The Adventures of Jimmie Dale by Frank L. Packard - HTML preview

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 II.12. John Johansson--Four-Two-Eight

 

Nearly midnight already! It was even later than he had thought. Larry the Bat pressed his face against a shop's windowpane on the Bowery for a glance at a clock that had caught his eye on the wall within. Nearly midnight!

He slouched on again hurriedly, still debating in his mind, as he had been debating it all the way from the Tocsin's, the question of returning again to the Sanctuary. So far, the way both to Spider Jack's and the Sanctuary had been in the same direction--but the Sanctuary was on the next street.

Jimmie Dale reached the corner--and hesitated. It was strange how strong was the intuition upon him to-night that bade him go on and make all speed to Spider Jack's--while equally strong was the cold, stubborn logic that bade him go first to the Sanctuary. There were things that he needed there that would probably be absolutely essential to him before the night was out, things without which he might be so badly handicapped as to invite failure from the start; and yet--it was already midnight!

Ostensibly both Makoff and Spider Jack closed their places at eleven. But that might mean anything--depending upon their own respective inclinations, or on what of their own peculiar brand of deviltry might be afoot. If they were still about, still in evidence, he was still too early, midnight though it was; though, on the other hand, if the coast was clear, he could ill afford to lose a moment of the time between now and the hour that the Magpie had planned for the robbery of Henry LaSalle, for it would not be an easy matter, even once inside Spider Jack's, to find that package-- since it was Spider's open boast that things committed to his care were where the police, or any one else, might as well whistle and suck their thumbs as try to find them!

And then, with sudden decision, taking his hesitation, as it were, by the throat, Jimmie Dale hurried on again--to the Sanctuary. At most, it could delay him but  another fifteen minutes, and by half- past twelve, or a quarter to one at the latest, he would be at Spider Jack's.

Disdaining the secrecy of the side door on the alley, for who had a better right or was better known there than Larry the Bat, a tenant of years, he entered the tenement by the front door, scuffled up the stairs to the first landing, and let himself into his disreputable room. He locked the door behind him, lighted the choked and wheezy gas jet, in a single, sharp-flung glance assured himself that the blinds were tightly shut, and, kneeling in the far corner, threw back the oilcloth and lifted up the loose section of the flooring beneath. He reached inside, fumbling under the neatly folded clothes of Jimmie Dale, and in a moment laid his leather girdle with its kit of burglar's tools on the floor beside him; and beside that again an electric flashlight, a black silk mask, and--what he had never expected to use again when, early the night before, he had, as he had believed, put it away forever--the thin, metal insignia case of the Gray Seal. Another moment, and, with the flooring replaced, the oilcloth rolled back into position, he had stripped off his coat and was pulling his spotted, greasy shirt off over his head; then, stooping quickly, he picked up the girdle, put it on, put on his shirt again over it, put on his coat, put the metal case, the flashlight, and the mask in his pockets-- and once more the Sanctuary was in darkness.

It was perhaps fifteen minutes later that Jimmie Dale turned into the upper section of Thompson Street. Here he slowed his pace, that had been almost a run since he had left the Sanctuary, and began to shuffle leisurely along; for the street, that a few hours before would have been choked with its pushcarts and venders, its half naked children playing where they could find room in the gutters, its sidewalks thronged with shawled women and picturesquely dressed, earringed, dark-visaged men, a scene, as it were, transported from some foreign land, was still far from deserted; the quiet, if quiet it could be called, was but comparative, there were many yet about, and he had no desire to attract attention by any evidence of undue haste. And, besides, Spider Jack's was just ahead, making the corner of the alleyway a few hundred feet farther on, and he  had very good reasons for desiring to approach Spider's little novelty store at a pace that would afford him every opportunity for observation.

On he shuffled along the street, until, reaching Spider Jack's, a little two-storied, tumble-down brick structure, a muttered exclamation of satisfaction escaped him. The shop was closed and dark; and, though Spider Jack lived above the store, there were no lights even in the upper windows. Spider Jack presumably was either out, or in bed! So far, then, he could have asked for nothing more.

Jimmie Dale edged in close to the building as he slouched by, so close that his hat brim seemed to touch the windowpane. It was possible that from a room at the rear of the store there might be a light with a telltale ray perhaps filtering through, say, a door crack. But there was nothing--only blackness within.

He paused at the corner of the building by the alleyway. Down here, adjoining the high board fence of Spider Jack's back yard, Makoff made pretense at pawnbrokering in a small and dingy wooden building, that was little more pretentious than a shed--and in Makoff's place, so far as he could see, there was no light, either.

Jimmie Dale's fingers were industriously rolling a cigarette, as, under the brim of his slouch hat, his eyes were noting every detail around him. A yard in against the wall of Spider Jack's, the wall cutting off the rays of the street lamp at a sharp angle, it was shadowy and black--and beyond that, farther in, the alleyway was like a pit. It would take less, far less, than the fraction of a second to gain that yard, but some one was approaching behind him, and a little group of people loitered, with annoying persistency, directly across the way on the other side of the street. Jimmie Dale stuck the cigarette between his lips, fumbled in his pockets, and finally produced a box of matches. The group opposite was moving on now; the footsteps he had heard behind him, those of a man, drew nearer, the man passed by--and the box of matches in Jimmie Dale's hand dropped to the ground. He reached to pick them up, and in his stooping posture, without seeming to turn his head, flung a quick glance behind him up the street. No one,  for that fraction of a second that he needed, was near enough to see--and in that fraction of a second Jimmie Dale disappeared.

A dozen yards down the lane, he sprang for the top of the high fence, gripped it, and, lithe and active as a cat, swung himself up and over, and dropped noiselessly to the ground on the other side. Here he stood motionless for a moment, close against the fence, to get his bearings. The rear of Spider Jack's building loomed up before him--the back windows as unlighted as those in front. Luck so far, at least, was with him! He turned and looked about him, and, his eyes growing accustomed to the darkness, he could just make out Makoff's place, bordering the end of the yard--nor, from this new vantage point, could he discover, any more than before, a single sign of life about the pawnbroker's establishment.

Jimmie Dale stole forward across the yard, mounted the three steps of the low stoop at Spider Jack's back door, and tried the door cautiously. It was locked. From his pocket came the small steel instrument that had stood Larry the Bat in good stead a hundred times before in similar circumstances. He inserted it in the keyhole, worked deftly with it for an instant--and tried the door again. It was still locked. And then Jimmie Dale smiled almost apologetically. Spider Jack did not use ordinary locks on his back door!

The discountenanced instrument went back into his pocket, and now Jimmie Dale's hand slipped inside his shirt, and from one of the little, upright pockets of the leather belt, and from still another, and from after that a third, came the vicious little blued-steel tools. The sensitive fingers travelled slowly up and down the side of the door--and then he was at work in earnest. A minute passed-- another--there was a dull, low, grating sound, a snick as of metal yielding suddenly--and Jimmie Dale was coolly stowing away his tools again inside his shirt.

He pushed the door open an inch, listened, then swung it wide, stepped inside, and closed it behind him. A round, white beam of light flashed in a quick circle-- and went out. It was a sort of storeroom, innocent enough and orderly enough in  appearance, bare- floored, with boxes and packing cases piled neatly against the walls. In one corner a staircase led to the story above--and from above, quite audibly now, he caught the sound of snoring. Spider Jack was in bed, then!

Directly facing him was the open door of another room, and Jimmie Dale, moving softly forward, entered it. He had never been in Spider Jack's before, and his first concern was to form an intimate acquaintanceship with his surroundings. Again the flashlight circled, and again went out.

"No windows!" muttered Jimmie Dale under his breath. "Nothing very fancy about the architecture! Three rooms in a row! Store in front of this room through that door of course. Wonder if the door's locked, though it's a foregone conclusion the package wouldn't be in there."

Not a sound, his tread silent, he crossed to the closed door that he had noticed. It was unlocked, and he opened it tentatively a little way. A faint glow of light diffused itself through the opening. Jimmie Dale nodded his head and closed the door again. The street lamp, shining through the shop windows, accounted for the light.

And now the flashlight played with steady inquisitiveness about him. The room in which he stood seemed to combine a sort of office, with a lounging room, in which Spider Jack, no doubt, entertained his particular cronies. There was table in the centre, cards still upon it, chairs about it. Against the wall farthest away from the shop stood a huge, old-fashioned cabinet; and a little farther along, anglewise, partitioning off the corner, as it were, hung, for some purpose or other, a cretonne curtain. Also, against the wall next to the lane, bringing a commiserating smile to Jimmie Dale's lips as his eyes fell upon it, was a clumsy, lumbering, antique safe.

Jimmie Dale's eyes returned to the curtain. What was it doing there? What was it for? Instinctively he stepped over to examine it. A single glance, however, as he lifted it aside, sufficed. It was nothing but a make-shift clothes closet. He turned from it, switched off the flashlight, and stood staring meditatively into the  darkness. In a strange house, with the knowledge to begin with that what he sought was carefully hidden, it was no sinecure to find that package. He had never for a moment imagined that it would be. But of one thing, however, there was no uncertainty in his mind--he would get the package!--by search if possible, by other means if search failed. It was now close to one o'clock. If by two o'clock his efforts had been fruitless, Spider Jack would hand over the package--at the revolver point! It was quite simple! Meanwhile-- Jimmie Dale shrugged his shoulders, and, going over to the safe, knelt down in front of it--meanwhile, as well begin here as anywhere else.

The trained fingers closed on the handle--and on the instant, as though in startled amazement, shifted to the dial. They came back to the handle--a wrench– -then a low, amused chuckle--and the door swung open. The great, unwieldy thing was only a monumental bluff! It not only had not been locked, but it COULD NOT be locked--the mechanism was out of order, the bolts could not be moved by so much as a hair's breadth!

Still chuckling, Jimmie Dale shot the flashlight's ray into the interior of the safe-- and the chuckle died on his lips, and into his face came a look of strained bewilderment. Inside, everything was in chaos, books, papers, a miscellany of articles, as though they had first been ruthlessly pulled out on the floor, then gathered up in an armful and crammed back inside again. For an instant he did not move, and then a queer, hard, mirthless smile drew down the corners of his mouth. With a sort of bitter, expectant nod of his head, he turned the light upon the door of the safe. Yes, there were the scratches that the tools had left; and, as though in sardonic jest, the holes, where the steel bit had bored, were plugged with putty and rubbed over with some black substance that was still wet and came off, smearing his finger, as he touched it. It could not have been done long ago, then! How long? A half hour-- an hour? Not more than that!

Mechanically he closed the door of the safe, rose to his feet and, almost heedless of noise now, the flashlight ray dancing before him, he jumped across to the old-fashioned cabinet and pulled the door open. Here, as within the safe,  all inside, plain evidence of thorough, if hasty, search, was scattered and tossed about in hopeless confusion.

He shut the cabinet door; the flashlight went out; and he stood like a man stunned, the sense of some abysmal disaster upon him. He was too late! The game was up! If it had ever been here, the package was gone now--GONE! The Crime Club had been here before him!

"The game was up! The game was up!"--his mind seemed to keep on repeating that. The Crime Club had beaten him by an hour, at most, and had been here, and had searched. It was strange, though, that they should have been at such curious pains to cover their tracks by leaving the room in order, by such paltry efforts to make the safe appear untouched when the first glance that was at all critical would disclose immediately what had been done! Why should they need to cover their tracks at all; or, if it was necessary, why, above all, in such a pitifully inadequate way! His mind barked back to the same ghastly refrain--"the game was up!"

NO! Not yet! There was still a chance! There was still Spider Jack! Suppose, in spite of their search, they had failed to find the package! Jimmie Dale's lips set in a thin line, as he started abruptly toward the door. There was still that chance, and one thing was grimly certain--Spider Jack would, at least, show him where the package HAD BEEN!

And then, halfway to the door, he halted suddenly, and stood still-- listening. An electric bell was ringing loudly, imperiously, somewhere upstairs. Followed almost immediately the sound of some one, Spider Jack presumably, moving hurriedly about overhead; and then, a moment later, steps coming down the staircase in the adjoining room.

Jimmie Dale drew back, flattening himself against the wall. Spider Jack entered the room, stumbled across it, in the darkness, fumbled for the door that led into his little shop, opened it, passed through, fumbled around in there again, for  matches evidently, then lighted a gas jet in the store, and, going to the street door, opened it.

Jimmie Dale had edged along the wall a little to a position where he had an unobstructed view through the open doorway connecting the shop and the room in which he stood. Spider Jack, in trousers and shirt, hastily donned, no doubt, as he had got out of bed, was standing in the street doorway, and beyond him loomed the forms of several men. Spider Jack stepped aside to allow his visitors to enter--and suddenly, a cry barely suppressed upon his lips, Jimmie Dale involuntarily strained forward. Three men had entered, but his eyes were fixed, fascinated, upon only one--the first of the three. Was it an hallucination? Was he mad---dreaming? It was Hilton Travers, THE CHAUFFEUR--the man whom he could have sworn he had last seen dead, lashed in that chair, in that ghastly death chamber of the Crime Club!

"Rather rough on you, Spider, to pull you out of bed at this hour," the chauffeur was saying apologetically.

"Oh, that's all right, seein' it's you, Travers," Spider Jack answered, gruffly amiable. "Only I was kind of lookin' for you last night."

"I know," the chauffeur replied; "but I couldn't connect with my friends here. Shake hands with them, Spider--Bob Marvin--Harry Stead."

"Glad to know you, gents," said Spider Jack, with a handgrip apiece. The chauffeur lowered his voice a little.

"I suppose we're alone here, eh, Spider? Yes? Well, then, you know what I've come for--that package--Marvin and Stead, here, are the ones that are in on it with me. Get it for me, will you, Spider?"

"Sure--Mr. Johansson!" Spider grinned. "Sure! Come on into the back room and make yourselves comfortable. I'll be mabbe five minutes, or so."

 Jimmie Dale's brain was whirling. What did it mean? He could not seem to understand. His mind seemed to refuse its functions. Travers, the chauffeur-- ALIVE! He drew in his breath sharply. That curtain in the corner! He must see this out now! They were coming! Quick, noiseless, he stole along the side of the wall, reached the corner, and slipped in behind the curtain, as Spider Jack, striking a match, entered the room.

Spider Jack lighted the gas, and, as the others followed behind him, waved them toward the chairs around the table.

"I'll just ask you gents not to leave the room," he said meaningly, over his shoulder, as he stepped toward the rear door. "It's kind of a fad of mine to keep some things even from my wife!"

"All right, Spider--I understand," the chauffeur returned readily.

Jimmie Dale's knife cut a tiny slit in the cretonne on a level with his eyes. The three men had seated themselves at the table, and appeared to be listening intently. Spider Jack's footsteps echoed back as he crossed the rear room, sounded dull and muffled descending the stoop outside, and died away.

"I told you it wasn't in the house!" the man who had been introduced as Stead laughed shortly. "We wasted the hour we had here."

The third man spoke crisply, incisively, to the chauffeur.

"Turn down that gas jet a little! You've got across with it so far-- but you can't stand a searchlight, Clarke!

And at the words, in a flash, the meaning of it, all of it, to the last detail that was spelling death, ruin, and disaster for her, the Tocsin, for himself as well, burst upon Jimmie Dale. That VOICE! He would have known it, recognised it, among a thousand--it was the masked man of the night before, the leader, the head of the Crime Club! And it was not Travers there at all! He remembered now, too well, that second room they had showed him in the Crime Club--its multitude of  disguises, though in this case they had the dead man's clothes ready to their hands--the leader's boast that impersonation was but child's play to them! And now he understood why they had covered up the traces of their search in only so curiously inadequate a manner. They had failed to find the package, and, as a last resort, had adopted the ruse of impersonating Hilton Travers, the chauffeur, which made it necessary that when they called Spider Jack from his bed, as they had just done, that Spider Jack, at a CASUAL glance, should notice nothing amiss--but it would be no more than a casual glance, for, who should know better than they, he would not have to go for the package to any place that they had disturbed! And he, Jimmie Dale, could only stand here and watch them, helpless, powerless to move! Three of them! A step out into the room was to invite certain death. It would not matter, his death--if he could gain anything for her, for the Tocsin, by it. But what could he gain--by dying? He clenched his hands until the nails bit into the flesh.

Spider Jack re-entered the room, carrying what looked like a large, bulky, manila envelope, heavily sealed, in his hand. He tossed it on the table.

"There you are, Travers!" he said.

"I wonder," suggested the leader pleasantly, "if, now that we're here, Travers, your friend would mind letting us have this room for a few minutes to ourselves to clean up the business?"

"Sure!" agreed Spider Jack cordially. "You're welcome to it! I'll wait out here in the store until you say the word."

He went out, closing the door after him. The leader picked up the package.

"We'll take no chances with this," he said grimly. "It's been too close a call. After we've had a look at it, we'll put it out of harm's way on the spot, here, while we've got it--before we leave!"

 He ripped the package open, and disclosed perhaps a dozen official- looking documents, besides a miscellaneous number of others. He took up the first of the papers, glanced through it hurriedly, then tossed it to the pseudo chauffeur.

"Tear it up, and tear it up--SMALL!" he ordered tersely. The next, after examining it as he had the first, he tossed to the other man. "Go ahead!"--curtly. "Work fast! From the looks of these, Travers had us cold! There's proof enough here of LaSalle's murder to send us all to the chair!"

He went on glancing through the documents; and then suddenly, joining the others in their work, began to rip and tear at the papers himself.

A sort of cold horror had settled upon Jimmie Dale, and his forehead was clammy wet. The inhuman irony of it! That he should stand there and watch, impotent to prevent it, the destruction of what he would have given his life to secure! And then slowly, a grim, hard, merciless smile came to his lips. He had recognised the leader's voice--now he would recognise the leader's FACE. At least, that was left to him--perhaps the master trump of all. It would not be very hard to find the Crime Club now--with that man to lead the way!

The scraps of paper, tiny shreds, mounted into a heap on the table-- and with the last of the contents of the package destroyed, the leader stood up.

"Put these pieces in your pockets; we don't want to leave them here," he directed quietly. "And then let's get out."

In scarcely a moment, the last scrap of paper had vanished. The three men walked to the door, passed through it, and joined Spider Jack in the store--and Jimmie Dale, slipping out from behind the curtain, gained the door of the rear room, crept through it, reached the stoop, and then, darting like the wind across the yard, was over the fence in a second, and in another was out of the alleyway and on the street.

He was in time--in plenty of time. They had just left Spider Jack's, and were, perhaps, fifty yards or so ahead of him. He slouched on behind them--the cold,  grim smile on his lips once more. It was the Crime Club now, that hell's cradle where their devil's schemes were hatched, that was the one thing left to him; they would lead him to that, and then--and then it would be his turn to STRIKE!

They turned the first corner. And suddenly, as the racing engine of an automobile caught his ear, he broke into a run, and dashed around the corner after them--in time to see them jump into a car, and the car speed off along the street! He halted, as though he were suddenly dazed--started involuntarily to run forward again--stopped with a hollow laugh at the futility of it--and stood still and motionless on the sidewalk.

And then he swayed a little, and his face grew gray. Failure, defeat, ruin--in that moment he knew them all to their bitterest dregs. How could he go to her! How could he face her, and tell her that they were beaten, that the last hope was gone, that he had failed!

"God!" he cried aloud, and clenched his hands.

Then deep in his consciousness a thought stirred, and he swept a shaking hand across his eyes. Why had it come again, that thought! Did it mean that HE must play--the last card! There was a way-- there had always been a way. The way the Crime Club took--MURDER. It was their own weapon! If the man who posed as Henry LaSalle were killed! If that man--were killed!

"The Magpie was to be there at three!" he muttered--and started mechanically back along the street.