The White Moll by Frank L. Packard
VI. The Rendezvous
Rhoda Gray's movements were a little unsteady as she stepped out on the sidewalk. Gypsy Nan's accepted inebriety was not without its compensation. It enabled her, as she swayed for a moment, to scrutinize the street in all directions. Were any of Rough Rorke's men watching the house? She did not know; she only knew that as far as she had been able to discover, she had not been followed when she had gone out that afternoon. Up the street, to her right, there were a few pedestrians; to her left, as far as the corner, the block was clear. She turned in the latter direction. She had noticed that afternoon that there was a lane between Gypsy Nan's house and the corner; she gained this and slipped into it unobserved.
And now, in the comparative darkness, she hurried her steps. Somewhere here in the lane she would make the transformation from Gypsy Nan to the White Moll complete; it required only some place in which she could with safety leave the garments that she discarded, and - Yes, this would do! A tumble-down old shed, its battered door half open, ample proof that the place was in disuse, intersected the line of high board fence on her right.
She stole inside. It was utterly dark, but she had no need for light. It was a matter of perhaps three minutes; and then, the revolver transferred to the pocket of her jacket, the stains removed from her face by the aid of the damp cloth, her hands neatly gloved in black kid, the skirt, boots, stockings, shawl, spectacles and wig of Gypsy Nan carefully piled together and hidden in a hole under the rotting boards of the floor, behind the door, she emerged as the White Moll, and went on again.
But at the end of the lane, where it met a cross street, and the street lamp flung out an ominous challenge, and, dim though it was, seemed to glare with the brightness of daylight, she faltered for a moment and drew back. She knew where Shluker's place was, because she knew, as few knew it, every nook and cranny in the East Side, and it was a long way to that old junk shop, almost over to the East River, and - and there would be lights like this one here that barred her exit from the lane, thousands of them, lights all the way, and - and out there they were searching everywhere, pitilessly, for the White Moll.
And then, with her lips tightened, the straight little shoulders thrown resolutely back, she slipped from the lane to the sidewalk, and, hugging the shadows of the buildings, started forward.
She was alert now in mind and body, every faculty strained and in tension. It was a long way, and it would take a great while - by wide detours, by lanes and alleyways, for only on those streets that were relatively deserted and poorly lighted would she dare trust herself to the open. And as she went along, now skirting the side of a street, now through some black courtyard, now forced to take a fence, and taking it with the agility born of the open, athletic life she had led with her father in the mining camps of South America, now hiding at the mouth of a lane waiting her chance to cross an intersecting street when some receding footstep should have died away, the terror of delay came gripping at her heart with an icy clutch, submerging the fear of personal peril in the agony of dread that, with her progress so slow, she would, after all, be too late. And at times she almost cried out in her vexation and despair, as once, when crouched behind a door-stoop, a policeman, not two yards from her, stood and twirled his night stick under the street lamp while the minutes sped and raced themselves away.
When she could run, she ran until it seemed her lungs must burst, but it was slow progress at best, and always the terror grew upon her. Had Danglar met the men yet who had looted the millionaire's safe? Had he already joined Skeeny in that old room behind Shluker's place? Had the Sparrow - She would not let her mind frame that question in concrete words. The Sparrow! His real name was Martin, Martin Finch - Marty, for short. Times without number she had visited the sick and widowed mother - while the Sparrow had served a two-years' sentence for his first conviction in safe-breaking. The Sparrow, from a first-class chauffeur mechanic, had showed signs of becoming a first-class cracksman, it was true; but the Sparrow was young, and she had never believed that he was inherently bad. Her opinion had been confirmed when, some six months ago, on his release, listening both to her own pleadings and to those of his mother, the Sparrow had sworn that he would stick to the "straight and narrow." And Hayden-Bond, the millionaire, referred to by a good many people as eccentric, had further proved his claims to eccentricity in the eyes of a good many people by giving a prison bird a chance to make an honest living, and had engaged the Sparrow as his chauffeur. It was a vile and an abominable thing that they were doing, even if they had not planned to culminate it with murder. What chance would the Sparrow have had!
It had taken a long time. She did not know how long, as, at last, she stole unnoticed into a black and narrow driveway that led in, between two blocks of down-at-the-heels tenements, to a courtyard in the rear. Shluker had his junk shop here. Her lips pursed up as though defiant of a tinge of perplexity that had suddenly taken possession of her. She did not know Shluker, or anything about Shluker's place except its locality; but surely "the old room behind Shluker's" was direction enough, and - She had just emerged from the end of the driveway now, and now, startled, she turned her head quickly, as she heard a brisk step turning in from the street behind her. But in the darkness she could see no one, and satisfied, therefore, that she in turn had not been seen, she moved swiftly to one side, and crouched down against the rear wall of one of the tenements. A long moment, that seemed an eternity, passed, and then a man's form came out from the driveway, and started across the courtyard.
She drew in her breath sharply, a curious mingling of relief and a sudden panic fear upon her. It was not so dark in the courtyard as it had been in the driveway, and, unless she were strangely mistaken that form out there was Danglar's. She watched him as he headed toward a small building that loomed up like a black, irregular shadow across the courtyard, and which was Shluker's shop - watched him in a tense, fascinated way. She was in time, then - only - only somehow now her limbs seemed to have become weak and powerless. It seemed suddenly as though she craved with all her soul the protecting shadows of the tenement, and that every impulse bade her cling there, flattened against the wall, until she could make her escape. She was afraid now; she shrank from the next step. It wasn't illogical. She had set out with a purpose in view, and she had not been blind to the danger that she ran, but the prospective and mental encounter with danger did not hold the terror that the tangible, concrete and actual presence of that peril did - and that was Danglar there.
She felt her face whiten, and she felt the tremor of her lips, tightly as they were drawn together. Yes, she was afraid, afraid in every fiber of her being, but there was a difference, wasn't there, between being afraid and being a coward? Her small, gloved hands clenched, her lips parted slightly. She laughed a little now, low, without mirth. Upon what she did or did not do, upon the margin between fear and cowardice as applied to herself, there hung a man's life. Danglar was disappearing around the side of Shluker's shop. She moved out from the wall, and swiftly, silently, crossed the courtyard, gained the side of the junk shop in turn, skirted it, and halted, listening, peering around her, as she reached the rear corner of the building. A door closed somewhere ahead of her; from above, upstairs, faint streaks of light showed through the interstices of a shuttered window.
She crept forward now, hugging the rear wall, reached a door-the one, obviously, through which Danglar had disappeared, and which she had heard as it was closed - tried the door, found it unlocked, and, noiselessly, inch by inch, pushed it open; and a moment later, stepping over the threshold, she closed it softly behind her. A dull glow of light, emanating evidently from an open door above, disclosed the upper portion of a stairway over on her left, but apart from that the place was in blackness, and save that she knew, of course, she was in the rear of Shluker's junk shop, she could form no idea of her surroundings. But she could, at last, hear. Voices, one of which she recognized as Danglar's, though she could not distinguish the words, reached her from upstairs.
Slowly, with infinite care, she crossed to the stairs, and on hands and knees now, lest she should make a sound, began to crawl upward. And a little way up, panic fear seized upon her again, and her heart stood still, and she turned a miserable face in the darkness back toward the door below, and fought against the impulse to retreat again.
And then she heard Danglar speak, and from her new vantage point his words came to her distinctly this time:
"Good work, Skeeny! You've got the Sparrow nicely trussed up, I see. Well, he'll do as he is for a while there. I told the boys to hold off a bit. It's safer to wait an hour or two yet, before moving him away from here and bumping him off."
"Two jobs instead of one!" a surly voice answered. "We might just as well have finished him and slipped him away for keeps when we first got our hooks on him."
"Got a little sick of your wood-carving, while you stuck around by your lonesome and watched him - eh?" Danglar's tones were jocularly facetious. "Don't grouch, Skeeny! We're not killing for fun - it doesn't pay. Supposing anything had broken wrong up the Avenue - eh? We wouldn't have had our friend the Sparrow there for the next time we tried it!"
There was something abhorrently callous in the laugh that followed. It seemed to fan into flame a smoldering fire of passionate anger in Rhoda Gray's soul. And before it panic fled. Her hand felt upward for the next stair-tread, and she crept on again, as a face seemed to rise before her - not the Sparrow's face - a woman's face. It was a face that was crowned with very thin white hair, and its eyes were the saddest she had ever seen, and yet they were brave, steady old eyes that had not lost their faith; nor had the old, care-lined face itself, in spite of suffering, lost its gentleness and sweetness. And then suddenly it seemed to change, that face, and become wreathed in smiles, and happy tears to run coursing down the wrinkled cheeks. Yes, she remembered! It had brought the tears to her own eyes. It was the night that the wayward Sparrow, home from the penitentiary, on his knees, his head buried in his mother's lap, had sworn that he would go straight.
Fear! It seemed as though she never had known, never could know fear - that only a merciless, tigerish, unbridled fury had her in its thrall. And she went on up, step after step, as Danglar spoke again:
"There's nothing to it! The Sparrow there fell for the telephone when Stevie played the doctor. And old Hayden-Bond of course grants his prison-bird chauffeur's request to spend the night with his mother, who the doctor says is taken worse, because the old guy knows there is a mother who really is sick. Only Mr. Hayden-Bond, and the police with him, will maybe figure it a little differently in the morning when they find the safe looted, and that the Sparrow, instead of ever going near the poor old dame, has flown the coop and can't be found. And in case there's any lingering doubt in their minds, that piece of paper with the grease-smudges and the Sparrow's greasy finger-prints on it, that you remember we copped a few days ago in the garage, will set them straight. The Cricket slipped it in among the papers he pulled out of the safe and tossed around on the floor. It looks as though a tool had been wiped with it while the safe was being cracked, and that it got covered over by the stuff that was emptied out, and had been forgotten. I guess they won't be long in comparing the finger-prints with the ones the Sparrow kindly left with them when they measured him for his striped suit the time they sent him up the river - eh?"
Rhoda Gray could see now. Her eyes were on a level with the landing, and diagonally across from the head of the stairs was the open doorway of a lighted room. She could not see all of the interior, but she could see quite enough. Two men sat, side face to her, one at each end of a rough, deal table - Danglar, and an ugly, pock-marked, unshaven man, in a peaked cap that was drawn down over his eyes, who whittled at a stick with a huge jack-knife. The latter was Skeeny, obviously; and the jack-knife and the stick, quite as obviously, explained Danglar's facetious reference to wood-carving. And then her eyes shifted, and widened as they rested on a huddled form that she could see by looking under and beyond the table, and that lay sprawled out against the far wall of the room.
Skeeny pushed the peak of his cap back with the point of his knife-blade.
"What's the haul size up at?" he demanded. "Anything in the safe besides the shiners?"
"A few hundred dollars," Danglar replied. "I don't know exactly how much. I told the Cricket to divide it up among the boys who did the rough work. That's good enough, isn't it, Skeeny? It gives you a little extra. You'll get yours."
Skeeny grunted compliance.
"Well, let's have a look at the white ones, then," he said.
Rhoda Gray was standing upright in the little hallway now, and now, pressed close against the wall, she edged toward the door-jamb. And a queer, grim little smile came and twisted the sensitive lips, as she drew her revolver from her pocket. The merciless, pitiless way in which the newspapers had flayed the White Moll was not, after all, to be wholly regretted! The cool, clever resourcefulness, the years of reckless daring attributed to the White Moll, would stand her in good stead now. Everybody on the East Side knew her by sight. These men knew her. It was not merely a woman ambitiously attempting to beard two men who, perhaps, holding her sex in contempt in an adventure of this kind, might throw discretion to the winds and give scant respect to her revolver, for behind the muzzle of that revolver was the reputation of the White Moll. They would take her at face value - as one who not only knew how to use that revolver, but as one who would not hesitate an instant to do so.
From the room she heard Skeeny whistle low under his breath, as though in sudden and amazed delight - and then she was standing full in the open doorway, and her revolver in her outflung, gloved hand covered the two men at the table.
There was a startled cry from Skeeny, a scintillating flash of light as a magnificent string of diamonds fell from his hand to the table. But Danglar did not move or speak; only his lips twitched, and a queer whiteness came and spread itself over his face.
"Put up your hands-both of you!" she ordered, in a low, tense voice.
It was Skeeny who spoke, as both men obeyed her. "The White Moll, so help me!" he mumbled, and swallowed hard.
Danglar's eyes never seemed to leave her face, and they narrowed now, full of hatred and a fury that lie made no attempt to conceal. She smiled at him coldly. She quite understood! He had already complained that evening that the White Moll for the last few weeks had been robbing them of the fruits of their laboriously planned schemes. And now-again! Well, she would not dispel his illusion! He had given the White Moll that role - and it was the safest role to play.
She stepped forward now, and with her free hand suddenly pulled the table toward her out of their reach; and then, as she picked up the necklace, she appeared for the first time to become aware of the presence of the huddled form on the floor near the wall. She could see that the Sparrow was bound and gagged, and as he squirmed now he turned his face toward her.
"Why, it's the Sparrow, isn't it?" she exclaimed sharply; then, evenly, to the two men: "I had no idea you were so hospitable! Push your chairs closer together - with your feet, not your hands! You are easier to watch if you are not too far apart."
Dangler complied sullenly. Skeeny, over the scraping of his chair legs, cursed in a sort of unnerved abandon, as he obeyed her.
"Thank you!" said Rhoda Gray pleasantly - and calmly tucked the necklace into her bodice.
The act seemed to rouse Danglar to the last pitch of fury. The blood rushed in an angry tide to his face, and, suffusing, purpled his cheeks.
"This isn't the first crack you've made!" he flung out hoarsely. "You've been getting wise to a whole lot lately somehow, you and that dude pal of yours, but you'll pay for it, you female devil! Understand? By God, you'll pay for it! I promise you that you'll pray yet on your bended knees for the chance to take your own life! Do you hear?"
"I hear," said Rhoda Gray coldly.
She picked up the jack-knife from the table, and keeping both men covered, stepped backward to the wall. Here, kneeling, she reached behind her with her left hand, and felt for, and cut the heavy cord that bound the Sparrow's arms; then, pushing the knife into the Sparrow's hands that he might free himself from the rest of his bonds, she stood up again.
A moment more, and the Sparrow, rubbing the circulation back into his wrists, stood beside her. There was a look on the young, white face that was not good to see. He circled dry lips with the tip of his tongue and then his thumb began to feel over the blade of the big jack-knife in a sort of horribly supercritical appraisal of its edge. He spoke thickly for the gag that had been in his mouth.
"You dirty skates!" he whispered. "You were going to bump me off, were you? You planted me cold, did you? Oh, hell!" His laugh, like the laugh of one insane, jangling, discordant, rang through the room. "Well, it's my turn now, and" - his body was coiling itself in a slow, curious, almost snake-like fashion - "and you'll -"
Rhoda Gray laid her hand on the Sparrow's arm.
"Not that way, Marty," she said quietly. She smiled thinly at Danglar, who, with genuinely frightened eyes now, seemed fascinated by the Sparrow's movements. "I wouldn't care to have anything happen to Mr. Danglar - yet. He has been invaluable to me, and I am sure he will be again."
The Sparrow brushed his hands across his eyes, and stared at her. He licked his lips again. He appeared to be obsessed with the knife-blade in his hand - dazed in a strange way to all else.
"There's enough cord there for both of them," said Rhoda Gray crisply. "Tie them in their chairs, Marty."
For a moment the Sparrow hesitated; and then, with a sort of queer reluctancy, he dropped the knife on the table, and went and picked up the strands of cord from the floor.
No one spoke. The Sparrow, with twitching lips as he worked, and worked not gently, bound first Danglar and then Skeeny to their respective chairs. Skeeny for the most part kept his eyes on the floor, casting only furtive glances at Rhoda Gray's revolver muzzle. But Danglar was smiling now. He had very white teeth. There was something of primal, insensate fury in the hard-drawn, parted lips. Somehow he seemed to remind Rhoda Gray of a beast, stung to madness, but impotent behind the bars of its cage, as it showed its fangs.
"We'll go now, Marty," she said softly, as the Sparrow finished.
She motioned the Sparrow with an imperious little nod of her head to the door. And then, following the other, she backed to the door herself, and halted an instant on the threshold.
"It has been a very profitable evening, Mr. Danglar," she said coolly. "I have you to thank for it. When your friends come, which I think I heard you say would be in another hour or so, I hope you will not fail to convey to them my -"
"You she-fiend!" Danglar had found his voice again. You'll crawl for this! Do you understand? and I'll show you inside of twenty-four hours what you're up against, you - you -" His voice broke in its fury. The veins were standing out on the side of his neck like whipcords. He could just move his forearms a little, and his hands reached out toward her, curved like claws. "I'll -"
But Rhoda Gray had closed the door behind her, and, with the Sparrow, was retreating down the stairs.