Jimmie Dale walked on again, rapidly now, heading down the Bowery. At the expiration of perhaps ten minutes, he turned east; and still a few minutes later, in the neighbourhood of Chatham Square, plunged suddenly into a dark alleyway—there was, of course, as there was to all such places, an unobtrusive entrance to Malay John’s.

His lips tightened a little as he moved quietly forward. To venture here in an unknown character was not far from being tantamount, if he were discovered, to taking his life in his hands. Malay John was a queer customer and a bad enemy, though counted “straight” by the underworld, and trusted by the crooks and near-crooks as few other men were in the Bad Lands. And, if Malay John was queer, the place he ran was queerer still. Ostensibly he conducted a dance hall, and a profitable one at that; but below the dance hall, known only to the initiated, deep down in a sub-cellar, was perhaps the most remunerative gambling joint and pipe lay-out in Crimeland.

Jimmie Dale halted before a doorway in the alley. The rear of a low building rose black and unlighted above him. A confused jangle from a tinny piano, accompanying a blatant cornet and a squeaky violin, mingled with the dull scrape of many feet, laughter, voices, singing—the dance hall at the front of the building was in full swing. He glanced sharply up and down the dark alleyway, then, leaning forward, placed his ear to the panel of the door—and the next instant opened the door softly and stepped inside.

It was pitch black here, but it was familiar ground to Larry the Bat in the old days, and therefore to Smarlinghue in the new. The short passageway in which he was standing terminated, he knew, in a rear entrance to the dance hall, which was always kept locked and used only by Malay John himself, and which was just at the foot of the stairs that led upward to Malay John’s combination of private den, office, and sleeping apartment; while at the side of the passage, half way along, was that other door, always guarded on the inside, that required an “open sesame” to gain admittance to the dive below.

And now he crept stealthily past this latter door, reached the staircase, and went swiftly up to the landing above. Here another door barred his way, and here again he placed his ear to the panel—but this time to listen, it seemed, interminably. Every faculty was strained and alert now. He could take no chances here, and the uproar from the dance hall below, while it had safeguarded his ascent of the stairs, was confusing now and by no means an unmixed blessing.

Still he crouched there, his ear to the panel—and then, satisfied at last, he tried the door. It was locked.

“The penalty of being early!” murmured Jimmie Dale softly to himself.

His hand reached in under his vest to one of the pockets in the leather girdle, and a tiny steel instrument was inserted in the lock. There was a curious snipping sound, the doorknob turned slowly under his hand; then cautiously, inch by inch, he pushed the door open, slipped through—and stood motionless on the other side of the threshold. Save only from the dance hall below, there was not a sound. The door closed again; again that snipping sound as it was relocked—and then the round, white ray of Jimmie Dale’s flashlight circled his surroundings.

There was a sort of barbaric splendour to the place. Malay John was something of a sybarite! It was a single room, whose floor was covered with rich Turkish rugs, whose walls were covered with Oriental hangings, and in one corner was a great, wide divan, canopied, also with Oriental hangings at head and foot, serving presumably for a bed; but, striking a somewhat incongruous note, others of the appointments were modern enough—the flat-topped desk in the centre of the room with its revolving chair, for instance, and a large, ponderous safe that stood back against the rear wall.

Jimmie Dale crossed the room for a closer inspection of the safe, and, as his flashlight played over the single dial, he shook his head whimsically. No, it would be hardly true to call that modern; it was only an ancient monstrosity, a helpless thing at the mercy of any cracksman who—

The flashlight in his hand went out. Like lightning, Jimmie Dale, his tread silent on the heavy rugs, leaped back across the room, and in an instant slipped in behind the end hangings of the divan and stood, pressed closely, against the wall.

A key turned stealthily in the lock, the door opened as stealthily—then silence—then a flashlight swept suddenly around the room—darkness again—and then a hoarse whisper:

“All clear, Birdie. Lock the door.”

The door closed. The flashlight played down the room again—and upon Jimmie Dale’s lips came a twisted smile, as, his fingers edging the hanging slightly to one side, he peered out.

The light ray moving before them, two dark forms stole across the room to the safe.

“There you are, Birdie!” said one of them. “Ain’t she a beaut! Say, a kid could open it! Didn’t I tell you I was handing you one on a gold platter!”

The light ray now flooded the front of the safe, and outlined the forms of the two men. One of them, holding the flashlight, dropped on his knees, and began to twirl the dial tentatively; the other leaned negligently against the corner of the safe.

“I ain’t so sure it’s easy, Slimmy,” replied the man on his knees, after a moment. He stopped twirling the dial, and looked up. “Mabbe it’ll take longer than we figured on. Are you sure there ain’t no chance of Malay gettin’ back? I’d rather stack up against every bull in New York than him.”

The twisted smile on Jimmie Dale’s lips still lingered. So that was Slimmy Jack there, leaning against the safe! Slimmy Jack—and Birdie Lee! His fingers drew the hangings a little further apart. The room was in complete darkness except for the circle of light around the safe, and it was as though what was being enacted before him were some strange, realistic film thrown upon a screen—just two forms in the white light, their faces masked, against the background of the safe, with its glittering nickel dial. And now Slimmy Jack, from his negligent pose, straightened sharply and leaned toward Birdie Lee.

“Say, what’s the matter with you, Birdie!” he exclaimed roughly. “You didn’t let ‘em get your nerve up the river, did you? You’ve been acting kind of queer all day. I told you before, Malay wouldn’t be back in time to monkey with us. We don’t have to stand for this—I told you that, too. You don’t think I’m a fool, do you, to steer you into a lay that’s got a come-back on myself unless the thing was planted right? Why, damn it, Malay knows I saw the coin put in there. D’ye think I’d give him a chance of suspecting me! It’s all fixed—you know that. Now, go to it—there’s a nice little piece of money in there that’ll keep us going till we pull that Chicago deal.”

“All right!” Birdie Lee answered tersely. “Keep quiet, then, and I’ll see what I can do.”

He laid his ear against the safe, listening for the tumblers’ fall, as, holding the flashlight in his left hand, its rays upon the dial, the fingers of his right began to work swiftly again with the glistening knob.

From below, the confused, dull medley of sound from the dance hall seemed only to intensify the silence in the room. Slimmy Jack stood motionless at the side of the safe, his elbow resting against the old-fashioned, protruding upper hinge. A minute, two, another, and still another dragged by. Came then a short ejaculation from Birdie Lee.

Slimmy Jack bent forward instantly.

“Got it?” he demanded eagerly.

“No—curse it!” gritted Birdie Lee. “My fingers seem to have lost their touch—I ain’t had much practice for the last five years up there in Sing Sing!”

“Well, then, ‘soup’ it!” grunted Slimmy Jack. “You could blow the roof off, and no one would be the wiser with that racket downstairs. We can’t waste all night over it.”

“What are you going to ‘soup’ it with?” Birdie Lee flung back gruffly. “We didn’t bring nothing. You said—”

“I know I did!” A sullen menace had crept suddenly into Slimmy Jack’s voice. “I said you could open an old tin can like that with your hands tied—and so you can. Try it again!”

Jimmie Dale’s fingers stole inside his shirt, and into a pocket of the leather girdle, and brought forth a black silk mask. He slipped it quickly over his face. Birdie Lee was at work once more. It was about time to play his own hand in the game. The Tocsin had made no mistake, he was sure of that now, and—

Birdie Lee spoke again.

“It’s no use, Slimmy!” he muttered. “I guess I ain’t any good any more. I can’t open the damned thing!”

“Try it again!” ordered Slimmy Jack shortly.

“But it’s no use, I tell you!” retorted Birdie Lee. “I ain’t got the feel in my fingers.”

“You—try—it—again!” There was a cold, ominous ring in Slimmy Jack’s voice.

Birdie Lee drew back a little on his knees, glancing quickly up at the other.

“What—what d’ye mean by that, Slimmy!” he exclaimed in a startled way.

“I’ll show you what I mean, and I’ll show you blamed quick if you don’t open that safe!” Slimmy Jack threatened hoarsely. “Blast you, you’re stalling on me—that’s what you’re doing! I’ve seen you work before. You could open that thing with your finger nails, if you wanted to! Now, open it!”

“But, I can’t!” protested Birdie Lee. “I wouldn’t hand you anything like that, Slimmy—you know that, Slimmy. I—”

Open it! And open it—quick!” Slimmy Jack’s hand was wrenching at his side pocket.

“But, I tell you, I can’t, Slimmy!” cried Birdie Lee, almost piteously. “It’s queered me up there in the pen. I”—he was rising to his feet—“Slimmy—for God’s, sake—what are you doing—you—”

There was a flash, the roar of the report, a swaying form, a revolver clattering to the floor—and with a crash Slimmy Jack pitched forward and lay motionless.

Then silence.

It had come without warning, in the winking of an eye, and for a moment it seemed to Jimmie Dale that he could not grasp the full significance of what had happened—that Slimmy Jack, his sleeve catching on the hinge of the safe as he had finally succeeded in jerking his revolver from his pocket, had, a grim, ironical trick of fate, accidentally shot himself! Mechanically, automatically, Jimmie Dale’s hands went to his pockets and produced his own flashlight and revolver—but he did not move. His eyes now were on Birdie Lee, who, like a man dazed and terror-stricken, had lurched back against the safe, the flashlight that dangled in his hand sweeping queer, aimless patches of light about the floor.

Still silence—only the uproar from the dance hall that would have drowned out to those below the sound of the revolver shot. Then Birdie Lee staggered forward, and knelt beside the prostrate form on the floor. He stood up again presently, swaying unsteadily on his feet, turning his head wildly about, now this way, now that. And then his whisper, broken, hoarse, quavered through the room:

“He’s dead. My God—he’s—he’s dead.”

“Drop that flashlight!” Jimmie Dale’s voice rang cold, imperative. “Drop it!” And, sweeping the hangings aside, the ray of his own light suddenly full upon Birdie Lee, he leaped forward.

With a low, terrified cry, the other let the flashlight fall as though from nerveless fingers, and shrank back against the safe.

“Now put your hands above your head!” directed Jimmie Dale curtly.

The man obeyed.

Dark, frightened eyes stared out at Jimmie Dale from behind the mask that covered Birdie Lee’s face. Swiftly, deftly, Jimmie Dale felt over the other’s clothing for a weapon. There was none. Then, himself in darkness, the blinding light in Birdie Lee’s face, he pulled off the other’s mask, and with a grim, quick touch of his revolver muzzle traced out the white, pulsing, triangular scar on the man’s forehead.

“So you’re up to your old tricks again, are you, Birdie?” he inquired coldly. “Five years up the river wasn’t enough for you—eh?”

The man drew himself up suddenly, and, squaring his shoulders, made as though to speak—and then, with a swift, hopeless gesture, turned his back, and, leaning over the top of the safe, buried his head in his arms.

A strange smile touched Jimmie Dale’s lips. He stooped down, picked up the revolver from the floor, slipped it into his pocket, bent over Slimmy Jack for an instant to assure himself that the man was dead—then stepping back to the safe, he laid his hand on the ex-convict’s shoulder.

“Birdie,” he said quietly, “could you open this safe if you wanted to?”

The man swung sharply around, the prison pallor of his face a pitiful, deathlike colour in the flashlight’s rays.

“Who are you?” he asked thickly.

“A friend perhaps—if you can open that safe,” Jimmie Dale answered.

A puzzled look crept into Birdie’s eyes.

“W-what do you mean?” he stammered.

“I mean that I want the proof that you are straight,” Jimmie Dale said softly. “I’ve been here in the room all the time. I want to know whether you were stalling on Slimmy Jack, or not. And I want to know, if you were stalling, how you came to be here with him.”

“That’s a queer spiel,” said Birdie Lee, in a troubled way. “I thought at first you were a bull—but you don’t talk like one. Mabbe you’re playin’ with me; but, whether you are or not, I guess it won’t make much difference what I say. You couldn’t help me if you wanted to now—with him dead there”—he jerked his head toward the form on the floor.

“Tell me, anyhow,” insisted Jimmie Dale quietly.

Birdie’s hand lifted and swept across his eyes.

“Well, all right,” he said, after a moment; “I’ll tell you. Me and Slimmy used to work together all the time in Chicago and out West after I left New York, and until I came back here one day and pulled one alone and got sent up for it. Well, to-day, when they let me out of Sing Sing, Slimmy had come on from Chicago and was waitin’ for me. He had a deal all fixed in Chicago that we was to pull together, a big one, and this little one here was to keep us goin’ until the big one came off. He was with Malay John in this room to-day when a gambler from up the State somewhere blew in with a roll of about three thousand dollars, and handed it over to Malay to keep while he knocked around town for a day or two. Malay put the money in this safe here, and that’s what Slimmy was after for a starter. I told Slimmy I was all through—that I was goin’ straight. He wouldn’t believe me. I guess you don’t. I guess nobody will. I got a record that’s mabbe too black to live down, and—oh, well, what’s the use! I meant to live decent, but I guess any chance I had is gone now.” His voice choked. “That’s the way I had doped it out up there in the pen—that I was goin’ straight. That’s all, isn’t it? I told Slimmy I was through—but Slimmy held something over me that was good for twenty years. What could I do? I said I’d come in on this, figurin’ that I could queer the game by stallin’. I—I tried it. If you were here, you saw me. I pretended that I couldn’t open the safe, and—”

Can you?” inquired Jimmie Dale gently.

“That thing!” Birdie Lee smiled mirthlessly. “Why it’s only a double combin—”

“Open it, then,” prompted Jimmie Dale.

Birdie Lee stooped impulsively to the dial of the safe; hesitated, then straightened up again, and shook his head.

“No,” he said. “I guess I’ll take my medicine. I don’t know who you are. I might just as well have opened it for Slimmy as for you. It looks as though you were after the same thing he was.”

Jimmie Dale smiled.

“Stand a little away from the safe, Birdie—there,” he instructed. And, as the other obeyed wonderingly, Jimmie Dale knelt to the dial. “You see, I trust you not to move,” he said. The dial was whirling under the sensitive fingers, and, like Birdie before him, his ear was pressed against the face of the safe.

The moments went by. Birdie Lee was watching in an eager, fascinated, startled way. Came at last a sharp, metallic click, as Jimmie Dale flung the handle over—and the door swung wide. He shut it again instantly—and locked it.

“It’s your turn, Birdie,” he said calmly. “You see that, as far as I or my intentions are concerned, it doesn’t matter whether you open it or not.”

“Who are you?” There was awed admiration in Birdie’s voice. “You’re slicker than ever I was, even in the old days. For God’s sake, who are you?”

“Never mind,” said Jimmie Dale. “Open the safe, if you can.”

“I can open it all right,” said Birdie, moving slowly forward; “and quicker than you did, because I got the combination when I was workin’ on it with Slimmy watchin’. Throw the light on the knob, will you?”

It was barely an instant before Birdie Lee swung back the door.

“Now lock it again,” directed Jimmie Dale. And then, as the other obeyed, he held out his hand to Birdie Lee. “You’re clear, Birdie.”

A tremor came to the other’s face.

“Clear?” repeated Birdie unsteadily.

“Yes—you get your chance. That’s one reason why I came here to-night—to spoil Slimmy Jack’s play, to see that you got your chance if you really wanted it, as”—he added whimsically—“I was informed you did. Go ahead, Birdie—make your get-away—you’re free.”

But Birdie Lee shook his head.

“No,” he said, and his voice caught again. “It’s no good.” He pointed to the still form on the floor. “I guess I go up for more than safe-crackin’ this time. I—I guess it’ll be the chair. When they find him here—dead—shot—they’ll call it murder—and they’ll put it onto me. The police know we have been together for years. They know he came here to-day when I got out. We’ve been seen together to-day. We—we were seen quarrelling this afternoon in a saloon over on the Bowery. That was when I was refusin’ to start the old play again. They’d have what looked like an open and shut game against me. I wouldn’t have a hope.”

It was a moment before Jimmie Dale answered. What the man said was true—he would not have a hope—for an honest life—after five years in the penitentiary. He lifted his flashlight again and played it over Birdie Lee. They showed, those years, in the pallor, the drawn lines, the wan misery in the other’s face.

And then Jimmie Dale’s lips set firmly under his mask. There was a way to save the man. It was something he had never intended to do again—but it was worth the price—to save this man. It would be like a bombshell exploded in the underworld; it would arouse the police to infuriated activity; it would stir New York to its depths—but, after all, it could not touch Smarlinghue. It would only instill the belief that somehow Larry the Bat had escaped from the tenement fire; it would only mean a hunt for Larry the Bat day and night—but Larry the Bat no longer existed—and it would save this man.

He clamped the flashlight between his knees, leaving his hands free, and from the leather girdle drew the old-time metal case, thin, like a cigarette case, and from the case, with a pair of little tweezers that precluded the possibility of telltale finger prints, lifted out a small, diamond-shaped, gray-coloured paper seal, adhesive on one side, which he moistened now with his tongue—and, stooping quickly, attached it to the dead man’s sleeve.

There was a sharp, startled cry from Birdie Lee.

The Gray Seal! You’re—you’re Larry the Bat! They passed the word around in Sing Sing that you were dead, and—”

“And it will be the Gray Seal who is wanted for this—not you,” said Jimmie Dale quietly. Then, almost sharply: “Now make your get-away, Birdie. Hurry! You and I part here. And the greater distance you put between yourself and this place to-night the better.”

But the man seemed as though robbed of the power of movement—and then his lips quivered, and his eyes filled.

“But you,” he faltered, “you—you’re doing this for me, and I—I—”

Jimmie Dale caught the other’s arm in a kindly grip.

“Good-night, Birdie,” he said significantly. “I’m the last man now that you could afford to be seen with. You understand that. And I guess you can understand that I’ve reasons for not wanting to be seen myself. You’ve got your chance; give me mine to get away—alone.” He pushed the man abruptly toward the door.

Still Birdie Lee hesitated; then catching Jimmie Dale’s hand, he wrung it hard—and, with a half choked sob, turned and made his way from the room.

For an instant Jimmie Dale stood looking after the other through the darkness, listening as the stealthy steps descended the stairs—then suddenly he knelt again beside the dead man on the floor.

“You were clever, Slimmy!” he murmured. “Smarlinghue wouldn’t have had a chance of getting out from under this break—if your plans had worked out! And I didn’t know you, of course, because you were a Chicago crook.”

He took off the dead man’s mask, and played his flashlight for a moment over the cold, set features.

A queer smile twisted Jimmie Dale’s lips.

It was “Clancy of Headquarters”!

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