Keeping in the shadows and avoiding the passers-by as on his way to Marco’s, Billy Kane hurried even more now on his return to the Rat’s. In a moment or so, when Mrs. Clancy reached the front street with her prisoner, there was likely to be an uproar, and he wanted to be housed and under cover if possible before that broke loose. Mrs. Clancy’s story could hardly omit reference to the man in the mask, and the police, to say nothing of the on-lookers, might evince a most unpleasant degree of practical curiosity—and he, Billy Kane, was in no condition, either mental, or, above all, physical, to play hare to the hounds of the law again that night. He was conscious now, as he made his way swiftly along, that his shoulder was paining him intensely again, and that, though through nerve force, his feet moved quickly enough under him, his knees were wobbly and weak.

He turned a corner, and still another—and drew a deep breath of relief. He was out of range of the second-hand shop now, and the Rat’s den was just ahead up the street, and there was no one in sight.

Billy Kane swept his hand heavily across his eyes. It was strange! There was not far from being a very close analogy between himself and Mrs. Clancy’s son to-night. Mrs. Clancy’s son had been selected as the victim of a “plant” much like himself—only there had been no murder, and the “plant” had failed. It was curious, very curious, that the two should have been so much alike, and that though he had been able to save the other, he himself was being searched for at that moment in every corner of New York, and that the human drag-net was spread for him, and that the wires all over the country were hot with his description, and that into every newspaper office in every state was pouring the story that would make of him an abominable and an abandoned thing!

His head was singing. He stumbled a little, as he made his way down the stairs, and fumbled with Whitie Jack’s key in the lock of the Rat’s door. Well, if the Rat, who was away, did not return too soon, and if—he shook his head, as he opened the door, and stepped inside, and locked it behind him—no, he was too tired, and too near the breaking point to think any more. He had a chance to rest now until morning. Whitie Jack had said that no one would dare disturb the Rat, and that was enough—he did not want to think any more—until morning.

He groped his way forward to the electric light, reached up to turn it on—and, with his arm poised in mid-air, stood suddenly tense and rigid. He listened. It came again—as though some one were knocking cautiously on the wall—and it seemed to come from the far end of the room near the bureau.

Billy Kane’s hand shot into his pocket and closed on his revolver; and, quick and silent in every movement now, he tiptoed across the room in the darkness, slipped in behind the cretonne hanging and waited, peering through a corner of the hanging.

And now it was absolutely silent again. Perhaps a half minute passed, and then, grotesquely, as though it came through the wall itself, the white ray of a flashlight streamed into the room, and circled it slowly and deliberately. And then a form moved forward—a woman’s form—and crossed the room to the table. There was a slight sound as of the rustling of paper, and, with the ray now flooding the top of the table, Billy Kane could see that she was writing; but her back was turned, and he could not see her face. For a moment more she stood there bending over the table, and then, turning, she retreated again to the rear of the room.

The flashlight now was full on the rear wall—but there was no opening there. Billy Kane leaned tensely forward, watching through the corner of the hanging. This den of the Rat’s that he, or fate for him, had appropriated, promised much more than appeared on the surface! It was obvious that there was another entrance than that from the street, and to obtain its secret now was a matter upon which his life, sooner or later, might very easily depend.

She was stooping now slightly, and her hand in the glare of the flashlight was moving in a slow, tentative way up and down one of the wall boards—and then her hand for an instant remained motionless. Billy Kane drew in his breath softly. It was ingenious, clever, cunning—and a craftsman’s work. A small door swung open into the room—a most curious door! Its top was of an absurd zigzag shape—due to the fact that it followed the natural joints of the wall boards. And the whole, three boards in width, in no part therefore, to casual or even critical examination, would show any signs of an opening, since it opened only where boards joined one another, and since everywhere in the room all the wall boards were more or less warped and ill-fitting!

The light was suddenly shaded, obliterated almost, as she passed through the opening—and then was blotted out. The door had closed without a sound. She was gone.

Billy Kane did not move. His eyes, as though fascinated, as though fearful that he might lose it, were fixed through the darkness on the particular spot on the wall where this strange midnight visitor had run her hand up and down. A minute, two, three, passed. Wherever that opening led to, she must be far enough away now to make it safe for him to act. But he dared not turn on the electric light. It might throw a glimmer to the street. He was none too sure of either the sill or panels of that front door! Whitie Jack had passed the word around of the Rat’s return—was this woman one to whom that word had come? In any case, she had thought the room empty, the Rat away, and therefore he could not run the risk of exposing the fact that he had been hidden there—he knew too little—and perhaps already too much!

He stepped silently over to the wall now. If he only had a match! But he had lost his match-safe with his coat—no, there were matches here, a box of them—his fingers had been mechanically searching his pockets—he had forgotten—it was not even the coat Whitie Jack had given him at the second-hand shop, it was the Rat’s coat now he was wearing!

He struck a match, located the board, pressed his hand up and down its length, and felt something give slightly. The door began to swing open. He blew out the match instantly, and, crouched there, listened. He could hear nothing. He lighted another match, and this time held it above his head. A short, tunnel-like passage through the ground, strongly braced and stayed, and trending gently upward, confronted him.

He stepped forward into the opening, and, bending head and shoulders, for the roof was scarcely four feet in height, followed the passage for some five or six yards to where it ended abruptly in a blank wall of earth, but where, above his head, a third match disclosed a trap-door. Again Billy Kane listened, and then cautiously raised the door. It was pitch black now. He drew himself up, and once more listened. There was no sound. He lighted another match—the stub of the one before being carefully consigned to his pocket—and nodded his head in understanding. The passage had led him into a shed, evidently little used, for it was littered and stored with odds and ends that, judging from the accumulated dust and dirt, had been untouched for a long time; and the shed itself—yes, he was right—he had pushed the back door open a little—the shed gave directly on a lane.

Billy Kane closed the shed door; and, noting with grim appreciation that the trap-door, as he closed it above his head, was an ingenious arrangement of the floor planking similar to the construction of the door within the Rat’s quarters, and was moreover, as an added precaution, surrounded by an apparently careless stowage of the shed’s litter, he made his way back along the passage again. The room door he examined as he passed through. It was manipulated from the inside of the passage by an ordinary and frankly obvious spring lock. He closed it, and stood for a moment staring at it speculatively. There seemed no way of locking it here in the room, of protecting himself from an intrusion through the night that might not be either as instructive or as harmless as this first one had been. There might be a way, and there probably was a way of fastening it, the Rat would surely have seen to that, but he, Billy Kane, was too far gone, too weak, too tired, too nearly all in to hunt or search for it now—and there was a way of obviating the possibility of the door being opened without first arousing him and putting him on his guard. He went to the table, picked up a chair, and, carrying it back, tilted it against the door in the wall.

And now he swayed a little, and his hand sought his eyes. He was conscious again of his aching shoulder, and that his head was swimming dizzily—but he seemed to have forgotten something—yes, he remembered now—that paper—that paper on which she had written something. He laughed in a strained, almost delirious way. He must be worse than he imagined, if he had, even for an instant, forgotten that! Or was it just simply the reaction coming now?

He stumbled toward the table, and, feeling with his hand, secured the paper—but there was no chair here now, and he stumbled across the room, and sat down on the edge of the bed. He lighted another match, held it close to the paper, and read the pencilled lines.

So you are back, are you?

Well, so am I! Remember!

The match burned down to his fingers, and he dropped it on the floor. What did it mean? Who was she? He shook his head. And then, with a queer, twisted smile, he folded the paper, thrust it into his pocket—and, stretching himself out fully dressed upon the bed, lay there staring into the darkness.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook