Billy Kane’s eyes lifted from his plate, and fixed in a curiously introspective way on Whitie Jack’s unhandsome and unshaven face across the little table. Twenty-four hours! He was out in the open now—“convalescent.” Twenty-four hours—and as far as Red Vallon and Birdie Rose were concerned specifically, and the underworld generally, there had been not a shred of success. He had unleashed the underworld, but the underworld had picked up neither thread nor clue; the underground clearing houses for stolen goods, the “fences,” had yielded up no single one of the rubies belonging to the Ellsworth collection; the lead that he had given Birdie Rose in respect of Jackson, the dead footman, had, up to the present at least, proved abortive.

Well, perhaps he, Billy Kane, would be more successful! The twenty-four hours had not been wholly fruitless. Perhaps before the night was out there would be a different story to tell—perhaps a grim and ugly story. There was one clue which had developed, but a clue that was to be entrusted to neither Red Vallon, nor Birdie Rose, nor any of the pack. Even they, case-hardened, steeped in crime though they were, might balk at pushing that clue to its ultimate conclusion. They might weaken at the limit! He, Billy Kane, would not weaken, because, as between his own life and the life of one who he was already satisfied was a murderer, he would not fling his own life away! His life was at stake. Red Vallon’s wasn’t. Birdie Rose’s wasn’t. It made a difference in—the limit!

An attendant, in a dirty, beer-stained apron, sidled to the edge of the table. The man had been eager in his attentions, deferential, almost obsequious.

“Wot’re youse for now, Bundy?” he inquired solicitously.

Billy Kane smiled, as he shook his head and jerked his hand by way of invitation toward Whitie Jack. He, Billy Kane, was the Rat, alias Bundy Morgan! He had never in his life before been in this none-too-reputable place run by one Two-finger Tasker, that combined at one and the same time a restaurant and dance hall of the lowest type, yet he found himself not only well known but an honored guest! He had known of the place by name and reputation; it was the sort of place that seemed naturally one the Rat would frequent, and he had told Red Vallon that he would “eat” here this evening. Red Vallon would have to make a report somewhere, and he, Billy Kane, had become none too sure of his own temporary quarters—that secret door, that underground passage into the Rat’s lair had not proved an altogether unmixed blessing! There was the Woman in Black, who had been an uninvited, unwelcome, and almost sinister visitor on two occasions already; and there was, far more disturbing still, the matter of that ruby from the Ellsworth collection which had found its way mysteriously to the table in that room—the single stone from the collection that had come to light since the murder two nights ago.

Whitie Jack accepted the unspoken invitation.

“Gimme another mug of suds,” he said.

The glass was replenished.

“You seem to have pulled a good job, Whitie,” said Billy Kane approvingly. “The tenement is next to the café on the corner, eh? All right, I know the place. What next?”

Whitie Jack gulped down half the contents of his glass.

“I guess I did,” he said complacently. “I wasn’t pipin’ de lay all day for nothin’—wot? De place has three floors, an’ two flats on each floor, savvy? It ain’t much of a place, neither. Peters’ flat is on de second floor, on de right as youse go up. Dere’s nobody at home, but he comes down dere himself to give de place de once-over one night a week. De family’s away somewhere for a vacation, sniffin’ in de ocean breezes at some boardin’ house. Gee, say, de guy must have money to pull de high brow, out-of-town-in-de-summer stuff for de family!”

Billy Kane nodded.

Whitie Jack finished his glass, and drew his sleeve across his mouth.

“Two of de flats is vacant,” he said. “One on de second floor, an’ one on de top. De other one on de top over Peters’ flat is where dat crazy old fiddler guy, Savnak, hangs out all by his lonesome. But Savnak won’t bother youse none. He’s out every night. He goes down to Dutchy Vetter’s jewelry shop, an’ him an’ Dutchy, bein’ nuts on music an’ pinochle, dey goes to it for half de night. Old Savnak’s got bats in his belfry, I guess; but I guess he can fiddle all right. I heard he used to be a big bug leadin’ some foreign or-kestra, an’ was a count or dook or something, an’ den de dope got him, an’ den he came out here. He ain’t livin’ like a dook now, an’ I guess it takes him all his time to scratch up his rent. Bats, dat’s wot he’s got—bats an’ dope. Dey got him to play one night down to Heeney’s music hall, an’ he went up in de air an’ quit flat ’cause de waiters kept circulatin’ around an’ dishin’ out de suds while he was playin’! Say, wot do youse know about dat! An’ den——”

“Stick to cases, Whitie,” interrupted Billy Kane patiently. “I’m expecting company in a few minutes. What about the ground floor? Who lives there?”

“Oh, dere!” said Whitie Jack somewhat contemptuously. “I dunno wot yer lay is, but dere’s nothin’ dere to bother youse neither. Dere’s a couple of sisters about sixty years old apiece on one side, an’ a young guy dat’s just got married on de other.”

“Back entrance?” inquired Billy Kane casually.

Whitie Jack shook his head.

“Nope!” he said. “Nothin’ doin’! Dere’s a back yard about four inches square, but the buildin’ behind butts right up against it, an’ dere ain’t no lane. But youse can get in de front door to-night whether it’s locked or not, for dere ain’t any street lamp near enough to do youse any harm.”

“Good work!” said Billy Kane. He pushed his plate away from in front of him. “I guess you’d better beat it now, Whitie.”

Whitie Jack, of the lesser breed of criminal, self-attached familiar to the man he believed to be the Rat and an aristocrat of Crimeland, rose from his seat with evident reluctance. There was a sort of dog-like faithfulness and admiration in his eyes, the same deference in his manner that seemed to mark the dealings of everyone in the underworld with the Rat; but the look on Whitie Jack’s face was nevertheless one of undisguised disappointment.

“Ain’t I in on dis any more?” he pleaded. “Ain’t I got anything more to do?”

“Yes,” said Billy Kane. He lowered his voice. “You’ve got more to do, and what will count for a lot more than you’ve already done—keep your mouth shut tight.” He leaned across the table, and his hand closed in a friendly pressure on the other’s arm. “Take the night off. Show up in the morning. Beat it now, Whitie.”

Whitie Jack left the place. The waiter removed the dishes from the table. Billy Kane leaned back in his chair, and his eyes, the introspective stare back in their depths, travelled slowly over his surroundings. The tables, ranged around the sides of the room, were but sparsely occupied; the polished section of the floor in the center was deserted—it was too early for the votaries of the bunny-hug and the turkey-trot to start in on their nightly gyrations. Two-finger Tasker’s was in a state of lethargy, as it were; a few hours later it would awake to a riot of hilarity, and come into its own with a surging crowd and packed tables, but it was too early for that yet.

Billy Kane’s fingers slipped mechanically into his vest pocket, and, hidden there, mechanically began to twirl a small, hard object, irregular in its shape, between their tips. His face hardened suddenly. The touch of that little object stirred up in an instant a grim flood of speculation. It was the ruby from the Ellsworth collection that he had found on his return to the Rat’s den last night. It worried him. How had it got there? Who had put it there? And why? Above all—why?

Only a few hours before, turning his purloined authority to account, he had set the underworld the task of tracing the Ellsworth collection—and mysteriously there had appeared upon his table this single stone, ostentatiously identified by a piece cut from one of the original plush trays in which the stones had been kept. The bare possibility that it had been Red Vallon, or some of his breed, who had stumbled upon the stone in their search through the underground exchanges, and had left it there as evidence of a partial success for him to find on his return, had occurred to him; but a cautious probing of Red Vallon that morning had put a final and emphatic negative on that theory.

Who, then? And why? It had seemed like a ghastly jeer when he had seen that stone there on the table, and the prelude to some sinister act that he could not foresee, and against which therefore he could not prepare any defense. Did someone know that he was not the Rat, that, desperate, with no other thing to do, he had snatched at the rôle fate had thrust out to him, and was playing it now?

Who, then? Not the Woman in Black—her acceptance of him as the Rat had been altogether too genuine! Not the underworld—even a suspicion there would have been followed by a knife thrust long before this. Not the actual perpetrators of David Ellsworth’s murder, if they knew him to be Billy Kane—for their one aim had been to fasten the crime irrevocably upon him, all their hellish ingenuity had been centered on that one object, and they would certainly, therefore, have lost no time in giving the police, in some roundabout, guarded way, a tip as to his identity.

His brain whirled with the problem, and ached in an actual physical sense. It had been aching all day. He could minimize his peril, if he cared to make the wish father to the thought; he could not exaggerate it. It seemed impossible that his identity was known, but, even so, the question as to where that stone had come from, and why, still remained unanswered. Was it, then—another possibility—the murderers of David Ellsworth, who, while still believing him to be the Rat, and having discovered in some way that, as the Rat, he was working against them, had given him this ugly and significant warning to keep his hands off? Well, if that were so, he was still in no less danger, for he must go on. To turn aside was to fail, and to fail, quite equally, meant death.

The hard pressure of his lips curved the corners of his mouth downward in sharp lines. Nor was the question of that stone all! Since last night when the cloak of respectability had been stripped from Karlin, and the “man in the mask” had turned the tables on the crime coterie in the gambling hell run by Jerry, the ex-croupier of Monte Carlo, the underworld had been in a nasty mood, ugly, suspicious, in a ferment of unrest. It was another alias added to his rôle, another alias to safeguard even more zealously, if possible, than his unsought rôle of the Rat. He was the man in the mask. He shrugged his shoulders suddenly. Quite so! The mask was even at that moment in his inside coat pocket. If it were found there! He laughed harshly. It seemed as though he were being sucked in nearer and nearer to the center of some seething vortex that hungrily sought to engulf him. It seemed as though his brain ground and mulled around in a sort of ghastly cycle. When he tried to bring one thing into individual outline some other thing impinged, and all became a jumbled medley, like pieces of a puzzle, no one of which would fit into another.

The underworld looked askance and whispered through the corners of its mouth as it asked the question: Who was the man in the mask? And he, Billy Kane, who could answer that question, sitting here in Two-finger Tasker’s in the heart of that underworld, was asking himself another, a dozen others, whose answers were vital, life and death to him in the most literal sense. Who was the Woman in Black, who, like a Nemesis, hovered over the Rat? Where was the man whose personality had been so strangely thrust upon him, Billy Kane? When would the Rat return? Had he, Billy Kane, even the few hours at his disposal this evening that were necessary to enable him to run down the clue which he had discovered, and upon which he was banking his all now to clear himself, to bring to justice the murderers who had so craftily saddled their guilt upon him—had he even that much time before the inevitable crash came?

This evening! Yes, this evening! His fingers came from his vest pocket, and his hand clenched fiercely at his side. He would go the limit. His mind was made up to that. He had never thought that he would consider, calculate and weigh the pros and cons of taking another’s life, much less come to a deliberate decision to do so! But he had made that decision now; and, if it were necessary, he would carry it through. It seemed to affect him with an unnatural, cold indifference that surprised himself—that decision. It seemed to be only the result, the outcome that continued to concern him. If he had luck with him to-night he would win through. Red Vallon, Birdie Rose and the underworld had so far failed. He had kept prodding them on, and would continue to prod them on even now on the basis that he could not afford to let go of a single chance; but his hopes, that amounted now to a practical certainty of success, were almost wholly centered on his own efforts in the next few hours.

He stirred impulsively in his chair. The murderers of David Ellsworth had been too cunning, it seemed, had overstepped themselves at last in their anxiety to weave their net of evidence still more irrevocably around him. The affair of last night, the capture of Karlin by the police, and the social prominence of both Karlin and Merxler, had furnished the morning papers with material for glaring headlines and columns of sensational “story”; but, even so, all this had not by any means overshadowed the Ellsworth murder and robbery. The press was still alive with it, New York was still agog with the old millionaire-philanthropist’s assassination, and with what it believed to be the traitorous and abandoned act of, not only a trusted and confidential secretary, but of one who at the same time was the son of a lifelong friend.

The blood surged burning hot into Billy Kane’s face. From coast to coast they had heralded him as the vilest of his kind—he was a pariah, an outcast, a thing of loathing! Yes, the papers were still giving him and the Ellsworth murder prominence enough! But that prominence was not without its compensation, since it had furnished him with the clue now in his possession.

The inquest had been held late yesterday afternoon, too late for more than brief mention in the evening papers, but this morning the papers had carried a full and practically verbatim report of the proceedings. He had read the report, not daring at first to believe what he wanted to believe, afraid that his eyes were playing a mocking trick upon him—and then he had read it again in a sort of grim, unholy joy.

Jackson, the footman, who he knew was one of the murderers, was dead, and so far Birdie Rose had been unable to trace the man’s family or connections; but Peters, the butler, was not dead, and out of Peters’ own mouth, in his effort apparently to seal for all time his, Billy Kane’s, guilt, Peters had convicted himself!

True, before a jury, Peters had done himself no harm—that was the hellish ingenuity of the scheme that fitted in with all the rest of the devil’s craft with which the affair had been planned. Peters, in the public’s eyes, or before any court, was treading on safe and solid ground, for his, Billy Kane’s, simple denial was worth nothing in any man’s opinion to-day; but he, Billy Kane, knew that Peters’ testimony was not fact. Peters had testified that he had seen him, Billy Kane, leave the house about seven o’clock—which was true. Peters had then deliberately testified that half an hour later, though he had not seen Mr. Kane return, he had seen Mr. Kane come quietly down the back stairs, and enter the library—which, besides being untrue, since he, Billy Kane, was not even in the house at that time, was also equivalent to swearing away his, Billy Kane’s, life. Peters, continuing his evidence, had stated that he was quite sure he had not been seen by Mr. Kane, as he, Peters, at that moment was standing just inside the cloakroom off the hall. He did not see Mr. Kane emerge again from the library, but some fifteen minutes later a telephone call came in for Mr. Ellsworth, and, knowing Mr. Ellsworth to be in the library, he connected with that room. He tried several times, but could get no reply. Finally he went to the library door and opened it, and found Mr. Ellsworth with his skull crushed in, dead upon the floor, the private vault and safe open and looted. He at once called the police. He stated that it was obvious Mr. Kane had made his escape from the library through the stenographer’s room at the rear, and from there to the back entrance, where, later on again, as the police already knew, returning once more in the hope presumably of recovering the card with the combinations of the safe and vault on it in his handwriting, he had been discovered by Jackson, the footman, and had killed Jackson, who had tried to capture him.

Billy Kane’s hands were shoved in an apparently nonchalant manner into the side pockets of his coat—to hide them from view now. The nails were biting into the palms of his hands. “Killed” that was the word Peters had used—“killed.” It was very subtle of Peters to have used that word—it just clinched the whole story with the seemingly obvious. Everybody believed that he, Billy Kane, had killed Jackson, as well as David Ellsworth. Yes, Peters had put the finishing touch on the evidence that was meant to free the actual perpetrators, himself quite evidently amongst them, from punishment, and to send him, Billy Kane, if caught, as their proxy to the death chair in Sing Sing.

Quite so! And Peters thought himself quite safe. What had Peters to fear from a hunted wretch who he undoubtedly believed was miles away, fleeing for his life, cowering from the sight of his fellow humans, afraid to show his face? But Peters and his accomplices had overshot the mark! The evidence was final, incontrovertible, damning—only it was not true. He, Billy Kane, would not dispute it with a jury—he would put Peters on a witness stand of a grimmer nature than that! He had known on the night of the crime that Jackson, the footman, was one of the guilty men; but he had not suspected that the dignified, perfectly trained Peters, the butler, with his fastidiously trimmed, gray, mutton-chop side-whiskers, was likewise one of the band. And now he wondered why he had not thought of it.

He saw Peters in quite a different light now! A hundred little incidents metamorphosed the man’s excessive efficiency and attentiveness into a smug mask of hypocrisy. And, corroborative from this new viewpoint, where, for instance, had Peters, as it now appeared, got the money to send his family away even to a boarding house? Butlers were not in the habit of sending their families away to the seaside for the summer! Even Whitie Jack had not failed to comment on that fact. Well, he was satisfied that he knew the real Peters now, and it was not too late. It was Peters, or himself now. It was his life, or Peters’ life—unless Peters laid bare to the last shred the whole plot, and the name of every man connected with it.

And the stage was set. From the moment he had read the papers that morning, he had put Whitie Jack at work—and Whitie Jack had done well, exceedingly well. He, Billy Kane, knew that Peters was married and had a family, but he had not known Peters’ home address. Whitie Jack had proved a most praiseworthy ferret. He, Billy Kane, knew that Thursday was always Peters’ night off. This was Thursday night. Peters, then, if he followed his usual custom, would visit his flat to-night; and, since the man’s family was away, Peters and he would be alone. It was fortunate that the family was away, luck seemed to be turning; it precluded the necessity of getting Peters somewhere else—alone. It simplified matters. Peters’ flat would serve most excellently for that interview!

He laughed a little now. He was strangely cool, strangely composed. He was in a mood in which he found difficulty in recognizing himself. He was going to-night to wring from a man either that man’s life, or that man’s confession. He was absolutely merciless in that resolve; he would not turn back, nothing would make him swerve one iota from that determination, he would go the limit—and yet he sat here entirely unmoved, callous.

Well, after all, why not? If the man was already a murderer, his life was already forfeit. If he, Billy Kane, must choose between losing his own life and permitting one of the murderers of David Ellsworth to profit further thereby, would one hesitate long over that choice, or hesitate to go—the limit?

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