It was black with a blackness that seemed to possess tangible substance, as though it wrapped itself around and enveloped the body with a pall whose very texture could be felt. It was unknown ground, and the foot reached out uncertainly, wary of where next it might find lodgment, and the hands stretched out, as a blind man’s hands stretch out, feeling for hidden things through space. It was dank and musty, and in the nostrils was an earthy, cavernous smell; and there was a silence that seemed guarded by the very bowels of the earth itself. And in the silence and the darkness peril lurked—a peril that merged courage into foolhardiness for one who would invite it, and set the nerves on edge, and kept the muscles taut like tight-strung bow strings, and stimulated the senses into abnormal activity until the eyes peopled the darkness with phantoms that were not there, and the ears created sounds that did not exist.

Billy Kane’s face, under the mask, was drawn in hard, strained lines; he raised his right hand, that gripped his automatic, and drew the back of his hand across his forehead. Foolhardiness! Yes, that was it! He was a fool to come here, to take the risk! He knew Wong Yen’s by reputation as one of the most infamous Chinese underground dives in the Bad Lands; he remembered it concretely from that incident of a few nights ago when Laverto had had young Clancy drugged here. Was that only a few nights ago? He shook his head. Since those few nights ago he no longer measured the passing of time by normal standards; he had lived all his life since those few nights ago!

He moved forward through the blackness, cautiously, silently. Where was the next wall? Or was there any wall at all? His hands, reaching out as far as they could stretch, touched nothing. This was below the ordinary cellar level; it was a sub-cellar, a chain of sub-cellars. How many men had entered here, yes, and women too—and disappeared? A murder hole! And up above him somewhere was New York—millions of people, taxicabs, crowded sidewalks, theatres, and, yes, churches, places where people worshipped. Incredible!

He had heard of places like this, and so had the public; and the public smiled in self-sufficient tolerant amusement. Well, why not, where even the police were ignorant! Everybody admitted that the Chinese quarter was full of ridiculously imitated catacombs perhaps; but what did it matter if in a block of houses the inmates burrowed from cellar to cellar like rats, and built mysterious doors and passageways, and threw about everything the disguise of wicked and shuddering things—when it was only disguise! It was good for business. The gape-wagons and the slumming conductors profited and so did the Celestials; and the slummers, satiated with thrills, the women drawing their skirts closely around their silk-clad ankles, the men surreptitiously feeling in their pockets to assure themselves that their watches and valuables were still in their possession, got their money’s worth. Everybody was satisfied, and the public smiled.

Billy Kane’s fingers tightened on the butt of his automatic. Back somewhere behind him in the darkness a Chinaman still guarded a door that neither slummer nor police had ever entered; but the guard was a gagged and huddled thing on the floor now, still senseless probably from the blow on the head from this same pistol butt. There had been no other way. The man was not far behind—just at the entrance so skilfully disguised by an ordinary coal bin. Was there still another guard in front of him? More than one? If he only dared to use his flashlight for a second! A fool to come here where, if caught, he would not have a chance of escape, was he? Well, perhaps—only there was a man’s life at stake.

Perhaps he was already too late! Red Vallon had said, though, that there wasn’t any hurry about “bumping off” the Wop, that they had him safe in here “with his bean tapped to keep him quiet until they finished the rest of the game.” It was less than an hour ago that Red Vallon had said that, and it was only eight o’clock now, and the “rest of the game,” to give it every chance of success, would not be played out for still another hour yet, not before old Barloff had closed up for the night. He wasn’t too late, he couldn’t be too late—there was a man’s life at stake: only an ex-convict’s, a man out from Sing Sing but a few hours ago. Just a prison bird! But the Wop was innocent this time and——

Was that a sound there from somewhere in front of him? Billy Kane stood still. Nothing! No; a dozen sounds that were not really sounds at all. His ears were full of uncanny noises.

The back cellar entrance beneath a Chinese tea-shop, and after that the rear of the coal bin! Billy Kane was laughing to himself, but the laugh was void of mirth. There was a grim, horrible sort of irony about it all. Believing him, Billy Kane, to be the Rat, Red Vallon had reported the accomplishment of the first stage in the execution of the plan with gusto. After that, deft questioning had elicited from the gangster the secret of this entrance to Wong Yen’s, and then luck, and then the guard taken unawares. The guard could hardly be blamed. The guard naturally enough, had little reason to suspect the approach to that coal bin of any one who had not the “open sesame” to what was beyond, and he had been lurking there where the boards of the bin ingeniously slid apart, and had shown not the slightest uneasiness at his, Billy Kane’s, presence until it was too late. Then there had been a steep, narrow passage downward, and then—this. Beyond, near or far, he did not know which, these sub-cellars hid the real thing that the so-called underground Chinatown above counterfeited, hid debauchery and vice, and cradled crime, and here the poppy reigned, and the dregs of humanity skulked fearful of the sunlight.

“They had flung the Wop into a corner and left him until they got around to finishing the job,” Red Vallon had explained callously. The Wop, therefore, must be somewhere near at hand. But he, Billy Kane, could see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing.

His physical faculties strained and alert, subconsciously Billy Kane’s mind was milling over that conversation with the gangster of an hour ago, and upon him, in spite of his own present peril, there came a cold and merciless fury. It was more to-night than the ordinary moral obligation, more than the mere responsibility to render abortive the crimes that came to his knowledge through his tenure of this rôle of the Rat, that was actuating him now; it was the callous, damnable brutality of the scheme that, linked with its hellish ingenuity, seemed to outrage every instinct of manhood he possessed, and fired him with an overmastering desire, not only to frustrate the crime itself, but to take toll in a personal, physical way, if he could, from those who were enacting it.

It was one of those plans, conceived by the Rat, that waited patiently for its hour of maturity to arrive, and then was executed and carried through to its fulfilment by the minions of that Directorate of crime of which the Rat appeared to be the most versatile and vicious member, but without the Rat, necessarily, taking any further active part in it. And he, Billy Kane, who fate had seen fit to mold with features that were evidently a counterpart of that master rogue’s, who was for the moment accepted and obeyed as the Rat, and was supposed to be the originator of the plan itself, could not very well ask Red Vallon, for instance, for details! Therefore he did not know all the details, but he knew enough!

He had wormed quite a little out of Red Vallon without the gangster suspecting anything more than that he, Billy Kane as the Rat, was taking particular pains to see that the stage was properly set, and that the possibility of failure was reduced to its absolute minimum. It was very simple. It required simply a man’s life—the murder of the Wop.

He knew something of the Wop, for the Wop’s story was common property. The Wop, in the old days, five years ago, before he had gone “up the river” for a “job” in the line which was his particular specialty, was known both as a tough customer and as one of the cleverest “box-workers” in the safe-cracking profession. The testimony of one Ivan Barloff had been mainly responsible for the Wop’s capture and conviction, and the Wop had travelled to Sing Sing with a thirst for vengeance gnawing at his soul, and with the threat quivering on his twisted lips that he would get even with the other when he got out again. Nor had the five years of prison hell seemed to assuage any of the Wop’s desire to square accounts! He had repeated his threat many times in prison, and he had been indifferent as to who heard him. The feud was no secret to the police. That was the gist of it.

As for Ivan Barloff, Billy Kane was somewhat more precisely informed, both because the time he, Billy Kane, had spent on the East Side in carrying out David Ellsworth’s philanthropies could hardly have been passed without at least a hearsay acquaintanceship with so well-known a character in that quarter as Ivan Barloff, and because, too, Red Vallon, in that last interview, had seemed to take a malicious delight in exploiting his own vastly more intimate knowledge of the little old Russian of many parts. On his own account he knew, naturally, only what the public knew and believed about the man: Barloff was a sort of father to the flock, a very numerous flock, of Poles and Russians of the uneducated and illiterate class. He was all things to them. He was counselor and confidant, he was money lender, he was entrusted with what money they had as savings for investment, he wrote their letters, he collected their rents, being a kind of owners’ sub-agent, and he lived amongst them, alone, in a little old frame house that was sandwiched in among the ramshackle tenements that housed so many of his compatriots in that section. In appearance he was a very dirty and unkempt old man, and ostensibly he was as honest as he was dirty—and he was accepted as such by public, police and compatriots alike.

Red Vallon, however, had thrown quite a different light on the other’s character. The man possessed the craft and cunning of a devil, and a devil’s inhumanity. He had fed like a leech on the guileless trust of his ignorant clientele. He had made money—a great deal of money. Thousands were stored away in his rickety old safe, that was so rickety it disarmed suspicion; and, preserving his secret, he patronized no bank, but covered his constantly increasing fortune with the guise of squalor and poverty, which he kept on a level scarcely, if any, above that of those he filched.

The man was a miser of the most sordid and cold-blooded sort. A nickel was not too mean a thing to scheme for, if by any means he could lay his hands upon it. Also, the man had other remunerative relationships, very carefully selected relationships, with others than those with whom he openly associated. To a select few of the underworld he acted at times as “fence,” receiving such stolen goods as he could readily dispose of among his compatriots, who, innocent of any guilty knowledge, bought the articles eagerly at a greatly reduced figure, imagining, if they stopped to imagine at all, that the articles represented unredeemed pledges on money loaned here and there by Barloff.

Billy Kane’s lips twisted in a thin smile there in the darkness. It was a deal such as that, so he had gleaned from Red Vallon, that had originated the feud between Ivan Barloff and the Wop. The Wop had brought some of the proceeds of one of his predatory safe-breaking raids to Barloff, and a bargain was concluded between them; but in some way that night Barloff became aware that the police had followed the Wop to his, Barloff’s, house. Barloff was taking no chances. He promptly cleared his own skirts at the expense of five years in Sing Sing for the Wop. He scurried to the nearest police station with the stolen articles, and with unctuous righteousness explained that he was suspicious as to how the Wop had come by them, but had bought them to pull the wool over the Wop’s eyes so as to enable him, Barloff, to communicate with the police, and give the police a chance to make an investigation. Barloff got away with it, and the Wop got his ride “up the river.” It was perhaps not unnatural that the Wop had sworn revenge, and had made no secret of it!

Billy Kane’s twisted smile deepened. It was all very simple. It involved simply the taking of a man’s life—the Wop’s—which was a very small matter in the eyes of that Crime Trust which was running rampant now through the underworld. Also, the Rat was a man of large vision. He builded ahead and waited patiently. Barloff was known by the Rat to have a great deal of money in ready cash. It would not have been a very difficult matter perhaps to have robbed the old Russian at any time, but there was always the certainty of an investigation as an aftermath, and investigations sometimes had a tendency to lead in awkward directions. Much better, therefore, and much safer, that the trend of the investigation, and its limits, should be fixed in advance—by the Rat. And so they had waited for the Wop to regain his freedom.

They had not waited five years, however, for the scheme probably had not occurred to the Rat until perhaps a few months ago. But now the Wop being free at last, the Wop’s first act of freedom was to be made to appear that of putting his oft-repeated threat into execution. Barloff was to be lured out of his house on some specious pretext, the house would then be entered, and a forged note in the Wop’s scrawl, carefully prepared beforehand, jeering in its tone and to the effect that the Wop would have got Barloff as well as Barloff’s cash if the latter had not been fortunate enough to have been out of the house at the time, would be left pinned, say, to the wall. There would not be much room for investigation! The Wop, being dead, would not make any defense. The Wop would never be found; and as the natural thing for the Wop to do was to disappear after leaving his defiant message behind him, who was to imagine that such disappearance was not of the Wop’s own free will and design? The Wop was the cat’s-paw!

The blackness was absolute. Billy Kane was feeling out again with both hands. He seemed to have lost in a measure even his sense of direction. He was either in a very much wider passage than that through which he had entered, or else the excavation around him was actually itself one of the sub-cellars. If he could but get the touch of a wall again to guide him! Yes, here it was! It swerved sharply, almost at right angles, to the left. He followed it, moving slowly, scarcely more than a few inches at a time.

It was strange how his brain worked on ceaselessly, seemingly oblivious to his immediate surroundings, seemingly concerned with things extraneous to his present danger! And yet that was not altogether true. One thing had a bearing on another; and one thing led to another. It was like the cogs of wheels fitting into each other as they turned around and around. This tenure of the Rat’s rôle, that was no less dangerous, was apposite. Where was the Rat? While he, Billy Kane, fought to free himself from the stigma of David Ellsworth’s murder, while he fought for his own good name and his own life on that score, this rôle of the Rat, while it afforded temporary sanctuary from the police, forced him into perils that——

His lips compressed tightly. He had stumbled over something soft and yielding. His outstretched hand, though it saved him, slipped along the wall and came up against another wall, again at right angles, but this time where, obviously, the walls made a corner. He stooped down, and felt over the obstruction that his foot had encountered. It was a man’s body. It moved now, and writhed a little at his touch. It was the Wop almost certainly, the Wop “flung into a corner” out of the way like a sack of meal. But the man was still alive. Thank God for that! He had been afraid that the initiatory stage of the work might have been only too well accomplished.

His hands felt upward along the bound body, and touched the other’s face, and felt the cloth gag twisted and knotted around the man’s mouth. His hands felt still a little higher up—to the close-cropped prison hair. It was the Wop beyond question. He took a knife from his pocket.

“Don’t make a sound!” he breathed, as he removed the gag, and cut away the cords from around the other’s feet and hands. “You’re the Wop, aren’t you?”

The man’s affirmation was almost inarticulate. Billy Kane slipped his arm around the other’s shoulders and lifted the man into a sitting posture. He had a flask of brandy in his pocket, brought purposely for the Wop’s benefit, and he held the flask now to the other’s lips. The stimulant seemed to inject new life and strength into the man.

“Who—who are you?” the Wop asked weakly.

“Don’t talk!” Billy Kane cautioned. “The one thing to do is to get out of here now. Do you think you can walk at all?”

“Yes,” the man answered. “I—I’m not as bad as all that.”

“Try, then,” said Billy Kane.

The progress was slow, pitifully slow. The Wop, despite his own assertion, was both weak and cramped, and at first he was almost a dead weight, as he clung with an arm flung around Billy Kane’s shoulders; but gradually he appeared to get back his strength. They stopped every two or three yards both to rest and listen. Again Billy Kane held the flask to the other’s lips. Again they went on.

“My Gawd, it’s—it’s black in here!” the Wop mumbled, and shivered a little.

Billy Kane made no answer. He was taking care now not to lose touch with the walls. The ground under foot was beginning to rise steeply. He caught his foot and almost fell over a huddled thing on the earth—the Chinese guard. A certain murk seemed to be penetrating the blackness. He stopped again, felt out in front of him, and listened intently for a moment, and then he placed his lips to the Wop’s ear.

“There’s an opening here into a coal bin,” he whispered. “Get down on your hands and knees and crawl through. Straight across from the coal bin there’s a short flight of steps up to a door that opens on the alley. We’ll make a break for it now. Keep close to me. And don’t make a noise. There’s a cellar stairway to the room above, and the room above isn’t likely to be empty! Understand?”

“Yes,” said the Wop.

“Come on, then,” said Billy Kane.

He crawled through the opening with the Wop at his heels, and rose to his feet, then gripping at the Wop’s arm, he stole across the cellar, gained the steps and, an instant later, stepped out into a dark and narrow alleyway. He did not pause here; he hurried the Wop down the alleyway, and halted only when within a few yards of the first intersecting street: just far enough back in the alleyway to keep well beyond the radius of light from the adjoining thoroughfare.

Neither man spoke for a moment. After the silence of that death trap behind them, the roar of an elevated train from Chatham Square near by seemed to Billy Kane a din infernal, and greater only by a little than the rattle of wheels, the clatter of horses’ hoofs, and the multitudinous noises of ordinary traffic. He could just make out the Wop’s features. One side of the man’s face was streaked with clotted blood stains; but apart from that the Wop now showed little outward evidence of the attack that had been made upon him. He stood there now, quite steady on his feet, his eyes studying Billy Kane’s mask in a puzzled way.

“Say,” said the Wop, a sudden huskiness in his voice. “I owe you something. What’s your name?”

Billy Kane shook his head.

“Never mind about that,” he said quietly. “There’s something else that’s of vastly greater importance so far as you are concerned. Do you know why they got after you to-night, or who it was that got you in that trap?”

“No,” said the Wop.

“I’ll tell you, then,” said Billy Kane. “It was because you threatened to get even with Ivan Barloff.”

“Barloff!” The Wop’s fists clenched, and he stepped closer to Billy Kane. “So it was Barloff, was it? He must have had the fear of God in him, then, to make him spend any money—even to hire thugs! Barloff, eh? Well, I’m going to see Barloff pretty soon!”

“No, you’re not!” said Billy Kane crisply. “That’s exactly why I am telling you this. It isn’t Barloff. It’s a crowd that knew of your threat, and they’re getting after Barloff, and framing you up for the job. They’re planting a little evidence against you in Barloff’s place in exchange for Barloff’s cash, and with you finished off via the murder route, they expect the police to throw up their hands after a while and admit you’ve made a clean get-away—with the swag.”

The Wop’s face was close to Billy Kane’s, and the Wop’s face was suddenly pinched and white. He touched his lips with his tongue. And then, as suddenly, the blood flushed back, and he thrust out his under jaw truculently.

“They would, eh—the dirty swabs!” he snarled. “Who are they? I’ll make ’em crawl for this!”

Billy Kane smiled grimly.

“No, I guess not!” he said softly. “You’re very much better out of it. But I promise you they’ll not get away with it if you’ll do what you are told now.”

The Wop knuckled his forehead in a perplexed way.

“What do you want me to do?” There was a lingering sullen note in the Wop’s voice.

“Just this,” said Billy Kane quietly. “I want you to get out from under. You’re not looking for another five years in Sing Sing, are you?”

The Wop flinched. He drew his knuckles again across his eyes.

“No,” he said hoarsely.

Billy Kane nodded.

“Quite so!” he said calmly. “Well, then, it is simply a question of establishing an alibi for you that will be absolutely hole-proof from now until, say, midnight. Where can you go?”

“I know Gus Moray, that runs the Silver King saloon,” said the Wop. “He’d swear to it, all right.”

“Yes; whether you were there or not!” said Billy Kane dryly. “That’s not good enough! If anything breaks wrong to-night you’ve got to have something better than an alibi in a dive like that to stack up against what will look like open-and-shut evidence against you. You’ve got to get on a higher plane than that.”

The Wop shook his head.

“I ain’t been a very regular church attendant,” he said, with a sickly grin, “and——” He stopped short, and suddenly leaned toward Billy Kane. “Say, would a minister do?”

“It would be an improvement,” admitted Billy Kane, with a smile.

“Well, I got it, then!” announced the Wop. His hesitancy had vanished. He seemed eager, almost anxious now. The iron of five years of prison was evidently far too poignant a memory to risk it being turned into reality again. “I got it! There’s a guy named Mister Claflin that ran one of them mission joints down around where I uster hang out before I went up. He’s all right! He’s the only soul on God’s earth came near me when I was doing my spaces. Twice he came up to Sing Sing to see me. He didn’t hold no prayer meeting with me neither, but he’s got a grip in his hand that makes a fellow feel he ain’t all dirt. He’s white, he is!”

“Do you know where he lives?” inquired Billy Kane crisply.

“No,” said the Wop, and was suddenly downcast. “And he ain’t at the mission any more, ’cause he told me he’d got a regular layout uptown somewhere.”

“No matter!” said Billy Kane cheerfully. “Any drug store has a directory. You can find the address there. Got any money?”

The Wop felt through his pockets, and the red flared into his face again.

“Frisked!” he flung out savagely.

Billy Kane handed the other a banknote.

“Spend this on the first taxi you can grab,” he said. “You’ve got to get there as soon as you can, and you’ve got to keep under cover getting there. If Mr. Claflin is not at home, wait in his house for him. Don’t let them sidetrack you. And make it a point of establishing the hour you get there, either with the minister himself, or whoever happens to be at home. And stay there until midnight anyhow. Understand?”

“Yes,” said the Wop.

“Well, then,” said Billy Kane, “beat it!”

The Wop hesitated.

“Say, ain’t I going to know who you are?” he blurted out. “Say, I ain’t anything but a crook, just a damned crook with a prison record, but—but I’d like to pay what I owe. Ain’t you going to give me the chance?”

“You’ve got it now.” Billy Kane’s hand went to the other’s shoulder. “It’s a rotten road to Sing Sing. You’re out of it now—stay out of it.” He gave the Wop a friendly push toward the street. “We’ve no more time to lose. Beat it!” he said, and without giving the Wop time to reply, he turned abruptly, and ran back along the alleyway.

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