From above, faintly, through the flooring, came the tap-tap, tap-tap of the old Italian cobbler’s hammer. Billy Kane, from his hands and knees, straightened up, easing his body from the discomfort of his cramped position; and, as he listened, he toyed now with the steel jimmy, commandeered from Whitie Jack, that was in his hand. He had been even more assiduous in his own tapping, at least for the last hour or more, than was the old fellow above there. The old fellow seemed to work all day—and all night. It was night now—or, rather, evening. If there was any sound heard from the street it would be attributed to the old cobbler, of course, which was just as well.

The murky light from the single incandescent across the room threw the sparse furnishings of the Rat’s den into uncouth shadows on the walls, and threw his own shadow into a grotesque, shapeless blotch upon the floor. From the street level, down through the cellar-like stairway to this underground abode, seeping in through the closed door, came the muffled roll of traffic, and a footstep now and then on the pavement like the echo of some sound that was detached, far distant.

He resumed his work, tapping with infinite pains with the butt of his steel jimmy on board after board of the flooring. And now this board or that seemed to give back a more resonant sound than its fellows, and he tapped it again, and still again, only to shake his head finally, and pass on to the next board.

There were other secrets in this crime hole besides that ingenious door and its tunnel to the shed and lane behind; secrets that she had plainly stated existed, and had as plainly stated were no secrets to her; secrets that she wielded in such a manner as to complicate a situation that was already one of extreme peril and desperate enough. They were the Rat’s secrets; and for the moment he was the Rat, and self-preservation made the possession of those secrets vitally essential to him.

The net seemed to be drawing closer around him; at moments it seemed to be strangling him. He had built so heavily on Peters. And Peters was dead. And he, Billy Kane, was still the Rat. It was difficult enough to carry out the rôle, as it was—but if the Rat should unexpectedly return! Where was the Rat? If he could glean a hint of when the Rat might probably return, or of the Rat’s whereabouts! Surely those secrets hidden here somewhere would answer, in a measure at least, those questions. Or, if not, then the fuller and more intimate knowledge they must give him of the Rat would make his assumed rôle more secure, safer as long as he was forced to play it, since they would place in his hands the trumps that would enable him to preserve this character he had usurped as he came more and more into direct contact with that malignant Crime Trust of which the legitimate Rat was obviously one of the leading spirits. And she, that strange, mysterious being, whom he had come to call the Woman in Black, whose hatred, a hatred that was boundless, more bitter, more deliberate, more merciless than, it seemed, any human could hold for another, he had acquired through this abhorrent proxy that fate had thrust upon him—surely these things hidden here, if he could but find them, must too, in a measure at least, explain what lay between her and the devil in human guise whose part he, Billy Kane, was compelled to play.

He worked on, his ear attuned to the sound as the steel jimmy tapped the flooring, his mind feverishly, insistently active. He had counted on forcing the truth from Peters last night. Instead, he had found the old butler murdered, and had only managed to escape destruction himself at the hands of Red Vallon and the underworld through a spurious alibi that was in itself a ghastly thing. He, as the Rat, stood now the self-confessed murderer of Peters! Yes, the net seemed to be drawing its strands so tightly about him sometimes that they strangled him, and strangled his soul, and made his courage falter.

Peters was dead, murdered—and to have made the man talk he would have gone the limit himself. He had meant to wring the truth from Peters’ lips at any cost. But a dead man couldn’t talk!

It was not warm in the room, nor was he overheated by his exertions, but Billy Kane, with the back of his hand, swept away a bead of moisture that had oozed out upon his forehead. Who was it who had murdered Peters? And why? His brain had wrestled with that problem since last night. There seemed to be but one answer, one solution. Peters’ connection with the Ellsworth murder, the search that had been made in Peters’ bedroom, and carried no further than that single room, indicating that what had been sought had been found, seemed to be proof positive that the author of the crime was at least conversant with the details of David Ellsworth’s murder, if he were not, indeed, as seemed even more likely, one of those who had actually participated in that murder himself. And with this as a premise the motive behind Peters’ murder was apparently clear enough. Nearly fifteen thousand dollars and a fortune in rubies had been taken from the steel vault in the Ellsworth home. Peters might have been the temporary custodian, in whole or in part, of the proceeds of the robbery, or he might only have been in possession of his share. In either case it was enough to account for his having been double-crossed and murdered by one of his own accomplices, or else by some one sufficiently well informed about the Ellsworth murder to know that Peters had at least a tempting enough portion of the “goods” in his flat to make a visit there very much worth while.

Billy Kane smiled a little grimly now, as, moving forward, he pushed the bed to one side in order to continue his examination of the flooring. That had been his solution; but, strangely enough, the newspapers for once had had no solution to offer. The known presence of so many men—when Red Vallon’s gang had invaded the house—indicated quite clearly, the papers said, that it was the work of an organized band; but, apart from that, they were frankly mystified. But because Peters had been the butler of David Ellsworth, and had been murdered just three nights after his master had been murdered, the morning papers had flung clamorous headlines across their front pages, and had filled their columns with every detail that had even the remotest bearing upon the affair. They, however, scarcely hinted at even a possible connection between the two crimes, for the very simple reason that Peters had obviously been attacked by a gang, whereas, in the case of David Ellsworth, they knew that the old millionaire had been done to death by his private secretary, Billy Kane!

He had read the papers, all of them. But out of the welter of words there had been only one thing that had possessed any value for him in the shape of information, and even that had been of a negative character. Some reporter had unearthed the fact that a stranger, whose description answered in a general way to Whitie Jack, had been seen loitering around the neighborhood of Peters’ apartment during a good part of the previous day. The description was not accurate enough to identify Whitie Jack positively; but as Whitie Jack had been there, and there on his, Billy Kane’s instructions, he had immediately sent the man away that morning, and had told him to keep under cover until further orders.

The steel jimmy tapped with persistent inquisitiveness along another board. Billy Kane’s lips were tight now. Peters’ death had seemed at first to have robbed him of all he had been building upon; and during the hours alone here in this den last night, facing what looked like the ruin of the final chance and hope of establishing his own innocence, of clearing his own name, of bringing to justice the wantons who had struck down old David Ellsworth, he had known those bitterest of hours where the will weakens, and courage seems a useless thing and a mockery. But he had fought through those hours, and the morning had brought its reward. Peters’ murder had broken the thread of evidence, but equally, it seemed, after all, it had knitted it together again—there was the Man with the Crutch.

His lips relaxed a little in an ironical smile. The papers had overlooked the Man with the Crutch! It was Red Vallon who, all unconsciously, had joined together the broken thread. The gangster had come here to the den that noon. There had been a marked increase of deference in the man’s attitude and manner, a sort of unholy admiration, awe, respect and fear. The man, hardened though he was himself, was still visibly affected by the fact that he stood in the presence of the Rat, alias Bundy Morgan, who, as he believed, had coolly and imperturbably given gruesome evidence that, to gain his ends, he would neither hesitate nor stop at murder. Red Vallon had not forgotten, and was not likely to forget, his “object lesson!”

Red Vallon had told his story furtively, leaning across the table, talking in a guarded whisper. He had got it straight enough from one of his own men, who the police in turn believed was one of their own stool pigeons. Shortly before the confusion incident to the exit of Red Vallon’s men on the previous night, the exact hour not positively established, a man with a crutch, and carrying a small hand bag, was known to have crept cautiously out of the apartment house where Peters had his flat. After that the man had disappeared. “The police have elected the cripple as the guy that waltzed off with the swag while the rest of the bunch made a noise to smear up his tracks,” Red Vallon had said, with a malicious grin. “What’s the matter with pushing a good thing along, Bundy? What’s the matter with pushing out a few feelers, and trying to spot this crutch gazabo? The Pippin’s the one that put me wise, and the Pippin can make good nosing him out if any one can.”

There had come upon Billy Kane an overwhelming surge of relief. More than anything else on earth that he had suddenly wanted at that moment was—the Man with the Crutch.

“Yes!” he had answered gruffly, afraid almost to trust his voice.

“Sure!” Red Vallon had responded. “I thought you’d be strong for it! Mabbe it won’t last long, ’cause the guy ought to be able to clear himself unless we can hitch it onto him for keeps, but there’s nothing like heaving a little dirt in the eyes of the bulls, and shooting ’em off on the wrong lay. It’ll keep ’em guessing for a while anyhow. You leave it to me, Bundy. I owe you something for queering your game last night, though I guess there wasn’t any more of them rubies there besides the one you found, for the Pippin says the bulls didn’t get anything, and I owe you something for the lemon I’ve handed you so far in falling down on spotting the ruby collection in any of the speak-easy joints; but I won’t fall down here. You leave it to me! I’ll pull some slick stuff this time!”

The steel jimmy tapped on. Billy Kane’s face was set. The Man with the Crutch! Was there any doubt but that the Man with the Crutch was not only Peters’ murderer, but, more vital still, one who, in Peters’ stead now, embodied the clue to the hell-hatched plot that had cost David Ellsworth his life, and had craftily woven the evidence of murder around him, Billy Kane? The Man with the Crutch! If only Red Vallon and the Pippin did not fail, then— The steel jimmy, almost perfunctorily, tapped over the same board again; and then Billy Kane suddenly bent lower, his ear close to the floor. He tapped once more. There was no doubt of it! The sound was unquestionably and distinctly hollow. He felt his pulse quicken. Off and on during the day he had covered almost the entire flooring of the room. He had started with the flooring. Only the flooring and the walls could contain any hidden recess. He had not touched the walls yet, and it might not be necessary now!

He was examining the board critically. It was a short board, rough and uneven, about ten inches wide, that ran to the edge of the wall. There seemed to be no sign of any secret spring, either on the adjacent flooring or on the wall, nor did the board itself appear to be in any way loose or show any evidence of ever having been removed before. He frowned as he tapped it again and found that, quite as unmistakably as before, the hollow sound came back to him; and then, inserting the point of the jimmy in the joint at the end of the board, he gave the board a sharp wrench. It came away readily, but with it came a weary smile to Billy Kane’s lips. Nothing! The under flooring had rotted away, which accounted for the hollow sound, and he was rewarded with nothing more than a hole bounded both in depth and width by the floor joists which rested on the ground. Half angry, half ironically amused, he reached forward to replace the board—and, straightening up suddenly, listened.

Someone was coming down the steps from the street.

In an instant he had the board and bed back in place, and the steel jimmy in his pocket. And now a cigarette was drooping languidly from his lips, as, in answer to a low knock, he crossed the room, and halted in front of the door.

“Who’s there?” he demanded.

“It’s de Cadger,” a voice answered.

Billy Kane opened the door. The Cadger, unknown to him personally, was known to him by reputation. As one of those details vital to the preservation of the rôle he played, he had stored up in his memory during the past few days the name of every one connected with the Crime Trust that he had heard mentioned either by Red Vallon or others. The Cadger was one of the lesser breed; a stage hand, in the expressive vernacular of the underworld.

The Cadger, a shrivelled, unkempt figure, his coat collar turned up over a collarless shirt, an aggressively checkered peak cap pulled far down over his eyes, thrust an envelope unceremoniously into Billy Kane’s hand.

“Dis is fer youse, Bundy,” he said hurriedly, already turning and making his way up the steps to the street again. “See youse later! I gotta go to Gannet’s joint fer his kit.”

Billy Kane closed the door, and locked it. He had not heard from Red Vallon since noon, nothing in reference to the Pippin’s quest for the Man with the Crutch. He tore the envelope open eagerly, the thought uppermost in his mind that this was a message from Red Vallon now; and then, staring at the sheet of paper which he had extracted from the envelope, he dropped, suddenly tight-lipped, into the chair by the table under the light.

It wasn’t from Red Vallon. It was a message like the one Red Vallon had showed him the night before, a message in the Crime Trust’s cipher. He turned instinctively in his chair, glancing toward the secret door at the rear of the room, as though he half expected to see it open, and see that slim little figure in black enter, as though he half expected to hear her cool, softly modulated voice that veiled, even as did the clear ripple in her laugh, menace and contempt. And then he laughed aloud in a short, hard way. A fool! Was he? Well, she had come in through that door before, hadn’t she, when something was in the wind?

His eyes reverted to the sheet of paper. He knew what it was! The headquarters of the Crime Trust had been broken up, and some of the leaders had even taken to cover since the night Karlin had been arrested by the police; but all the cogs in that Machiavellian machinery had not stopped, and plans formulated and set in motion in the past were still to be carried to their ultimate conclusions as they matured day by day. There was not the slightest doubt but that this was one of their devil’s schemes. Red Vallon—or was it the owner of those great, dark, steady eyes?—had said enough to make him understand that, when temporarily scattered, temporarily wary of the police, some unhallowed “managing director” carried on their work, and communicated with the different members of the gang by means of these cipher messages.

And now as he stared at the missive in his hand, angry flush rose slowly to his cheeks, and he half made as though to tear the paper into shreds. God knew, he had enough to do to keep his own life in his own body without this; there was scarcely a moment of the day or night when he was not battling with all the wits he possessed to save himself from discovery—from the police as Billy Kane, from the underworld as the spurious Rat—and his brain was already sick and tormented beyond endurance with the struggle. Why, then, should he decipher this? If he did, he could not sit idly by and, in the possession of the details of some purposed crime, permit that crime to be enacted! It was the moral obligation flung in his face again, just as it had been on the night he had trapped Karlin, just as it had been last night when he had snatched Vetter’s diamonds from Red Vallon’s maw, and not through any threat of hers held over his head, as she so thoroughly believed! She wasn’t here now—was she?

He laid the paper down upon the table, and smoothed it out. Tear it up! His short laugh was a jeer flung at himself. Certainly, he could tear it up, and he would know nothing about it, except that he had shirked and turned his back like a coward upon the responsibility that was already his! He could read the cipher, if he wanted to; he had seen her work one out the night before.

“I thought I’d settled this sort of thing with myself before!” he muttered grimly, and taking a pencil from his pocket he began to work out the cipher.

It took some time, perhaps twenty minutes; and then he was studying a second sheet of paper upon which he had written the decoded message:

The Cadger and Gannet will report to you at nine o’clock. The Ninth Street house will be empty. Dayler and servants out this evening. Secure sealed manila envelope in wall safe, left of mantel, in library. Combination: Two right, eighteen; one left, eight; one right, twenty-eight. Police on trail to-morrow.

The Cadger’s “see youse later,” then, was to be taken literally, and not, as he had supposed, as simply a common and slang expression of adieu! Billy Kane looked at his watch. It was not quite eight o’clock. There was an hour, then, before the Cadger and this Gannet, another of the Cadger’s ilk, would report here ready to follow his leadership in a burglarious raid. Billy Kane stood up; and, in a sort of mechanical and reassuring inventory, his hands felt over the outside of his pockets, over the skeleton keys they contained, the steel jimmy, the flashlight, the automatic, and the soft, slight bulge made by the neatly folded mask—and, too, over another bulge that was made by a certain chamois pocketbook. This latter brought a frown. He had not found a way yet to return Vetter’s diamonds. It wasn’t so easy a thing to do when, if the Rat’s hand showed in the matter, it was certain destruction for the Rat, alias Bundy Morgan, and, for the moment, alias Billy Kane! But Vetter and Vetter’s diamonds were extraneous things just now, weren’t they?

He extinguished the light, crossed to the door, unlocked it, stepped out, locked the door behind him, made his way up the steps, and started briskly off along the street. He did not know what the contents of that “manila envelope” were, nor who Dayler was, nor the Crime Trust’s motive—he was supposed to know all that—he knew only that there was some devil’s scheme on foot that would be worthy of the Crime Trust in its scope and proportions. And the Crime Trust did not interest itself in little things!

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