The Adventures of Jimmie Dale/Part 2/Chapter 3
THE CRIME CLUB
FOR what length of time he had remained unconscious, Jimmie Dale had not the slightest idea. He regained his senses to find himself lying on a couch in a strange room that had a most exquisitely brass-wrought dome light in the ceiling. That was what attracted his attention, because the light hurt his eyes, and his head was already throbbing as though a thousand devils were beating a diabolical tattoo upon it.
He closed his eyes against the light. Where was he? What had happened? Oh, yes, he remembered now! That smash on Lower Broadway! He had been hurt. He moved first one limb and thententatively, and was relieved to find that, though his body ached as if it had been severely shaken, and his head was bad, he had apparently escaped without serious injury.
Where was he? In a hospital? His fingers, resting at his side upon the couch, supplied him with the information that it was a very expensive couch, upholstered in finest leather. If he were in a hospital, he would be in a cot.
He opened his eyes again to glance curiously around him. The room was quite in keeping with the artistic lighting fixture and the refined, if expensive, taste that was responsible for the couch. A heavy velvet rug of rich, dark green was bordered by a polished hardwood floor; panellings of dark-green frieze and beautifully grained woodwork made the lower walls; while above, on a background of some soft-toned paper, hung a few, and evidently choice, oil paintings. There was a big, inviting lounging chair; a massive writing table, or more properly, a desk of walnut; and behind the desk, his back half turned, apparently intent upon a book, sat a man in immaculate evening dress.
Jimmie Dale closed his eyes again. There was something reassuring about it all, comfortably reassuring. Though why there should be any occasion for a feeling of reassurance at all, he could not for the moment make out. And then, in a sudden flash, the details of the night came back to him. The Tocsin's letter—the package he was to get—the taxicab—the chauffeur, who was not a chauffeur—the chase—the trap. He lay perfectly still. It was the professional Jimmie Dale now whose brain, in spite of the throbbing, brutally aching head, was at work, keen, alert.
The chauffeur! What had happened to him? Had the man been killed in the auto smash; or, less fortunate than himself, fallen into the hands of those whose power he seemed both to fear and rate so highly? And that package! Box—what was the number?—yes, 428. What did that mean? What box? Where was it? Who was John Johansson? He hadn't heard any more than that; the smash had come then. And lastly, he was back again to the same question he had begun with: Where was he now himself? It looked as though some good Samaritan had picked him up. Who was this gentleman so quietly reading there at the desk?
Jimmie Dale opened his eyes for the third time. How still, how absolutely silent the room was! He studied the man's back speculatively for a moment, then his gaze travelled on past the man to the wall, riveted there, and his fingers, without movement of his arm, pressed against the outside of his coat pocket. He thought as much! His automatic was gone!
Not a muscle of Jimmie Dale's face moved. His eyes shifted to a picture on the wall. The man was watching him—not reading! Just above the level of the desk, a small mirror held the couch in focus —but, equally, it held the man in focus, and Jimmie Dale had seen the other's eyes, through a black mask that covered the face to the top of the upper lip, fixed intently upon him.
There was a chill now where before there had been reassurance, something ominous in the very quiet and refinement of the room; and Jimmie Dale smiled inwardly in bitter irony—his good Samaritan wore a mask! His self-congratulations had come too soon. Whatever had happened to the chauffeur, it was evident enough that he himself was caught! What was it the chauffeur had said? Something about a chance through being unknown. Was it to be a battle of wits, then? God, if his head did not ache so frightfully! It was hard to think with the brain half sick with pain.
Those two eyes shining in that mirror! There seemed something horribly spectre-like about it. He did not look again, but he knew they were there. It was like a cat watching a mouse. Why did not the man speak, or move, or do something, and—— He turned his head slowly; the man was laughing in a low, amused way.
"You appear to be taken with that picture," observed a pleasant voice. "Perhaps you recognise it from there? It is a Corot."
Jimmie Dale, with a well-simulated start, sat up—and, with another quite as well simulated, stared at the masked man. The other had laid down his book, and swung around in his chair to face the couch. Jimmie Dale stood up a little shakily.
"Look here!" he said awkwardly. "I—I don't quite understand. I remember that my taxi got into a smash-up, and I suppose I have to thank you for the assistance you must have rendered me; only, as I say"—he looked in a puzzled way around the room, and in an even more perplexed way at the mask on the other's face—"I must confess I am at a loss to understand quite the meaning of this."
"Suppose that instead of trying to understand you simply accept things as you find them." The voice was soft, but there was a finality in it that its blandness only served to make the more suggestive.
Jimmie Dale drew himself up, and bowed coldly.
I beg your pardon," he said. "I did not mean to intrude. I have only to thank you again, then, and bid you good-night."
The lips beneath the mask parted slightly in a politely deprecating smile.
"There is no hurry," said the man, a sudden sharpness creeping into his tones. "I am sorry that the rule I apply to you does not work both ways. For instance, I might be quite at a loss to account for your presence in that taxicab."
Jimmie Dale's smile was equally polite, equally deprecating.
"I fail to see how it could be of the slightest possible interest to you," he replied. "However, I have no objection to telling you. I hailed the taxi at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place, told the chauffeur to drive me to the St. James Club, and——"
"The St. James Club," broke in the other coldly, "is, I believe, north, not south of Waverly Place—and on Broadway not at all."
Jimmie Dale stared at the other for an instant in patient annoyance.
"I am quite well aware of that," he said stiffly. "Nevertheless I told the man to drive me to the St. James Club. We came across Waverly Place, but on reaching Broadway, instead of turning uptown, he suddenly whirled in the other direction and sent the car flying at full speed down Lower Broadway. I shouted at the man. I don't know yet whether he was drunk or crazy or"—Jimmie Dale's eyes fixed disdainfully on the other's mask—"whether there might not, after all, have been method in his madness. I can only say that before we had gone more than two or three blocks, a wild effort on his part to avoid a collision with an auto swinging out from a side street resulted in an even more disastrous smash with another on the other side, and I was knocked senseless."
"'Victim,' I presume, is the idea you desire to convey," observed the other evenly. "You were quite the victim of circumstances, as it were!"
Jimmie Dale's eyebrows lifted slightly.
"It would appear to be fairly obvious, I should say."
"Very clever!" commented the man. "But now suppose we remove the buttons from the foils!" His voice rasped suddenly. "You are quite as well aware as I am that what has happened to-night was not an accident. Nor—in case the possibility may have occurred to you—are the police any the wiser, save for the existence of two wrecked cars on Lower Broadway, and another which escaped, and for which doubtless they are still searching assiduously. The ownership of the taxicab you so inadvertently entered they will have no difficulty in establishing—you, perhaps, however, are in a better position than I am to appreciate the fact that the establishment of its ownership will lead them nowhere. As I understand it, the man who drove you to-night obtained the loan of the cab from one of the company's chauffeur's in return for a hundred-dollar bill. Am I right?"
"In view of what has happened," admitted Jimmie Dale simply, "I should not be surprised."
There was a sort of sardonic admiration in the other's laugh.
"As for the other car," he went on, "I can assure you that its ownership will never be known. When the nearest patrolman rushed up, there were no survivors of the disaster, save those in the third car which he was powerless to stop—which accounts for your presence here. You will admit that I have been quite frank."
"Oh, quite!" said Jimmie Dale, a little wearily. "But would you mind telling me what all this is leading to?"
The man had been leaning forward in his chair, one hand, palm downward, resting lightly on the desk. He shifted his hand now suddenly to the arm of his chair.
"This!" he said, and on the desk where his hand had been lay the Tocsin's gold signet ring.
Jimmie Dale's face expressed mild curiosity. He could feel the other's eyes boring into him.
"We were speaking of ownership," said the man, in a low, menacing tone. "I want to know where the woman who owns this ring can be found to-night."
There was no play, no trifling here; the man was in deadly earnest. But it seemed to Jimmie Dale, even with the sense of peril more imminent with every instant, that he could have laughed outright in savage mockery at the irony of the question. Where was she? Even who was she? And this was the hour in which he was to have known!
"May I look at it?" he requested calmly.
The other nodded, but his eyes never left Jimmie Dale.
"It will give you an extra moment or so to frame your answer," he said sarcastically.
Jimmie Dale ignored the thrust, picked up the ring, examined it deliberately, and set it back again on the table.
"Since I do not know who owns it," he said, "I cannot answer your question."
"No! Well, then, there is still another matter—a little package that was in the taxicab with you. Where is that?"
"See here!" said Jimmie Dale irritably. "This has gone far enough! I have seen no package, large or small, or of any description whatever. You are evidently mistaking me for some one else. You have only to telephone to the St. James Club." He reached toward his pocket for his cardcase. "My name is——"
"Dale," supplied the other curtly. "Don't bother about the card, Mr. Dale. We have already taken the liberty of searching you." He rose abruptly from his chair. "I am afraid you do not quite realise your position, Mr. Dale," he said, with an ominous smile. "Let me make it clear. I do not wish to be theatrical about this, but we do not temporise here. You will either answer both of those questions to my satisfaction, or you will never leave this place alive!"
Jimmie Dale's face hardened. His eyes met the other's steadily.
"Ah, I think I begin to see!" he said caustically. "When I have been thoroughly frightened I shall be offered my freedom at a price. A sort of up-to-date game of holdup! The penalty of being a wealthy man! If you had named your figure to begin with, we would have saved a lot of idle talk, and you would have had my answer the sooner: Nothing!"
"Do you know," said the other, in a grimly musing way, "there has always been one man, but only one until now, that I have wished I might add to my present associates. I refer to the so-called Gray Seal. To-night there are two. I pay you the compliment of being the other. But"—he was smiling ominously again—"we are wasting time, Mr. Dale. I am willing to expose my hand to the extent of admitting that the information you are withholding is infinitely more valuable to me than the mere wreaking of reprisal upon you for a refusal to talk. Therefore, if you will answer, I pledge you my word you will be free to leave here within five minutes. If you refuse, you are already aware of the alternative. Well, Mr. Dale?"
Who was this man? Jimmie Dale was studying the other's chin, the lips, the white, even teeth, the jet-black hair. Some day the tables might be turned. Could he recognise again this cool, imperturbable ruffian who so callously threatened him with murder?
"Well, Mr. Dale? I am waiting!"
"I am not a magician," said Jimmie Dale contemptuously. "I could not answer your questions if I wanted to."
The other's hand slid instantly to a row of electric buttons on the desk.
"Very well, Mr. Dale!" he said quietly. "You do not believe, I see, that I would dare to carry my threat into execution; you perhaps even doubt my power. I shall take the trouble to convince you—I imagine it will stimulate your memory."
The door opened. Two men were standing on the threshold, both in evening dress, both masked. The man behind the desk came forward, took Jimmie Dale's arm almost courteously, and led him from the room out into a corridor, where he halted abruptly.
"I want to call your attention first, Mr. Dale, to the fact that as far as you are concerned you neither have now, nor ever will have, any idea whether you are in the heart of New York or fifty miles away from it. Now, listen! Do you hear anything?"
There was nothing. Only the strange silence of that other room was intensified now. There was not a sound; stillness such as it seemed to Jimmie Dale he had never experienced before was around him.
"You may possibly infer from the silence that you are not in the city," suggested the other, after a moment's pause. "I leave you to your own conclusions in that respect. The cause, however, of the silence is internal, not external; we had sound-proof principles in mind to a perhaps exaggerated degree when this building was constructed. If you care to do so, you have my permission to shout, say, for help, to your heart's content. We shall make no effort to stop you."
Jimmie Dale shrugged his shoulders. He was staring down a brilliantly lighted, richly carpeted corridor. There were doors on one side, windows on the other, the windows all hung with heavy, closely drawn portières. The corridor was certainly not on the ground floor, but whether it was on the second or third, or even above that again, he had no means of knowing. From appearances, though, the place seemed more like a large, private mansion than anything else.
"Just one word more before we proceed," continued the other. "I do not wish you to labour under any illusion. Here we are frankly criminals. This is our home. It should have some effect in impressing you with the power and resource at our command, and also with the class of men with whom you are dealing. There is not one among us whose education is not fully equal to your own; not one, indeed, but who is chosen, granting first his criminal tendencies, because he is a specialist in his own particular field—in commerce, in the government diplomatic service, in the professions of law and medicine, in the ranks of pure science. We are bordering on the fantastical, are we not? Dreaming, you will probably say, of the Utopian in crime organisation. Quite so, Mr. Dale. I only ask you to consider the possibilities if what I say is true. Now let us proceed. I am going to take you into three rooms—the three whose doors you see ahead of you. You will notice that, including the one you have just left, there are four on this corridor. I do not wish to strain your credulity, or play tricks upon you; so I am going to ask you to fix an approximate idea of the length of the corridor in your mind, as it will perhaps enable you to account more readily for what may appear to be a discrepancy in the corresponding size of the rooms."
One of the men opened the door ahead. Jimmie Dale, at a sign from his conductor, moved forward and entered. Just what he had expected to find he could not have told; his brain was whirling, partly from his aching head, partly from his desperate effort to conceive some way of escape from the peril which, for all his nonchalance, he knew only too well was the gravest he had ever faced; but what he saw was simply a cozily furnished bedroom. There was nothing peculiar about it; nothing out of the way, except perhaps that it was rather narrow.
And then suddenly, rubbing his eyes involuntarily, he was staring in a dazed way before him. The whole right-hand side of the wall was sinking without a sound into the floor, increasing the width of the room by some five or six feet—and in this space was disclosed what appeared to be a sort of chemical laboratory, elaborately equipped, extending the entire length of the room.
"The wall is purely a matter of mechanical construction, operated hydraulically." The man was speaking softly at Jimmie Dale's side. "The room beneath is built to correspond; the base, ceiling, and wall mouldings here do not have to be very ingenious to effect a disguise. I might say, however, that few visitors, other than yourself, have ever seen anything here but a bedroom." He waved his hand toward the retorts, the racks of test tubes, the hundred and one articles that strewed the laboratory bench. "As for this, its purpose is twofold. We, as well, as the police, have often need of analysis. We make it. If we require a drug, a poison, say, we compound it from its various ingredients, or, as the case may be, distil it, perhaps—it is, you will agree, somewhat more difficult to trace to its source if procured that way. And speaking of poisons"—he stepped forward, and lifted a glass-stoppered bottle containing a colourless liquid from a shelf—"in a modest way we have even done some original research work here. This, for instance, is as Utopian from our standpoint as the formation and personnel of the organisation I have briefly outlined to you. It possesses very essential qualities. It is almost instantaneous in its action, requires a very small quantity, and defies detection even by autopsy." He uncorked the bottle, and dipped in a long glass rod. "Will you watch the experiment?" he invited, with a sort of ghastly pleasantry. "I do not want you to accept anything on trust."
With a start, Jimmie Dale swung around. He had heard no sound, but another man was at his elbow now—and, struggling in the man's hand, was a little white rabbit.
It was over in an instant. A single drop in the rabbit's mouth, and the animal had stiffened out, a lifeless thing.
"It is quite as effective on the human organism," continued the other, "only, instead of one drop, three are required. If I make it ten"—he was carefully measuring the liquid into two wineglasses—"it is only that even you may be satisfied that the quantity is fatal." He filled up the glasses with what was apparently wine of some description, which he poured from a decanter, and held out the glasses in front of him.
And again Jimmie Dale started, again he had heard no one enter, and yet two men had stepped forward from behind him and had taken the glasses from their leader's hands. He glanced around him, counting quickly—they were surely the two who had entered with him from the corridor. No! Including the leader, there were now six men, all in evening dress, all masked, in the room with him.
A wave of the leader's hand, and the two men carrying the glasses left the room. The man turned to Jimmie Dale again.
"Shall we proceed to the second room, Mr. Dale?" he asked politely. "I think it is now prepared for us—I do not wish to bore you with a repetition of magical sliding walls."
There was something now that numbed the ache in Jimmie Dale's brain—a sense of some deadly, remorseless thing that seemed to be constantly creeping closer to him, clutching at him—to smother him, to choke him. There was something absolutely fiendish, terrifying, in the veneer of culture around him.
They had entered the second room. This, like the other, was a pseudo-bedroom; but here the movable wall was already down. Ranged along the right-hand side were a great number of cabinets that slid in and out, much after the style and fashion used by clothing dealers to stock and display their wares. These cabinets were now all open, displaying hundreds of costumes of all kinds and descriptions, and evidently complete to the minutest detail. The cabinets were flanked by full-length mirrors at each end of the room, and on little tables before the mirrors was an assortment, that none better than Jimmie Dale himself could appreciate, of make-up accessories.
The man smiled apologetically.
"I am afraid this is rather uninteresting," he said. "I have shown it to you simply that you may understand that we are alive to the importance of detail. Disguise, that is daily vital to us, is an art that depends essentially on detail. I venture to say we could impersonate any character or type or nationality or class in the United States at a moment's notice. But"—he took Jimmie Dale's arm again and conducted him out into the corridor, while the two men who were evidently acting the role of guards followed closely behind—"there is still the third room—here." He halted Jimmie Dale before the door. "I have asked you to answer two questions, Mr. Dale," he said softly. "I ask you now to remember the alternative."
They still stood before the door. There was that uncanny silence again—it seemed to Jimmie Dale to last interminably. Neither of the three men surrounding him moved nor spoke. Then the door before him was opened on an unlighted room, and he was led across the threshold. He heard the door close behind him. The lights came on. And then it seemed as though he could not move, as though he were rooted to the spot—and the colour ebbed from his face. Three figures were before him: the two men who had carried the glasses from the first room, and the chauffeur who had driven him in the taxicab. The two men still held the glasses—the chauffeur was bound hand and foot in a chair. One of the glasses was empty; the other was still significantly full.
Jimmie Dale, with a violent effort at self-control, leaned forward.
The man in the chair was dead