Once in the street, Billy Kane started hurriedly in the direction of the Bowery. He hastened on, his mind in a state of chaotic turmoil. Presently he turned into the cross street, a block away from the Rat’s den. He had until morning. It was thoughtful of her to have given him that much time! The Man with the Crutch had the paper, of course. Red Vallon and the Pippin had had since noon to find the man. If the man were not found by morning the rôle of the Rat would be at an end. There was something damnably ironical in that! He had wanted the rôle of the Rat to end. And now he didn’t want it to end on account of this Man with the Crutch, who was disastrously likely to bring that end about! He needed the rôle now more than ever in order to use it against this Man with the Crutch, because the other held the knowledge that would enable him, Billy Kane, to cast off the rôle forever; yet if he didn’t find the man, and even before morning, the rôle, and quite as certainly forever, would be cast off for him!

He swept his hand across his eyes. His brain seemed to be working in some silly, sing-song cycle, and yet it was quite logical. And then his shoulders squared. For the night at least he was still the Rat, and the underworld was at the Rat’s beck and call. If Red Vallon and the Pippin could not find the Man with the Crutch, he would unleash the underworld to help them pick up the scent. First, however, he must get in touch with Red Vallon. But that should not be difficult, for Red Vallon, whether he had had any success or not, was certain to make a report before the night was very much older, and—

Billy Kane halted suddenly, and turned around, as a low voice hailed him. A man was hurrying along behind him. He smiled grimly. A little luck, at least, seemed to be breaking for him at the start. Here was Red Vallon now. Billy Kane, in apparent indifference, started on again in the direction of the den.

“Hello!” he said gruffly, as the gangster caught up with him and fell into step alongside.

Red Vallon chuckled low.

“We got him!” he said. There was hoarse elation in the gangster’s voice.

A fierce uplift swept in an almost overmastering surge upon Billy Kane. His answer, however, was little more than a grunt of approval.

“You have—eh?” he said.

“You bet your life!” exclaimed the gangster jubilantly. “You know Marlot’s saloon? Well, the guy lives next door in that old motheaten shack. Some place! The police have been leery of it for a long while. There’s mostly a bunch of slick-fingers hang out there. Get me? He’s got the back room—used to be the kitchen, I guess. He’s a smooth one, all right! He’s got a private entrance of his own when he doesn’t want to go in or out by the front; the old back door opens right into his room from the yard. Savvy?”

Billy Kane nodded his head shortly in affirmation. He took a cigarette from his pocket, and lighted it nonchalantly.

“But, say”—the elation in the gangster’s voice was growing still more pronounced—“that ain’t all! The Pippin spotted his nibs through the window from the yard a few minutes ago. Say, what do you think, Bundy! The cripple hobbles across the room, and pulls the old washstand away from the wall, and lifts up an innocent-looking piece of the wall paper that you’d think was stuck down for fair. The Pippin had only a rip in the window shade to see through, and he couldn’t see very well, but he could see a dinky little hole there in the wall, and a satchel inside, and the cripple takes something out of his pocket and slips it into the hole, and smooths the wall paper back again. The Pippin beat it out of there then, and found me, and he’s just wised me up.”

It was quite dark here on the street, but even so Billy Kane kept his face turned slightly away from the gangster. The blood was racing in one mad, ungovernable flood of feverish excitement through his veins. It seemed somehow as though a weight that had been unendurable, an actual physical burden beyond his strength to bear, had suddenly been lifted from his shoulders. The Man with the Crutch! From the prior events of the evening, from what Red Vallon had just said, there was no possibility that the Pippin had stumbled upon another man with a crutch. This was the one, without question, without room for a single shadow of a doubt. And he as good as had the man now! He flicked the ash from his cigarette with his forefinger, and nodded curtly again.

“Figure it out for yourself,” said Red Vallon, a sort of eager self-complacency in his voice. “Of course, the man had nothing to do with that murder last night, but the police know he was around there lugging a satchel, and you add to that the crook dump where he lives, and a guy that has a nifty little hiding place in the wall with a satchel in it—and where does he get off? I ain’t throwing any bouquets at myself, Bundy, but I told you I’d pull something good this trip, and I guess you got to hand it to me for delivering the goods. Pipe this, Bundy! The police think the Pippin’s a stool-pigeon anyhow. Well, five minutes ago I sent the Pippin to tip off the police, while I beat it up here to put you wise. Get me? With all that stuff against the guy, he ain’t got a hope. He goes up for that murder, and that lets you out, Bundy.”

Billy Kane stood still. They had reached the cellarlike entrance to the Rat’s den, but he made no move to descend the short, cavernous stairway. A little way up the block the street lamp seemed suddenly to be swirling around and around in swift, lightning-like irregular flashes. The blood that had rushed hotly, madly through his veins but an instant before was cold and sluggish now, as though some icy tourniquet were at work upon his heart, stilling its action.

“That lets you out, Bundy.” The words mocked and jeered at him. Let him out! It was ruin, disaster, death—unless in some way he could forestall this move of Red Vallon. He fought desperately for control of himself. That envelope, her threat, his own desire to get at the man, were like issues fading into the background. He knew that the man was the murderer of Peters, and if the police, whether they caught the man or not, found what he believed they would find in that satchel—some at least of those rubies from the Ellsworth vault—then Red Vallon, this man standing here, who with horrible callousness, but equally with the genuine motive of protecting the Rat, was ironically planning, while believing him innocent, to send the guilty man to his death, would know absolutely beyond question that the Rat had not killed Peters last night, that last night’s alibi was a lie, and that he, Billy Kane, was the man in the mask, at whose throat Red Vallon and his gang asked nothing better than to hurl themselves like a pack of starving wolves!

To get rid of Red Vallon! Any excuse—anything! To get rid of the man—without an instant’s delay!

He shoved out his hand to the gangster.

“I won’t forget this, Red!” he said earnestly. “Take it from me, I won’t forget it! But you beat it now, Red. That Dayler game went wrong to-night—the Cadger’ll tell you about it, if you see him—and I haven’t got a minute. See—Red?”

“Sure! All right!” agreed the gangster heartily. “Well, so long, Bundy!”

Billy Kane shook hands again—with a grip that was hard and eloquent.

“So long, Red!” he said.

The gangster turned away. Billy Kane dove down the stairs, opened the door of the den, locked it behind him, darted across the room in the darkness, and in another minute, crawling through the tunnel from the secret door, gained the shed and the street at the rear. He ran breathlessly now. What did it matter if any one saw him! Time alone was all that counted! If he could not beat the police in the race to that room he was as good as dead already!

His mind worked swiftly, incisively, as he ran. The Pippin had had, say, ten minutes’ start, but it was only a few blocks to that house next door to Marlot’s saloon, and it would take a little while at least for the police to make their preparations before acting on the Pippin’s information. The chances lay with him, Billy Kane. The man might, or might not, be there. It did not matter in so far as the main issue was concerned. It was that handbag and its contents that were the vital factor now—and, yes, if he got that, the envelope too—they would both almost certainly be in the same hiding place—inasmuch as that hiding place was a crafty one. If the man were there, then it seemed as though irony would have piled itself on irony to-night, for he would automatically for the time being become the ally of the man with whom he asked only a deadly reckoning! He did not want the police to get the Man with the Crutch. Whatever the story the man might tell to account for his connection with Peters, it was certain that he would not be fool enough to tell the truth about the murder of David Ellsworth! And if the police had the Man with the Crutch in custody, then he, Billy Kane, was irrevocably barred from that reckoning which he meant to have.

He had been perhaps five minutes. He was trying the door now of a wretched, two-story frame building, that hugged, as its right-hand neighbor, a saloon that was almost as disreputable in appearance as itself. The door was unlocked. He stepped inside, and, feeling his way in the darkness, but still moving rapidly, passed down a narrow hall. By the sense of touch he was aware that there were rooms on only one side, the left-hand side, and that there were two of them. He brought up abruptly against a door now that made the end of the passage; the door of the rear room of the house obviously, and obviously, therefore, the “home” of the Man with the Crutch. It was silent everywhere in the house. He smiled a little grimly. He knew the place well enough by reputation to account for that silence. It was a crooks’ nest, a crooks’ lodging house, and, being night, the tenants had gone to work!

He slipped his mask over his face, and rapped on the door. There was no answer. He rapped again; and then his skeleton keys came into play. The man had obviously returned here from Dayler’s to get rid of that envelope, though probably not at once, for it must have been then that the Pippin had seen him; but now apparently he had gone out again.

The door yielded upon the trial of the third key. Billy Kane flung it open, stepped inside, and his flashlight played through the blackness. As he had expected, the room was empty. He locked the door again, and crossed quickly to the rear door. This he found opened inward. He looked out. This took a few seconds, but an accurate knowledge of his surroundings was worth even more than that should he be caught here. The door opened on practically a level with the ground; and it had an old-fashioned latch, with heavy iron handles, loop-shaped, below the thumb-pieces. He closed the door, and bolted it, smiling appreciatively as he noted that the bolt moved both readily and silently, as though in carefully oiled grooves.

His flashlight played around the room again now. The window shade was drawn. He located the washstand—and frowned suddenly in perplexity. A crutch leaned against the washstand. His face cleared the next instant. Why shouldn’t the man have an extra one? Perhaps he had to buy them in pairs, though he used only one at a time.

Billy Kane stepped swiftly to the washstand, and, preparatory to pulling it away from the wall, lifted up the crutch—and the next instant was examining the latter critically. It was extremely heavy. He whistled low under his breath. It was not only a crutch, it was a murderous weapon! The shaft of the thing, though painted a wood color, was solid iron! He set it down and pulled out the washstand; then, picking up the crutch again, he slashed it along the line of the wall where the washstand had been. A large piece of the wall paper came away, disclosing a neatly constructed little hiding place, some two feet long by a foot in depth. A queer, twisted smile was on Billy Kane’s lips. In there lay only two articles—but they were a manila envelope, and a small handbag.

He snatched up the envelope, and tore it open. A glance at the faded writing was enough; it was Joe Laynton’s letter of twenty years ago. He stuffed it into his pocket; and, almost more eagerly than before, reached into the aperture again, and took out the handbag. But now his fingers seemed to have gone clumsy with excitement as he fumbled with the catches. No, it was locked. Well, his steel jimmy would soon settle that! He pried the bag open, and stood staring at its contents. And the contents were not rubies! And then he laughed a little, as he lifted out and examined a package of banknotes. It did not matter, did it—the rubies or the money! It linked the Man with the Crutch with the Ellsworth murder just the same. This was the money, and apparently intact, that had been in the Ellsworth vault; the paper bands pinned around the packages, and marked in red ink with the amount in each package, had been pinned there and marked by himself!

It was strange, very strange! He restored the steel jimmy to his pocket, and attempted to fasten the bag with its end catches, but the frame had been bent in prying the bag open, and the catches would not work easily. It was very strange! How had this Man with the Crutch, so intimately connected with Peters’ and David Ellsworth’s murders, come also to be so intimately conversant with the Crime Trust’s game with Dayler?

His mind kept striking off at tangents, as he struggled with the bag. He could not carry a bag that would gape open! Once he got it to the den, that hole in the flooring, that he had thought so futile a reward for his search, would not be so futile after all. The bag would fit very nicely, and very securely, in there! Iron crutches weren’t usually made in pairs. That was queer, too! Was it an iron crutch that was the blunt instrument that had caused Peters’ death—and David Ellsworth’s? Why had the man used that dummy envelope to-night, and—

His flashlight was out. Footsteps were creeping cautiously along the hall outside. The police! The bag would have to do as it was now; but at least one catch was partially fastened. He tucked it under his arm, and for the fraction of a second, while he thrust the flashlight back into his pocket, he stood still; and then, a sudden, curious smile on his lips, he reached out and picked up the crutch again, and stole silently over to the rear door. The smile was lost as his lips thinned into a straight line. Yes, they were already here too! Well, the crutch might perhaps still serve the same purpose!

His ear to the panel, a whisper reached him:

“Put your shoulder to it, Jerry, and push with me, when I get the bar in the crack of the door.”

“All right,” another voice whispered. “The others will have been around at the front long ago. Are you ready?”

The door creaked under a sudden pressure; and as suddenly from the wall at the edge of the door, Billy Kane reached out and released the bolt. The door swung violently open, and two figures, their balance lost, sprawled and staggered into the room. And in a flash Billy Kane, as he leaped through the doorway, snatched at the door, slammed it shut, jabbed the crutch, as a lock-bar, through the iron loop of the door handle, its end extending well over the frame of the doorway—and sprinted across the yard.

There was a yell, and a battering thud on the door behind him, as he reached a fence at the end of the yard, swung himself to the top and dropped to the lane beyond. And then, as he ran, there came a crash of broken glass. They had evidently forsaken the door for the window!

For a hundred yards Billy Kane ran at top speed along the lane; and then, removing his mask, the bag concealed under his coat, he emerged into the intersecting street, and dropped into a casual and quiet stride.

He smiled queerly.

They would be looking for a cripple who, having sacrificed his crutch to save his life, could at best but limp and hobble painfully along!

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