XVI. The Secret Panel
 

Rhoda Gray hurried onward, back toward the garret, her mind in riot and dismay. It was not only the beginning of the end; it was very near the end! What was she to do? The Silver Sphinx - at eleven! That was the end - after eleven - wasn't it? She could impersonate Gypsy Nan; she could not, if she would, impersonate the woman who was dead! And then, too, there were the stolen jewels at old Jake Luertz's! She could not turn to the police for help there, because then the Pug might fall into their hands, and - and the Pug was - was the Adventurer.

And then a sort of fatalistic calm fell upon her. If the masquerade was over, if the end had come, there remained only one thing for her to do. There were no risks too desperate to take now. It was she who must strike, and strike first. Those jewels in old Luertz's bedroom became suddenly vital to her. They were tangible evidence. With those jewels in her possession she should be able to force Danglar to his knees. She could get them - before Pinkie Bonn and the Pug - if she hurried. Afterward she would know where to find Danglar - at the Silver Sphinx. Nothing would happen to Cloran, because, through her failure to cooperate, the plan would be abortive; but, veiled, as the White Moll, she could pick up Danglar's trail again there. Yes, it would be the end - one way or the other - between eleven o'clock and daylight!

She quickened her steps. Old Luertz was to be inveigled away from his home about ten o'clock. At a guess, she made it only a little after nine now. She would need the skeleton keys in order to get into old Luertz's place, and, yes, she would need a flashlight, too. Well, she would have time enough to get them, and time enough, then, to run to the deserted shed in the lane behind the garret and change her clothes.

Rhoda Gray, as Gypsy Nan, went on as speedily as she dared without inviting undue attention to herself, reached the garret, secured the articles she sought, hurried out again, and went down the lane in the rear to the deserted shed. She remained longer here than in the attic, perhaps ten minutes, working mostly in the darkness, risking the flashlight only when it was imperative; and then, the metamorphosis complete, a veiled figure, in her own person, as Rhoda Gray, the White Moll, she was out on the street again, and hastening back in the same general direction from which she had just come.

She knew old Jake Luertz's place, and she knew the man himself very intimately by reputation. There were few such men and such places that she could have escaped knowing in the years of self-appointed service that she had given to the worst, and perhaps therefore the most needy, element in New York. The man ostensibly conducted a little secondhand store; in reality he probably "shoved" more stolen goods for his clientele, which at one time or another undoubtedly embraced nearly every crook in the underworld, than any other "fence" in New York. She knew him for an oily, cunning old fox who lived alone in the two rooms over his miserable store - unless, of late, his young henchman, the Crab, had taken to living with him; though, as far as that was concerned, it mattered little to-night, since the Crab, for the moment, thanks to the gang, was eliminated from consideration.

She reached the secondhand store - and walked on past it. There was a light upstairs in the front window. Old Luertz therefore had not yet gone out in response to the gang's fake message. She knew old Luertz's reputation far too well for that; the man would never go out and leave a gas jet burning - which he would have to pay for!

There was nothing to do but wait. Rhoda Gray sought the shelter of a doorway across the street. She was nervously impatient now. The minutes dragged along. Why didn't 'the man hurry and go out? "About ten o'clock," Danglar had said - but that was very indefinite. Pinkie Bonn and the Pug might be as late as that; but, equally, they might be earlier!

It seemed an interminable time. And then, her eyes strained across the street upon that upper window, she drew still farther back into the protecting shadows of the doorway. The light had gone out.

A moment more passed. The street door of the house opposite to her - a door separate from that of the secondhand store-opened, and a bent, gray-bearded man, stepped out, peered around, locked the door behind him, and scuffled down the street.

Rhoda Gray scanned the dingy and ill-lighted little street. It was virtually deserted. She crossed the road, and stepped into the doorway from which the old "fence" had just emerged. It was dark here, well out of the direct radius of the nearest street lamp, and, with luck, there was no reason why she should be observed - if she did not take too long in opening the door! She had never actually used a skeleton key in her life before, and...

She inserted one of her collection of keys in the lock. It would not work. She tried another, and still another-with mounting anxiety and perplexity. Suppose that - yes! The door was open now! With a quick glance over her shoulder, scanning the street in both directions to make sure that she was not observed, she stepped inside, closed the door, and locked it again.

Her flashlight stabbed through the darkness. Narrow stairs immediately in front of her led upward; at her right was a connecting door to the secondhand shop. Without an instant's hesitation she ran up the stairs. There was no need to observe caution since the place was temporarily untenanted; there was need only of haste. She opened the door at the head of the stairs, and, with a quick, eager nod of satisfaction, as the flashlight swept the interior, stepped over the threshold. It was the room she sought - old Luertz's bedroom.

And now the flashlight played inquisitively about her. The bed occupied a position by the window; across one corner of the room was a cretonne hanging, that evidently did service as a wardrobe; across another corner was a large and dilapidated washstand; there were a few chairs, and a threadbare carpet; and, opposite the bed, another door, closed, which obviously led into the front room.

Rhoda Gray stepped to this door, opened it, and peered in. She was not concerned that it was evidently used for kitchen, dining-room and the stowage of everything that overflowed from the bedroom; she was concerned only with the fact that it offered no avenue through which any added risk or danger might reach her. She closed the door as she had found it, and gave her attention now to the walls of old Luertz's bedroom.

She smiled a little whimsically. The Crab had used a somewhat dignified term when he had referred to "panels." True, the, walls were of stained wood, but the wood was of the cheapest variety of matched boards, and the stain was of but a single coat, and a very meager one at that! The smile faded. There were a good many knots; and there were four corners to the room, and therefore eight boards, each one of which would answer to the description of being the "sixth panel."

She went to the corner nearest her, and dropped down on her knees. As well start with this one! She had not dared press Danglar, or Danglar's deformed brother, for more definite directions, had she? She counted the boards quickly from the corner to her right; and then, the flashlight playing steadily, she began to press first one knot after another, in the board before her, working from the bottom up. There were many knots; she went over each one with infinite care. There was no result.

She turned then to the sixth board from the corner to her left. The result was the same. She stood up, her brows puckered, a sense of anxious impatience creeping upon her. She had been quite a while over even these two boards, and it might be any one of the remaining six!

Her eyes traversed the room, following the ray of the flashlight. If she only knew which one, it would - Was it an inspiration? Her eyes had fixed on the cretonne hanging across one of the far corners from the door, and she moved toward it now quickly. The hanging might very well serve for an other purpose than that of merely a wardrobe! It seemed suddenly to be the most likely of the four corners because it was ingeniously concealed.

She parted the hanging. A heterogeneous collection of clothing hung from pegs and nails. Eagerly, hastily now, she brushed these aside, and, close to the wall, dropped down on her knees again. The minutes passed. Twice she went over the sixth board from the corner to her right. She felt so sure now that it was this corner. And then, still eagerly, she turned to the corresponding board at her left.

It was warm and close here. The clothing hanging from the pegs and nails enveloped her, and, with the cretonne hanging itself, shut out the air, what little of it there was, that circulated through the room.

Over the board, from the tiniest knot to the largest, her fingers pressed carefully. Had she missed one anywhere? She must have missed one! She was sure the panel in question was here behind this hanging. Well, she would try again, and...

What was that?

In an instant the flashlight in her hand was out, and she was listening tensely. Yes, there was a footstep - two of them - not only on the stairs, but already just outside the door. It seemed as though a deadly fear, cold and numbing, settled upon her and robbed her of even the power of movement. She was caught! If it was Pinkie Bonn and the Pug, and if this corner hid the secret panel as she still believed it did, this was the first place to which they would come, and they would find her here amongst the clothing - which had evidently been the cause of deadening any sound on those stairs out there until it was too late.

She held her breath, her hands tight upon her bosom. There was no time to reach the sanctuary of the other room - the footsteps were already crossing the threshold from the head of the stairs. And then a voice reached her - the Pug's. It was the Pug and Pinkie Bonn.

"Strike a light, Pinkie! Dere's no use messin' around wid a flash. De old geezer'11 be back on de hop de minute he finds out he's been bunked, an' de quicker we work de better."

A match crackled into flame. An air-choked gas jet, with a protesting hiss, was lighted. And then Rhoda Gray's drawn face relaxed a little, and a strange, mirthless smile came hovering over her lips. What was she afraid of? The Pug was the Adventurer, wasn't he? This was one of the occasions when he could not escape the entanglements of the gang, and must work for the gang instead of appropriating all the loot for his own personal and nefarious ends; but he was the Adventurer. The White Moll need not fear him, even though he appeared, linked with Pinkie Bonn, in the role of the Pug! So there was only Pinkie Bonn to fear.

Rhoda Gray took her revolver from her pocket. She was well armed - and in more than a material sense. The Adventurer did not know that she was aware of the Pug's identity. Her smile, still mirthless, deepened. She might even turn the tables upon them, and still secure the stolen stones. She had turned the tables upon Pinkie Bonn last night; to-night, if she used her wits, she could do it again!

And then, suddenly, she stifled an exclamation, as the Pug's voice reached her again:

"Wot are youse gapin' about? Dere ain't anything else worth pinchin' around here except wot's in de old gent's safety vault. Get a move on! We ain't got all night! It's de corner behind de washstand. Give us a hand to move de furniture!"

It wasn't here behind the cretonne hanging! Rhoda Gray bit her lips in a crestfallen little way. Well, her supposition had been natural enough, hadn't it? And she would have tried every corner before she was through if she had had the opportunity.

She moved now slightly, without a sound, parting the clothing away from in front of her, and moving the cretonne hanging by the fraction of an inch where it touched the side wall of the room. And now she could see the Pug, with his dirty and discolored celluloid eye-patch, and his ingeniously contorted face; and she could see Pinkie Bonn's pasty-white, drug-stamped countenance

It was not a large room. The two men in the opposite corner along the wall from her were scarcely more than ten feet away. They swung the washstand out from the wall, and the Pug, going in behind it, began to work on one of the wall boards. Pinkie Bonn, an unlighted cigarette dangling from his lip, leaned over the washstand watching his companion.

A minute passed - another. It was still in the room, except only for the distant sounds of the world outside - a clatter of wheels upon the pavement, the muffled roar of the elevated, the clang of a trolley bell. And then the Pug began to mutter to himself. Rhoda Gray smiled a little grimly. She was not the only one, it would appear, who experienced difficulty with old Jake Luertz's crafty hiding place!

"Say, dis is de limit!" the Pug growled out suddenly. "Dere's more damned knots in dis board dan I ever save in any piece of wood in me life before, an' -" He drew back abruptly from the wall, twisting his head sharply around. "D'ye hear dat, Pinkie!" he whispered tensely. "Quick! Put out de light! Quick! Dere's some one down at de front door!"

Rhoda Gray felt the blood ebb from her face. She had heard nothing save the rattle and bump of a wagon along the street below; but she had had reason to appreciate on a certain occasion before that the Pug, alias the Adventurer, was possessed of a sense of hearing that was abnormally acute. If it was some one else - who was it? What would it mean to her? What complication here in this room would result? What...

The light was out. Pinkie Bonn had stepped silently across the room to the gas jet near the door. Her eyes, strained, she could just make out the Adventurer's form kneeling by the wall, and then - was she mad! Was the faint night-light of the city filtering in through the window mocking her? The Adventurer, hidden from his companion by the washstand, was working swiftly and without a sound - or else it was a phantasm of shadows that tricked her! A door in the wall opened; the Adventurer thrust in his hand, drew out a package, and, leaning around, slipped it quickly into the bottom of the washstand, where, with its little doors, there was a most convenient and very commodious apartment. He turned again then, seemed to take something from his pocket and place it in the opening in the wall, and then the panel closed.

It had taken scarcely more than a second.

Rhoda Gray brushed her hand across her eyes. No, it wasn't a phantasm! She had misjudged the Adventurer - quite misjudged him! The Adventurer, even with one of the gang present - to furnish an unimpeachable alibi for him! - was plucking the gang's fruit again for his own and undivided enrichment!

Pinkie Bonn's voice came in a guarded whisper from the doorway.

"I don't hear nothin'!" said Pinkie Bonn anxiously.

The Pug tiptoed across the room, and joined his companion. She could not see them now, but apparently they stood together by the door listening. They stood there for a long time. Occasionally she heard them whisper to each other; and then finally the Pug spoke in a less guarded voice.

"All right," he said. "I guess me nerves are gettin' de creeps. Shoot de light on again, an' let's get back on de job. An' youse can take a turn dis time pushin' de knots, Pinkie; mabbe youse'll have better luck."

The light went on again. Both men came back across the room, and now Pinkie Bonn knelt at the wall while the Pug leaned over the washstand watching him. Pinkie Bonn was not immediately successful; the Pug's nerves, of which he had complained, appeared shortly to get the better of him.

"Fer Gawd's sake, hurry up!" he urged irritably. "Or else lemme take another crack at it, Pinkie, an'...

A low, triumphant exclamation came from Pinkie Bonn, as the small door in the wall swung suddenly open.

"There she is, my bucko!" he grinned. "Some nifty vault, eh? The old guy-" He stopped. He had thrust in his hand, and drawn it out again. His fingers gripped a sheet of notepaper - but he was seemingly unconscious of that fact. He was leaning forward, staring into the aperture. "It's empty!" he choked.

"Wot's dat?" cried the Pug, and sprang to his companion's side. "Youse're crazy, Pinkie! He thrust his head toward the opening - and then turned and stared for a moment helplessly at Pinkie Bonn. "So help me!" he said heavily. "It's - it's empty." He shook his fist suddenly. "De Crab's handed us one, dat's wot! But de Crab'll get his fer -"

"It wasn't the Crab!" Pinkie Bonn was stuttering his words. He stood, jaws dropped, his eyes glued now on the paper in his hand.

The Pug, his face working, the personification of baffled rage and intolerance, leered at Pinkie Bonn. "Well, who was it, den?" he snarled.

Pinkie Bonn licked his lips.

"The White Moll!" He licked his lips again.

"De White Moll!" echoed the Pug incredulously.

"Yes," said Pinkie Bonn. "Listen to what's on this paper that I fished out of there I Listen! She's got all the nerve of the devil! 'With thanks, and my most grateful appreciation - the White Moll.'"

The Pug snatched the paper from Pinkie Bonn's hand, as though to assure himself that it was true. Rhoda Gray smiled faintly. It was good acting, very excellently done - seeing that the Pug had written the note and placed it in the hiding place himself!

"My God!" mumbled Pinkie Bonn thickly. "I ain't afraid of most things, but I'm gettin' scared of her. She ain't human. Last night you know what happened, and the night before, and -" He gulped suddenly. "Let's get out of here !" he said hurriedly. The Pug made no reply, except for a muttered growl of assent and a nod of his head.

The two men crossed the room. The light went out. Their footsteps echoed back as they descended the stairs, then died away.

And then Rhoda Gray moved for the first time. She brushed aside the cretonne hanging, ran to the washstand, possessed herself of the package she had seen the Pug place there, and then made her way, cautious now of the s1ightest sound, downstairs.

She tried the door that led into the secondhand shop from the hall, found it unlocked, and with a little gasp of relief slipped through, and closed it gently behind her. She did not dare risk the front entrance. Pinkie Bonn and the Pug were not far enough away yet, and she did not dare wait until they were. Too bulky to take the risk of attempting to conceal it about his person while with Pinkie Bonn, the Pug, it was obvious, would come back alone for that package, and it was equally obvious that he would not be long in doing so. There was old Luertz's return that he would have to anticipate. It would not take wits nearly so sharp as those possessed by the Pug to find an excuse for separating promptly from Pinkie Bonn!

Rhoda Gray groped her way down the shop, groped her way to a back door, unbolted it, working by the sense of touch, and let herself out into a back yard. Five minutes later she was blocks away, and hurrying rapidly back toward the deserted shed in the lane behind Gypsy Nan's garret.

Her lips formed into a tight little curve as she went along. There was still work to do to-night - if this package really contained the stolen legacy of gems left by Angel Jack. She had first of all to reach a place where she could examine the package with safety; then a place to hide it where it would be secure; and then - Danglar!

She gained the lane, stole along it, and disappeared into the shed through the broken door that hung, partially open, on sagging hinges. Here she sought a corner, and crouched down so that her body would smother any reflection from her flashlight. And now, eagerly, feverishly, she began to undo the package; and then, a moment later, she gazed, stupefied and amazed, at what lay before her. Precious stones, scores of them, nestled on a bed of cotton; they were of all colors and of all sizes - but each one of them seemed to pulsate and throb, and from some wondrous, glorious depth of its own to fling back from the white ray upon it a thousand rays in return, as though into it had been breathed a living and immortal fire.

And Rhoda Gray, crouched there, stared - until suddenly she grew afraid, and suddenly with a shudder she wrapped the package up again. These were the stones for whose fabulous worth the woman whose personality she, Rhoda Gray, had usurped, had murdered a man; these were the stones which were indirectly the instrumentality - since but for them Gypsy Nan would never have existed - that made her, Rhoda Gray, to-night, now, at this very moment, a hunted thing, homeless, friendless, fighting for her very life against police and underworld alike!

She rose abruptly to her feet. She had no longer any need of a flashlight. There was even light of a sort in the place - she could see the stars through the jagged holes in the roof, and through one of these, too, the moonlight streamed in. The shed was all but crumbling in a heap. Underfoot, what had once been flooring, was now but rotting, broken boards. Under one of these, beside the clothing of Gypsy Nan which she had discarded but a little while before, she deposited the package; then stepped out into the lane, and from there to the street again.

And now she became suddenly conscious of a great and almost overpowering physical weariness. She did not quite understand at first, unless it was to be attributed to the reaction from the last few hours - and then, smiling wanly to herself, she remembered. For two nights she had not slept. It seemed very strange. That was it, of course, though she was not in the least sleepy now - just tired, just near the breaking point.

But she must go on. To-night was the end, anyhow. To-night, failing to keep her appointment as "Bertha," the crash must come; but before it came, as the White Moll, armed with the knowledge of the crime that had driven Danglar's wife into hiding, and which was Danglar's crime too, and with the evidence in the shape of those jewels in her possession, she and Danglar would meet somewhere - alone. Before the law got him, when he would be close-mouthed and struggling with all his cunning to keep the evidence of other crimes from piling up against him and damning whatever meager chances he might have to escape the penalty for Deemer's murder, she meant - yes, even if she pretended to compound a felony with him - to force or to inveigle from him, it mattered little which, a confession of the authorship and details of the scheme to rob Skarbolov that night when she, Rhoda Gray, in answer to a dying woman's pleading, had tried to forestall the plan, and had been caught, apparently, in the very act of committing the robbery herself! With that confession in her possession, with the identity of the unknown woman who had died in the hospital that night established, her own story would be believed.

And so, if she were weary, what did it matter? It was only until morning. Danglar was at the Silver Sphinx now with the man he meant that she should help him murder, only - only that plan would fail, because there would be no "Bertha" to lure the man to his death, and she, Rhoda Gray, had only to keep track of Danglar until somewhere, where he lived perhaps, she should have that final scene, that final reckoning with him alone.

It was a long way to the Silver Sphinx, which she knew, as every one in the underworld, and every one in New York who was addicted to slumming knew, was a combination dance-hall and restaurant in the Chatham Square district. She tried to find a taxi, but with out avail. A clock in a jeweler's window which she passed showed her that it was ten minutes after eleven. She had had no idea that it was so late. At eleven, Danglar had said. Danglar would be growing restive! She took the elevated. If she could risk the protection of her veil in the Silver Sphinx, she could risk it equally in an elevated train!

But, in spite of the elevated, it was, she knew, well on towards half past eleven when she finally came down the street in front of the Silver Sphinx. From under her veil, she glanced, half curiously, half in a sort of grim irony, at the taxis lined up before the dancehall. The two leading cars were not taxis at all, though they bore the ear-marks, with their registers, of being public vehicles for hire; they were large, roomy, powerful, and looked, with their hoods up, like privately owned motors. Well, it was of little account! She shrugged her shoulders, as -she mounted the steps of the dance-hall. Neither "Bertha" nor Cloran would use those cars to-night!