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— IX —


ANOTHER five minutes, and in her own personality now, a slim, trim figure, neatly gloved, the heavy veil affording ample protection to her features, Rhoda Gray emerged from the shed and the lane, and started rapidly toward lower Sixth Avenue. And as she walked, her mind, released for the moment from the consideration of her immediate venture, began again, as it had so many times in the last three days, its striving and its searching after some loophole of escape from her own desperate situation. But only, as it ever did, confusion came—a chaos of things, contributory things and circumstances, and the personalities of those with whom this impossible existence had thrown her into contact. Little by little she was becoming acquainted with the personnel of the gang—in an impersonal way, mostly. Apart from Danglar, there was Shluker, who must of necessity be one of them; and Skeeny, the man who had been with Danglar in Shluker's room; and the Cricket, whom she had never seen; and besides these, there were those who were mentioned in the cipher message to-night, and detailed to the performance of the various acts and scenes that were to lead up to the final climax—which, she supposed, was the object and reason for the cipher message, in order that even those not actually employed might be thoroughly conversant with the entire plan, and ready to act intelligently if called upon. For there were others, of course, as witness herself, or, rather, Gypsy Nan, whose personality she had so unwillingly usurped.

It was vital, necessary, that she should know them all, and more than in that impersonal way, if she counted upon ever freeing herself of the guilt attributed to her. For she could see no other way but one—that of exposing and proving the guilt of this vile clique who now surrounded her, and who had actually instigated and planned the crime of which she was accused. And it was not an easy task!

And then there were those outside this unholy circle who kept forcing their existence upon her consciousness, because they, too, played an intimate part in the sordid drama which revolved around her, and whose end she could not foresee. There was, for instance—the Adventurer. She drew in her breath quickly. She felt the color creep slowly upward, and tinge her throat and cheeks—and then the little chin, strong and firm, was lifted in a sort of self-defiant challenge. True, the man had been a great deal in her thoughts, but that was only because her curiosity was piqued, and because on two occasions now she had had very real cause for gratitude to him. If it had not been for the Adventurer, she would even now be behind prison bars. Why shouldn't she think of him? She was not an ingrate! Why shouldn't she be interested? There was something piquantly mysterious about the man—who called himself an adventurer. She would even have given a good deal to know who he really was, and how he, too, came to be so conversant with Danglar's plans as fast as they were matured, and why, on those two particular occasions, he had not only gone out of his way to be of service to her, but had done so at very grave risk to himself. Of course, she was interested in him—in that way. How could she help it? But in any other way—the little chin was still tilted defiantly upward—even the suggestion was absurd. The man might be chivalrous, courageous, yes, outwardly, even a gentleman in both manner and appearance; he might be all those things, and, indeed, was—but he was a thief, a professional thief and crook. It seemed very strange, of course; but she was judging him, not alone from the circumstances under which they had met and been together, but from what he had given her to understand about himself.

The defiance went suddenly from her face; and, for a moment, her lips quivered a little helplessly. It was all so very strange, and so forbidding, and—and, perhaps she hadn't the stout heart that a man would have—but she did not understand, and she could not see her way through the darkness that was like a pall wrapped about her—and it was hard just to grope out amidst surroundings that revolted her and made her soul sick. It was hard to do this and—and still keep her courage and her faith.

She shook her head presently as she went along, shook it reprovingly at herself, and the little shoulders squared resolutely back. There must be, and there would be, a way out of it all, and meanwhile her position, bad as it was, was not without, at least, a certain compensation. There had been the Sparrow the other night whom she had been able to save, and to-night there was Nicky Viner. She could not be blind to that. Who knew! It might be for just such very purposes that her life had been turned into these new channels!

She looked around her sharply now. She had reached the lower section of Sixth Avenue. Perlmer's office, according to the address given, was still a little farther on. She walked briskly. It was very different to-night, thanks to her veil! It had been horrible that other night, when she had ventured out as the White Moll and had been forced to keep to the dark alleyways and lanes, and the unfrequented streets!

And now, through a jeweler's window, she noted the time, and knew a further sense of relief. It was even earlier than she had imagined. It was not quite ten o'clock; she would, at least, be close on the heels of Perlmer's departure from his office, if not actually ahead of time, and therefore she would be first on the scene, and—yes, this was the place; here was Perlmer's name amongst those on the name-plate at the street entrance of a small three-story building.

She entered the hallway, and found it deserted. It was a rather dirty and unkempt place, and very poorly lighted—a single incandescent alone burned in the hall. Perlmer's room, so the name-plate indicated, was Number Eleven, and on the next floor.

She mounted the stairs, and paused on the landing to look around her again. Here, too, the hallway was lighted by but a single lamp; and here, too, an air of desertion was in evidence. The office tenants, it was fairly obvious, were not habitual night workers, for not a ray of light came from any of the glass-paneled doors that flanked both sides of the passage. She nodded her head sharply in satisfaction. It was equally obvious that Perlmer had already gone. It would take her but a moment, then, unless the skeleton keys gave her trouble. She had never used a key of that sort, but—— She moved quietly down the hallway, and, looking quickly about her to assure herself again that she was not observed, stopped before the door of Room Number Eleven.

A moment she hung there, listening; then she slipped the skeleton keys from her pocket, and, in the act of inserting one of them tentatively into the keyhole, she tried the door—and with a little gasp of surprise returned the keys hurriedly to her pocket. The door was unlocked; it had even opened an inch already under her hand.

Again she looked around her, a little startled now; and instinctively her hand in her pocket exchanged the keys for her revolver. But she saw nothing, heard nothing; and it was certainly dark inside there, and therefore only logical to conclude that the room was unoccupied.

Reassured, she pushed the door cautiously and noiselessly open, and stepped inside, and closed the door behind her. She stood still for an instant, and then the round, white ray of her flashlight went dancing inquisitively around the office. It was a medium sized room, far from ornate in its appointments, bare, floored, the furniture of the cheapest—Perlmer's clientele did not insist on oriental rugs and mahogany!

Her appraisal of the room, however, was but cursory. She was interested only in the flat-topped desk in front of her. She stepped quickly around it—and stopped—and a low cry of dismay came from her as she stared at the floor. The lower drawer had been completely removed, and now lay upturned beside the swivel chair, its contents strewn around in all directions.

And for a moment she stared at the scene, nonplused, discomfited. She had been so sure that she would be first—and she had not been first. There was no need to search amongst those papers on the floor. They told their own story. The ones she wanted were already one.

In a numbed way, mechanically, she retreated to the door; and, with the flashlight playing upon it, she noticed for the first time that the lock had been roughly forced. It was but corroborative of the despoiled drawer; and, at the same time, the obvious reason why the door had not been relocked when whoever had come here had gone out again.

Whoever had come here! She could have laughed out hysterically. Was there any doubt as to who it was? One of Danglar's emissaries; the Cricket, perhaps—or perhaps even Danglar himself! They had seen to it that lack of prompt action, at least, would not be the cause of marring their plans.

A little dazed, overwrought, confused at the ground being cut from under her where she had been so confident of a sure footing, she made her way out of the building, and to the street—and for a block walked almost aimlessly along. And then suddenly she turned hurriedly into a cross street, and headed over toward the East Side. The experience had not been a pleasant one, and it had upset most thoroughly all her calculations; but it was very far, after all, from being disastrous. It meant simply that she must now find Nicky Viner himself and warn the man, and there was ample time in which to do that. The code message specifically stated midnight as the hour at which they proposed to favor old Viner with their unhallowed attentions, and as it was but a little after ten now, she had nearly a full two hours in which to accomplish what should not take her more than a few minutes.

Rhoda Gray's lips tightened a little, as she hurried along. Old Nicky Viner still lived in the same disreputable tenement in which he had lived on the night of that murder two years ago, and she could not ward off the thought that it had been—yes, and was—an ideal place for a murder, from the murderer's standpoint! The neighborhood was one of the toughest in New York, and the tenement itself was frankly nothing more than a den of crooks. True, she had visited there more than once, had visited Nicky Viner there; but she had gone there then as the White Moll, to whom even the most abandoned would have touched his cap. To-night it was very different—she went there as a woman. And yet, after all she amended her own thoughts, smiling a little seriously—surely she could disclose herself as the White Moll there again to-night if the actual necessity arose, for surely crooks, pokegetters, shillabers and lags though they were, and though the place teemed with the dregs of the underworld, no one of them, even for the reward that might be offered, would inform against her to the police! And yet—again the mental pendulum swung the other way—she was not so confident of that as she would like to be. In a general way there could be no question but that she could count on the loyalty of those who lived there; but there were always those upon whom one could never count, those who were dead to all sense of loyalty, and alive only to selfish gain and interest—a human trait that, all too unfortunately, was not confined to those alone who lived in that shadowland outside the law. Her face, beneath the thick veil, relaxed a little. Well, she certainly did not intend to make a test case of it and disclose herself there as the White Moll, if she could help it! She would enter the tenement unnoticed if she could, and make her way to Nicky Viner's two miserable rooms on the second floor as secretively as she could. And, knowing the place as she did, she was quite satisfied that, if she were careful enough and cautious. enough, she could both enter and leave without being seen by any one except, of course, Nicky Viner.

She walked on quickly. Five minutes, ten minutes passed; and now, in a narrow street, lighted mostly by the dull, yellow glow that seeped up from the sidewalk through basement entrances, queer and forbidding portals to sinister interiors, or filtered through the dirty windows of uninviting little shops that ran the gamut from Chinese laundries to oyster dens, she halted, drawn back in the shadows of a doorway, and studied a tenement building that was just ahead of her. That was where old Nicky Viner lived. A smile of grim whimsicality touched her lips. Not a light showed in the place from top to bottom. From its exterior it might have been uninhabited, even long deserted. But to one who knew, it was quite the normal condition, quite what one would expect. Those who lived there confined their activities mostly to the night; and their exodus to their labors began when the labors of the world at large ended—with the fall of darkness.

For a little while she watched the place, and kept glancing up and down the street; and then, seizing her opportunity when for half a block or more the street was free of pedestrians, she stole forward and reached the tenement door. It was half open, and she slipped quickly inside into the hall.

She stood here for a moment motionless, listening, striving to accommodate her eyes to the darkness, and instinctively her hand went to her pocket for the reassuring touch of her revolver. It was black back there in the hallway of Gypsy Nan's lodging; she had not thought that any greater degree of blackness could exist; but it was blacker here. Only the sense of touch promised to be of any avail. If one could have moved as noiselessly as a shadow moves, one could have passed another within arm's-length unseen. And so she listened, listened intently. And there was very little sound. Once she detected a footstep from the interior of some room as it moved across a bare floor; once she heard a door creak somewhere upstairs; and once, from some indeterminate direction, she thought she heard voices whispering together for a moment.

She moved suddenly then, abruptly, almost impulsively, but careful not to make the slightest noise. She dared not remain another instant inactive. It was what she had expected, what she had counted upon as an ally, this darkness, but she was not one who laughed, even in daylight, at its psychology. It was beginning to attack her now; her imagination to magnify even the actual dangers that she knew to be around her. And she must fight it off before it got a hold upon her, and before panic voices out of the blackness began to shriek and clamor in her ears, as she knew they would do with pitifully little provocation, urging her to turn and flee incontinently.

The staircase, she remembered, was at her right; and feeling out before her with her hands, she reached the stairs, and began to mount them. She went slowly, very slowly. They were bare, the stairs, and unless one were extremely careful they would creak out through the silence with a noise that could be heard from top to bottom of the tenement. But she was not making any noise; she dared not make any noise.

Halfway up she halted and pressed her body close against the wall. Was that somebody coming? She held her breath in expectation. There wasn't a sound now, but she could have sworn she had heard a footstep on the hallway above, or on the upper stairs.

She bit her lips in vexation. Panic noises! That's what they were! That, and the thumping of her heart! Why was it that alarms and exaggerated fancies came and tried to unnerve her? What, after all, was there really to be afraid of? She had almost a clear two hours before she need even anticipate any actual danger here, and, if Nicky Viner were in, she would be away from the tenement again in another fifteen minutes at the latest.

Rhoda Gray went on again, and gaining the landing, halted once more. And here she smiled at herself with the tolerant chiding she would have accorded a child that was frightened without warrant. She could account for those whisperings and that footstep now. The door to the left, the one next to Nicky Viner's squalid, two-room apartment, was evidently partially open, and occasionally some one moved within; and the voices came from there too, and, low-toned to begin with, were naturaly muffled into whispers by the time they reached her.

She had only, then, to step the five or six feet across the narrow hall in order to reach Nicky Viner's door, and unless by some unfortunate chance whoever was in that room happened to come out into the hall at the same moment, she would—— Yes, it was all right! She was trying Nicky Viner's door now. It was unlocked, and as she opened it for the space of a crack, there showed a tiny chink of light, so faint and meager that it seemed to shrink timorously back again as though put to rout by the massed blackness—but it was enough to evidence the fact that Nicky Viner was at home. It was all simple enough now. Old Viner would undoubtedly make some exclamation at her sudden and stealthy entrance, but once she was inside without those in the next room either having heard or seen her, it would not matter.

Another inch she pushed the door open, another—and then another. And then quickly, silently, she tiptoed over the threshold and closed the door softly behind her. The light came from the inner room and shone through the connecting door, which was open, and there was movement from within, and a low, growling voice, petulant, whining, as though an old man were mumbling complainingly to himself. She smiled coldly. It was very like Nicky Viner—it was a habit of his to talk to himself, she remembered. And, also, she had never heard Nicky Viner do anything else but grumble and complain.

But she could not see fully into the other room, only into a corner of it, for the two doors were located diagonally across from one another, and—— Her hand, in a startled way, went suddenly to her lips, as though mechanically to help choke back and stifle the almost overpowering impulse to cry out that arose within her. Nicky Viner was not alone in there! A figure had come into her line of vision in that other room, not Nicky Viner, not any of the gang—and she stared now in incredulous amazement, scarcely able to believe her eyes. And then, suddenly cool and self-possessed again, relieved in a curious way because the element of personal danger was as a consequence eliminated, she began to understand why she had been forestalled in her efforts at Perlmer's office when she had been so sure that she would be first upon the scene. It was not Danglar, or the Cricket, or Skeeny, or any of the band who had forestalled her—it was the Adventurer. That was the Adventurer standing in there now, side face to her, in Nicky Viner's inner room!