Billy Kane went on to the intersecting street at the other end of the alleyway, removed his mask, and stepped out on the sidewalk. He looked at his watch under a street lamp, and smiled whimsically in surprise. It was still only half-past eight. All told, he could not have been in Wong Yen’s more than fifteen minutes, hardly that, in fact, and it seemed as though he had been there half the night!

Well, it was Barloff’s now! Barloff’s was a little farther uptown, a little deeper over in the East Side. Billy Kane’s smile, from whimsical, became tinged a little with weariness, became a little wan, as he walked along. He was the victim of a plot himself, that was aimed at his life, that sought to throw the guilt of a crime upon his shoulders, just as the Wop was. And circumstances not only permitted, but seemed to force him constantly into these byways to save others, while he himself stood condemned in the eyes of the public as a murderer and a thief; and there was bitter irony in the thought that he could not clear his own name, that he seemed powerless to help himself, while the mantle of one of the underworld’s archcriminals, which temporarily afforded him sanctuary from the police, supplied him with almost unlimited information and the means of helping others!

His brows knitted suddenly into a puzzled frown. Was that altogether true?

There seemed to be a most strange coincidence in these excursions, forced or voluntary, of his into the byways of criminal things, a coincidence that always seemed in some way to link up his own plight with these other criminal schemes in which he became involved. There was the night that Peters had been murdered, for instance, which had led him to the knowledge that the Man With The Crutch was at least a co-murderer of David Ellsworth. And then the attempt at blackmail of two nights ago had again disclosed the hand of the Man With The Crutch, and, more significant still, had enabled him, Billy Kane, to recover the cash stolen from the library vault on the night of the Ellsworth murder. Who was this Man With The Crutch—this man with a crutch whose shaft was stained to resemble grained wood and so disguise the murderous iron of which it actually consisted, and which, he was sure now, was the weapon that had brought both David Ellsworth and Peters to their deaths?

Billy Kane shook his head. It was a curious chain of coincidence, but it could be only coincidence. And there was a limit to that. To-night, for instance, it would put a pretty severe strain upon the imagination to conceive of any connection between the Wop and the Man With The Crutch! And yet——

He shrugged his shoulders. He would have said the same thing two nights ago, wouldn’t he? It was very strange! It was all strange! He seemed to be existing in a sphere of unreality. There was the Man With The Crutch, whom neither police nor underworld could find since that raid on the man’s room; there was the constant, ominous swirl and eddy of hidden and unseen things on every hand; there was the Rat—and there was the Woman in Black!

His face softened suddenly. He had not seen her since yesterday morning when she had entered the Rat’s den through the secret door, and he had returned to her Dayler’s letter. She had not been in a pleasant mood at what she believed had been his trickery; and, failing to have restored that letter to her, she would have turned him, whom she, like every one else, believed to be the Rat, incontinently over to the police. What was the hold she had upon the Rat? Where was she to-night? How was it that her hand had not already showed in this attempt upon the Wop, since she seemed to have always in her possession the details of the Rat’s schemes?

He shrugged his shoulders again. What was the use! To-night, at least, she could harbor no delusion that he was acting under any spur of hers! No, that wasn’t it—that wasn’t what was troubling him. What troubled him was that she should think him what he was, or, rather, all that he was not! Strange that her opinion of him, even when his back was against the wall and his life was literally in jeopardy at every turn, should make any difference! Strange that the loathing and contempt in those brown eyes, that were fearless and deep and steady, should haunt him, and add to his own abhorrence of the rôle he played because he must let her think him the Rat! Well, what did it matter? What was she to him? What was she becoming to him? He laughed a little uncertainly. There was no need to answer that question, was there—even if he could? What did anything matter unless he could clear his own name, which was now mired deeper than the Rat’s!

He turned a corner, walked on the length of a block, and on the next corner, drawing back into a doorway out of the radius of the street lamp, paused a moment to get his bearings. He smiled a little grimly. If the affair ever came to her knowledge, would she give the Rat credit this time for a spontaneous change of heart in saving the Wop’s life, and saving Ivan Barloff’s cash? He scowled suddenly. The latter proposition did not altogether please him. Barloff was not far removed in guilt from those who proposed to victimize Barloff! There would be a certain ironical justice in robbing from Barloff the cash that Barloff had all too patiently, a great portion of it at least, robbed from others! But Red Vallon and his pack were not to get it, were they? It was the lesser evil to warn Barloff, that was all. In the main, therefore, the night’s work was over, since the Wop was safe, for five minutes’ conversation with Barloff would end the whole affair now, so far as he, Billy Kane, was concerned.

He glanced down the street. Just a little ahead, on the opposite side, huddled in between two six-story tenements, was Barloff’s squat, dingy, little house. There was a faint glow of light, as though it came from somewhere far in the interior, showing through the single front window on the ground floor. Billy Kane considered this thoughtfully for a few seconds. Barloff was at home evidently, but the probability was that one, at least, of Red Vallon’s men was on watch in front of the house. In fact, it wasn’t probability; it was a certainty. Barloff, according to Red Vallon, was to receive a fake telephone message that would lure him out of the house, and someone undoubtedly would be waiting to report the old Russian’s exit. It therefore, to say the least of it, would be—Billy Kane’s smile was mirthless—unwise for the Rat to walk up to Barloff’s front door under the existing conditions!

He might have telephoned. He shook his head, as he crossed the road, and, keeping in the shadows, stepped into the cross street. He preferred to interview Barloff via Barloff’s back yard. He was still obsessed with the desire to take personal toll from all concerned in the miserable night’s work, but he realized that impulse and sane action did not always go hand in glove. He could not afford to play fast and loose with this rôle of the Rat, or take any unnecessary risks, but he could satisfy himself to the extent, at least, of a personal interview with Barloff, who was perhaps after all the most despicable of the lot, and put into the puny, shrivelled soul of the man a fear that would make for some degree of future righteousness!

A lane, as he had expected, ran in the rear of the tenements and Barloff’s house. Billy Kane slipped into this, located Barloff’s house, low-lying against the sky line between the taller buildings, swung himself over the fence, dropped noiselessly to the ground, and for a moment stood there motionless.

The yard was very small, and, but a few feet in front of him, a light from the open and uncurtained window of Barloff’s rear room streamed out across the intervening space. Voices reached him, but he could not distinguish the words; neither, from where he stood, could he see anyone in the room, though the window was quite low, little more than breast high from the ground.

And then a form inside the room passed across the window space, a woman’s form; and again a voice reached him, a woman’s voice, and Billy Kane drew in his breath sharply. He still could not distinguish the words, but he had recognized the voice.

Once again he had jumped too hastily to conclusions in so far as she was concerned—it was the Woman in Black. There was no question as to why she was there; it was obvious that she had simply forestalled him in warning the old Russian; but—a perplexed frown furrowed Billy Kane’s forehead—her hand would have showed a little late in the game to have saved the Wop!

He stole forward, keeping in the shadows of the side fence, reached the rear wall of the house, edged across to the side of the window where he could both see and hear, and crouched there. His eyes swept the interior in a swift, comprehensive survey. It was a sordid, ill-furnished, bare-floored room, and very dirty. A seedy old morris chair in the center of the room supplied the only suggestion of comfort or luxury, and that an incongruous one, that the place possessed. Apart from that, there was a huge and aged safe, a relic of the days when such things were locked with keys, which was backed up against one wall; and near an open door, which apparently led into the front room, there was a battered desk with an equally battered swivel chair—and that was all, unless the telephone that stood upon the desk might be included in the furnishings. There was, however, another door, also open, which faced the safe, and which apparently gave on a passageway that in turn opened on the back yard. Billy Kane glanced around him. Yes, there was a rear door here, just a little to his right.

His eyes reverted to the interior of the room. She was still pacing up and down its length from the desk to the window and back again. Perhaps it was the effect of the green-shaded incandescent bulb that dangled over the desk, but, as she turned facing the window, he saw that her face, drawn in sharp, pinched lines, was very white, and that in the dark brown eyes, all softness gone from them now, there was a hard and bitter light. And at the desk, the old Russian, a gray-bearded and threadbare figure in dirty and grease-spotted clothes, huddled deep down in his chair, and wrung his hands together, and with little, black, shifty eyes, that peered over the rims of steel-bowed spectacles, followed her about in a fascinated sort of way, and the while he kept circling his lips with his tongue.

“The Wop! The Wop!” he shrilled out suddenly, and seemed to cower lower in his chair. “Yes, yes, I am afraid! My God, I am afraid! He is strong. He would have no pity on an old man. He has sworn it. I know! I have been afraid of this day. Why did they let him out? They know, too! And I was only honest—everybody knows that. He was a thief. What else could an honest man do except what I did? He—he will kill me, and——”

“The Wop is dead.” Her voice was low, bitter, hard, and yet, too, it seemed to hold impatience and irritation directed against the Russian. “I have told you that. It is not the Wop you have to fear now. The Wop is dead.”

“But you are not sure, not positive, not absolutely positive of it!” Barloff was wringing his hands the harder; and his tones, rather than being assertive, seemed to be pleading for a denial.

“I am positive enough of it,” she answered evenly, “to see that the one who is responsible pays for it to-night! It is my fault”—her voice caught a little, but hardened instantly—“I trusted where I was a fool to trust, and I have paid for it with another’s life. But that has nothing to do with you. You know now that the telephone message you received a little while ago was simply to lure you out of the house at half past nine in order that they might have a clear field in which, without contradiction, to make it appear that the robbery they are planning was the Wop’s work. It is scarcely nine o’clock yet. You have plenty of time in which to act. You can appeal to the police, or——”

Billy Kane was no longer paying any attention to her words. Tense, strained, he stood there. He seemed to be trying to lash his brain into virility, into activity. He seemed to be groping out in an ineffectual mental way for some means to avert a disaster that he realized was closing down upon him. She believed the Wop was dead. She naturally held the Rat responsible—and he was the Rat, so far as she was concerned. She had warned him, without mincing words, that if any crime in which the Rat was involved was carried through to its fulfilment she would hold him responsible and hand him over to the police. She had reason to believe that he had already tried to double cross her once; she now believed that to-night he had tried to do it again. She would leave here, and go straight to the police. The police, then, would not only be looking for Billy Kane, they would be looking for the Rat—and they would get Billy Kane! And that would be the end of it all!

The end of it—when he already knew who the murderer of David Ellsworth was; when, apart from the collection of rubies, he had already recovered the proceeds of the Ellsworth vault robbery; when, if he could only cling for a few days more to this rôle he played, he might hope to clear his own name, to stand foursquare with the world again, and to bring to justice those who had taken old David Ellsworth’s life. Somehow, in some way, he must prevent her from carrying out what was now her obvious intention of unmasking the Rat. But he dared not show himself in front of the house to intercept her when she went out—he dared not show himself as the Rat out there. To bring the underworld down upon him was only to invite a swifter destruction from another source.

He gnawed in perplexity at his lips, staring into the room. She kept pacing up and down. Barloff had risen from his seat, and in a curious, cringing way, standing now by the rickety old safe, was fondling it and patting it with his hands.

“Yes, yes!” Barloff was crooning. “I thank you—I thank you! I do not know who you are, but I thank you! I have not much, very little, very, very little, but I am an old man, and what would become of me if I lost my little? The police, yes, the police——”

The old Russian, his back now to the window, was still talking, more to himself than to her. She came close to the window this time and Billy Kane suddenly showed himself. She was very clever, very self-centered, very sure of herself. If she was startled, she gave no sign of it. She came still closer until she leaned for a moment against the sill.

“Out here—the lane—when you leave!” he whispered quickly.

She nodded her head, but her lips had tightened in a forbidding little smile as she turned away again,

Billy Kane drew back from the window. There was a sense of relief upon him; but also a vague, disquieting, and very much stronger sense of something else that he could not quite define; only that between them there always seemed to stand that barrier of a forbidding smile, and that cool, contemptuous light in the brown eyes that very often changed from contempt to loathing and abhorrence. He shrugged his shoulders suddenly. He was a fool—that was all!

Her voice drifted out to him, dying away as he neared the fence:

“I am going now, Mr. Barloff, and I should advise you not to waste any time in taking whatever precautions you intend to take. You had better communicate at once with the police, and——”

Billy Kane swung himself over the fence, and stood there waiting in the lane. A minute, two, three passed, and then he caught the sound of a light step, and she stood before him in the darkness.

“Well?” she said curtly. “I am here, Bundy. What do you want?”

He was the Rat, alias Bundy Morgan, in her eyes, and it was the Rat who spoke.

“I heard you in there,” he said gruffly. “You’re going to beat it for the police, and wise them up about me. Well, you want to can that stunt, because I’ve got a little explanation to make. See?”

“You do not need to make any explanation,” she answered evenly. “My stupidity is at an end! That enigmatic little memo of yours was a better safeguard in itself than the hiding place in which you had secreted it, for I did not understand it until I saw a few lines in the paper this evening giving a short résumé of the Wop’s somewhat unedifying career, and stating that he had been released from prison. I was too late to save the Wop himself, but was not too late to prevent you from climbing in through that window, and carrying out the rest of your abominable scheme.”

“I went there to warn Barloff myself,” said Billy Kane.

She laughed icily.

“Do you expect me to believe that, after you have murdered a man so that you could put the onus of another crime upon him! This is the end to-night! I was mad to trust you at all. I was madder still to give you another chance, when I caught you playing a double game both with your own criminal associates and with me when you stole that letter from Dayler two nights ago!” She came a little closer to him. Both hands were tightly clenched. Her lips quivered a little; her voice choked. “I did not know what it was like to feel guilty of murder, to feel that one had taken another’s life. I know now. My folly in giving you a moment’s freedom has made me as guilty as you. But the end has come. Do you understand? You might put me out of the road, too, here in this lane, but that would not change the result any. You know that. You know in that case that the police would be after you anyway—that I have taken care of that. On the other hand, you may run for it now, and you may make it a question of hours, or a question of days, but as soon as the police lay hands on you your career is finished.”

There was a strange stirring within Billy Kane’s soul. She was very close to him, so close that he could see the pinched, haggard look in her face, and see the lips quiver again, and see the clenched hands rise to her eyes as though to shut out the abhorrent sight of him from her, and to shut out perhaps, too, the pictured sight of a man murdered, and for whose life she not illogically held herself accountable.

His hands gripped hard—hard as the mental grip in which he held himself. A sudden yearning, an almost uncontrollable impulse was upon him to reach out and sweep this lithe, fearless little figure that had become so mysteriously a part of his life, a greater part than he had ever realized before, into his arms. She would struggle like a wild cat, and fight with every ounce of strength, yes, and hatred, that was in her, but he could hold her because he was the stronger, and tell her that he was not the Rat, and—— He swallowed hard. And then what? Tell her that he was Billy Kane? A wan smile came to his lips. She would perhaps prefer the Rat! The Rat, publicly at least, was known as the less infamous of the two! He laughed a little harshly.

“Forget it!” he said roughly. “I’ve played straight with you, and before you go spilling any beans to the police you’d better get onto yourself. You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“I know that the Wop was murdered to-night in Wong Yen’s by you, or your orders,” she said passionately. “I know that the Wop is dead—that is enough!”

“Nix!” said Billy Kane, alias Bundy Morgan, alias the Rat. “The Wop isn’t dead, and he isn’t in Wong Yen’s either. I pulled him out of there.”

She stared at him, coming still closer in the darkness until he could feel her breath upon his face. It was a long minute before she spoke.

“I do not believe you!” she said in a dead voice.

He shrugged his shoulders.

“I did not expect you to!” The Rat’s tones were insolent now. “But you can prove it, can’t you? The Wop’s safe. He’s at a minister’s house. The minister’s name is Claflin. I don’t know the address, but you can easily find it. It wouldn’t do me any good to lie to you, would it? You can’t drag me to the police by force, and whether you squealed to them in the next ten minutes, or half an hour later after finding out I was lying, I’d be just as bad off, wouldn’t I?”

She drew back—but her eyes were still fixed steadily upon him.

“Yes,” she said.

“Well?” demanded Billy Kane.

“I can find this minister’s house in that half hour, I think,” she said in a low voice. “And the Wop—if he is there.” Her voice hardened. “You are quite right, Bundy, it will have done you no good to have lied. I promise you that! If I do not find the Wop, the police will find—you!”

She was gone.

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