The Adventures of Jimmie Dale/Part 2/Chapter 15
HIS brain seemed to whirl, staggered as by some gigantic, ghastly mockery. The Crime Club! Here! He had thought to creep upon that man—and he had run blindly into the very heart and centre of these hell fiends' nest!
Silently he stood there, holding his breath as he listened now, motionless as a statue, forcing his mind to think. He remembered that last night his impression of the place had been that it was more like some great private mansion than anything else. Well, he had been right, it seemed! He could have laughed aloud—sardonically, hysterically. It was not so strange now that there were no rooms on the right-hand side of the corridor! And what could have suited their purpose better, what, by its very location, its unimpeachable character, could be a more ideal lair for them than this house! And how grimly simple it was now, the explanation! In the five years that the false Henry LaSalle had been in possession, they had cunningly remodelled the upper floor—that was all! It was quite clear now why the man never entertained—why he had never been caught or found or known to be in communication with his fellow conspirators! It was no longer curious that one might watch the door of the house for months at a stretch and go unrewarded for one's pains, as the Tocsin had done, when access to the house by those who frequented it was so easy through the garage on the side street—and from the garage, if their work there was in keeping with their clever contrivances within the house, by an underground connection into, say, the cellar or basement!
Again Jimmie Dale checked that nervous, unnatural inclination to laugh aloud. Was there anything, any single incident, any single detail of all that had transpired, that was not explained, borne out, as it could be explained and borne out in no other way save that the Crime Club should be no other than this very house itself? It was the exposition of that favourite theory of his—it was so obvious that therein lay its security. He had mocked at the Magpie not many moments before on that score—and now it was the beam in his own eye! It was so obvious now, so glaringly obvious, that the Crime Club could have been nowhere else; so obvious, with every word of the Tocsin's story pointing it out like a signpost—and he had not seen it!
And then suddenly every muscle grew strained and rigid. Was there some one in the corridor? Was it some one moving—or was it only fancy? He listened—while he strained his eyes through the darkness. There was no sound; only that abnormal, heavy silence that—yes, he remembered that, too, now—that had clung about him last night like a pall. He could see nothing, hear nothing—but intuitively, bringing a cold dismay, the greater because it was something unknown, intangible, he felt as though eyes were upon him, that even in the darkness he was being watched!
And as he stood there, then, slowly there crept upon Jimmie Dale the sense of peril and disaster. It was not intuition now—it was certainty. He was trapped! It was the part of a fool to imagine that with their devil's cunning, their cleverness, their ingenuity, he, or any one else, could enter that house unknown to its occupants! Had he made electric contact when he had opened the front door, and rung a signal here, perhaps, upstairs—had he set some system of alarm at work when he had touched that window? What did it matter—the details that had heralded his entrance? He was certain now that his presence in the house was known. Only, why had they left him so long without attack? He shook his head with a quick, impatient movement. That, too, was obvious! He was under observation. Who was he? Why had he come? Was he simply a paltry safe-tapper—or was he one whom they had a real need to fear? And then, too, there might well be another reason. It was far from likely, in fact unreasonable, to imagine that all the men he had seen here the night before were in the house now. Not many of them, if any, would live here, for constant, daily coming and going, even through the garage, could not escape notice; and, of the servants, probably a lesser breed of criminal, some of them, at least, no doubt, were engaged at that moment in watching his own house on Riverside Drive! There was even the possibility that the man posing as Henry LaSalle was, for the time being, here alone.
He shook his head again. He could hardly hope for that—he had no right to hope for anything more now than a struggle, with an inevitably fatal ending to himself, but one in which at least he could sell his life as dearly as possible, one in which, perhaps, he might pay the Tocsin's score with the man he had come to find! If he could do that—well, after all, the price was not too great!
There were no tremours of the muscles now. It was Jimmie Dale, the Gray Seal, every faculty alert, tense, keyed up to its highest efficiency; the brain cool, keen, and active—fighting for his life. The front door through which he had entered was an impossibility; but there was the window in the library that he had opened—if they would let him get that far! That was as good a chance as any. If he made an effort to find, say, a way to the flat above and chanced some means of escape there, it would in no wise obviate an attack upon him, and he would only be under the added disadvantage of unfamiliar surroundings.
Feeling out with his left hand, his automatic thrown a little forward in his right, he began to retrace his way along the blank wall of the corridor, pausing between each step to listen, moving silently, his tread on the heavy carpet as noiseless as though it were some shadow creeping there.
Stillness—utter, absolute! Always that stillness. Always that sense of danger around him—the tense, bated expectancy of momentary attack—a revolver flash through the darkness—a sudden rush upon him. But still there was nothing—only the darkness, only the silence.
He gained the head of the stairs and began to descend—and now the strain began to tell upon his nerves again. Again he was possessed of the mad impulse to cry out, to do anything that would force the issue, that would end the horrible, unbearable suspense. Why did that revolver shot not come? Why had they not yet rushed upon him? Why were they playing with him as a cat with a mouse? Or was it all wild, fanciful imagination? No! What was that again ! He could have sworn this time that he had heard a sound, but he could neither define its character, nor locate the direction from which it had come.
He was at the foot of the stairs now; and, guiding himself by the wall, moving now barely an inch at a time, he reached the library door that he had left open, and stole in over the threshold. Halfway down the room and diagonally across from where he stood was the window. In a moment now he could gain that, but they would never let him go so easily—and so it must come now, in that next moment, their attack! Where were they? Where were they now? The table—he must remember not to bump into the table! A pause between each step, he was crossing the room. He was half-way to the window. Had it been all fancy, was he to—— And then Jimmie Dale stood motionless. Some one had closed the library door softly!
Stillness again! A sort of deadly calm upon him, Jimmie Dale felt out behind his back for the big library table that he had been circuiting—if the window were wide open it might be done, but to jump for it and stand silhouetted there during the pause necessary to fling the window up was little less than suicidal. He edged back noiselessly until his fingers touched the table; then, lowering himself to his knees, he backed in underneath it, and lay flat upon the floor. It was not much protection, but it had one advantage: if they switched on the lights it would show an empty room for the first instant, and that instant meant—the first shot!
Where were they now? By the library door? How many of them were there? Well, it was their move! Two could play at cat and mouse until—until daylight! That wasn't very far off, now, and when that came he might still have the first shot, but after that—he turned his head quickly toward the window. There was a faint scratching noise as of finger nails gripping the sill; then the window, very slowly, almost silently, was pushed steadily upward, and a dark form loomed up outside; and then, crawling through, a man dropped, as though his feet were padded like a cat's, on the floor inside the room. The Magpie!
A flashlight's ray shot out—and, with a twisted smile, propped now on his left elbow to give free play to his revolver arm, Jimmie Dale followed the white spot eagerly with his eyes. But it did not circle around; instead, the light was turned almost instantly toward the lower end of the room—and, a second later, was holding steadily on the open door of the safe, and the litter of papers on the floor.
Came a savage growl of amazed fury from the Magpie; then his step down the room and, as he reached the safe, a torrent of unbridled blasphemy—and then, in a sort of staggered gasp, as he leaned suddenly forward examining the knob of the dial:
"The Gray Seal!"
A moment the Magpie stood there; and then, cursing again in abandon, turned, and started back for the window, his flashlight dancing before him—and stopped, a snarl of fury on his lips. The flashlight was playing full on Jimmie Dale under the table!
"Larry the Bat! The Gray Seal! By God!" choked the Magpie. "You—you——" The Magpie's flashlight, as he shifted it from his right hand to his left and wrenched out his revolver, had fallen upon two men crouched close against the wall by the library door—and he screamed out in an access of fury. "De double cross! A plant! De bulls! You damned snitch, Larry!" screamed out the Magpie—and fired.
The bullet tore into the carpet beside Jimmie Dale. Came answering shots from the men by the door; and then the Magpie, emptying his automatic at the two men as he ran, the flame tongues cutting vicious lanes of fire through the darkness, dashed for the window. There was a cry, the crash of a heavy body pitching to the floor—and the Magpie had flung himself out through the window, and in the momentary ensuing silence within the room came the sound of his footsteps running on the gravel below.
There was a low moan, the movement as of some one staggering and lurching around—and then the lights went on. But for an instant Jimmie Dale did not move. He was staring at the form of a man still and motionless on the floor in front of him—the man who had posed as Henry LaSalle. Dead! The man was dead! His mind ran riot for a moment. Where were the others—were there only these two? Only these two in the house! Only these two—and one was dead! And then Jimmie Dale was on his feet. One was dead—but there was still the other, the man who was reeling there, back turned to him, by the electric-light switch. But even as Jimmie Dale sprang forward, this second man, clawing at the wall for support, slipped to his knees and fell upon the carpet.
Jimmie Dale reached him, snatched the revolver from his hand, and bent over him. It was the man whose name he did not know, but whose face he had reason enough to know too well—it was the leader of the Crime Club.
The man, though evidently badly wounded, smiled defiantly in spite of his pain.
"So you're the Gray Seal!" he flung out contemptuously. "A clever enough safe-cracker—but only a lowbrow, like the rest of them. Another illusion dispelled Well, you've got the money—better run, hadn't you?"
Jimmie Dale made no answer. Satisfied that the man was too badly hurt to move, he went and bent over the silent form in the centre of the room. A moment's examination was enough. "Henry LaSalle" was dead.
He stood there looking down at the man. It was what he had come for—though it was the Magpie, not himself, who had accomplished it! The man was dead! The words began to run through his mind in a queer reiteration. The man was dead—the man was dead! He checked himself sharply. He must think now—think fast, and think right.
The Magpie knew that Larry the Bat was the Gray Seal—and as fast as the Magpie could get there, the news would spread like wildfire through the underworld. "Death to the Gray Seal! Death to the Gray Seal!" He could hear that slogan ringing again in his ears, but as he had never heard it before—with a snarl of triumph now as of wolves who at last had pulled their quarry down. He had not a second to spare—and yet—that man wounded there on the floor! What of him—guilty of murder, the brains of this inhuman, monstrous organisation, the one to whom, more even than to that dead man, the Tocsin owed the horror and the misery and the grief and despair that had come into her life! What of him? What of the Crime Club here? What of this nest of vipers? Were they to escape? Were they to——
With a sudden, low exclamation, Jimmie Dale jumped for the table, and, snatching up the telephone, rattled the hook violently.
"Give me"—his voice came in well-simulated gasps, each like a man fighting for every word—"give me—police—headquarters! Quick! Quick! I've—been—shot!"
The wounded man on the floor raised himself on his elbow.
"What are you doing?" he demanded in a startled way. "Are you mad! Thank your stars you were lucky enough to get out of this alive—and get out now, while you have the chance!"
Jimmie Dale pressed his hand firmly over the mouthpiece of the telephone.
"I'll go," he said, with a cold smile, "when I've settled with you—for the murder of Henry LaSalle."
"That man!" ejaculated the man scornfully, pointing to the form on the floor. "So that's your game! Going to try and cover your tracks! Why, you fool, I live here! Do you think the police would imagine for an instant that I killed him?"
"I said—Henry LaSalle," said Jimmie Dale evenly.
The man came farther up on his elbow, a sudden look of fear in his face.
"What—what do you mean?" he cried hoarsely.
But Jimmie Dale was talking again into the telephone—gasping, choking out his words as before:
"Police headquarters? I'm Henry LaSalle. Fifth Avenue. I—I've been shot. Take down this statement. I'll—I'll be dead before you get here—I'm not the real Henry LaSalle at all. We murdered Henry LaSalle—in Australia, and murdered Peter LaSalle here. We—we tried to kill the daughter, but she ran away. This house has been our headquarters for the last five years. The man who shot me to-night is the leader of the gang. We quarrelled over the division of a haul. He's here on the floor now, wounded. Get them all, get them all, damn them!—do you hear?—get them all! They're out of the house now, but lay a trap for them. They always come in through the garage on the side street. Oh, God, I'm done for! Break down the west walls of the rooms upstairs—if—you—want proof of what—the gang's been doing. Hurry! Hurry! I'm—I'm—done for—I——"
Jimmie Dale permitted the telephone to drop with a clash from his hand to the table.
The face of the man on the floor was livid.
"Who are you? In God's name, who are you?" he cried out wildly.
"Does it matter?" inquired Jimmie Dale grimly. "Your game is up. You'll go to the chair for the murder of 'Henry LaSalle'—if it is by proxy! Those rooms upstairs alone are enough to damn you, to prove every word of that dying confession"—but to-morrow, added to it, will come the story of Marie LaSalle herself."
For a moment the man hung there swaying on his elbow, his face working in ghastly fashion—and then suddenly, with a strange laugh, he carried one hand swiftly to his mouth—and laughed again—and before Jimmie Dale could reach him was lifeless on the floor.
A tiny vial rolled away upon the carpet. Jimmie Dale picked it up. A drop or two of liquid still remained in it—colourless, clear, like that liquid this same man had dropped into the rabbit's mouth the night before, like the liquid in the glasses they had carried into that third room, like the liquid that his man had said was from a formula of their own, that was instantaneous in its action, that defied detection by autopsy!
The set, stern features of Jimmie Dale relaxed. It was justice—but it was also death. In a surge of emotion, the events of scarcely more than twenty-four hours, began to crowd upon him—and then, ominously dominant, above all else, that slogan of the underworld, "Death to the Gray Seal!" came ringing once more in his ears. It brought him, with a startled movement of his hand across his eyes, to a realisation of his own desperate position. Yes, yes, he must go! The way was clear now for the Tocsin—clear now for her!
He dropped the vial into his pocket, and, running to the safe, quickly scraped the gray seal from the dial's knob; then he drew the packages of money from his shirt and pockets and tossed them on the floor among the litter of papers already there—she would get it back again when it had served its purpose, it would be self-evident that it was the proceeds of that day's sale of the estate's securities over which the "quarrel" had occurred!
And now the window! He ran to it, closed it, and locked it; then, laying the revolver he had taken from the leader down beside the man, he stepped across the room again and drew the body of "Henry LaSalle" closer to the table—as though the man had fallen there when the telephone had dropped from his hand.
It was done now! On the floor beside him lay each man's weapon—and both of the revolvers had been discharged several times. Jimmie Dale paused on the library threshold for a final survey of the room. It was done! The way was clear—for her. And now if he could only save himself! There was no chance for Larry the Bat! Could he save—Jimmie Dale!
He crossed the hall, a queer, half-grim, half-wistful smile on his lips, unlocked the front door, stepped out, locked it behind him—and in another moment, doubling around the corner, was running along like a hare along the side street.