Billy Kane put his hand to his forehead, and brought it away wringing wet with great drops of sweat. It had come like a blow without warning upon him, staggering him for an instant with horror—and then his brain had cleared as if by magic. It was cruelly clear now.

The girl that they meant to murder was—the Woman in Black. He had had no thought of that while they talked in there, not until Gypsy Joe had mentioned the Rat. And then it had seemed as though the pieces of a puzzle had been suddenly fitted together as by some unseen hand, and bare to his brain, naked, an ugly picture stood out in hideous perspective. He knew too well that the Rat had an incentive for getting rid of her. And he knew why. And it was she who had telephoned him, Billy Kane, to watch Gypsy Joe and Clarkie Munn to-night. Who else would know of anything afoot concerning those two except the “she” to whom Shaky Liz had told her damnable Judas story?

And he saw now why, and understood her instructions to him to watch Clarkie and Gypsy Joe. If she failed in her efforts through moral persuasion to prevent the Cherub from committing what she believed was to be a robbery, she still, through him, Billy Kane, could look for the recovery of the cash, and still keep the young hound, that she believed in and was trying to save, out of the hands of the police, and do it with a clear conscience since she would be in a position to return the proceeds of the theft. And then, too, perhaps, there had entered into her calculations the element of self-protection. She expected the Cherub to go alone, but if by any chance his pals went too, those pals were Clarkie Munn and Gypsy Joe—and he, Billy Kane, in that case, would be on their heels. And he understood, too, why she had not been more explicit over the telephone. She had not actually anticipated trouble, and she had respected her promise to the old hag to keep the Cherub’s name out of it.

He was running now, making across town in the direction of the East River. He did not know where Kegler’s dock or warehouse was, but Kegler was evidently a rather large dealer in sand, and any directory in the first drug store he passed would supply that information.

His mind worked on—curiously self-explanatory of his own actions. It had seemed pure impulse at the time that had prompted him to retreat so precipitately from the tenement; but he realized now that it was his brain subconsciously, but logically, at work. He, as the Rat, could not call in the police to raid that room where the inmates would denounce him as the author and instigator of the very crime for which he demanded their arrest; and to have gone into the room alone himself and have attempted to hold them up at the point of his pistol, while it might have been spectacular and dramatic, would have been little less than the act of a fool. It was not so easy for one man to hold up three others, to say nothing of a woman who was quite as abandoned, and certainly as full of trickery, and cunning, and resource as her male companions. There would have been, then, only one other alternative—to have gone in there coolly as the Rat, and call off the game that he was supposed to have started. But he had already learned that they had no love for the Rat, even though he was their employer in the present instance, and that secretly they were asking for nothing better than just such a favorable chance as that would be to “get” him, and to get, too, the large amount of cash that they credited him with having on his person.

His lips were tight, as he ran. He was conscious that he would not have hesitated to take the risk, to take any risk, if there had been no other way of saving her. But there was another way, a very much simpler, more common sense and natural a way; the way he was taking now. He had only to go to this Kegler’s dock where she would be waiting for the Cherub, and warn her. That was all. He had ample time if he hurried, since they had not started yet.

Time! Yes, he had time enough. Cool, deliberate reason reassured on that point, but the thought brought him a little panic-struck catch of breath. It might have been better, perhaps, if he had gone to the Bowery, or perhaps over into Lower Broadway, in the hope, say, of getting a taxi that would have saved him many minutes. He shook his head, and called himself a fool for allowing his mind to wander to inconsequent things. There were not many taxis hunting fares on the Bowery, and who ever heard of an empty taxi on Lower Broadway at this hour of night! And, besides, it was not half past nine yet, and she was not to be there until ten. And yet—time! He flirted the moisture from his forehead again, as, reaching a small drug store on a corner, he turned, and entered, and asked for the directory.

He was out again in scarcely a minute. He had found Kegler’s in the directory without difficulty, but not without certain new misgivings. Kegler’s was much farther along the East River than, somehow, and entirely without reason, he had imagined it would be. He began to run again, and again that twinge of panic seized him. True, he had a start on the others; true, they had just as far to go as he had, but with the distance that he knew now there was to cover, and the limit that existed in the time in which to cover it, it became more than probable they would have arranged for some special means of conveyance, whereas he had none.

Billy Kane dropped suddenly from a run into a slow, even nonchalant walk. A short distance ahead of him, a small, and apparently, an old and second-hand car was coughing and chugging laboriously at the curb in front of the lighted window of a little grocery store. A few steps more, and he saw that the car was empty. Billy Kane’s lips broadened in a hard smile. It might be reprehensible to steal a car for a few hours; but, as between a car and a human life that he knew depended on him alone, he experienced no pangs of conscience. It was the way out!

He edged over to the curb as he approached the machine, and, close to the car now, glanced around. In through the store window he could see a man, back turned, evidently the car’s owner, leaning over the counter, talking to the proprietor of the store. Billy Kane, wary of attracting premature notice from the pedestrians here and there along the street, reached out calmly, opened the door without haste, and with a deliberate air of proprietorship slipped into the driver’s seat—but in the next instant he had thrown in the gears, and the machine shot from the curb like a mad animal stung to frenzy.

A yell went up behind him; there came to him the glimpse of a man’s figure rushing wildly out through the store door into the street; and then another yell, that was echoed from different directions along the street. The car took the first corner on little better than two wheels. The yells died away behind. At the next intersecting street Billy Kane turned again, and thereafter for a few blocks zigzagged his course, until, satisfied that he had thrown any immediate pursuers off his track, he headed again over toward the East River.

And now as he drove more quietly, confident that he need no longer fear the element of time, his mind harked back again to that scene in the old hag’s room, and there came a puzzled frown furrowing his forehead, and a queer strained look into his face. It was not so clear after all! The picture in the large was there. The patient, cold-blooded winning of her confidence in order to lure her without suspicion or hesitation to her death was clear enough, as was also the hideous betrayal of that confidence, a betrayal that plumbed the depths of human infamy, and whose unscrupulous ingenuity and vile cunning was so typical of the Rat; but the details, examined more critically, seemed somehow foggy and obscured, and seemed to hint at something he did not quite understand. It was not that it was evidence of the Rat’s return. That thought did not trouble him, for certainly he, of all others, who had so unceremoniously possessed himself of the Rat’s den and all the Rat’s belongings, should be the first to know of it if the other had put in an appearance again; and the fact that the plot had reached its consummation to-night he did not consider to have any bearing on that point either. Many of the Rat’s plans, begun in the past, as he, Billy Kane, had only too good reason to know, had reached their climax since the Rat himself had been away. This was probably one of them. Certainly it had been begun more than two weeks ago, as both Shaky Liz and the Cherub had said, and that was before he, Billy Kane, had assumed the Rat’s rôle, and, therefore, quite logically it seemed, before the Rat had gone away. It was not that—once started, the unholy quartet to whom the Rat had entrusted his dirty work was quite capable of carrying it through to its detestable conclusion—but it seemed strange that, adventurous as the Rat was and much as he undoubtedly desired to get the Woman in Black out of his way, he would have dared to do this. What she held over the Rat’s head, he, Billy Kane, did not know; but he knew the Rat was well aware that, in event of her disappearance, certain evidence would be forthcoming against him within twenty-four hours. That had been her protection, a protection with which she had appeared to be thoroughly satisfied, and she had taken occasion more than once to give that warning to him, Billy Kane, in the belief that she was warning the Rat himself. There seemed to be only one answer then to this move on the Rat’s part. In some way, unknown to her, he must have come into possession of that evidence, or in some way have rendered abortive the means by which, in event of her disappearance, it would be brought to light.

The car rattled and jangled along. It was a miserable contraption, seedy, and badly down at the heels, but so that its engine functioned he asked nothing better. He was near the river front now, and in the region of warehouses and buildings that, remote from the bridges and the regular trend of traffic, showed no lights at night, and where the streets were utterly deserted, and where occasionally he caught glimpses of the river itself like a silver thread under the moonlight. He ran still more slowly now, studying his location with all possible care. Kegler’s dock, according to the directory, was still farther on, of course, but he realized that, well as he knew his New York, this was somewhat out of the ordinary radius, and that it would be all too easy to miss his way.

He shook his head a little in perplexity. There was another thing—one of the little details. Shaky Liz, Gypsy Joe, Clarkie Munn and the Cherub were not in the ranks of the Crime Trust as Red Vallon, and the Cadger, and Vannet, for instance, were, and where the Rat might naturally be expected to work upon a basis of mutual trust. It seemed strange that the Rat, in executing a plan like this, would give, not one, but four outsiders a hold on him, for if their tongues were ever loosened it meant the death house in Sing Sing for the Rat to a certainty. Nor did the fact that they themselves were accomplices wholly justify this seeming lapse from cunning on the Rat’s part. Accomplices before now had been known to turn State’s evidence! It was queer! The Rat probably had a very good reason—only it seemed a little queer!

Billy Kane shrugged his shoulders. Enough of that! He was peering out of the car now with growing anxiety, and with the realization forcing itself upon him that, if he had not actually lost his way, he at best had a very confused knowledge of his exact whereabouts. His lips tightened. It was growing late, too; it must be getting perilously near ten o’clock. He had had no doubt but that, from the address in the directory, he could easily find the place, and he was still sure it was farther on; but the quarter here was outrageously dark, and a plethora of turnings, that seemed to be nothing more than private trafficways for various wharfs and warehouses, made an exceedingly nasty complication. He nosed the machine along, his face growing more set and anxious every moment. It was black here—black—nothing but a cursed blackness. If there were only someone about—someone from whom he could ask directions! But there was nothing, no one, only the black, looming shapes of buildings, and even these were becoming more scattered now; and the only signs of life were the whistles and churnings of passing craft on the river.

The minutes passed. A sense of helplessness, of impotency, that brought a cold chill to his heart, was upon him now. Down here on the river front he was hopelessly lost. There was no light in the ramshackle car that he had appropriated—it wasn’t equipped with anything that even approached a modern device. He stopped the car, lighted a match, and looked at his watch.

Ten minutes of ten!

Ten minutes! There were ten minutes left! He started the car again mechanically. There were ten minutes between her and a trap-door that opened into the silvery streak of water out there, whose shimmering now had lost its beauty and seemed like the hideous, insinuating, silky movement of some ghastly reptile. Ten minutes stood between her and that trap-door; and he, fool that he was, had lost his way! And yet he could hardly blame himself; the East River front at night was—but what did it matter whether he blamed himself or not!

A low cry of bitter hurt came from his compressed lips. It wasn’t only the Woman in Black! Her deadly peril now, the almost certainty of her death, brought him, in an overwhelming surge of anguish and fear the consciousness that it was the woman he loved. He remembered the abhorrence and contempt she held for him in those steadfast, fearless brown eyes of hers, and he loved her for that abhorrence and contempt. It seemed to typify her, as somehow she seemed to typify a purity and a courage that was soul deep—for that contempt and abhorrence was for the man whom she believed to be the Rat, who in turn typified the dregs and lees of all that was vile. But he, Billy Kane, was not the Rat, and some day, as he was conscious now, he had hoped to stand before her in his own person, and with his own name cleared. His hands gripped on the steering wheel until it seemed as though the taut-drawn skin would burst over the knuckles. He remembered the poise of that dainty head, the curve of the full, white, rounded throat, and he saw her now in—— No! He would not let his brain complete that thought. It would drive him mad. He was already in a state bordering on frenzy, almost out of self-control. Ten minutes! There could be very few of those ten minutes left now!

A cry came from him again, but this time one of sudden hope. To his right, from a large building at the head of one of those trafficways that led to the river bank itself, he caught sight of a lighted window. In an instant the machine was tearing forward in that direction; and in a minute more he had leaped out, and was pounding frantically with his fists at the door of the building. This wasn’t Kegler’s, he knew that; but here was some sign of life at last in the deserted neighborhood.

A step sounded from within. It seemed to drag. It seemed as though it were covering some interminable distance inside there. And then the door opened, and an old, decrepit man, who perhaps held down a sort of pensioned night watchman’s job, a lantern in hand, stuck out his head.

“I’ve lost my way,” said Billy Kane quickly. “Can you tell me where Kegler’s place is?”

“You mean the sand docks?” inquired the other.

“Yes,” said Billy Kane.

The man stepped out from the doorway, and pointed back along the river.

“That’s it over there,” he said. “The one beyond our wharf down here.” He glanced at the car. “But you can’t get through here with that car because this bit of road don’t connect—see? You’ll have to go back a bit the way you came.”

Billy Kane held his watch under the lantern’s light. There were neither the five, nor the four, nor the three minutes that he had dared hope might still remain. It was already after ten o’clock!

“Can I get down from here on foot—it’s shorter this way, isn’t it?” asked Billy Kane between closed teeth.

“Yes, sure, you can,” said the man. “But you won’t find no one there. They was expecting some barges in, but they haven’t come yet, and——”

Billy Kane had already swung away from the other, and was making for the river.

“Thanks!” he called out over his shoulder, as he ran. “I’ll leave the car here till I get back.”

He heard some reply from the other, but he could not make out the words. Whatever they were, they were inconsequent now. He, Billy Kane, unless by some miracle, was too late to warn her—and too late perhaps even to save her. He knew fear now as he had never known it before, but it was not fear for himself. And he knew a passion that seemed to find its roots in the very soul of him. If he was too late—at least there would be a reckoning, come what might! His lips twitched in a queer, distorted smile. It was strange! This fear and this passion, though they were supreme within him, seemed curiously under control, and he was abnormally cool and calm now, and his brain, as though lashed into virility by some powerful stimulant, was working swiftly, incisively, leaping in flashes from premises to conclusions.

It was certain that they were already there, but there was still a chance that they had not yet had time to do her any harm. And it must be his wits, not blundering force, that would be its own undoing, that must turn that chance to account. He must play the Rat now in exactly the same way as, when back there in the tenement, the thought had flashed across his mind that he might have played it in the old hag’s room. The chances of success, it was true, were a hundredfold slimmer now than they would have been then; but now it was forced upon him as the only way, and then it had seemed an unnecessary and uncalled-for risk to take. It was the one way now. It might fail, but it would gain him access inside that dark, looming building across the open stretch of brick-and-sand-strewn yard where he was running now; and once inside, if it were not already too late, there must be some way out for her. And if it were too late—well then, the Cherub, and Gypsy Joe, and Clarkie Munn would not have to press the Rat for payment for their work!

Again the distorted smile flickered on his lips. He had his bearings now, both literally and mentally. He ran without caution, making almost unnecessary noise, and reached the door of the building; a building that, he could discern now, made the shore end of a long dock, and which, according to the old watchman’s directions, was obviously Kegler’s place.

The building was in utter and complete darkness. He dismissed the possibility that she was still anywhere without, still waiting for the Cherub’s arrival, as too improbable to warrant the waste of even a second, and making still more noise at the door now, he tried it, found it unlocked, pushed it open, stepped inside and closed it behind him. A quick, startled exclamation, from a long way off, it seemed, reached him, and then a sibilant whisper:

“Who’s dat?”

“Clarkie—Gypsy!” Billy Kane called softly. “Are you there?”

“Gawd!” a voice ejaculated hoarsely.

A light went on somewhere over Billy Kane’s head. He was in a short passage that was flanked on either side by what were evidently the business offices of the concern, and at the end of this passage now a door was suddenly swung open. Gypsy Joe was standing in the doorway.

“De Rat!” he exclaimed in heavy amazement, and mechanically fell back as Billy Kane advanced.

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