XV. In the Council Chamber
 

The man with the withered hand had passed through into the other room. She heard them talking together, as she followed. She forced herself to walk with as nearly a leisurely defiant air as she could. The last time she had been with Danglar - as Gypsy Nan - she had, in self-protection, forbidding intimacy, played up what he called her "grouch" at his neglect of her.

She paused in the doorway. Halfway across the room, at the table, Danglar's gaunt, swarthy face showed under the rays of a shaded oil lamp. Behind her spectacles, she met his small, black ferret eyes steadily.

"Hello, Bertha!" he called out cheerily. "How's the old girl to-night?" He rose from his seat to come toward her. "And how's the cold?"

Rhoda Gray scowled at him.

"Worse!" she said curtly-and hoarsely. "And a lot you care! I could have died in that hole, for all you knew! She pushed him irritably away, as he came near her. "Yes, that's what I said! And you needn't start any cooing game now! Get down to cases!" She jerked her hand toward the twisted figure that had slouched into a chair beside the table. "He says you've got it doped out to pull something that will let me out of this Gypsy Nan stunt. Another bubble, I suppose!" She shrugged her shoulders, glanced around her, and, locating a chair - not too near the table - seated herself indifferently. "I'm getting sick of bubbles!" she announced insolently. "What's this one?"

He stood there for a moment biting at his lips, hesitant between anger and tolerant amusement; and then, the latter evidently gaining the ascendency, he too shrugged his shoulders, and with a laugh returned to his chair.

"You're a rare one, Bertha!" he said coolly. "I thought you'd be wild with delight. I guess you're sick, all right - because usually you're pretty sensible. I've tried to tell you that it wasn't my fault I couldn't go near you, and that I had to keep away from -"

"What's the use of going over all that again?" she interrupted tartly. "I guess I -"

"Oh, all right!" said Danglar hurriedly. "Don't start a row! After to-night I've an idea you'll be sweet enough to your husband, and I'm willing to wait. Matty maybe hasn't told you the whole of it."

Matty! So that was the deformed creature's name. She glanced at him. He was grinning broadly. A family squabble seemed to afford him amusement. Her eyes shifted and made a circuit of the room. It was poverty-stricken in appearance, bare-floored, with the scantiest and cheapest of furnishings, its one window tightly shuttered.

"Maybe not," she said carelessly.

"Well, then, listen, Bertha!" Danglar's voice was lowered earnestly. "We've uncovered the Nabob's stuff! Do you get me? Every last one of the sparklers!"

Rhoda Gray's eyes went back to the deformed creature at Danglar's side, as the man laughed out abruptly.

"Yes," grinned Matty Danglar, "and they weren't in the empty money-belt that you beat it with like a scared cat after croaking Deemer!"

How queer and dim the light seemed to go suddenly - or was it a blur before her own eyes? She said nothing. Her mind seemed to be groping its way out of darkness toward some faint gleam of light showing in the far distance. She heard Danglar order his brother savagely to hold his tongue. That was curious, too, because she was grateful for the man's gibe. Gypsy Nan, in her proper person, had murdered a man named Deemer in an effort to secure - Danglar's voice came again:

"Well, to-night we'll get that stuff, all of it - it's worth a cool half million; and to-night we'll get Mr. House-Detective Cloran for keeps - bump him off. That cleans everything up. How does that strike you, Bertha?"

Rhoda Gray's hands under her shawl locked tightly together. Her premonition had not betrayed her. She was face to face to-night with the beginning of the end.

"It sounds fine!" she said derisively.

Danglar's eyes narrowed for an instant; and then he laughed.

"You're a rare one, Bertha!" he ejaculated again. "You don't seem to put much stock in your husband lately."

"Why should I?" she inquired imperturbably. "Things have been breaking fine, haven't they? - only not for us!" She cleared her throat as though it were an effort to talk. "I'm not going crazy with joy till I've been shown."

Danglar leaned suddenly over the table.

"Well, come and look at the cards, then," he said impressively. "Pull your chair up to the table, and I'll tell you."

Rhoda Gray tilted her chair, instead, nonchalantly back against the wall - it was quite light enough where she was!

"I can hear you from here," she said coolly. "I'm not deaf, and I guess Matty's suite is safe enough so that you won't have to whisper all the time!"

The deformed creature at the table chortled again.

Danglar scowled.

"Damn you, Bertha!" he flung out savagely. "I could wring that neck of yours sometimes, and -"

"I know you could, Pierre," she interposed sweetly. "That's what I like about you - you're so considerate of me! But suppose you get down to cases. What's the story about those sparklers? And what's the game that's going to let me shed this Gypsy Nan stuff for keeps?"

"I'll tell her, Pierre," grinned the deformed one. "It'll keep you two from spitting at one another; and neither of you have got all night to stick around here." He swung his withered hand suddenly across the table, and as suddenly all facetiousness was gone both from his voice and manner. "Say, you listen hard, Bertha! What Pierre's telling you is straight. You and him can kiss and make up to-morrow or the next day, or whenever you damned please; but to-night there ain't any more time for scrapping. Now, listen! I handed you a rap about beating it with the empty money-belt the night you croaked Deemer with an overdose of knockout drops in the private dining-room up at the Hotel Marwitz, but you forget that! I ain't for starting any argument about that. None of us blames you. We thought the stuff was in the belt, too. And none of us blames you for making a mistake and going too strong with the drops, either; anybody might do that. And I'll say now that I take my hat off to you for the way you locked Cloran into the room with the dead man, and made your escape when Cloran had you dead to rights for the murder; and I'll say, too, that the way you've played Gypsy Nan and saved your skin, and ours too, is as slick a piece of work as has ever been pulled in the underworld. That puts us straight, you and me, don't it, Bertha?"

Rhoda Gray blinked at the man through her spectacles; her brain was whirling in a mad turmoil. "I always liked you, Matty," she whispered softly.

Danglar was lolling back in his chair, blowing smoke rings into the air. She caught his eyes fixed quizzically upon her.

"Go on, Matty!" he prompted. "You'll have her in a good humor, if you're not careful!"

"We were playing more or less blind after that." The withered hand traced an aimless pattern on the table with its crooked and half-closed fingers, and the man's face was puckered into a shrewd, reminiscent scowl. "The papers couldn't get a lead on the motive for the murder, and the police weren't talking for publication. Not a word about the Rajah's jewels. Washington saw to that! A young potentate's son, practically the guest of the country, touring about in a special for the sake of his education, and dashed near 'ending it in the river out West if it hadn't been for the rescue you know about, wouldn't look well in print; so there wasn't anything said about the slather of gems that was the reward of heroism from a grateful nabob, and we didn't get any help that way. All we knew was that Deemer came East with the jewels, presumably to cash in on them, and it looked as though Deemer "were pretty clever; that he wore the money-belt for a stall, and that he had the sparklers safe somewhere else all the time. And I guess we all got to figuring it that way, because the fact that nothing was said about any theft was strictly along the lines the police were working anyway, and a was a toss-up that they hadn't found the stuff among his effects. Get me?"

Get him! This wasn't real, was it, this room here; those two figures sitting there under that shaded lamp? Something cold, an icy grip, seemed to seize at her heart, as in a surge there swept upon her the full appreciation of her peril through these confidences to which she was listening. A word, in act, some slightest thing, might so easily betray her; and then - Her fingers under the shawl and inside the wide pocket of her greasy skirt, clutched at her revolver. Thank God for that! It would at least be merciful! She nodded her head mechanically.

"But the police didn't find the jewels - because they weren't there to be found. Somebody got in ahead of us. Pinched 'em, understand, may be only a few hours before you got in your last play, and, from the way you say Deemer acted, before he was wise to the fact that he'd been robbed."

Rhoda Gray let her chair come sharply down to the floor. She must play her role of "Bertha" now as she never had before. Here was a question that she could not only ask with safety, but one that was obviously expected.

"Who was it?" she demanded breathlessly.

"She's coming to life!" murmured Danglar, through a haze of cigarette smoke. "I thought you'd wake up after a while, Bertha. This is the big night, old girl, as you'll find out before we're through."

"Who was it?" she repeated with well-simulated impatience.

"I guess she'll listen to me now," said Danglar, with a little chuckle. "Don't over-tax yourself any more, Matty. I'll tell you, Bertha; and it will perhaps make you feel better to know it took the slickest dip New York ever knew to beat you to the tape. It was Angel Jack, alias the Gimp."

"How do you know?" Rhoda Gray demanded.

"Because," said Danglar, and lighted another cigarette, "he died yesterday afternoon up in Sing Sing."

She could afford to show her frank bewilderment. Her brows knitted into furrows, as she stared at Danglar.

"You - you mean he confessed?" she said.

"The Angel? Never!" Danglar laughed grimly, and shook his head. "Nothing like that! It was a question of playing one 'fence' against another. You know that Witzer, who's handled all our jewelry for us, has been on the look-out for any stones that might have come from that collection. Well, this afternoon he passed the word to me that he'd been offered the finest unset emerald he'd ever seen, and that it had come to him through old Jake Luertz's runner, a very innocent-faced young man who is known to the trade as the Crab."

Danglar paused - and laughed again. Unconsciously Rhoda Gray drew her shawl a little closer about her shoulders. It seemed to bring a chill into the room, that laugh. Once before, on another night, Danglar had laughed, and, with his parted lips, she had likened him to a beast showing its fangs. He looked it now more than ever. For all his ease of voice and manner, he was in deadly earnest; and if there was merriment in his laugh, it but seemed to enhance the menace and the promise of unholy purpose that lurked in the cold glitter of his small, black eyes.

"It didn't take long to get hold of the Crab" - Danglar was rubbing his hands together softly - "and the emerald with him. We got him where we could put the screws on without arousing the neighborhood."

"Another murder, I suppose!" Rhoda Gray flung out the words crossly.

"Oh, no," said Danglar pleasantly. "He squealed before it came to that. He's none the worse for wear, and he'll be turned loose in another hour or so, as soon as we're through at old Jake Luertz's. He's no more good to us. He came across all right - after he was properly frightened. He's been with old Jake as a sort of familiar for the last six years, and -"

"He'd have sold his soul out, he was so scared!" The withered hand on the table twitched; the deformed creature's face was twisted into a grimace; and the man was chuckling with unhallowed mirth, as though unable. to contain himself at, presumably, the recollection of a scene which he had witnessed himself. "He was down on his knees and clawing out with his hands for mercy, and he squealed like a rat. 'It's the sixth panel in the bedroom upstairs,' he says; 'it's all there. But for God's sake don't tell Jake I told. It's the sixth panel. Press the knot in the sixth panel that -'" He stopped abruptly.

Danglar had pulled out his watch and with exaggerated patience was circling the crystal with his thumb.

"Are you all through, Matty?" he inquired monotonously. "I think you said something a little while ago about wasting time. Bertha's looking bored; and, besides, she's got a little job of her own on for to-night." He jerked his watch back into his pocket, and turned to Rhoda Gray again. "The only one who knew all the details Angel Jack, and he'll never tell now because he's dead. Whether he came down from the West with Deemer or not, or how he got wise to the stones, I don't know. But he got the stones, all right. And then he tumbled to the fact that the police were pushing him hard for another job he was 'wanted' for, and he had to get those stones out of sight in a hurry. He made a package of them and slipped them to old Luertz, who had always done his business for him, to keep for him; and before he could duck, the bulls had him for that other job. Angel Jack went up the river. See? Old Jake didn't know what was in that package; but he knew better than to monkey with it, because he always thought something of his own skin. He knew Angel Jack, and he knew what would happen if he didn't have that package ready to hand back the day Angel Jack got out of Sing Sing. Understand? But yesterday Angel Jack died-without a will; and old Jake appointed himself sole executor-without bonds! He opened that package, figured he'd begin turning it into money - and that's how we get our own back again. Old Jake will get a fake message to-night calling him out of the house on an errand uptown; and about ten o'clock Pinkie Bonn and the Pug will pay a visit there in his absence, and - well, it looks good, don't it, Bertha, after two years?"

Rhoda Gray was crouched down in her chair. She shrugged her shoulders now, and infused a sullen note into her voice.

"Yes, it's fine!" she sniffed. "I'll be rolling in wealth in my garret - which will do me a lot of good! That doesn't separate me from these rags, and the hell I've lived, does it - after two years?"

"I'm coming to that," said Danglar, with his short, grating laugh. "We've as good as got the stones now, and we're going through to-night for a clean-up of all that old mess. We stake the whole thing. Get me, Bertha - the whole thing ! I'm showing my hand for the first time. Cloran's the man that's making you wear those clothes; Cloran's the only one who could go into the witness box and swear that you were the woman who murdered Deemer; and Cloran's the man who has been working his head off for two years to find you. We've tried a dozen times to bump him off in a way that would make his death appear to be due purely to an accident, and we didn't get away with it; but we can afford to leave the 'accident' out of it to-night, and go through for keeps - and that's what we're going to do. And once he's out of the way - by midnight - you can heave Gypsy Nan into the discard."

It seemed to Rhoda Gray that horror had suddenly taken a numbing hold upon her sensibilities. Danglar was talking about murdering some man, wasn't he, so that she could resume again the personality of a woman who was dead? Hysterical laughter rose to her lips. It was only by a frantic effort of will that she controlled herself. She seemed to speak involuntarily, doubtful almost that it was her own voice she heard.

"I'm listening," she said; "but I wouldn't be too sure. Cloran's a wary bird, and there's the White Moll."

She caught her breath. What suicidal inspiration had prompted her to say that! Had what she had been listening to here, the horror of it, indeed turned her brain and robbed her of her wits to the extent that she should invite exposure? Danglar's face had gone a mottled purple; the misshapen thing at Danglar's side was leering at her most curiously.

It was a moment before Danglar spoke; and then his hand, clenched until the white of the knuckles showed, pounded upon the table to punctuate his words.

"Not to-night!" he rasped out with an oath. "There's not a chance that she's in on this to-night - the she-devil! But she's next! With this cleaned up, she's next! If it takes the last dollar of to-night's haul, and five years to do it, I'll get her, and get -"

"Sure!" mumbled Rhoda Gray hurriedly. "But you needn't get excited! I was only thinking of her because she's queered us till I've got my fingers crossed, that's all. Go on about Cloran."

Danglar's composure did not return on the instant. He gnawed at his lips for a moment before he spoke.

"All right!" he jerked out finally. "Let it go at that! I told you the other night in the garret that things were beginning to break our way, and that you wouldn't have to stay there much longer, but I didn't tell you how or why - you wouldn't give me a chance. I'll tell you now; and it's the main reason why I've kept away from you lately. I couldn't take a chance of Cloran getting wise to that garret and Gypsy Nan." He grinned suddenly. "I've been cultivating Cloran myself for the last two weeks. We're quite pals! I'm for playing the luck every time! When the jewels showed up to-day, I figured that to-night's the night - see? Cloran and I are going to supper together at the Silver Sphinx at about eleven o'clock -and this is where you shed the Gypsy Nan stuff, and show up as your own sweet self. Cloran'll be glad to meet you!"

She stared at him in genuine perplexity and amazement.

"Show myself to Cloran!" she ejaculated heavily. "I don't get you!"

"You will in a minute," said Danglar softly. "You're the bait -see? Cloran and I will be at supper and watching the fox-trotters. You blow in and show yourself - I don't need to tell you how, you're clever enough at that sort of thing yourself - and the minute he recognizes you as the woman he's been looking for that murdered Deemer, you pretend to recognize him for the first time too, and then you beat it like you had the scare of your life for the door. He'll follow you on the jump. I don't know what it's all about, and I sit tight, and that lets me out. And now get this! There'll be two taxicabs outside. If there's more than two, it's the first two I'm talking about. You jump into the one at the head of the line. Cloran won't need any invitation to grab the second one and follow you. That's all! It's the last ride he'll take. It'll be our boys, and not chauffeurs, who'll be driving those cars to-night, and they've got their orders where to go. Cloran won't come back. Understand, Bertha'?"

There was only one answer to make, only one answer that she dared make. She made it mechanically, though her brain reeled. A man named Cloran was to be murdered; and she was to show herself as this - this Bertha - and...

"Yes," she said.

"Good!" said Danglar. He pulled out his watch again. "All right, then! We've been here long enough." He rose briskly. "It's time to make a move. You hop it back to the garret, and get rid of that fancy dress. I've got to meet Cloran uptown first. Come on, Matty, let us out."

The place stifled her. She got up and moved quickly through the intervening room. She heard Danglar and his crippled brother talking earnestly together as they followed her. And then the cripple brushed by her in the darkness, and opened the front door - and Danglar had drawn her to him in a quick embrace. She did not struggle; she dared not. Her heart seemed to stand still. Danglar was whispering in her ear:

"I promised I'd make it up to you, Bertha, old girl. You'll see - after to-night. We'll have another honey-moon. You go on ahead now - I can't be seen with Gypsy Nan. And don't be late - the Silver Sphinx at eleven."

She ran out on the street. Her fingers mechanically clutched at her shawl to loosen it around her throat. It seemed as though she were choking, that she could not breathe. The man's touch upon her had seemed like contact with some foul and loathsome thing; the scene in that room back there like some nightmare of horror from which she could not awake.