XII. Crooks vs. Crooks
 

It was not far. Shluker, hastening along, still muttering to himself, turned into a cross street some two blocks away, and from there again into a lane; and, a moment later, led the way through a small door in the fence that hung, battered and half open, on sagging and broken hinges. Rhoda Gray's eyes traveled sharply around her in all directions. It was still light enough to see fairly well, and she might at some future time find the bearings she took now to be of inestimable worth. Not that there was much to remark! They crossed a diminutive and disgustingly dirty backyard, whose sole reason for existence seemed to be that of a receptacle for old tin cans, and were confronted by the rear of what appeared to be a four-story tenement. There was a back door here, and, on the right of the door, fronting the yard, a single window that was some four or five feet from the level of the ground.

Shluker, without hesitation, opened the back door, shut it behind them, led the way along a black, unlighted hall, and halting before a door well toward the front of the building, knocked softly upon it - giving two raps, a single rap, and then two more in quick succession. There was no answer. He knocked again in precisely the same manner, and then a footstep sounded from within, and the door was flung open. "Fools!" growled Shluker in greeting, as they stepped inside and the door was closed again. "A pair of brainless fools!"

There were two men there. They paid Shluker scant attention. They both grinned at Rhoda Gray through the murky light supplied by a wheezy and wholly inadequate gas-jet.

"Hello, Nan!" gibed the smaller of the two. "Who let you out?"

"Aw, forget it!" croaked Rhoda Gray.

Shluker took up the cudgels.

"You close your face, Pinkie!" he snapped. "Get down to cases! Do you think I got nothing else to do but chase you two around like a couple of puppy dogs that haven't got sense enough to take care of themselves? Wasn't what I told you over the phone enough without me havin' to come here?"

"Nix on that stuff!" returned the one designated as Pinkie imperturbably. "Say, you'll be glad you come when we lets you in on a little piece of easy money. We ain't askin' your advice; all we're askin' you to do is frame up the alibi, same as usual, for me an' the Pug here in case we wants it."

Shluker shook his fist.

"Frame nothing!" he spluttered angrily. "Ain't I tellin' you that the orders are not to make a move, that everything is off for a few days? That's the word I got a little while ago, and the Seven-Three-Nine is goin' out now. Nan'll tell you the same thing."

"Sure!" corroborated Rhoda Gray, picking up the obvious cue. "Dat's de straight goods."

The two men were lounging beside a table that stood at the extreme end of the room, and now for a moment they whispered together. And, as they whispered, Rhoda Gray found her first opportunity to take critical stock both of her surroundings and of the two men themselves. Pinkie, a short, slight little man, she dismissed with hardly a glance; he was the common type, with low, vicious cunning stamped all over his face - an ordinary rat of the underworld. But her glance rested longer on his companion. The Pug was indeed entitled to his moniker! His face made her think of one. It seemed to be all screwed up out of shape. Perhaps the eye-patch over the right eye helped a little to put the finishing touch of repulsiveness upon a countenance already most unpleasant. The celluloid eye-patch, once flesh-colored, was now so dirty and smeared that its original color was discernible only in spots, and the once white elastic cord that circled his head and kept the patch in place was in equal disrepute. A battered slouch hat came to the level of the eye-patch in a forbidding sort of tilt. His left eyelid drooped until it was scarcely open at all, and fluttered continually. One nostril of his nose was entirely closed; and his mouth seemed to be twisted out of shape, so that, even when in repose, the lips never entirely met at one corner. And his ears, what she could see of them in the poor light, and on account of the slouch hat, seemed to bear out the low-type criminal impression the man gave her, in that they lay flat back against his head.

She turned her eyes away with a little shudder of repulsion, and gave her attention to an inspection of the room. There was no window, except a small one high up in the right-hand partition wall. She quite understood what that meant. It was common enough, and all too unsanitary enough, in these old and cheap tenements; the window gave, not on the out-of-doors, but on a light-well. For the, rest, it was a room she had seen a thousand times before - carpetless, unfurnished save for the barest necessities, dirt everywhere, unkempt.

Pinkie Bonn broke in abruptly upon her inspection.

"That's all right!" he announced airily. "We'll let Nan in on it, too. The Pug an' me figures she can give us a hand."

Shluker's wizened little face seemed suddenly to go purple.

"Are you tryin' to make a fool of me?" he half screamed. "Or can't you understand English? D'ye want me to keep on tellin' you till I'm hoarse that there ain't nobody goin' in with you, because you am't goin' in yourself! See? Understand that? There's nothing doin' to-night for anybody - and that means you!"

"Aw, shut up, Shluker!" It was the Pug now, a curious whispering sibilancy in his voice, due no doubt to the disfigurement of his lips. "Give Pinkie a chance to shoot his spiel before youse injure yerself throwin' a fit! Go on, Pinkie, spill it."

"Sure!" said Pinkie eagerly. "Listen, Shluk! It ain't any crib we're wantin' to crack, or nothin' like that. It's just a couple of crooks that won't dare open their yaps to the bulls, 'cause what we're after 'll be what they'll have pinched themselves. See?"

Shluker's face lost some of its belligerency, and in its place a dawning interest came.

"What's that?" he demanded cautiously. "What crooks?"

"French Pete an' Marny Day," said Pinkie - and grinned.

"Oh!" Shluker's eyebrows went up. He looked at the Pug, and the Pug winked knowingly with his half-closed left eyelid. Shluker reached out for a chair, and, finding it suspiciously wobbly, straddled it warily. "Mabbe I've been in wrong," he admitted. "What's the lay?"

"Me," said Pinkie, "I was down to Charlie's this afternoon havin' a little lay-off, an'"

"One of these days," interrupted Shluker sharply, "you'll go out like" - he snapped his fingers - "that!" "Can't you leave the stuff alone?"

"I got to have me bit of coke," Pinkie answered, with a shrug of his shoulders. "An', anyway, I'm no pipe-hitter.

"It's all the same whatever way you take it!" retorted Shluker. "Well, go on with your story. You went down to Charlie's dope parlors, and jabbed a needle into yourself, or took it some other old way. I get you! What happened then?"

"It was about an hour ago," resumed Pinkie Bonn with undisturbed complacency. "Just as I was beatin' it out of there by the cellar, I hears some whisperin' as I was passin' one of the end doors. Savvy? I hadn't made no noise, an' they hadn't heard me. I gets a peek in, 'cause the door's cracked. It was French Pete an' Marny Day. I listens. An' after about two seconds I was goin' shaky for fear some one would come along an' I wouldn't get the whole of it. Take it from me, Shluk, it was some goods!"

Shluker grunted noncommittingly.

"Well, go on!" he prompted.

"I didn't get all the fine points," grinned Pinkie; "but I got enough. There was a guy by the name of Dainey who used to live somewhere on the East Side here, an' he used to work in some sweat-shop, an' he worked till he got pretty old, an' then his lungs, or something, went bad on him, an' he went broke. An' the doctor said he had to beat it out of here to a more salubrious climate. Some nut filled his ear full 'bout gold huntin' up in Alaska, an' he fell for it. He chewed it over with his wife, an' she was for it too, 'cause the doctor 'd told her her old man would bump off if he stuck around here, an' they hadn't any money to get away together. She figured she could get along workin' out by the day till he came back a millionaire; an' old Dainey started off.

"I dunno how he got there. I'm just fillin' in what I hears French Pete an' Marny talkin' about. I guess mostly he beat his way there ridin' the rods; but, anyway, he got there. See? An' then he goes down sick there again, an' a hospital, or some outfit, has to take care of him for a couple of years; an' back here the old woman got kind of feeble an' on her uppers, an there was hell to pay, an' -"

"Wot's bitin' youse, Nan?" The Pug's lisping whisper broke sharply in upon Pinkie Bonn's story.

Rhoda Gray started. She was conscious now that she had been leaning forward, staring in a startled way at Pinkie as he talked; conscious now that for a moment she had forgotten - that she was Gypsy Nan. But she was mistress of herself on the instant, and she scowled blackly at the Pug.

"Mabbe it's me soft heart dat's touched!" she flung out acidly. "Youse close yer trap, an' let Pinkie talk!"

"Yes, shut up!" said Pinkie. "What was I sayin'? Oh, yes! An' then the old guy makes a strike. Can you beat it! I dunno nothing about the way they pull them things, but he's off by his lonesome out somewhere, an' he finds gold, an' stakes out his claim, but he takes sick again an' can't work it, an' it's all he can do to get back alive to civilization. He keeps his mouth shut for a while, figurin' he'll get strong again, but it ain't no good, an' he gets a letter from the old woman tellin' how bad she is, an' then he shows some of the stuff he'd found. After that there's nothing to it! Everybody's beatin' it for the place; but, at that, old Dainey comes out of it all right, an' goes crazy with joy 'cause some guy offers him twenty-five thousand bucks for his claim, an' throws in the expenses home for good luck. He gets the money in cash, twenty-five one-thousand-dollar bills, an' the chicken feed for the expenses, an' starts for back here an' the old woman. But this time he don't keep his mouth shut about it when he'd have been better off if he had. See? He was tellin' about it on the train. I guess he was tellin' about it all the way across. But, anyway, he tells about it comm' from Philly this afternoon, an' French Pete an' Marny Day happens to be on the train, an' they hears it, an' frames it up to annex the coin before morning, 'cause he's got in too late to get the money into any bank to-day."

Pinkie Bonn paused, and stuck his tongue significantly in his cheek.

Shluker was rubbing his hands together now in a sort of unctuous way.

"It sounds pretty good," he murmured; "only there's Danglar -"

"Youse leave Danglar to me!" broke in the Pug. "As soon as we hands one to dem two boobs an' gets de cash, Pinkie can beat it back here wid de coin an wait fer me while I finds Danglar an' squares it wid him. He ain't goin' to put up no holler at dat. We ain't runnin' de gang into nothin'. Dis is private business - see? So youse just take a sneak wid yerself, an' fix a nice little alibi fer us so's we won't be takin' any chances."

Shluker frowned.

"But what's the good of that?" he demurred. "French Pete and Marny Day '11 see you anyway."

"Will dey!" scoffed the Pug. "Guess once more! A coupla handkerchiefs over our mugs is good enough fer dem, if youse holds yer end up. An' dey wouldn't talk fer publication, anyway, would dey?"

Shluker smiled now-almost ingratiatingly.

"And how much is my end worth?" he inquired softly.

"One of dem thousand-dollar engravin's," stated the Pug promptly. "An' Pinkie'll run around an' slip it to youse before mornin'"

"All right," said Shluker, after a moment. "It's half past eight now. From nine o'clock on, you can beat any jury in New York to it that you were both at the same old place - as long as you keep decently under cover. That'll do, won't it? I'll fix it. But I don't see -"

Rhoda Gray, as Gypsy Nan, for the first time projected herself into the discussion. She cackled suddenly in jeering mirth.

"I t'ought something was wrong wid her!" whispered the Pug with mock anxiety. "Mabbe she ain't well! Tell us about it, Nan!"

"When I do," she said complacently, "mabbe youse'll smile out of de other corner of dat mouth of yers!" She turned to Shluker. "Youse needn't lay awake waitin' fer dat thousand, Shluker, 'cause youse'll never see it. De little game's all off - 'cause it's already been pulled. See? Dere was near a riot as I passes along a street goin' to yer place, an' I gets piped off to wot's up, an' it's de same story dat Pinkie's told, an' de crib's cracked, an' de money's gone - dat's all."

Shluker's face fell.

"I said you were fools when I first came in here!" he burst out suddenly, wheeling on Pinkie Bonn and the Pug. "I'm sure of it now. I was wonderin a minute ago how you were goin' to keep your lamps on Pete and Marny from here, or know when they were goin' to pull their stunt, or where to find 'em."

Pinkie Bonn, ignoring Shluker, leaned toward Rhoda Gray.

"Say, Nan, is that straight?" he inquired anxiously. "You sure?"

"Sure, I'm sure!" Rhoda Gray asserted tersely. The one thought in her head now was that her information would naturally deprive these men here of any further interest in the matter, and that she would get away as quickly as possible, and, in some way or other, see that the police were tipped off to the fact that it was French Pete and Marny Day who had taken the old couple's money. Those two old faces rose before her again now - blotting out most curiously the face of Pinkie Bonn just in front of her. She felt strangely glad - glad that she had heard all of old Dainey's story, because she could see now an ending to it other than the miserable, hopeless one of despair that she had read in the Daineys' faces just a little while ago. "Sure, I'm sure!" she repeated with finality.

"How long ago was it?" prodded Pinkie.

"I dunno," she answered. "I just went to Shluker's, an' den we comes over here. Youse can figure it fer yerself."

And then Rhoda Gray stared at the other - with sudden misgiving. Pinkie Bonn's face was suddenly wreathed in smiles.

"I'll answer you now, Shluk," he grinned. "What do you think? That we're nuts, me an' Pug? Well, forget it! We didn't have to stick around watchin' Pete an' Marny; we just had to wait until they had collected the dough. That was the most trouble we had - wonderin' when that would be. Well, we don't have to wonder any more. We know now that the cherries are ripe. See? An' now we'll go an' pick 'em! Where? Where d'ye suppose? Down to Charlie's, of course! I hears 'em talkin' about that, too. They ain't so foolish! They're out for an alibi themselves. Get the idea? They was to sneak out of Charlie's without anybody seem' 'em, an' if everything broke right for 'em, they was to sneak back again an' spend the night there. No, they ain't so foolish - I guess they ain't! There ain't no place in New York you can get in an' out of without nobody knowin' it like Charlie's, if you know the way, an -"

"Aw, write de rest of it down in yer memoirs!" interposed the Pug impatiently - and moved toward the door. "It's all right, Shluker - all de way. Now, everybody beat it, an' get on de job. Nan, youse sticks wid Pinkie an' me."

Rhoda Gray, her mind in confusion, found herself being crowded hurriedly through the doorway by the three men. Still in a mentally confused condition, she found herself, a few minutes later - Shluker having parted company with them - walking along the street between Pinkie Bonn and the Pug. She was fighting desperately to obtain a rip upon herself. The information she had volunteered had had an effect diametrically opposite to that which she had intended. She seemed terribly impotent; as though she were being swept from her feet and borne onward by some swift and remorseless current, whether she would or no.

The Pug, in his curious whisper, was talking to her: "Pinkie knows de way in. We don't want any row in dere, on account of Charlie. We ain't fer puttin' his place on de rough, an' gettin' him raided by de bulls. Charlie's all to de good. See? Well, dat's wot 'd likely happen if me an' Pinkie busts in on Pete an' Marny widout sendin' in our visitin'-cards first, polite-like. Dey would pull deir guns, an' though we'd get de coin just de same, dere'd be hell to pay fer Charlie, an' de whole place 'd go up in fireworks right off de bat. Well, dis is where youse come in. Youse are de visitin'-card. Youse gets into deir bunk room, pretendin' youse have made a mistake, an' youse leaves de door open behind youse. Dey don't know youse, an', bein' a woman, dey won't pull no gun on youse. An' den youse breaks it gently to dem dat dere's a coupla gents outside, an' just about den dey looks up an' sees me an' Pinkie an' our guns-an' I guess dat's all. Get it?"

"Sure!" mumbled Rhoda Gray.

The Pug talked on. She did not hear him. It seemed as though her brain ached literally with an acute physical pain. What was she to do? What could she do? She must do something! There must be some way to save herself from being drawn into the very center of this vortex toward which she was being swept closer with every second that passed. Those two old faces, haggard in their despair and misery, rose before her again. She felt her heart sink. She had counted, only a few moments before, on getting their money back for them - through the police. The police! How could she get any word to the police now, without first getting away from these two men here? And suppose she did get away, and found some means of communicating with the authorities, it would be Pinkie Bonn here, and the Pug, who would fall into the meshes of the law quite as much as would French Pete and Marny Day; and to have Pinkie and the Pug apprehended now, just as they seemed to be opening the gateway for her into the inner secrets of the gang, meant ruin to her own hopes and plans. And to refuse to go on with them now, as one of them, would certainly excite their suspicions - and suspicion of Gypsy Nan was the end of everything for her.

Her hands, under her shawl, clenched until the nails bit into her palms. Couldn't she do anything? And there was the money, too, for those two old people. Wasn't there any - She caught her breath. Yes, yes! Perhaps there was a way to save the money; yes, and at the same time to place herself on a firmer footing of intimacy with these two men here - if she went on with this. But - She shook her head. She could not afford "buts" now; they must take care of themselves afterwards. She would play Gypsy Nan now without reservation. These two men here, like Shluker, were obviously ignorant that Gypsy Nan was Danglar's wife; so she was - Pinkie Bonn's hand was on her arm. She had stumbled.

"Look out for yourself!" he cautioned under his breath. "Don't make a sound!"

They had drawn into a very dark and narrow area way between two buildings, and now Pinkie kept his touch upon her as he led the way along. What was this "Charlie's"? She did not know, except that, from what had been said, it was a drug dive of some kind, patronized extensively by the denizens of the underworld. She did not know where she was now, save that she had suddenly left one of the out-of-the--way East Side streets.

Pinkie halted suddenly, and, bending down, lifted up what was evidently a half section of the folding trapdoor to a cellar entrance.

"There's only a few of us regulars wise to this," whispered Pinkie. "Watch yourself! There's five steps. Count 'em, so's you won't trip. Keep hold of me all the way. An' nix on the noise, or we won't get away with it inside. Leave the trap open, Pug, for our getaway. We ain't goin' to be long. Come on!"

It was horribly dark. Rhoda Gray, with her hand on Pinkie Bonn's shoulder, descended the five steps. She felt the Pug keeping touch behind by holding the corner of her shawl. They went forward softly, slowly, stealthily. She felt her knees shake a little, and suddenly panic seized her, and she wanted to scream out. What was she doing? Where was she going? Was she mad, that she had ventured into this trap of blackness? Blackness! It was hideously black. She looked behind her. She could not see the Pug, close as he was to her; and dark as she had thought it outside there at the cellar entrance, it appeared by contrast to have been light, for she could even distinguish now the opening through which they had come.

They were in a cellar that was damp underfoot, and the soft earth deadened all sound as they walked upon it - and they seemed to be walking on interminably. It was too far - much too far! She felt her nerve failing her. She looked behind her again. That opening, still discernible to her straining eyes, beckoned her, lured her. Better to...

Pinkie had halted again. She bumped into him. And then she felt his lips press against her ear.

"Here we are!" he breathed. "They got the end room on the right, so's they could get in an' out with out bein' seen, an so's even Charlie'd swear they was here all the time. You're too old a bird to fall down, Nan. If the door's locked, knock - an' give 'em any old kind of a song an' dance till you gets 'em off their guard. The Pug an' me '11 see you through. Go it!"

Before Rhoda Gray could reply, Pinkie had stepped suddenly to one side. A door in front of her, a sliding door it seemed to be, opened noiselessly, and she could see a faintly lighted, narrow, and very short passage ahead of her. It appeared to make a right-angled turn just a few yards in, and what light there was seemed to filter in from around the corner. And on each side of the passage, before it made the turn, there was a door, and from the one on the right, through a cracked panel, a tiny thread of light seeped out.

Her lips moved silently. After all, it was not so perilous. Nobody would be hurt. Pinkie and the Pug would cover those two men in there - and take the money - and run for it - and...

The Pug gave her an encouraging push from behind.

She moved forward mechanically. There were many sounds now, but they came muffled and indeterminate from around that corner ahead - all save a low murmuring of voices from the door with the cracked panel on the right.

It was only a few feet. She found herself crouched before the door - but she did not knock upon it. Instead, her blood seemed suddenly to run cold in her veins, and she beckoned frantically to her two companions. She could see through the crack in the panel. There were two men in there, French Pete and Marny Day undoubtedly, and they sat on opposite sides of a table, and a lamp burned on the table, and one of the men was counting out a sheaf of crisp yellow-back banknotes - but the other, while apparently engrossed in the first man's occupation, and while he leaned forward in apparent eagerness, was edging one hand stealthily toward the lamp, and his other hand, hidden from his companion's view by the table, was just drawing a revolver from his pocket. There was no mistaking the man's murderous intentions. A dull horror, that numbed her brain, seized upon Rhoda Gray; the low-type brutal faces under the rays of the lamp seemed to assume the aspect of two monstrous gargoyles, and to spin around and around before her vision; and then - it could only have been but the fraction of a second since she had begun to beckon to Pinkie and the Pug - she felt herself pulled unceremoniously away from the door, and the Pug leaned forward in her place, his eyes to the crack in the panel.

She heard a low, quick-muttered exclamation from the Pug; and then suddenly, as the lamp was obviously extinguished, that crack of light in the panel had vanished. But in an instant, curiously like a jagged lightning flash, light showed through the crack again - and vanished again. It was the flash of a revolver shot from within, and the roar of the report came now like the roll of thunder on its heels.

Rhoda Gray was back against the opposite wall. She saw the Pug fling himself against the door. It was a flimsy affair. It crashed inward. She heard him call to Pinkie:

"Shoot yer flash on de table, an' grab de coin! I'll fix de other guy!"

Were eternities passing? Her eyes were fascinated by the interior beyond that broken door. It was utterly dark inside there, save that the ray of a flashlight played now on the table, and a hand reached out and snatched up a scattered sheaf of banknotes; and on the outer edge of the ray two shadowy forms struggled and one went down. Then the flashlight went out She heard the Pug speak:

"Beat it!"

Commotion came now; cries and footsteps from around that corner in the passage. The Pug grasped her by the shoulders, and rushed her back into the cellar. She was conscious, it seemed, only in a dazed and mechanical way. There were men in the passage running toward them - and then the passage had disappeared. Pinkie Bonn had shut the connecting door.

"Hop it like blazes!" whispered the Pug, as they ran for the faint glimmer of light that located the cellar exit. "Separate de minute we're outside!" he ordered. "Dere's murder in dere. Pete shot Marny. I put Pete to sleep wid a punch on de jaw; but de bunch knows now some one else was dere, an' Pete'll swear it was us, though he don't know who we was dat did de shootin'. I gotta make dis straight right off de bat wid Danglar." His whispering voice was labored, panting; they were climbing up the steps now. "Youse take de money to my room, Pinkie, an' wait fer me. I won't be much more'n half an hour. Nan, youse beat it fer yer garret, an' stay dere!"

They were outside. The Pug had disappeared in the darkness. Pinkie was closing, and evidently fastening, the trap-door.

"The other way, Nan!" he flung out, as she started to run. "That takes you to the other street, an' they can't get around that way without goin' around the whole block. Me for a fence I knows about, an' we gives 'em the merry laugh! Go on!"

She ran - ran breathlessly, stumbling, half falling, her hands stretched out before her to serve almost in lieu of eyes, for she could make out scarcely anything in front of her. She emerged upon a street. It seemed abnormal, the quiet, the lack of commotion, the laughter, the unconcern in the voices of the passers-by among whom she suddenly found herself. She hurried from the neighborhood.