.

There was an ordinary wood and plaster partition first which set off another large room at the end of this floor. The usual employment of this place was plain enough, even to me with only college course knowledge of chemical matters. Here were the laboratories for experimentation and research where a commercial firm, such as Stamby-Temke, would keep a covey of chemists testing their products, analyzing the goods of competitors and making experiments to improve their own formulæ for colors, caustics, preservatives, antiseptics, poisons, solvents, reagents and what not.

Most of these tests would be simple enough and involve no danger to any one; but some would generate gases, poisonous or otherwise noxious, which should not be allowed in an open room; therefore the firm had installed, at the end of this laboratory, a special compartment which was, beyond any doubt, "the glass room."

Its outer wall was not of glass; rather, it was not all glass, though there were two windows in it. No blinds were drawn before them but they were black from the steel shutters outside. The other three walls were of glass from floor to ceiling and, as the normals brought us nearer, I could see that the glass was heavy, clear plate such as is used in show windows and that it was carefully and evenly joined in steel framing.

Where the glass met the frame, and about the single, glass door, the joints were caulked and sealed, making the place air-tight and gas-tight, undoubtedly. There was a way of ventilating it without using the windows, I saw; for cords communicated with ceiling traps. The traps were open now; the blackness above was the darkness of the sky. One set of cords hung inside the room, another hung just outside the glass.

I guessed that, when Stamby-Temke had the building, the chemists who worked in the glass room used the inner set when they wished to clear the air of their cabinet; the outer cords must be for emergencies, in case the chemists in the outer laboratory saw the experimenters in the cabinet overcome; then the rescuers could open the ceiling before going into the glass room.

The fact that the traps now were up suggested that the cabinet recently had been used. For whom? I wondered. I was sure of the purpose of the cabinet. Here was the place of punishment and of discipline.

Keeban strode into the glass room and pulled the cords. The ceiling closed and he came out. His normals stood about him, grinning. They took on an additional detachment of manner which I didn't like at all; it was detachment from us—from Doris and me—that I mean.

She was keeping her nerve and she was standing steady. She was gazing into the glass room with a look which made me think that, though she'd known about this cabinet, she had never actually seen it before.

I haven't mentioned its furnishings. The room had a bench with nothing on it; there was a table in the middle of the cabinet. Nothing was on that either, but from its position, and from the way that Doris and the normals looked at that, it had a much more menacing suggestion.

It was a narrow table, no wider than a couch; it was about the length of a couch. And somehow, though it was perfectly flat and hard, it suggested a couch. At least, I imagined myself spread out upon it. The reason I fancied this was simple. I was sure that they meant to put me into that cabinet; and the only place they could put me and tie me safely would be to bind me to that table.

Then they would pump in Stenewisc's gas—his KX, which so competently had accounted for Costrelman and his butler and for the four guinea pigs which, but for me, might have been Lord Strathon and M. Géroud and Sencort and Teverson. But for Doris and me, I mean; for I knew—and Keeban and his normals knew—that if I had failed to warn Teverson, Doris was there to do it. Consequently, we were to get the gas now; and we were not to get it simply, but impressively as a part of a ceremony of punishment and discipline.

For Doris had done the double cross; she had "speiled" and "spouted"; and not only had she spoiled the biggest job this crowd ever had "on" but by her squeal or her willingness to squeal had made every man here a candidate for the electric chair. That was their judgment and their sentence against her.

It was not a fair judgment, nor a fair sentence, even from their own point of view, I thought. It was strange that, standing there and staring into the glass room, I angered at this more than anything else, that their sentence of her wasn't fair. She never could have agreed to mix in murder; she had mixed with them only for counterfeiting, for her shoving of "the queer"; and through that contact, she had learned of the plot to kill which she could not stand for.

Other flashes of comprehension came to me there, too. Keeban was fast developing, I understood. He'd started, so far as I knew, only with robbery; then he'd run to shooting of old Win Scofield and, from that, to his attempt at the simultaneous gassing of the group appointed to gather in the Sencort directors' room. Keeban had tried to carry Doris with him from counterfeiting into killing; he had failed. He must have been carrying some, or most, of these normals with him from smaller offenses into those which threatened "the chair."

He could not simply have happened upon a group of normals going the exact gait he was going; he had to speed up some of them and keep them with him and impress them with the certainty of something worse than "the chair", if any failed him. So he was giving "the glass room" to Doris and me, not merely for our punishment, but for an example to the others. And more of the others were arriving now. I heard footsteps and voices, a girl's voice among them and her laugh. I turned about. Shirley, Win Scofield's widow, had come with two young men beside her.

The sight of her brought me images of recollection. How I had seen her sing in her house that night before the shooting! How, like a cabaret Récamier, she had received me after her husband was dead! How I witnessed her dance at the Flamingo Feather that night she had stabbed at her partner, Keeban!

Sometimes, since, I had doubted the authenticity of my own witnessing that night; I wondered if, actually, she had tried, in that sudden, swift dart of the dagger, to kill Keeban, her partner. Now I wondered that no longer.

She came in smiling; but her smile was too like Doris's when she now smiled at me. For a moment I thought that Shirley was with us; she, also, was to be a guest of the glass room. Then I realized that this was not so. She had come only to see us entertained within the glass. I realized that it was for her we had been waiting. She had come but not of her own will. She had been brought to see this entertainment which was planned for her.

I got a glimpse of Keeban's face; and there I saw a leer which seemed to say:

"You stabbed at me. I let you get away with it. But watch your step. Now see what I can do."

She kept on smiling. She looked at Doris but didn't speak. She didn't even nod at Doris, indeed; and Doris took no heed of her. She gazed at me, did Shirley Scofield,—Christina. And she smiled at me as she had at Keeban, and she smiled at the normals, too. That smile meant nothing; no more than their grins in reply to her.

Keeban spoke aloud. "Everybody's here." It seemed to be a prearranged signal. Two of the normals came up to me and took my arms; two more placed themselves in position similarly to escort Doris.

"What's the big rush, boys?" said Keeban then. "Didn't they show us something new down on Wall Street? Don't we show it back to them?"

He laughed; and how he looked like Jerry when he laughed! But he didn't sound like Jerry. Not at all. That other person possessed the body.

"Where are they?" he asked the nearest of his normals.

"Oh!" said the normal, remembering. "In there."

"Get them," said Keeban.

The fellow stepped to a locker at the side of the room; he stooped, and, reaching in, he brought out a pair of white rabbits in one hand, another pair hung by their ears from his other fist.

"Rabbits," said Keeban, with a sort of play at apology to Doris and me. "I know you got guinea pigs; but rabbits do just as well and they show better."

He took them from the man who held them and he stepped again into the glass room and tossed the four white rabbits upon the table. Carefully he closed the door when he came out.

He went to the end of the cabinet where now I noticed, when he touched it, a thin pipe with a cock right against the glass. He twisted the cock and he returned to us.

The end of the pipe pierced the glass, I saw; but now that the cock was turned, nothing visible came from it. Stenewisc's gas was colorless and odorless, I remembered. I did not expect to smell it through the glass of the cabinet; but I could not help expecting the rabbits, on the table there, to show some alarm. They discerned nothing threatening, however.

Timidly they tried this end of the table and now that. They hopped about, nosing each other, naturally enough. Nothing at all seemed to be happening. Then a lethargy crept over them. They did not sleep; they remained awake but became slower and slower in their motions. Yet nothing alarmed them; they seemed to sense nothing at all but the difficulty of motion. They nosed up, seeming to search for this intangible thing which was restraining them. They drooped, as though pressed down; but they remained awake and gave not a squeal nor a quiver of pain.

Surely it was painless, as well as invisible and intangible, too,—this amazing death from Stenewisc's gas.

"No trouble at all, you see," said Keeban to me. "You never know it."

He knew how horrible that gradual, invisible death was; a shot or a knife, or anything sudden, would have been ten times more merciful. It's a strange thing to say, but I'm sure that pain—some pain, at least—would have made it less terrible. It was uncanny, you see.

"They'd never have suspected it," he spoke again to me. "They'd each thought the rest were getting thick in the head and nobody would've tried to get up from the table—till they couldn't."

He was speaking of the four, who would have been in the Sencort directors' room, if I hadn't interfered; and his words, and this sight of the rabbits before me, made me see how the Englishman and the Frenchman and Teverson and Sencort would have gone, without feeling, without knowing, with nothing really to alarm them till too late.

"Great stuff," said Keeban again and not to me but to the normals. "We'll make it worth millions yet—millions! We'll get the next bunch and then sell Wall Street the gas—at our own price! Boys, the curtain raiser's over."

For the rabbits had drooped into death. There was not a mark nor a twist on them to show it. Keeban shut off the gas, where he had turned it on; he pulled the cords to open the ceiling.

"Perfectly safe in two minutes," he assured Doris and me. "It's light; the stuff rises."

Doris and I looked at each other. What had been done had been planned of course to break our nerve. I can't say what cracks showed in mine, nor how much satisfaction I was giving them. I can say that what she was supplying them was mighty small.

We had two minutes, one of us or both of us; and she wasn't for wasting them. Nor was I thinking of things far away. I couldn't; and I didn't want to.

I felt my flashes of home; of my mother and my father. I felt flashes of Jerry, as he used to be when he was my brother. To see him here beside me now stopped these old sensations. My mind brought to me the night he'd come and told me how "Keeban" must have taken away Dorothy Crewe; it brought me to the police station where, that same night, he broke away; it brought me to the Flamingo Feather where I danced with Doris, calling her Cleopatra. It brought me to Caldon's, where I happened on her "shoving the queer"; it took me to the Blackstone and the train and to that supper with her again. It took me to that closet where I'd kissed her, as I had never kissed any girl before.

Here we were, caught together, with Keeban going once more into the glass room. He went himself and picked up the rabbits and flung them at our feet on the floor.

"How about it now?" he said to me. "What's the order? The lady first?"

I swore at him. He had my nerve, you see. I swore and strained at the cords on my hands. A lot of good it did me. He laughed.

"All right, Steve!" said Doris to me. "All right!" Quickly but calmly she said it. Calmly is not the word. It doesn't do at all. No word would. "All right, Steve!"

"All right, Doris!" I said in reply. Of course nothing was right, except one thing; and that was whatever held her to me.

"Margaret's my name," she told me; and she touched me. They let her; they weren't holding her just then.

"Margaret," I said. "Thanks. I like that name."

Keeban nodded to his normals; and they took, and tied her. Then he, himself, carried her in.

They tied her to the table, much as I had seen they would. They came out and closed the door. He twisted that cock on the pipe; I saw his wrist go around and around.

I stood and stared and waited. There was just one thing that I might try; and it was not yet time for that.

Doris—Margaret—lay on her back, each wrist and each ankle looped to a leg of the table. She lay looking up at the closed ceiling, not moving except for the rise and fall of her bosom with breathing. She had tried her cords and found the uselessness of struggle; so she lay and waited.

I watched her and waited for my moment. I would have known it was not much to wait for, if I had thought it out. But you don't think out affairs like that; when there is only one thing to do, you have to take a chance on whatever it is. So I stood, with Keeban beside me and Christina a few feet away and the eleven normals beyond us and between and I watched the girl on the table breathing.

They watched her, too. Christina, Shirley Scofield,—with what sort of feelings? And the normals about us, what were they thinking, too? I didn't even try to wonder about Jerry who had become Keeban and who was doing this thing.

My hands, tied together, grasped the top of the back of a chair against which I leaned; and my muscles went tight to raise it and, spinning, to swing it upon him and kill him. Yet I knew I would not do that; I might knock him down; that was all. It would not help my girl at all.

She half turned her head toward me and then, quickly, she faced to the ceiling again. She wanted to look at me, I thought; and then she had thought it must seem like an appeal to me, which I could not bear when I could not help her.

I held on to the back of that chair and waited, watching her bosom rise and fall. I kept saying to myself something that Teverson told me. When Costrelman and his butler had been killed by the gas, others in the room had been affected but had recovered. An under-dose was not deadly, therefore; that is, if this were the same gas.

I could see nothing; smell nothing; sense nothing going on in that cabinet; but neither had I when the rabbits had died.

My plan depended entirely upon time. There must be gas in the cabinet, but not too much gas,—not enough to kill my girl in there.

She breathed more slowly, I thought; I stared and seemed sure of it. At the same time, Keeban began looking at me. He suspected I was about to act; and I did it. I lifted that heavy chair behind me and, spinning, I swung it against the glass side of the cabinet and smashed it through. I followed it myself and was inside, smashing, kicking, demolishing glass. A girl screamed.

Keeban started after me; I felt—or I had felt—his hand grabbing me; but now his clutch was gone. He was away from that break in the glass. I heard him call and cough, "Beat it! Duck! Don't suck it in!" Shirley, for it was Shirley, screamed again.

I thought, "He knows. A little kills. I've got it. Cleopatra, Doris, Margaret; she's got it, too." But I had her and I hardly cared. The rest of them had got away.

My smash of the glass, with Keeban's yell—and more than that, his example—had given the start. Now shots were speeding them along. I didn't know who was shooting; they were out of the laboratories; and still they were going away.

I had that ceiling over the glass room open; I did that before I cut my cords. Now, by sawing against the glass, I freed my wrists and I had off Doris's cords.

The fight outside—still I did not know who was fighting—had passed from that wide room where the elevator was; it went farther or it went down.

I got out of the glass room and around to that cock in the pipe which Keeban had turned.

The valve was turned tight; no doubt about it; for I twisted it half a turn open and twisted it back again to make sure. "He didn't give you the gas!" I called to Doris. "It wasn't turned on!"

Then he came back into the room, bloody and leaping; and he was Jerry! The change, which I'd given up hoping for, had come over him.

"Steve!" he called to me. "Steve! Come down and see him. I've got him. Christina croaked him cold! And I've got him! Come down and see him!"

"Who?" I said; for I was shaky; and in my mind, then, there was only one of them.

"Keeban!" he told me. "He's cold, downstairs where Christina croaked him."