The White Moll by Frank L. Packard
XIII. The Door Across the Hall
It was many blocks away before calmness came again to Rhoda Gray, and before it seemed, even, that her brain would resume its normal functions; but with the numbed horror once gone, there came in its place, like some surging tide, a fierce virility that would not be denied. The money! The old couple on that doorstep, stripped of their all! Wasn't that one reason why she had gone on with Pinkie Bonn and the Pug? Hadn't she seen a way, or at least a chance, to get that money back?
Rhoda Gray looked quickly about her. On the corner ahead she saw a drug store, and started briskly in that direction. Yes, there was a way! The idea had first come to her from the Pug's remark to Shluker that, after they had secured the money, Pinkie would return with it to the Pug's room, while the Pug would go and square things with Danglar. And also, at the same time, that same remark of the Pug's had given rise to a hope that she might yet trace Danglar to night through the Pug - but the circumstances and happenings of the last few minutes had shattered that hope utterly. And so there remained the money. And, as she had walked with Pinkie and the Pug a little while ago, knowing that Pinkie would, if they were successful, carry the money back to the Pug's room, just as was being done now precisely in accordance with the Pug's original intentions, she had thought of the Adventurer. It had seemed the only way then; it seemed the only way now - despite the fact that she would be hard put to it to answer the Adventurer if he thought to ask her how, or by what means, she was in possession of the information that enabled her to communicate with him. But she must risk that - put him off, if necessary, through the plea of haste, and on the ground that there was not time to-night for an unnecessary word. He had given her, believing her to be Gypsy Nan, his telephone number, which she, in turn, was to transmit to the White Moll - in other words, herself! But the White Moll, so he believed, had never received that message - and it must of necessity be as the White Moll that she must communicate with him to-night! It would be hard to explain - she meant to evade it. The one vital point was that she remembered the telephone number he had given her that night when he and Danglar had met in the garret. She was not likely to have forgotten it!
Rhoda Gray, alias Gypsy Nan, scuffled along. Was she inconsistent? The Adventurer would be in his element in going to the Pug's room, and in relieving Pinkie Bonn of that money; but the Adventurer, too, was a thief-wasn't he? Why, then, did she propose, for her mind was now certainly made up as to her course of action, to trust a thief to recover that money for her?
She smiled a little wearily as she reached the drug store, stepped into the telephone booth, and gave central her call. Trust a thief! No, it wasn't because her heart prompted her to believe in him; it was because her head assured her she was safe in doing so. She could trust him in an instance such as this because - well, because once before, for her sake he had foregone the opportunity of appropriating a certain diamond necklace worth a hundred times the sum that she would ask him - yes, if necessary, for her sake - to recover to-night. There was no...
She was listening in a startled way now at the instrument. Central had given her "information"; and "information" was informing her that the number she had asked for had been disconnected.
She hung up the receiver, and went out again to the street in a dazed and bewildered way. And then suddenly a smile of bitter self-derision crossed her lips. She had been a fool! There was no softer word - a fool! Why had she not stopped to think? She understood now! On the night the Adventurer had confided that telephone number to her as Gypsy Nan, he had had every reason to believe that Gypsy Nan would, as she had already apparently done, befriend the White Moll even to the extent of accepting no little personal risk in so doing. But since then things had taken a very different turn. The White Moll was now held by the gang, of which Gypsy Nan was supposed to be a member, to be the one who had of late profited by the gang's plans to the gang's discomfiture; and the Adventurer was ranked but little lower in the scale of hatred, since they counted him to be the White Moll's accomplice. Knowing this, therefore, the first thing the Adventurer would naturally do would be to destroy the clew, in the shape of that telephone number, that would lead to his whereabouts, and which he of course believed he had put into the gang's hands when he had confided in Gypsy Nan. Had he not told her, no later than last night, that Gypsy Nan was her worst enemy? He did not know, did he, that Gypsy Nan and the White Moll were one! And so that telephone had been disconnected - and to-night, now, just when she needed help at a crucial moment, when she had counted upon the Adventurer to supply it, there was no Adventurer, no means of reaching him, and no means any more of knowing where he was!
Rhoda Gray walked on along the street, her lips tight, her face drawn and hard. Failing the Adventurer, there remained - the police. If she telephoned the police and sent them to the Pug's room, they would of a certainty recover the money, and with equal certainty restore it to its rightful owners. She had already thought of that when she had been with Pinkie and the Pug, and had been loath even then to take such a step because it seemed to spell ruin to her own personal plans; but now there was another reason, and one far more cogent, why she should not do so. There had been murder committed back there in that underground drug-dive, and of that murder Pinkie Bonn was innocent; but if Pinkie were found in possession of that money, and French Pete, to save his own skin from the consequences of a greater crime, admitted to its original theft, Pinkie would be convicted out of hand, for there were the others in that dive, who had come running along the passage, to testify that an attack had been made on the door of French Pete and Marny Day's room, and that the thieves and murderers had fled through the cellar and escaped.
Her lips pressed harder together. And so there was no Adventurer upon whom she could call, and no police, and no one in all the millions in this great pulsing city to whom she could appeal; and so there remained only - herself.
Well, she could do it, couldn't she? Not as Gypsy Nan, of course - but as the White Moll. It would be worth it, wouldn't it? If she were sincere, and not a moral hypocrite in her sympathy for those two outraged old people in the twilight of their lives, and if she were not a moral coward, there remained no question as to what her decision should be.
Her mind began to mull over the details. Subconsciously, since the moment she had made her escape from that cellar, she found now that she had been walking in the direction of the garret that sheltered her as Gypsy Nan. In another five minutes she could reach that deserted shed in the lane behind Gypsy Nan's house where her own clothes were hidden, and it would take her but a very few minutes more to effect the transformation from Gypsy Nan to the White Moll. And then, in another ten minutes, she should be back again at the Pug's room. The Pug had said he would not be much more than half an hour, but, as nearly as she could calculate it, that would still give her from five to ten minutes alone with Pinkie Bonn. It was enough - more than enough. The prestige of the White Moll would do the rest. A revolver in the hands of the White Moll would insure instant and obedient respect from Pinkie Bonn, or any other member of the gang under similar conditions. And so - and so - it - would not be difficult. Only there was a queer fluttering at her heart now, and her breath came in hard, short little inhalations. And she spoke suddenly to herself:
"I'm glad," she whispered, "I'm glad I saw those two old faces on that doorstep, because - because, if I hadn't, I - I would be afraid."
The minutes passed. The dissolute figure of an old hag disappeared, like a deeper shadow in the blackness of a lane, through the broken door of a deserted shed; presently a slim, neat little figure, heavily veiled, emerged. Again the minutes passed. And now the veiled figure let herself in through the back door of the Pug's lodging house, and stole softly down the dark hall, and halted before the Pug's door. It was the White Moll now.
From under the door, at the ill-fitting threshold, there showed a thin line of light. Rhoda Gray, with her ear against the door panel, listened. There was no sound of voices from within. Pinkie Bonn, then, was still alone, and still waiting for the Pug. She glanced sharply around her. There was only darkness. Her gloved right hand was hidden in the folds of her skirt; she raised her left hand and knocked softly upon the door-two raps, one rap, two raps. She repeated it. And as it had been with Shluker, so it was now with her. A footstep crossed the floor within, the key turned in the lock, and the door was flung open.
"All right, Pug," said Pinkie Bonn, "I -"
The man's words ended in a gasp of surprised amazement. With a quick step forward, Rhoda Gray was in the room. Her revolver, suddenly outflung, covered the other; and her free hand, reaching behind her, closed and locked the door again.
There was an almost stupid look of bewilderment on Pinkie Bonn's face.
Rhoda Gray threw back her veil.
"My Gawd!" mumbled Pinkie Bonn - and licked his lips. "The White Moll!"
"Yes!" said Rhoda Gray tersely. "Put your hands up over your head and go over there and stand against the wall - with your face to it!"
Pinkie Bonn, like an automaton moved purely by mechanical means, obeyed.
Rhoda Gray followed him, and with the muzzle of her revolver pressed into the small of the man's back, felt rapidly over his clothes with her left hand for the bulge of his revolver. She found and possessed herself of the weapon, and, stepping back, ordered him to turn around again.
"I haven't much time," she said icily. "I'll trouble you now for the cash you took from Marny Day and French Pete."
"My Gawd!" he mumbled again. "You know about that!"
"Quick!" she said imperatively. "Put it on the table there, and then go back again to the wall!"
Pinkie Bonn fumbled in his pocket. His face was white, almost chalky white, and it held fear; but its dominant expression was one of helpless stupefaction. He placed the sheaf of banknotes on the table, and shuffled back again to the wall.
Rhoda Gray picked up the money, and retreated to the door. Still facing the man, working with her left hand behind her back, she unlocked the door again, and this time removed the key from the lock.
"You are quite safe here," she observed evenly, "since there appears to be no window through which you could get out; but you might make it a little unpleasant for me if you gave the alarm and aroused the other occupants of the house before I had got well away. I dare say that was in your mind, but - she opened the door slightly, and inserted the key on the outer side - "I am quite sure you will reconsider any such intentions - Pinkie. It would be a very disastrous thing for you if I were caught. Somebody is 'wanted' for the murder of Marny Day at Charlie's a little while ago, and a jury would undoubtedly decide that the guilty man was the one who broke in the door there and stole the money. And if I were caught and were obliged to confess that I got it from you, and French Pete swore that it was whoever broke into the room that shot his pal, it might go hard with you, Pinkie - don't you think so?" She smiled coldly at the man's staring eyes and dropped jaw. "Good-night, Pinkie; I know you won't make any noise," she said softly - and suddenly opened the door, and in a flash stepped back into the hall, and closed and locked the door, and whipped out the key from the lock.
And inside Pinkie Bonn made no sound.
It was done now. Rhoda Gray drew in her breath in a great choking gasp of relief. She found herself trembling violently. She found her limbs were bearing her none too steadily, as she began to grope her way now along the black hall toward the back door. But it was done now, and - No, she was not safe away, even yet! Some one was coming in through that back door just ahead of her; or, at least, she heard voices out there.
She was just at the end of the hall now. There was no time to go back and risk the front entrance. She darted across the hall to the opposite side from that of the Pug's room, because on that side the opening of the door would not necessarily expose her, and crouched down in the corner. It was black here, perhaps black enough to escape observation. She listened, her heart beating wildly. The voices outside continued. Why were they lingering there? Why didn't they do one thing or the other - either go away, or come in? There wasn't any too much time! The Pug might be back at any minute now. Perhaps one of those people out there was the Pug! Perhaps it would be better after all to run back and go out by the front door, risky as that would be. No, her escape in that direction now was cut off, too!
She shrank as far back into the corner as she could. The door of the end room on this side of the hall had opened, and now a man stepped out and closed the door behind him. Would he see her? She held her breath. No! It - it was all right. He was walking away from her toward the front of the hall. And now for a moment it seemed as though she had lost her senses, as though her brain were playing some mad, wild trick upon her. Wasn't that the Pug's door before which the man had stopped? Yes, yes! And he seemed to have a key to it, for he did not knock, and the door was opening, and now for an instant, just an instant, the light fell upon the man as he stepped with a quick, lightning-like movement inside, and she saw his face. It was the Adventurer.
She stifled a little cry. Her brain was in turmoil. And now the back door was opening. They - they might see her here! And - yes - it was safer - safer to act on the sudden inspiration that had come to her. The door of the room from which the Adventurer had emerged was almost within reach; and he had not locked it as he had gone out - she had subconsciously noted that fact. And she understood why he had not now - that he had safeguarded himself against the loss of even the second or two it would have taken him to unlock it when he ran back for cover again from the Pug's room. Yes-that room! It was the safest thing she could do. She could even get out that way, for it must be the room with the low window, which she remembered gave on the back yard, and - She darted silently forward, and, as the back door opened, slipped into the room the Adventurer had just vacated.
It was pitch black. She must not make a sound; but, equally, she must not lose a second. What was taking place in the Pug's room between Pinkie Bonn and the Adventurer she did not know. But the Adventurer was obviously on one of his marauding expeditions, and he might stay there no more than a minute or two once he found out that he had been forestalled. She must hurry - hurry!
She felt her way forward in what she believed to be the direction of the window. She ran against the bed. But this afforded her something by which to guide herself. She kept her touch upon it, her hand trailing along its edge. And then, halfway down its length, what seemed to be a piece of string caught in her extended, groping fingers. It seemed to cling, but also to yield most curiously, as she tried to shake it off; and then something, evidently from under the mattress, came away with a little jerk, and remained, suspended, in her hand.
It didn't matter, did it? Nothing mattered except to reach the window. Yes, here it was now! And the roller shade was drawn down; that was why the room was so dark. She raised the shade quickly - and suddenly stood there as though transfixed, her face paling, as in the faint light by the window she gazed, fascinated, at the object that still dangled by a cord from her hand.
And it seemed as if an inner darkness were suddenly riven as by a bolt of lightning - a hundred things, once obscure and incomprehensible, were clear now, terribly clear. She understood now how the Adventurer was privy to all the inner workings of the organization; she understood now how it was, and why, the Adventurer had a room so close to that other room across the hall. That dangling thing on an elastic cord was a smeared and dirty celluloid eye-patch that had once been flesh-colored! The Adventurer and the Pug were one!
Her wits! Quick! He must not know! In a frenzy of haste she ran for the bed, and slipped the eye-patch in under the mattress again; and then, still with frenzied speed, she climbed to the window sill, drew the roller shade down again behind her, and dropped to the ground.
Through the back yard and lane she gained the street, and sped on along the street - but her thoughts outpaced her hurrying footsteps. How minutely every detail of the night now seemed to explain itself and dovetail with every other one! At the time, when Shluker had been present, it had struck her as a little forced and unnecessary that the Pug should have volunteered to seek out Danglar with explanations after the money had been secured. But she understood now the craft and guile that lay behind his apparently innocent plan. The Adventurer needed both time and an alibi, and also he required an excuse for making Pinkie Bonn the custodian of the stolen money, and of getting Pinkie alone with that money in the Pug's room. Going to Danglar supplied all this. He had hurried back, changed in that room from the Pug to the Adventurer, and proposed in the latter character to relieve Pinkie of the money, to return then across the hall, become the Pug again, and then go back, as though he had just come from Danglar, to find his friend and ally, Pinkie Bonn, robbed by their mutual arch-enemy - the Adventurer!
The Pug-the Adventurer! She did not quite seem to grasp its significance as applied to her in a personal way. It seemed to branch out into endless ramifications. She could not somehow think logically, coolly enough now, to decide what this meant in a concrete way to her, and her to-morrow, and the days after the to-morrow.
She hurried on. To-night, as she would lay awake through the hours that were to come, for sleep was a thing denied, perhaps a clearer vision would be given her. For the moment there - there was something else - wasn't there? The money that belonged to the old couple.
She hurried on. She came again to the street where the old couple lived. It was a dirty street, and from the curb she stooped and picked up a dirty piece of old newspaper. She wrapped the banknotes in the paper.
There were not many people on the street as she neared the mean little frame house, but she loitered until for the moment the immediate vicinity was deserted; then she slipped into the alleyway, and stole close to the side window, through which, she had noted from the street, there shone a light. Yes, they were there, the two of them - she could see them quite distinctly even through the shutters.
She went back to the front door then, and knocked. And presently the old woman came and opened the door.
"This is yours," Rhoda said, and thrust the package into the woman's hand. And as the woman looked from her to the package uncomprehendingly, Rhoda Gray flung a quick "good-night" over her shoulder, and ran down the steps again.
But a few moments later she stole back, and stood for an instant once more by the shuttered window in the alleyway. And suddenly her eyes grew dim. She saw an old man, white and haggard, with bandaged head, sitting in a chair, the tears streaming down his face; and on the floor, her face hidden on the other's knees, a woman knelt - and the man's hand stroked and stroked the thin gray hair on the woman' s head.
And Rhoda Gray turned away. And out in the street her face was lifted and she looked upward, and there were myriad stars. And there seemed a beauty in them that she had never seen before, and a great, comforting serenity. And they seemed to promise something - that through the window of that stark and evil garret to which she was going now, they would keep her dreaded vigil with her until morning came again.