The Adventures of Jimmie Dale/Part 1/Chapter 6
A WHITE-GLOVED arm, a voice, and a silvery laugh! Just that—no more! Jimmie Dale, in his favourite seat, an aisle seat some seven or eight rows back from the orchestra, stared at the stage, to all outward appearances absorbed in the last act of the play; inwardly, quite oblivious to the fact that even a play was going on.
A white-gloved arm, a voice, and a silvery laugh! The words had formed themselves into a sort of singsong refrain that, for the last few days, had been running through his head. A strange enough guiding star to mould and dictate every action in his life! And that was all he had ever seen of her, all that he had ever heard of her—except those letters, of course, each of which had outlined the details of some affair for the Gray Seal to execute.
Indeed, it seemed a great length of time now since he had heard from her even in that way, though it was not so many days ago, after all. Perhaps it was the calm, as it were, that, by contrast, had given place to the strenuous months and weeks just past. The storm raised by the newspapers at the theft of Old Luddy's diamonds had subsided into sporadic diatribes aimed at the police; Kline, of the secret service, had finally admitted defeat, and a shadow no longer skulked day and night at the entrance to the Sanctuary—and Larry the Bat bore the government indorsement, so to speak, of being no more suspicious a character than that of a disreputable, but harmless, dope fiend of the underworld.
Larry the Bat! The Gray Seal! Jimmie Dale the millionaire! What if it were ever known that that strange three were one! What if—— Jimmie Dale smiled whimsically. A burst of applause echoed through the house, the orchestra was playing, the lights were on, seats banged, there was the bustle of the rising audience, the play was at an end—and for the life of him he could not have remembered a single line of the last act!
The aisle at his elbow was already crowded with people on their way out. Jimmie Dale stooped down mechanically to reach for his hat beneath his seat— and the next instant he was standing up, staring wildly into the faces around him.
It had fallen at his feet—a white envelope. Hers! It was in his hand now, those slim, tapering, wonderfully sensitive fingers of Jimmie Dale, that were an "open sesame" to locks and safes, subconsciously telegraphing to his mind the fact that the texture of the paper—was hers. Hers! And she must be one of those around him—one of those crowding either the row of seats in front or behind, or one of those just passing in the aisle. It had fallen at his feet as he had stooped over for his hat—but from just exactly what direction he could not tell. His eyes, eagerly, hungrily, critically, swept face after face. Which one was hers? What irony! She, whom he would have given his life to know, for whom indeed he risked his life every hour of the twenty-four, was close to him now, within reach—and as far removed as though a thousand miles separated them. She was there— but he could not recognise a face that he had never seen!
With an effort, he choked back the bitter, impotent laugh that rose to his lips. They were talking, laughing around him. Her voice—yes, he had once heard that, and that he would recognise again. He strained to catch, to individualise the tone sounds that floated in a medley about him. It was useless—of course—every effort that he had ever made to find her had been useless. She was too, far too clever for that—she, too, would know that he could and would recognise her voice where he could recognise nothing else.
And then, suddenly, he realised that he was attracting attention. Level stares from the women returned his gaze, and they edged away a little from his vicinity as they passed, their escorts crowding somewhat belligerently into their places. Others, in the same row of seats as his own, were impatiently waiting to get by him. With a muttered apology, Jimmie Dale raised the seat of his chair, allowing these latter to pass him—and then, slipping the letter into his pocket-book, he snatched up his hat from the seat rack.
There was still a chance. Knowing he was there, she would be on her guard; but in the lobby, among the crowd and unaware of his presence, there was the possibility that, if he could reach the entrance ahead of her, she, too, might be talking and laughing as she left the theatre. Just a single word, just a tone—that was all he asked.
The row of seats at whose end he stood was empty now, and, instead of stepping into the thronged aisle, he made his way across to the opposite side of the theatre. Here, the far aisle was less crowded, and in a minute he had gained the foyer, confident that he was now in advance of her. The next moment he was lost in a jam of people in the lobby.
He moved slowly now, very slowly—allowing those behind to press by him on the way to the entrance. A babel of voices rose about him, as, tight-packed, the mass of people jostled, elbowed, and pushed good-naturedly. It was a voice now, her voice, that he was listening for; but, though it seemed that every faculty was strained and intent upon that one effort, his eyes, too, had in no degree relaxed their vigilance—and once, half grimly, half sardonically, he smiled to himself. There would be an unexpected aftermath to this exodus of expensively gowned and bejewelled women with their prosperous, well-groomed escorts! There was the Wowzer over there—sleek, dapper, squirming in and out of the throng with the agility and stealth of a cat. As Larry the Bat he had met the Wowzer many times, as indeed he had met and was acquainted with most of the élite of the underworld. The Wowzer, beyond a shadow of doubt, in his own profession stood upon a plane entirely by himself—among those qualified to speak, no one yet had ever questioned the Wowzer's claim to the distinction of being the most dexterous and finished "poke getter" in the United States!
The crowd thinned in the lobby, thinned down to the last few belated stragglers, who passed him as he still loitered in the entrance; and then Jimmie Dale, with a shrug of his shoulders that was a great deal more philosophical than the maddening sense of chagrin and disappointment that burned within him, stepped out to the pavement and headed down Broadway. After all, he had known it in his heart of hearts all the time—it had always been the same—it was only one more occasion added to the innumerable ones that had gone before in which she had eluded him!
And now—there was the letter! Automatically he quickened his steps a little. It was useless, futile, profitless, for the moment, at least, to disturb himself over his failure—there was the letter! His lips parted in a strange, half-serious, half-speculative smile. The letter—that was paramount now. What new venture did the night hold in store for him? What sudden emergency was the Gray Seal called upon to face this time—what rôle, unrehearsed, without warning, must he play? What story of grim, desperate rascality would the papers credit him with when daylight came? Or would they carry in screaming headlines the announcement that the Gray Seal was caged and caught at last, and in three-inch type tell the world that the Gray Seal was—Jimmie Dale!
A block down, he turned from Broadway out of the theatre crowds that streamed in both directions past him. The letter! Almost feverishly now he was seeking an opportunity to open and read it unobserved; an eagerness upon him that mingled exhilaration at the lure of danger with a sense of premonition that, irritably, inevitably was with him at moments such as these. It seemed, it always seemed, that, with an unopened letter of hers in his possession, it was as though he were about to open a page in the Book of Fate and read, as it were, a pronouncement upon himself that might mean life or death.
He hurried on. People still passed by him—too many. And then a café, just ahead, making a corner, gave him the opportunity that he sought. Away from the entrance, on the side street, the brilliant lights from the windows shone out on a comparatively deserted pavement. There was ample light to read by, even as far away from the window as the curb, and Jimmie Dale, with an approving nod, turned the corner and walked along a few steps until opposite the farthest window—but, as he halted here at the edge of the street, he glanced quickly behind him at a man whom he had just passed. The other had paused at the corner and was staring down the street. Jimmie Dale instantly and nonchalantly produced his cigarette case, selected a cigarette, and fastidiously tapped its end on his thumb nail.
"Inspector Burton in plain clothes," he observed musingly to himself. "I wonder if it's just a fluke—or something else? We'll see."
Jimmie Dale took a box of matches from his pocket. The first would not light. The second broke, and, with an exclamation of annoyance, he flung it away. The third was making a fitful effort at life, as another man emerged hastily from the café's side door, hurried to the corner, joined the man who was still loitering there, and both together disappeared at a rapid pace down the street.
Jimmie Dale whistled softly to himself. The second man was even better known than the first; there was not a crook in New York but would side-step Lannigan of headquarters, and do it with amazing celerity—if he could!
"Something up! But it's not my hunt!" muttered Jimmie Dale; then, with a shrug of his shoulders: "Queer the way those headquarters chaps fascinate and give me a thrill every time I see them, even if I haven't a ghost of a reason for imagining that——"
The sentence was never finished. Jimmie Dale's face was gray. The street seemed to rock about him—and he stared, like a man stricken, white to the lips, ahead of him. The letter was gone! His hand, wriggling from his empty pocket, swept away the sweat beads that were bursting from his forehead. It had come at last—the pitcher had gone once too often to the well!
Numbed for an instant, his brain cleared now, working with lightning speed, leaping from premise to conclusion. The crush in the theatre lobby—the pushing, the jostling, the close contact—the Wowzer, the slickest, cleverest pick-pocket in the United States! For a moment he could have laughed aloud in a sort of ghastly, defiant mockery—he himself had predicted an unexpected aftermath, had he not!
Aftermath! It was—the end! An hour, two hours, and New York would be metamorphosed into a seething caldron of humanity bubbling with the news. It seemed that he could hear the screams of the newsboys now shouting their extras; it seemed that he could see the people, roused to frenzy, swarming in excited crowds, snatching at the papers; he seemed to hear the mob's shouts swell in execration, in exultation—it seemed as though all around him had gone mad. The mystery of the Gray Seal was solved! It was Jimmie Dale, Jimmie Dale, Jimmie, Dale, the millionaire, the lion of society—and there was ignominy for an honoured name, and shame and disaster and convict stripes and sullen penitentiary walls—or death! A felon's death—the chair!
He was running now, his hands clenched at his sides; his mind, working subconsciously, urging him onward in a blind, as yet unrealised, objectless way. And then gradually impulse gave way to calmer reason, and he slowed his pace to a quick, less noticeable walk. The Wowzer! That was it! There was yet a chance—the Wowzer! A merciless rage, cold, deadly, settled upon him. It was the Wowzer who had stolen his pocketbook, and with it the letter. There could be no doubt of that. Well, there would be a reckoning at least before the end!
He was in a downtown subway train now—the roar in his ears in consonance, it seemed, with the turmoil in his brain. But now, too, he was Jimmie Dale again; and, apart from the slightly outthrust jaw, the tight-closed lips, impassive, debonair, composed.
There was yet a chance. As Larry the Bat he knew every den and lair below the dead line, and he knew, too, the Wowzer's favourite haunts. There was yet a chance, only one in a thousand, it was true, almost too pitiful to be depended upon—but yet a chance. The Wowzer had probably not worked alone, and he and his pal, or pals, would certainly not remain uptown either to examine or divide their spoils—they would wait until they were safe somewhere in one of their hell holes on the East Side. If he could find the Wowzer, reach the man before the letter was opened—Jimmie Dale's lips grew tighter. That was the chance! If he failed in that—Jimmie Dale's lips drooped downward in grim curves at the corners. A chance! Already the Wowzer had at least a half hour's lead, and, worse still, there was no telling which one of a dozen places the man might have chosen to retreat to with his loot.
Time passed. His mind obsessed, Jimmie Dale's physical acts were almost wholly mechanical. It was perhaps fifteen minutes since he had discovered the loss of the letter, and he was walking now through the heart of the Bowery. Exactly how he had got there he could not have told; he had only a vague realisation that, following an intuitive sense of direction, he had lost not a second of time in making his way downtown.
And now he found himself hesitating at the corner of a cross street. Two blocks east was that dark, narrow alleyway, that side door that made the entrance to the Sanctuary. It would be safer, a hundred times safer, to go there, change his clothes and his personality, and emerge again as Larry the Bat—infinitely safer in that rôle to explore the dens of the underworld, many of them indeed unknown and undreamed of by the police themselves, than to trust himself there in well-cut, fashionable tweeds—but that would take time. Time! When, with every second, the one chance he had, desperate as that already was, was slipping away from him. No; what was apparently the greater risk at least held out the only hope.
He went on again—his brain incessantly at work. At the worst, there was one mitigating factor in it all. He had no need to think of her. Whatever the ruin and disaster that faced him in the next few hours, she in any case was safe. There was no clew to her identity in the letter; and where he, for months on end, with even more to work upon, had failed at every turn to trace her, there was little fear that any one else would have any better success. She was safe. As for himself—that was different. The Gray Seal would be referred to in the letter, there would be the outline, the data for the "crime" she had planned for that night; and the letter, though unaddressed, being found in his pocket-book, where cards and notes and a dozen different things among its contents proclaimed him Jimmie Dale, needed no further evidence as to its ownership nor the identity of the Gray Seal.
Jimmie Dale's fingers crept inside his vest and fumbled there for a moment—and a diamond stud, extracted from his shirt front, glistened sportively in the necktie that was now tucked jauntily in at one side of his shirt bosom. He had reached the Blue Dragon, one of Wowzer's usual hangouts, and, swerving from the sidewalk, entered the place. There was wild tumult within—a constant storm of applause, derision, and hilarity that was hurled from the tables around the room at the turkey-trotting, tango-writhing couples on the somewhat restricted space of polished hardwood flooring in the centre. Jimmie Dale swaggered down the room, a cigar tilted up at an angle between his teeth, his soft felt hat a little rakishly on one side of his head and well over his nose.
At the end of the room, at the bar, Jimmie Dale leaned toward the barkeeper and talked out of the corner of his mouth. There were private rooms upstairs, and he jerked his head surreptitiously ceilingward.
"Say, is de Wowzer up dere?" he inquired in a cautious whisper.
The man behind the bar, well known to Jimmie Dale as one of the Wowzer's particular pals, favoured him with a blank stare.
"Never heard of de guy!" he announced brusquely. "Wot's yours?"
"Gimme a mug of suds," said Jimmie Dale, reaching for a match. He puffed at his cigar, blew out the match, and, after a moment, flung the charred end away—but on his hand, as, palm outward, he raised it to take his glass, the match had traced a small black cross.
The barkeeper put down the beer he had just drawn, wiped his hand hurriedly, and with sudden enthusiasm thrust it across the bar.
"Glad to know youse, cull!" he exclaimed. Wot's de lay?"
Jimmie Dale smiled.
"Nix!" said Jimmie Dale. "I just blew in from Chicago. Used to know de Wowzer dere. He said dis place was on de level, an' I could always find him here, dat's all."
"Sure, youse can!" returned the barkeeper heartily. "Only he ain't here now. He beat it about fifteen minutes ago, him an' Dago Jim. I guess youse'll find him at Chang's, I heard him an' Dago say dey was goin' dere. Know de place?"
Jimmie Dale shook his head.
"I ain't much wise to New York," he explained.
"Aw, dat's easy," whispered the barkeeper. "Go down to Chatham Square, an' den any guy'll show youse Chang Foo's." He winked confidentially. "I guess youse won't bump yer head none gettin' around inside."
Jimmie Dale nodded, grinned back, emptied his glass, and dug for a coin.
"Forget it!" observed the barkeeper cordially. "Dis is on me. Any friend of de Wowzer's gets de glad hand here any time."
"T'anks!" said Jimmie Dale gratefully, as he turned away. "So long, then—see youse later."
Chang Foo's! Jimmie Dale's face set even a little harder than it had before, as he swung on again down the Bowery, Yes; he knew Chang Foo's—too well. Underground Chinatown—where a man's life was worth the price of an opium pill—or less! Mechanically his hand slipped into his pocket and closed over the automatic that nestled there. Once in—where he had to go—and the chances were even, just even, that was all, that he would ever get out. Again he was tempted to return to the Sanctuary and make the attempt as Larry the Bat. Larry the Bat was well enough known to enter Chang Foo's unquestioned, and—but again he shook his head and went on. There was not time. The Wowzer and his pal—it was Dago Jim it seemed—had evidently been drinking and loitering their way downtown from the theatre, and he had gained that much on them; but by now they would be smugly tucked away somewhere in that maze of dens below the ground, and at that moment probably were gloating over the biggest night's haul they had ever made in their lives!
And if they were! What then? Once they knew the contents of that letter—what then? Buy them off for a larger amount than the many thousands offered for the capture of the Gray Seal? Jimmie Dale gritted his teeth. That meant blackmail from them all his life, an intolerable existence, impossible, a hell on earth—the slave, at the beck and call of two of the worst criminals in New York! The moisture oozed again to Jimmie Dale's forehead. God, if he could get that letter before it was opened—before they knew! If he could only get the chance to fight for it—against any odds! Life! Life was a pitiful consideration against the alternative that faced him now !
From the Blue Dragon to Chang Foo's was not far; and Jimmie Dale covered the distance in well under five minutes. Chang Foo's was just a tea merchant's shop, innocuous and innocent enough in its appearance, blandly so indeed, and that was all—outwardly; but Jimmie Dale, as he reached his destination, experienced the first sensation of uplift he had known that night, and this from what, apparently, did not in the least seem like a contributing cause.
"Luck! The blessed luck of it!" he muttered grimly, as he surveyed the sight-seeing car drawn up at the curb, and watched the passengers crowding out of it to the ground. "It wouldn't have been as easy to fool old Chang as it was that fellow back at the Dragon—and, besides, if I can work it, there's a better chance this way of getting out alive."
The guide was marshalling his "gapers"—some two dozen in all, men and women. Jimmie Dale unostentatiously fell in at the rear; and, the guide leading, the little crowd passed into the tea merchant's shop. Chang Foo, a wizened, wrinkled-faced little Celestial, oily, suave, greeted them with profuse bows, chattering the while volubly in Chinese.
The guide made the introduction with an all-embracing sweep of his hand.
"Chang Foo—ladies and gentlemen," he announced; then held up his hand for silence. Ladies and gentlemen," he said impressively, "this is one of the most notorious, if not the most notorious dive in Chinatown, and it is only through special arrangement with the authorities and at great expense that the company is able exclusively to gain an entrée here for its patrons. You will see here the real life of the Chinese, and in half an hour you will get what few would get in a lifetime spent in China itself. You will see the Chinese children dance and perform; the Chinese women at their household tasks; the joss, the shrine of his hallowed ancestors, at which Chang Foo here worships; and you will enter the most famous opium den in the United States. Now, if you will all keep close together, we will make a start."
In spite of his desperate situation, Jimmie Dale smiled a little whimsically. Yes; they would see it all—upstairs! The same old bunk dished out night after night at so much a head—and the nervous little schoolma'am of uncertain age, who fidgeted now beside him, would go back somewhere down in Maine and shiver while she related her "wider experiences" in tremulous whispers into the shocked ears of envious other maiden ladies of equally uncertain age. The same old bunk—and a profitable one for Chang Foo for more reasons than one. It was dust in the eyes of the police. The police smiled knowingly at mention of Chang Foo. Who should know, if they didn't, that it was all harmless fake, all bunk! And so it was—upstairs!
They were passing out of the shop now, bowed out through a side door by the obsequious and oily Chang Foo. And now they massed again in a sort of little hallway—and Chang Foo, closing the door upon Jimmie Dale, who was the last in the line, shuffled back behind the counter in his shop to resume his guard duty over customers of quite another ilk. With the door closed, it was dark, pitch dark. And this, too, like everything else connected with Chang Foo's establishment, for more reasons than one—for effect—and for security. Nervous little twitters began to emanate from the women—the guide's voice rose reassuringly:
"Keep close together, ladies and gentlemen. We are going upstairs now to——"
Jimmie Dale hugged back against the wall, sidled along it, and like a shadow slipped down to the end of the hall. The scuffling of two dozen pairs of feet mounting the creaky staircase drowned the slight sound as he cautiously opened a door; the darkness lay black, impenetrable, along the hall. And then, as cautiously as he had opened it, he closed the door behind him, and stood for an instant listening at the head of a ladder-like stairway, his automatic in his hand now. It was familiar ground to Larry the Bat. The steps led down to a cellar; and diagonally across from the foot of the steps was an opening, ingeniously hidden by a heterogeneous collection of odds and ends, boxes, cases, and rubbish from the pseudo tea shop above; a low opening in the wall to a passage that led on through the cellars of perhaps half a dozen adjoining houses, each of which latter was leased, in one name or another—by Chang Foo.
Jimmie Dale crept down the steps, and in another moment had gained the farther side of the cellar; then, skirting around the ruck of cases, he stooped suddenly and passed in through the opening in the wall. And now he halted once more. He was straining his eyes down a long, narrow passage, whose blackness was accentuated rather than relieved by curious wavering, gossamer threads of yellow light that showed here and there from under makeshift thresholds, from doors slightly ajar. Faint noises came to him, a muffled, intermittent clink of coin, a low, continuous, droning hum of voices; the sickly sweet smell of opium pricked at his nostrils.
Jimmie Dale's face set rigidly. It was the resort, not only of the most depraved Chinese element, but of the worst "white" thugs that made New York their headquarters—here, in the succession of cellars, roughly partitioned off to make a dozen rooms on either side of the passage, dope fiends sucked at the drug, and Chinese gamblers spent the greater part of their lives; here, murder was hatched and played too often to its hellish end; here, the scum of the underworld sought refuge from the police to the profit of Chang Foo; and here, somewhere, in one of these rooms, was—the Wowzer.
The Wowzer! Jimmie Dale stole forward silently, without a sound, swiftly—pausing only to listen for a second's space at the doors as he passed. From this one came that clink of coin; from another that jabber of Chinese; from still another that overpowering stench of opium—and once, iron-nerved as he was, a cold thrill passed over him. Let this lair of hell's wolves, so intent now on their own affairs, be once roused, as they certainly must be roused before he could hope to finish the Wowzer, and his chances of escape were——
He straightened suddenly, alert, tense, strained. Voices, raised in a furious quarrel, came from a door just beyond him on the other side of the passage, where a film of light streamed out through a cracked panel—it was the Wowzer. and Dago Jim! And drunk, both of them—and both in a blind fury!
It happened quick then, almost instantaneously it seemed to Jimmie Dale. He was crouched now close against the door, his eye to the crack in the panel. There was only one figure in sight—Dago Jim—standing beside a table on which burned a lamp, the table top littered with watches, purses, and small chatelaine bags. The man was lurching unsteadily on his feet, a vicious sneer of triumph on his face, waving tauntingly an open letter and Jimmie Dale's pocketbook in his hands—waving them presumably in the face of the Wowzer, whom, from the restrictions of the crack, Jimmie Dale could not see. He was conscious of a sickening sense of disaster. His hope against hope had been in vain—the letter had been opened and read—the identity of the Gray Seal was solved.
Dago Jim's voice roared out, hoarse, blasphemous, in drunken rage:
"De Gray Seal—see! Youse betcher life I knows! I been waitin' fer something like dis, damn youse! Youse been stallin' on me fer a year every time it came to a divvy. Youse've got a pocketful now youse snitched to-night dat youse are try in' to do me out of. Well, keep 'em"—he shoved his face forward. "I keeps dis—see! Keep 'em Wowzer, youse cross-eyed——"
"Everyt'ing I pinched to-night's on de table dere wid wot youse pinched yerself," cut in the Wowzer, in a sullen, threatening growl.
"Youse lie, an' youse knows it!" retorted Dago Jim. "Youse have given me de short end every time we've pulled a deal!"
"Dat letter's mine, youse——" bawled the Wowzer furiously.
"Why didn't youse open it an' read it, den, instead of lettin' me do it to keep me busy while youse short-changed me?" sneered Dago Jim. "Youse t'ought it was some sweet billy-doo, eh? Well, t'anks, Wowzer—dat's wot it is! Say," he mocked, "dere's a guy'll cash a t'ousand century notes fer dis, an' if he don't—say, dere's some reward out fer the Gray Seal! Wouldn't youse like to know who it is? Well, when I'm ridin' in me private buzz wagon, Wowzer, youse stick around an' mabbe I'll tell youse—an' mabbe I won't!"
"By God"—the Wowzer's voice rose in a scream—"youse hand over dat letter!"
"Youse go to——"
Red, lurid red, a stream of flame seemed to cut across Jimmie Dale's line of vision, came the roar of a revolver shot—and like a madman Jimmie Dale flung his body at the door. Rickety at best, it crashed inward, half wrenched from its hinges, precipitating him inside. He recovered himself and leaped forward. The room was swirling with blue eddies of smoke; Dago Jim, hands flung up, still grasping letter and pocketbook, pawed at the air—and plunged with a sagging lurch face downward to the floor. There was a yell and an oath from the Wowzer—the crack of another revolver shot, the hum of the bullet past Jimmie Dale's ear, the scorch of the tongue flame in his face, and he was upon the other.
Screeching profanity, the Wowzer grappled; and, for an instant, the two men rocked, reeled, and swayed in each other's embrace; then, both men losing their balance, they shot suddenly backward, the Wowzer, undermost, striking his head against the table's edge—and men, table, and lamp crashed downward in a heap to the floor.
It had been no more, at most, than a matter of seconds since Jimmie Dale had hurled himself into the room; and now, with a gurgling sigh, the Wowzer's arms, that had been wound around Jimmie Dale's back and shoulders, relaxed, and, from the blow on his head the man, lay back inert and stunned. And then it seemed to Jimmie Dale as though pandemonium, unreality, and chaos at the touch of some devil's hand reigned around him. It was dark—no, not dark—a spurt of flame was leaping along the line of trickling oil from the broken lamp on the floor. It threw into ghastly relief the sprawled form of Dago Jim. Outside, from along the passageway, came a confused jangle of commotion—whispering voices, shuffling feet, the swish of Chinese garments. And the room itself began to spring into weird, flickering shadows, that mounted and crept up the walls with the spreading fire.
There was not a second to lose before the room would be swarming with that rush from the passageway—and there was still the letter, the pocketbook! The table had fallen half over Dago Jim—Jimmie Dale pushed it aside, tore the crushed letter and the pocketbook from the man's hands—and felt, with a grim, horrible sort of anxiety, for the other's heartbeat, for the verdict that meant life or death to himself. There was no sign of life—the man was dead.
Jimmie Dale was on his feet now. A face, another, and another showed in the doorway—the Wowzer was regaining his senses, stumbling to his knees. There was one chance—just one—to take those crowding figures by surprise. And with a yell of "Fire!" Jimmie Dale sprang for the doorway.
They gave way before his rush, tumbling back in their surprise against the opposite wall; and, turning, Jimmie Dale raced down the passageway. Doors were opening everywhere now, forms were pushing out into the semi-darkness—only to duck hastily back again, as Jimmie Dale's automatic barked and spat a running fire of warning ahead of him. And then, behind, the Wowzer's voice shrieked out:
"Soak him! Kill de guy! He's croaked Dago Jim! Put a hole in him, de——"
Yells, a chorus of them, took up the refrain—then the rush of following feet—and the passageway seemed to racket as though a Gatling gun were in play with the fusillade of revolver shots. But Jimmie Dale was at the opening now—and, like a base runner plunging for the bag, he flung himself in a low dive through and into the open cellar beyond. He was on his feet, over the boxes, and dashing up the stairs in a second. The door above opened as he reached the top—Jimmie Dale's right hand shot out with clubbed revolver—and with a grunt Chang Foo went down before the blow and the headlong rush. The next instant Jimmie Dale had sprung through the tea shop and was out on the street.
A minute, two minutes more, and Chinatown would be in an uproar—Chang Foo would see to that—and the Wowzer would prod him on. The danger was far from over yet. And then, as he ran, Jimmie Dale gave a little gasp of relief. Just ahead, drawn up at the curb, stood a taxicab—waiting, probably, for a private slumming party. Jimmie Dale put on a spurt, reached it, and wrenched the door open.
"Quick!" he flung at the startled chauffeur. "The nearest subway station—there's a ten-spot in it for you! Quick man—quick! Here they come!"
A crowd of Chinese, pouring like angry hornets from Chang Foo's shop, came yelling down the street—and the taxi took the corner on two wheels—and Jimmie Dale, panting, choking for his breath like a man spent, sank back against the cushions.
But five minutes later it was quite another Jimmie Dale, composed, nonchalant, imperturbable, who entered an uptown subway train, and, choosing a seat alone near the centre of the car, which at that hour of night in the downtown district was almost deserted, took the crushed letter from his pocket. For a moment he made no attempt to read it, his dark eyes, now that he was free from observation, full of troubled retrospect, fixed on the window at his side. It was not a pleasant thought that it had cost a man his life, nor yet that that life was also the price of his own freedom. True, if there were two men in the city of New York whose crimes merited neither sympathy nor mercy, those two men were the Wowzer and Dago Jim—but yet, after all, it was a human life, and, even if his own had been in the balance, thank God it had been through no act of his that Dago Jim had gone out! The Wowzer, cute and cunning, had been quick enough to say so to clear himself, but—Jimmie Dale smiled a little now—neither the Wowzer, nor Chang Foo, nor Chinatown would ever be in a position to recognise their uninvited guest!
Jimmie Dale's eyes shifted to the letter speculatively, gravely. It seemed as though the night had already held a year of happenings, and the night was not over yet—there was the letter! It had already cost one life; was it to cost another—or what?
It began as it always did. He read it through once, in amazement; a second time, with a flush of bitter anger creeping to his cheeks; and a third time, curiously memorising, as it were, snatches of it here and there.
"Dear Philanthropic Crook: Robbery of Hudson-Mercantile National Bank—trusted employee is ex-convict, bad police record, served term in Sing Sing three years ago—known to police as Bookkeeper Bob, real name is Robert Moyne, lives at —— Street, Harlem—Inspector Burton and Lannigan of headquarters trailing him now—robbery not yet made public——"
There was a great deal more—four sheets of closely written data. With an exclamation almost of dismay, Jimmie Dale pulled out his watch. So that was what Burton and Lannigan were up to! And he had actually run into them! Lord, the irony of it! The—— And then Jimmie Dale stared at the dial of his watch incredulously. It was still but barely midnight! It seemed impossible that since leaving the theatre at a few minutes before eleven, he had lived through but a single hour!
Jimmie Dale's fingers began to pluck at the letter, tearing it into pieces, tearing the pieces over and over again into tiny shreds. The train stopped at station after station, people got on and off—Jimmie Dale's hat was over his eyes, and his eyes were glued again to the window. Had Bookkeeper Bob returned to his flat in Harlem with the detectives at his heels—or were Burton and Lannigan still trailing the man downtown somewhere around the cafés? If the former, the theft of the letter and its incident loss of time had been an irreparable disaster; if the latter—well, who knew! The risk was the Gray Seal's!
At One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Street Jimmie Dale left the train; and, at the end of a sharp four minutes' walk, during which he had dodged in and out from street to street, stopped on a corner to survey the block ahead of him. It was a block devoted exclusively to flats and apartment houses, and, apart from a few belated pedestrians, was deserted. Jimmie Dale strolled leisurely down one side, crossed the street at the end of the block, and strolled leisurely back on the other side—there was no sign of either Burton or Lannigan. It was a fairly safe presumption then that Bookkeeper Bob had not returned yet, or one of the detectives at least would have been shadowing the house.
Jimmie Dale, smiling a little grimly, retraced his steps again, and turned deliberately into a doorway—whose number he had noted as he had passed a moment or so before. So, after all, there was time yet! This was the house. "Number eighteen," she had said in her letter. "A flat—three stories—Moyne lives on ground floor."
Jimmie Dale leaned against the vestibule door—there was a faint click—a little steel instrument was withdrawn from the lock—and Jimmie Dale stepped into the hall, where a gas jet, turned down, burned dimly.
The door of the ground-floor apartment was at his right. Jimmie Dale reached up and turned off the light. Again those slim, tapering, wonderfully sensitive fingers worked with the little steel instrument, this time in the lock of the apartment door—again there was that almost inaudible click—and then cautiously, inch by inch, the door opened under his hand. He peered inside—down a hallway lighted, if it could be called lighted at all, by a subdued glow from two open doors that gave upon it—peered intently, listening intently, as he drew a black silk mask from his pocket and slipped it over his face. And then, silent as a shadow in his movements, the door left just ajar behind him, he stole down the carpeted hallway.
Opposite the first of the open doorways Jimmie Dale paused—a curiously hard expression creeping over his face, his lips beginning to droop ominously downward at the corners. It was a little sitting room, cheaply but tastefully furnished, and a young woman, Bookkeeper Bob's wife evidently, and evidently sitting up for her husband, had fallen sound asleep in a chair, her head pillowed on her arms that were outstretched across the table. For a moment Jimmie Dale held there, his eyes on the scene—and the next moment, his hand curved into a clenched fist, he had passed on and entered the adjoining room.
It was a child's bedroom. A night lamp burned on a table beside the bed, and the soft rays seemed to play and linger in caress on the tousled golden hair of a little girl of perhaps two years of age—and something seemed to choke suddenly in Jimmie Dale's throat—the sweet, innocent little face, upturned to his, was smiling at him as she slept.
Jimmie Dale turned away his head—his eyelashes wet under his mask. "Beneath the mattress of the child's bed," the letter had said. His face like stone, his lips a thin line now, Jimmie Dale's hand reached deftly in without disturbing the child and took out a package—and then another. He straightened up, a bundle of crisp new hundred-dollar notes in each hand—and on the top of one, slipped under the elastic band that held the bills together, an unsealed envelope. He drew out the latter, and opened it—it was a second-class steamship passage to Vera Cruz, made out in a fictitious name, of course, to John Davies, the booking for next day's sailing. From the ticket, from the stolen money, Jimmie Dale's eyes lifted to rest again on the little golden head, the smiling lips—and then, dropping the packages into his pockets, his own lips moving queerly, he turned abruptly to the door.
"My God, the shame of it!" he whispered to himself.
He crept down the corridor, past the open door of the room where the young woman still sat fast asleep, and, his mask in his pocket again, stepped softly into the vestibule, and from there to the street.
Jimmie Dale hurried now, spurred on it seemed by a hot, insensate fury that raged within him—there was still one other call to make that night—still those remaining and minute details in the latter part of her letter, grim and ugly in their portent!
It was close upon one o'clock in the morning when Jimmie Dale stopped again—this time before a fashionable dwelling just off Central Park. And here, for perhaps the space of a minute, he surveyed the house from the side-walk—watching, with a sort of speculative satisfaction, a man's shadow that passed constantly to and fro across the drawn blinds of one of the lower windows. The rest of the house was in darkness.
"Yes," said Jimmie Dale, nodding his head, "I rather thought so. The servants will have retired hours ago. It's safe enough."
He ran quickly up the steps and rang the bell. A door opened almost instantly, sending a faint glow into the hall from the lighted room; a hurried step crossed the hall—and the outer door was thrown back.
"Well, what is it?" demanded a voice brusquely.
It was quite dark, too dark for either to distinguish the other's features—and Jimmie Dale's hat was drawn far down over his eyes.
"I want to see Mr. Thomas H. Carling, cashier of the Hudson-Mercantile National Bank—it's very important," said Jimmie Dale earnestly.
"I am Mr. Carling," replied the other. "What is it?"
Jimmie Dale leaned forward.
"From headquarters—with a report," he said, in a low tone.
"Ah!" exclaimed the bank official sharply. "Well, it's about time! I've been waiting up for it—though I expected you would telephone rather than this. Come in!"
"Thank you," said Jimmie Dale courteously—and stepped into the hall.
The other closed the front door. "The servants are in bed, of course," he explained, as he led the way toward the lighted room. "This way, please."
Behind the other, across the hall, Jimmie Dale followed—and close at Carling's heels entered the room, which was fitted up, quite evidently regardless of cost, as a combination library and study. Carling, in a somewhat pompous fashion, walked straight ahead toward the carved-mahogany flat-topped desk, and, as he reached it, waved his hand.
"Take a chair," he said, over his shoulder—and then, turning in the act of dropping into his own chair, grasped suddenly at the edge of the desk instead, and, with a low, startled cry, stared across the room.
Jimmie Dale was leaning back against the door that was closed now behind him—and on Jimmie Dale's face was a black silk mask.
For an instant neither man spoke nor moved; then Carling, spare-built, dapper in evening clothes, edged back from the desk and laughed a little uncertainly.
"Quite neat! I compliment you! From headquarters with a report, I think you said?"
"Which I neglected to add," said Jimmie Dale, "was to be made in private."
Carling, as though to put as much distance between them as possible, continued to edge back across the room—but his small black eyes, black now to the pupils themselves, never left Jimmie Dale's face.
"In private, eh?"—he seemed to be sparring for time, as he smiled. "In private! You've a strange method of securing privacy, haven't you? A bit melodramatic, isn't it? Perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me who you are?"
Jimmie Dale smiled indulgently.
"My mask is only for effect," he said. "My name is—Smith."
"Yes," said Carling. "I am very stupid. Thank you. I——" he had reached the other side of the room now—and with a quick, sudden movement jerked his hand to the dial of the safe that stood against the wall.
But Jimmie Dale was quicker—without shifting his position, his automatic, whipped from his pocket, held a disconcerting bead on Carling's forehead.
"Please don't do that," said Jimmie Dale softly. "It's rather a good make, that safe. I dare say it would take me half an hour to open it. I was rather curious to know whether it was locked or not."
Carling's hand dropped to his side.
"So!" he sneered. "That's it, is it! The ordinary variety of sneak thief!" His voice was rising gradually. "Well, sir, let me tell you that——"
"Mr. Carling," said Jimmie Dale, in a low, even tone, "unless you moderate your voice some one in the house might hear you—I am quite well aware of that. But if that happens, if any one enters this room, if you make a move to touch a button, or in any other way attempt to attract attention, I'll drop you where you stand!" His hand, behind his back, extracted the key from the door lock, held it up for the other to see, then dropped it into his pocket—and his voice, cold before, rang peremptorily now. "Come back to the desk and sit down in that chair!" he ordered.
For a moment Carling hesitated; then, with a half-muttered oath, obeyed.
Jimmie Dale moved over, and stood in front of Carling on the other side of the desk—and stared silently at the immaculate, fashionably groomed figure before him.
Under the prolonged gaze, Carling's composure, in a measure at least, seemed to forsake him. He began to drum nervously with his fingers on the desk, and shift uneasily in his chair.
And then, from first one pocket and then the other, Jimmie Dale took the two packages of banknotes, and, still without a word, pushed them across the desk until they lay under the other's eyes.
Carling's fingers stopped their drumming, slid to the desk edge, tightened there, and a whiteness crept into his face. Then, with an effort, he jerked himself erect in his chair.
"What's this?" he demanded hoarsely.
"About ten thousand dollars, I should say," said Jimmie Dale slowly. "I haven't counted it. Your bank was robbed this evening at closing time, I understand?"
"Yes!" Carling's voice was excited now, the colour back in his face. "But you—how—do you mean that you are returning the money to the bank?"
"Exactly," said Jimmie Dale.
Carling was once more the pompous bank official. He leaned back and surveyed Jimmie Dale critically with his little black eyes.
"Ah, quite so!" he observed. "That accounts for the mask. But I am still a little in the dark. Under the circumstances, it is quite impossible that you should have stolen the money yourself, and——
"I didn't," said Jimmie Dale. "I found it hidden in the home of one of your employees."
"You found it—"where?"
"In Moyne's home—up in Harlem."
"Moyne, eh?" Carling was alert, quick now, jerking out his words. "How did you come to get into this, then? His pal? Double-crossing him, eh? I suppose you want a reward—we'll attend to that, of course. You're wiser than you know, my man. That's what we suspected. We've had the detectives trailing Moyne all evening." He reached forward over the desk for the telephone. "I'll telephone headquarters to make the arrest at once."
"Just a minute," interposed Jimmie Dale gravely. "I want you to listen to a little story first."
"A story! What has a story got to do with this?" snapped Carling.
"The man has got a home," said Jimmie Dale softly. "A home, and a wife—and a little baby girl."
"Oh, that's the game then, eh? You want to plead for him?" Carling flung out gruffly. "Well, he should have thought of all that before! It's quite useless for you to bring it up. The man has had his chance already—a better chance than any one with his record ever had before. took him into the bank knowing that he was an ex-convict, but believing that we could make an honest man of him—and this is the result."
"No!" said Carling icily.
"You refuse—absolutely?" Jimmie Dale's voice had a lingering, wistful note in it.
"I refuse!" said Carling bluntly. "I won't have anything to do with it."
There was just an instant's silence; and then, with a strange, slow, creeping motion, as a panther creeps when about to spring, Jimmie Dale projected his body across the desk—far across it toward the other. And the muscles of his jaw were quivering, his words rasping, choked with the sweep of fury that, held back so long, broke now in a passionate surge.
"And shall I tell you why you won't? Your bank was robbed to-night of one hundred thousand dollars. There are ten thousand here. The other ninety thousand are in your safe!"
"You lie!" Ashen to the lips, Carling had risen in his chair. "You lie!" he cried. "Do you hear! You lie! I tell you, you lie!"
Jimmie Dale's lips parted ominously.
"Sit down!" he gritted between his teeth.
The white in Carling's face had turned to gray, his lips were working—mechanically he sank down again in his chair.
Jimmie Dale still leaned over the desk, resting his weight on his right elbow, the automatic in his right hand covering Carling.
"You cur!" whispered Jimmie Dale. "There's just one reason, only one, that keeps me from putting a bullet through you while you sit there. We'll get to that in a moment. There is that little story first—shall I tell it to you now? For the past four years, and God knows how many before that, you've gone the pace. The lavishness of this bachelor establishment of yours is common talk in New York—far in excess of a bank cashier's salary. But you were supposed to be a wealthy man in your own right; and so, in reality you were—once. But you went through your fortune two years ago. Counted a model citizen, an upright man, an honour to the community—what were you, Carling? What are you? Shall I tell you? Roué, gambler, leading a double life of the fastest kind. You did it cleverly, Carling; hid it well—but your game is up. To-night, for instance, you are at the end of your tether, swamped with debts, exposure threatening you at any moment. Why don't you tell me again that I lie—Carling?"
But now the man made no answer. He had sunk a little deeper in his chair—a dawning look of terror in the eyes that held, fascinated, on Jimmie Dale.
"You cur!" said Jimmie Dale again. "You cur, with your devil's work! A year ago you saw this night coming—when you must have money, or face ruin and exposure. You saw it then, a year ago, the day that Moyne, concealing nothing of his prison record, applied through friends for a position in the bank. Your co-officials were opposed to his appointment, but you, do you remember how you pleaded to give the man his chance—and in your hellish ingenuity saw your way then out of the trap! An ex-convict from Sing Sing! It was enough, wasn't it? What chance had he!" Jimmie Dale paused, his left hand clenched until the skin formed whitish knobs over the knuckles.
Carling's tongue sought his lips, made a circuit of them—and he tried to speak, but his voice was an incoherent muttering.
"I'll not waste words," said Jimmie Dale, in his grim montone. "I'm not sure enough myself—that I could keep my hands off you much longer. The actual details of how you stole the money to-day do not matter—now. A little later perhaps in court—but not now. You were the last to leave the bank, but before leaving you pretended to discover the theft of a hundred thousand dollars—that, done up in a paper parcel, was even then reposing in your desk. You brought the parcel home, put it in that safe there—and notified the president of the bank by telephone from here of the robbery, suggesting that police headquarters be advised at once. He told you to go ahead and act as you saw best. You notified the police, speciously directing suspicion to—the ex-convict in the bank's employ. You knew Moyne was dining out to-night, you knew where—and at a hint from you the police took up the trail. A little later in the evening, you took these two packages of banknotes from the rest, and with this steamship ticket—which you obtained yesterday while out at lunch by sending a district messenger boy with the money and instructions in a sealed envelope to purchase for you—you went up to the Moynes' flat in Harlem for the purpose of secreting them somewhere there. You pretended to be much disappointed at finding Moyne out—you had just come for a little social visit, to get better acquainted with the home life of your employees! Mrs. Moyne was genuinely pleased and grateful She took you in to see their little girl, who was already asleep in bed. She left you there for a moment to answer the door—and you—you"—Jimmie Dale's voice choked again—"you blot on God's earth, you slipped the money and ticket under the child's mattress!"
Carling came forward with a lurch in his chair—and his hands went out, pawing in a wild, pleading fashion over Jimmie Dale's arm.
Jimmie Dale flung him away.
"You were safe enough," he rasped on. "The police could only construe your visit to Moyne's flat as zeal on behalf of the bank. And it was safer, much more circumspect on your part, not to order the flat searched at once, but only as a last resort, as it were, after you had led the police to trail him all evening and still remain without a clew—and besides, of course, not until you had planted the evidence that was to damn him and wreck his life and home! You were even generous in the amount you deprived yourself of out of the hundred thousand dollars—for less would have been enough. Caught with ten thousand dollars of the bank's money and a steamship ticket made out in a fictitious name, it was prima-facie evidence that he had done the job and had the balance somewhere. What would his denials, his protestations of innocence count for? He was an ex-convict, a hardened criminal caught red-handed with a portion of the proceeds of robbery—he had succeeded in hiding the remainder of it too cleverly, that was all."
Carling's face was ghastly. His hands went out again—again his tongue moistened his dry lips. He whispered:
"Isn't—isn't there some—some way we can fix this?"
And then Jimmie Dale laughed—not pleasantly.
"Yes, there's a way, Carling," he said grimly. "That's why I'm here." He picked up a sheet of writing paper and pushed it across the desk—then a pen, which he dipped into the inkstand, and extended to the other. "The way you'll fix it will be to write out a confession exonerating Moyne."
Carling shrank back into his chair, his had huddling into his shoulders.
"No!" he cried. "I won't—I can't—my God!—I—I—won't!"
The automatic in Jimmie Dale's hand edged forward the fraction of an inch.
"I have not used this—yet. You understand now why—don't you?" he said under his breath.
"No, no!" Carling pushed away the pen. "I'm ruined—ruined as it is. But this would mean the penitentiary, too——"
"Where you tried to send an innocent man in your place, you hound; where you——"
"Some other way—some other way!" Carling was babbling. "Let me out of this—for God's sake, let me out of this!"
"Carling," said Jimmie Dale hoarsely, "I stood beside a little bed to-night and looked at a baby girl—a little baby girl with golden hair, who smiled as she slept."
Carling shivered, and passed a shaking hand across his face.
"Take this pen," said Jimmie Dale monotonously; "or—this!" The automatic lifted until the muzzle was on a line with Carling's eyes.
Carling's hand reached out, still shaking, and took the pen; and his body, dragged limply forward, hung over the desk. The pen spluttered on the paper—a bead of sweat spurting from the man's forehead dropped to the sheet.
There was silence in the room. A minute passed—another. Carling's pen travelled haltingly across the paper—then, with a queer, low cry as he signed his name, he dropped the pen from his fingers, and, rising unsteadily from his chair, stumbled away from the desk toward a couch across the room.
An instant Jimmie Dale watched the other, then he picked up the sheet of paper. It was a miserable document, miserably scrawled:
"I guess it's all up. I guess I knew it would be some day. Moyne hadn't anything to do with it. I stole the money myself from the bank to-night, I guess it's all up.
Thomas H. Carling."
From the paper, Jimmie Dale's eyes shifted to the figure by the couch—and the paper fluttered suddenly from his fingers to the desk. Carling was reeling, clutching at his throat—a small glass vial rolled upon the carpet. And then, even as Jimmie Dale sprang forward, the other pitched headlong over the couch—and in a moment it was over.
Presently Jimmie Dale picked up the vial—and dropped it back on the floor again. There was no label on it, but it needed none—the strong, penetrating odor of bitter almonds was telltale evidence enough. It was prussic, or hydrocyanic acid, probably the most deadly poison and the swiftest in its action that was known to science—Carling had provided against that "some day" in his confession !
For a little space, motionless, Jimmie Dale stood looking down at the silent, outstretched form—then he walked slowly back to the desk, and slowly, deliberately picked up the signed confession and the steamship ticket. He held them an instant, staring at them, then methodically began to tear them into little pieces, a strange, tired smile hovering on his lips. The man was dead now—there would be disgrace enough for some one to bear, a mother perhaps—who knew! And there was another way now—since the man was dead.
Jimmie Dale put the pieces in his pocket, went to the safe, opened it, and took out a parcel, locked the safe carefully, and carried the parcel to the desk. He opened it there. Inside were nearly two dozen little packages of hundred-dollar bills. The other two packages that he had brought with him he added to the rest. From his pocket he took out the thin metal insignia case, and with the tiny tweezers lifted up one of the gray-coloured, diamond-shaped paper seals. He moistened the adhesive side, and, still holding it by the tweezers, dropped it on his handkerchief and pressed the seal down on the face of the topmost package of banknotes. He tied the parcel up then, and, picking up the pen, addressed it in printed characters:
HUDSON-MERCANTILE NATIONAL BANK,
NEW YORK CITY.
"District messenger—some way—in the morning," he murmured.
Jimmie Dale slipped his mask into his pocket, and, with the parcel under his arm, stepped to the door and unlocked it. He paused for an instant on the threshold for a single, quick, comprehensive glance around the room—then passed on out into the street.
At the corner he stopped to light a cigarette—and the flame of the match spurting up disclosed a face that was worn and haggard. He threw the match away, smiled a little wearily—and went on.
The Gray Seal had committed another "crime."