Billy Kane smiled with grim irony, as he walked rapidly down the block. She was not here to-night with her cool, contemptuous voice bidding him to do this thing. It was evident, therefore, that she was not quite as infallible as she apparently believed herself to be! For once, she was not acquainted beforehand with the Crime Trust’s movements, it seemed! Perhaps it was because, for once, the Rat might not have had anything to do with originating the plan that was afoot to-night, for she had certainly always appeared to be thoroughly informed where the Rat was concerned!

He shrugged his shoulders suddenly, dismissing her from his thoughts. He would better concentrate his mind on the work in hand! The secret lay in the manila envelope. That the envelope contained something of great value, or was of great value to someone, was obvious; to Dayler, probably, since it was in Dayler’s carefully guarded possession. He shrugged his shoulders again. He could tell better about that in the course of another hour—when the envelope was in his pocket instead of Dayler’s safe! To balk this organized gang of super-criminals was sufficient for the moment! Once more his shoulders lifted. He perhaps was not even entitled to any great credit to-night in fulfilling his “moral obligations!” For once, there appeared to be neither any great danger, nor any great difficulty. The house was empty; it was not very far away; he had an hour in which to work undisturbed; and at the expiration of that time he should be back in his room, and ready to set out with the Cadger and Gannet to rob an empty safe. If he with the two men then entered the house, and, for their pains, found the manila envelope already gone, certainly there could be no suspicion to rest upon him!

Billy Kane had reached the Bowery now. He went in through the side entrance of a corner saloon. Here, a minute’s search in the telephone directory supplied him with the number of Dayler’s house on Ninth Street. After that, he made his way over to Washington Square, crossed the Square, gained the lower end of Fifth Avenue, practically deserted now at this hour, and, a moment later, turning into Ninth Street, headed down the block in the direction of Sixth Avenue.

It was one of the old aristocratic neighborhoods of New York, but changed now a great deal with the changing years. What had once been classed as mansions had in many cases been metamorphosed into lodging and boarding houses; but the “mansions” were still here, big, substantial, commodious stone dwellings. Nor had the boarding houses entirely ousted a certain unobtrusive type of wealth and means from their midst, and it argued not at all that this Dayler, for instance, because he had his residence here, was not well to do, even exceedingly well to do.

The street was quiet. Billy Kane located the house he sought. He passed by it, noting that it had a basement entrance, a flight of stone steps to the front door, that it was entirely in darkness, and, returning, he mounted the steps quietly and without any attempt at concealment, found the outer vestibule door unlocked, opened it—after making pretense of ringing the doorbell for the benefit of anyone on the street who might have paid him any notice—stepped inside, and closed the door behind him. The inner door was locked. His skeleton keys came into play. Still far from an adept in their use, he was several minutes at this work. Then he stepped forward into the hall of the house itself.

His flashlight stabbed a lane of light through the darkness. The stairs leading to the upper floors of the house were ahead of him and on his right; on his left, opening off the hall, which seemed to run almost the depth of the house, were several doors, all of which were closed. The house was empty, the cipher message had assured him of that, but nevertheless he moved now with extreme caution to the first door on his left. He knew nothing of the plan of the house, but it was at least logical to assume that the library was on this floor, and the library was the objective of his search.

He opened the door slightly, quietly, then drew sharply back, and stood tense and motionless, listening. There was a dull, faint glow of light in there, not as though the room itself were illuminated, but as though the light came from, perhaps, another room beyond. But there was no sound. A minute passed, and still he stood there, alert, his ears strained to catch the slightest noise. And then, reassured, he pushed the door wider open, and stepped over the threshold. That a light might have been left burning, either intentionally or inadvertently, presented in itself nothing of the unusual, or——

He was drawing his hand across his eyes like a man dazed from a blow. The light had gone in the winking of an eye. It was pitch black. He was still involuntarily staring, through darkness now, toward the front end of the room. The light had not come from that direction, it had come through a portièred archway in quite the opposite direction, but for the moment his mind was chaotic, out of control. The room was a drawing-room, a large, stately sort of a drawing-room, and there had been a huge pier glass, gilt-framed, between the heavily curtained front windows. What he had seen could not have been a fantasy, nor due to disordered imagination. His eyes, the instant he had entered the room, had gone straight to that glass because it reflected the light from the other room. The surface of the glass had been blank as his eyes had first fallen upon it, and then, like a flash, enduring for but the minutest fraction of a second, the reflection of a figure, a man’s figure, a man’s figure with a crutch, had swept across it—and the light in the other room had gone out.

And now Billy Kane acted quickly. The time that he had stood there, inert, mentally stunned, had been but a matter of seconds exaggerated into seemingly interminable, measureless hours. Swiftly, silently, he reached the archway, and, sheltering himself behind the folds of the portières, but in a position to command the other room with his automatic, which he had whipped from his pocket, he stood still and listened. There was only the quick, fierce pounding in his own eardrums, in tempo with the mad race of blood through his veins. The Man with the Crutch!

How or why the man came to be here, or what the other had to do with what was afoot to-night, scarcely entered his mind. It did not matter! Nothing mattered—save to get the Man with the Crutch. Everything else paled into insignificance. It was the same man that had murdered Peters; there would not be two men with crutches who prowled stealthily at night in other people’s houses! But that it was Peters’ murderer was significant now only because it identified the man as one who held the secret of David Ellsworth’s murder; the man who, if he, Billy Kane, could but get to grips with him, would tell what he knew to the last word, or one or the other of them would never leave this house alive. It was the man who could end this hideous masquerade that he, Billy Kane, was forced to assume; the man who could clear his name of the foul blot that had cost him friends, the companionship of honest men, and that was like at any instant to cost him his life.

There was no sound.

And then Billy Kane’s voice rang suddenly, imperatively through the silence:

“Hands up!”

His flashlight bored through the darkness, circling the room in front of him. The room—it was the library beyond doubt—was empty. His jaws locked. He had taken a chance. It had failed. But now his glance fell upon the door, diagonally across the library from him, that, from its position, obviously opened on the hall. He could have sworn that the doors opening on the hall were all closed when he had entered the house. This one was ajar now!

He crossed the library with a bound, swung the door wide, and peered out into the hall. He could see nothing; but now, from somewhere below, he caught a sound as of a boot heel thudding on a bare floor—or, perhaps, the tap of a crutch!

Along at the rear of the hall his flashlight focused on the head of a basement stairway. He ran for this now; and then, with more caution, wary of offering himself as a target for a shot that would put an end to any hope of getting within reach of the other, his flashlight out, he began to pick his way downstairs. Halfway down, he caught another sound. From the front of the house, softly and cautiously though it was done, there came the unmistakable opening and closing of the basement door.

Billy Kane took the remaining stairs in a leap, and, his flashlight pointing the way, dashed along the hallway below. He reached the door, and pulled at it. Then, with an angry, muttered exclamation, he stood there for an instant hesitant. The man had managed to lock the door behind him! Mechanically his hand went toward his pocket for his skeleton keys, but stopped halfway as, turning suddenly, he raced back upstairs. It would take too long to try out key after key. There was a better way. There was the front door. He had left that unlocked when he came in. He gained this now, jerked it open, lunged through the little vestibule, snatched at the knob of the outer door—and wrenched at it viciously like a madman in mingled rage and chagrin. It was locked! It had not been locked even when he had come in!

Calmer in an instant, he took his keys from his pocket and worked with feverish haste at the lock. It would possibly take less time to run into the drawing-room, get a window open, and jump to the ground, but he did not dare do that. He had to come back here with the Cadger and Gannet in a little while, and he dared not risk anything that would imperil his rôle in the eyes of the underworld. Even a number of people coming and going from the house, if they acted naturally, entering by the door as though they had a right to enter, would never attract the slightest notice from either neighbors or passers-by. That was what doors were for! But a man leaping out through one of the front windows would invite certain attention, suspicion, and instant investigation.

Another key! Would he never get one that would fit! This wasn’t the door he had opened before. A minute, perhaps two, perhaps even three, must have gone by! God, how clumsy his fingers were! The man must have had amazing agility for a cripple, and the craft and cunning of a devil to come up here instantly on leaving the basement and lock this door! Would he never get the—yes, he had it now! He swung the door open, and from the top step his glance swept the street in both directions. And then there came a sort of bitter philosophical acceptance of a situation that he had already more than half expected. The Man with the Crutch had had too much time. There was no sign of him now.

But there was still a chance! Billy Kane closed the door behind him, went quietly down the steps to the pavement—there was still the inviolability of the house to be preserved—walked along without undue haste until far enough away to preclude the chance of any connection being established between himself and the house he had just left, and then broke into a run. There was still a chance. But it was a slim one. He knew that. The man must have gone toward either Sixth Avenue or Fifth Avenue. It was more likely Sixth Avenue; there would be more people there, more traffic, more opportunity to “lose himself.” It was the logical thing to do. Lower Fifth Avenue at night was almost as deserted as a tomb; the man could have been seen there blocks away.

Perhaps fifteen minutes passed. At the expiration of that period Billy Kane returned to the Dayler residence, and for the second time that night coolly and quite casually mounted the steps, and again entered the house. His search had been futile. He had circuited the blocks in the neighborhood, and hunted up and down the adjacent section of Sixth Avenue; and the more he had hunted the more he had realized the futility of what he was doing, though, at that, he had even, as a last hope, returned by Fifth Avenue. And now he was back in the house again, and quite conscious that this, too, was likely now to prove as barren of results as his search had been. The man had got away, and with the man in all likelihood had gone, too, the manila envelope from the wall safe in the library! What else had the other been in the library for?

Billy Kane shrugged his shoulders, as, using his flashlight again, he stepped from the hall into the drawing-room, and from there through the archway into the library. There was the one possibility that he had come upon the Man with the Crutch and interrupted the other in his work before the envelope had been secured. That was the one possibility that remained, and that was the one possibility that had prompted him to come back.

He stood for a moment now beside the table that occupied the center of the room, his flashlight creeping in a slow, inquisitive circle around the walls. And now the round white ray, arrested, held on the mantel opposite the archway. On either side of the mantel, shoulder high, and projecting out a little from the wall, were what appeared to be bric-a-brac, or, perhaps, liqueur cupboards, with leaded glass doors. “Wall safe, left of mantel,” the message had said. He smiled a little grimly in appreciation and understanding, as he moved over and halted before the left-hand cupboard. It was a rather neat ambush for a wall safe, this idea of Dayler’s—whoever Dayler might be!

The leaded glass door opened readily. The ray of the flashlight flooded the interior. Billy Kane’s smile was gone. He was quite sure now that he was too late. The cupboard was used for liqueurs, but the liqueurs in turn were evidently used for the purpose of veiling the little nickel dial of a safe that protruded from the wall at the rear of the cupboard, for the bottles were all pushed now to one side, and the dial, with a sort of diabolical mockery, it seemed, winked back reflected rays from the glare of the flashlight. It was blatantly apparent now that this had been the object of the other’s visit to the house, and it was almost as equally apparent that the man had got what he had come for. And yet——

“Two right, eighteen; one left”—almost perfunctorily, muttering the combination, Billy Kane had reached in and was twirling the knob of the dial—“eight; one right, twenty-eight.”

The little steel door swung noiselessly open. Billy Kane stared into the miniature safe, bewildered. And then he laughed a little. A minute before and he would not have given a penny for his chances! The other had got only so far as to move the bottles to one side. He had beaten the Man with the Crutch by the very narrow margin of time it would have taken to manipulate the combination! Perhaps, though, the other hadn’t known the combination, and was just about to set to work to force the safe! Well, it didn’t matter! The manila envelope lay there, sealed, intact.

He took the envelope from the safe, closed the door, and locked it—and whirled suddenly around from his position in front of the mantel. His flashlight, jerked upward, played full upon the archway. A cool, disdainful laugh rippled low through the room—a woman’s laugh. Billy Kane did not move. The chill that had clutched at his heart, the fear of discovery, was gone almost as quickly as it had come. He had nothing to dread on that score from—the Woman in Black! And it was not the first time she had come upon him unexpectedly! And it was she who stood there now; and she still stood full in the glare of his flashlight, a bewitching, entrancing, mysterious little figure, whose great dark eyes were fixed on him, half in a deliberate, speculative way, and half in a sort of contemptuous mockery.

It was she who broke the silence.

“I wonder if it’s true, Bundy?” she said softly.

He felt the blood surge hot into his cheeks. He knew a sudden bitter rebellion at the contempt in those steady eyes, the same bitter rebellion he had known last night in her presence, a rebellion against the fate that caused him, through reason of being the counterpart of some incarnate fiend, to stand in her eyes as that actual fiend himself, as the one who in some way had done her, or hers, irreparable wrong, as the embodiment of all that was loathsome and hideous to her. He was the Rat to her, as to everybody else. The envelope crackled in his fingers, as he clenched his hand. Would he always have to play the Rat—to her! What would that perfect oval face, beautiful even now in its fearless contempt, look like in softer mood?

“Is what true?” he demanded gruffly.

She came toward him across the room.

“That you are really playing the game,” she said slowly. “It’s not much credit to you, of course, since you are doing it through fear, but still——” She shrugged her shoulders daintily, as she stood beside him. “Do you know, Bundy, that lately you seem to have changed somehow. I do not know just how, and I cannot account for it. It puzzles me.”

“Forget it!” growled Billy Kane, alias the Rat. “And I don’t know what game you’re talking about, either!”

“Oh, yes, you do!” she answered. “I told you that I would hold you responsible for any crime committed by your accomplices that it lay within your power to circumvent. That was the chance I gave you, and you seem to be taking it. I thought I would test you out to-night when you might imagine that I was ignorant of what was going on, and that you might, therefore, count on escaping the consequences as far as I was concerned. You were to come here with the Cadger and Gannet at nine o’clock to rob that safe. You are here alone long before that hour, and you have robbed the safe. I presume, at least I am going to give you credit for it, that it is because you are playing the game I referred to, and are checkmating your partners, and preventing the crime from being carried any further.”

There was silence for a moment.

“I think you had better put out that flashlight,” she said.

He must play the Rat. His soul jeered at him ironically. He snapped off the light.

“How did you get wise to this?” he flung out.

“About to-night? Why, it was one of your own pet schemes, wasn’t it, Bundy—all worked out quite a while ago? That’s how I knew! Well, am I right about the reason for you being here alone? And, if so, how did you propose to square yourself with your cronies of the underworld?”

“By coming back here with the Cadger and Gannet, of course,” he replied curtly, “and letting them fall for the idea that someone had beaten us all to it.”

“Yes,” she said calmly. “Well, I quite approve, Bundy. And I’ll take that envelope now, please! You won’t have any further use for it, and I’ll attend to the rest of this affair.”

He handed her the envelope. He asked nothing better than that she should assume any further responsibility that might be connected with its contents. As far as he was concerned there were matters of far greater moment now. There was the Man with the Crutch! And that was a matter in which he had very cogent reasons for desiring to play a lone hand. His lips tightened. It was fairly evident that she had not been in the house the first time he had entered but he wanted to be sure.

“When did you get in here?” he snapped. “Followed me, I suppose!”

“About five minutes ago,” she said quietly. “And you left the door unlocked—though I had a key. No, I didn’t follow you! Why should I? I knew that you would be here at nine o’clock anyway, and I simply came a little ahead of time. I really hoped, you see, that you would do the same—and for more reasons than the one I have just mentioned.”

“What do you mean?” he grunted.

“I haven’t seen you since last night, you know,” she said deliberately. “What about the diamonds that were stolen from Vetter?”

“I’ve got them,” he answered shortly.

Vetter hasn’t!” There was a cold, unpleasant inflection in her voice.

“Well, what do you expect!” He forced a raucous note into his voice. He was not sure that it sounded genuine. It was not easy to play the Rat with her! “Think it over! It’s not so soft a job to get them back to him without leaving a trail behind that might trip me up! See?”

She appeared to consider this for a moment.

“That is true,” she said at last. “Well, have you got them here?”

“Yes.” He reached into his pocket and took out the chamois pocketbook. He laughed brusquely, as he held it out to her. “If you can handle that envelope, maybe you can handle the sparklers, too!”

“I can—and I will,” she said simply, as she took the pocketbook from him. “That’s only fair. I told you once that I would put no difficulties in the way of your keeping yourself solid—if you could!—with your fellow yeggs. And that applies equally to to-night. You may bring the Cadger back here. You will find the house empty.”

“Thanks!” he said grimly. “I’ll move along then; I’ve got just about enough time left. And would you mind locking the front door when you go out? I’d like the Cadger to get all the run that’s coming to him for his money.”

He stepped forward to pass her, but she laid a detaining hand on his arm.

“Wait!” she said tersely. “I agreed to look after this envelope, but even so you are not through yet to-night, Bundy. I know where Mr. Dayler is this evening, and I am going to bring him back here to his own house myself. But I will give you time first to play out your little farce with your two thugs, and send them about their business. Say, ten o’clock. Mr. Dayler and myself will be here at that time—and so will you.”

“Will I?” inquired Billy Kane insolently. “Whats the lay? A trap?”

“No—an experiment,” she said evenly. “I would like to find out if there is really anything human, if there is a shred of decency left in you. I want you to see your crime for once from your victim’s standpoint. It may help you, if you are human, to keep on ‘playing the game’; and that will help you, if you can keep out of the clutches of the underworld, to keep out of the electric chair at Sing Sing. You quite understand, Bundy? At ten o’clock! And I should not even mind if you are found here in this room—in the dark—when Mr. Dayler and myself enter the house—at ten o’clock. And now I think you had better hurry, Bundy.”

There was a twisted smile on Billy Kane’s lips. He was the Rat, and the Rat would be here, or anywhere else at ten o’clock—if she said so. There was no comment to make. The Rat had no choice.

“All right!” he said gruffly, and moved past her to the door, and out to the hall; and a moment later, reaching the street, he swung into a hurried stride, heading back for the Rat’s den.

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