VIII. The Code Message
 

It was strange! Most strange! Three days had passed, and to Gypsy Nan's lodging no one had come. The small crack under the partition that had been impressed into service as a letter-box had remained empty. There had been no messages - nothing - only a sinister, brooding isolation. Since the night Rhoda Gray had left Danglar, balked, almost a madman in his fury, in the little room over Shluker's junk shop, Danglar had not been seen - nor the Adventurer - nor even Rough Rorke. Her only visitant since then had been an ugly premonition of impending peril, which came and stalked like a hideous ghost about the bare and miserable garret, and which woke her at night with its whispering voice - which was the voice of intuition.

Rhoda Gray drew her shawl closer around her shoulders and shivered, as now, from shuffling down the block in the guise of Gypsy Nan, she halted before the street door of what fate, for the moment, had thrust upon her as a home; and shivered again, as, with abhorrence, she pushed the door open and stepped forward into the black, unlighted hallway. Soul, mind and body were in revolt to-night. Even faith, the simple faith in God that she had known since childhood, was wavering. There seemed nothing but horror around her, a mental horror, a physical horror; and the sole means of even momentary relief and surcease from it had been a pitiful prowling around the streets, where even the fresh air seemed to be denied to her, for it was tainted with the smells of squalor that ruled, rampant, in that neighborhood.

And to-night, stronger than ever, intuition and premonition of approaching danger lay heavy upon her, and oppressed her with a sense of nearness. She was not a coward; but she was afraid. Danglar would leave no stone unturned to get the White Moll. He had said so. She remembered the threat he had made - it had lived in her woman's soul ever since that night. Better anything than to fall into Danglar's hands! She caught her breath a little, and shivered again as she groped her way up the dark stairs. But, then, she never would fall into Danglar's power. There was always an alternative. Yes, it was quite as bad as that - death at her own hands was preferable. Balked, outwitted, the plans of the criminal coterie, of which Danglar appeared to be the head, rendered again and again abortive, and believing it all due to the White Moll, all of Danglar's shrewd, unscrupulous cunning would be centered on the task of running her down; and if, added to this, he discovered that she was masquerading as Gypsy Nan, one of their own inner circle, it mean that - She closed her lips in a hard, tight line. She did not want to think of it. She had fought all day, and the days before, against thinking about it, but premonition had crept upon her stronger and stronger, until to-night, now, it seemed as though her mind could dwell on nothing else.

On the landing, she paused suddenly and listened. The street door had opened and closed, and now a footstep sounded on the stairs behind her. She went on again along the hall, feeling her way; and reaching the short, ladder-like steps to the garret, she began to mount them. Who was it there behind her? One of the unknown lodgers on the lower floor, or -? She could not see, of course. It was pitch black. But she could hear. And as she knelt now on the narrow landing, and felt with her fingers along the floor for the aperture, where, imitating the custom of Gypsy Nan, she had left her key when she went out, she heard the footsteps coming steadily on, passing the doors below her, and making toward the garret ladder. And then, stifling a startled little cry, her hand closed on the key, and closed, as it had closed on that first night when she had returned here in the role of Gypsy Nan, on a piece of paper wrapped around the key. The days of isolation were ended with climacteric effect; the pendulum had swung full the other way - to-night there was both a visitor and a message!

The paper detached from the key and thrust into her bodice, she stood up quickly. A form, looming up even in the darkness, showed on the garret stairs. "Who's dere?" she croaked.

"It's all right," a voice answered in low tones. "You were just ahead of me on the street. I saw you come in. It's Pierre."

Pierre! So that was his name! It was only the voice she recognized. Pierre - Danglar! She fumbled for the keyhole, found it, and inserted the key. "Well, how's Bertha to-night?"

There seemed to be a strange exhilaration in the man's voice. He was standing beside her now, close beside her, and now his hand played with a curiously caressing motion on her shoulder. The touch seemed to scorch and burn her. Who was this Danglar, who was Pierre to her, and to whom she was Bertha? Her breath came quickly in spite of herself; there came, too, a frenzy of aversion, and impulsively she flung his hand away, and with the door unlocked now, stepped from him into the garret.

"Feeling a bit off color, eh?" he said with a short laugh, as he followed her, and shut the door behind him. "Well, I don't know as I blame you. But, look here, old girl, have a heart! It's not my fault. I know what you're grouching about - it's because I haven't been around much lately. But you ought to know well enough that I couldn't help it. Our game has been crimped lately at every turn by that she-devil, the White Moll, and that dude pal of hers." He laughed out again - in savage menace now. "I've been busy. Understand, Bertha? It was either ourselves, or them. We've got to go under - or they have. And we won't! I promise you that! Things'll break a little better before long, and I'll make it up to you."

She could not see him in the blackness of the garret. She breathed a prayer of gratitude that he could not see her. Her face, in spite of Gipsy Nan's disguising grime, must be white, white as death itself. It seemed to plumb some infamous depth from which her soul recoiled, this apology of his for his neglect of her. And then her hands at her sides curled into tight-clenched little fists as she strove to control herself. His words, at least, supplied her with her cue.

"Of course!" she said tartly, but in perfect English - the vernacular of Gypsy Nan was not for Danglar, for she remembered only too well how once before it had nearly tripped her up. "But you didn't come here to apologize! What is it you want?"

"Ah, I say, Bertha!" he said appeasingly. "Cut that out! I couldn't help being away, I tell you. Of course, I didn't come here to apologize - I thought you'd understand well enough without that. The gang's out of cash, and I came to tap the reserves. Let me have a package of the long green, Bertha."

It was a moment before she spoke. Her woman's instinct prompted her to let down the bars between them in no single degree, that her protection lay in playing up to the full what Danglar, jumping at conclusions, had assumed was a grouch at his neglect. Also, her mind worked quickly. Her own clothes were no longer in the secret hiding place here in the garret; they were out there in that old shed in the lane. It was perfectly safe, then, to let Danglar go to the hiding place himself, assuming that he knew where it was - which, almost of necessity, he must.

"Oh!" she said ungraciously. "Well, you know where it is, don't you? Suppose you go and get it yourself!"

"All right!" returned Danglar, a sullenness creeping into his voice. "Have it your own way, Bertha! I haven't got time to-night to coax you out of your tantrums. That's what you want, but I haven't got time - to-night."

She did not answer.

A match crackled in Danglar's hand; the flames spurted up through the darkness. Danglar made his way over to the rickety washstand, found the candle that was stuck in the neck of the gin bottle, lighted it, held the candle above his head, and stared around the garret.

"Why the devil don't you get another lamp?" he grumbled - and started toward the rear of the garret.

Rhoda Gray watched him silently. She did not care to explain that she had not replaced the lamp for the very simple reason that it gave far too much light here in the garret to be safe - for her! She watched him, with her hand in the pocket of her greasy skirt clutched around another legacy of Gypsy Nan - her revolver. And now she became conscious that from the moment she had entered the garret, her fingers, hidden in that pocket, had sought and clung to the weapon. The man filled her with detestation and fear; and somehow she feared him more now in what he was trying to make an ingratiating mood, than she had feared him in the full flood of his rage and anger that other night at Shluker's place.

She drew back a little toward the cot bed against the wall, drew back to give him free passage to the door when he should return again, her eyes still holding on the far end of the garret, where, with the slope of the roof, the ceiling was no more than shoulder high. There seemed something horribly weird and grotesque in the scene before her. He had pushed the narrow trap-door in the ceiling upward, and had thrust candle and head through the opening, and the faint yellow light, seeping back and downward in flickering, uncertain rays, suggested the impression of a gruesome, headless figure standing there hazily outlined in the surrounding murk. It chilled her; she clutched at her shawl, drew it more closely about her, and edged still nearer to the wall.

And then Danglar closed the trap-door again, and came back with the candle in one hand, and one of the bulky packages of banknotes from the hiding place in the other. He set the candle down on the washstand, and began to distribute the money through his various pockets.

He was smiling with curious complacency.

"It was your job to play the spider to the White Moll if she ever showed up again here in your parlor," he said. "Maybe somebody tipped her off to keep away, maybe she was too wily; but, anyway, since you have not sent out any word, it is evident that our little plans along that line didn't work, since she has failed to come back to pay a call of gratitude to you. I don't suppose there's anything to add to that, eh, Bertha? No report to make?"

"No," said Rhoda Gray shortly. "I haven't any report to make."

"Well, no matter!" said Danglar. He laughed out shortly. "There are other ways! She's had her fling at our expense; it's her turn to pay now." He laughed again - and in the laugh now there was something both brutal in its menace, and sinister in its suggestion of gloating triumph.

"What do you mean?" demanded Rhoda Gray quickly. "What are you going to do?"

"Get her!" said Danglar. The man's passion flamed up suddenly; he spoke through his closed teeth. "Get her! I made her a little promise. I'm going to keep it! Understand?"

"You've been saying that for quite a long time," retorted Rhoda Gray coolly. "But the 'getting' has been all the other way so far. How are you going to get her?"

Danglar's little black eyes narrowed, and he thrust his head forward and out from his shoulders savagely. In the flickering candle light, with contorted face and snarling lips, he looked again the beast to which she had once likened him.

"Never mind how I'm going to get her!" he flung out, with an oath. "I told you I'd been busy. That's enough! You'll see

Rhoda Gray, in the semi-darkness, shrugged her shoulders. Was the man, prompted by rage and fury, simply making wild threats, or had he at last some definite and perhaps infallible plan that he purposed putting into operation? She did not know; and, much as it meant to her, she did not dare take the risk of arousing suspicion by pressing the question. Failing, then, to obtain any intimation of what he meant to do, the next thing most to be desired was to get rid of him.

"You've got the money. That's what you came for, wasn't it?" she suggested coldly.

He stared at her for a moment, and then his face gradually lost its scowl.

"You're a rare one, Bertha!" he exclaimed admiringly. "Yes; I've got the money - and I'm going. In fact, I'm in a hurry, so don't worry! You got the dope, like everybody else, for to-night, didn't you? It was sent out two hours ago."

The dope! It puzzled her for the fraction of a second - and then she remembered the paper she had thrust into the bodice of her dress. She had not read it. She lunged a little in the dark.

"Yes," she said curtly.

"All right!" he said-and moved toward the door. "That explains why I'm in a hurry - and why I can't stop to oil that grouch out of you. But I'll keep my promise to you, too, old girl. I'll make up the last few days to you. Have a heart, eh, Bertha! 'Night!"

She did not answer him. It seemed as though an unutterable dread had suddenly been lifted from her, as he passed out of the door and began to descend the steps to the hall below. Her "grouch," he had called it. Well, it had served its purpose! It was just as well that he should think so! She followed to the door, and deliberately slammed it with a bang. And from below, his laugh, more an amused chuckle, echoed back and answered her.

And then, for a long time she stood there by the door, a little weak with the revulsion of relief upon her, her hands pressed hard against her temples, staring unseeingly about the garret. He was gone. He filled her with terror. Every instinct she possessed, every fiber of her being revolted against him. He was gone. Yes, he was gone - for the time being. But - but what was the end of all this to be?"

She shook her head after a moment, shook it helplessly and wearily, as, finally, she walked over to the washstand, took the piece of paper from the bodice of her dress, and spread it out under the candle light. A glance showed her that it was in cipher. There was the stub of a pencil, she remembered, in the washstand drawer, and, armed with this, and a piece of wrapping paper that had once enveloped one of Gypsy Nan's gin bottles, she took up the candle, crossed the garret, and sat down on the edge of the cot, placing the candle on the chair in front of her.

If the last three days had been productive of nothing else, they had at least furnished her with the opportunity of studying the notebook she had found in the secret hiding place, and of making herself conversant with the gang's cipher; and she now set to work upon it. It was a numerical cipher. Each letter of the alphabet in regular rotation was represented by its corresponding numeral; a zero was employed to set off one letter from another, and the addition of the numerals between the zeros indicated the number of the letter involved. Also, there being but twenty-six letters in the alphabet, it was obvious that the addition of three nines, which was twenty-seven, could not represent any letter, and the combination of 999 was therefore used to precede any of the arbitrary groups of numerals which were employed to express phrases and sentences, such as the 739 that she had found scrawled on the piece of paper around her key on the first night she had come here, and which, had it been embodied in a message and not preceded by the 999, would have meant simply the addition of seven, three and nine, that is, nineteen - and therefore would indicate the nineteenth letter of the alphabet, S.

Rhoda Gray copied the first line of the message on the piece of wrapping paper:

   321010333203202306663103330111102210444202101112052110761

Adding the numerals between the zeros, and giving to each its corresponding letter, she set down the result:

             6010110505022090405014030509014
             f a  k e e  v i d e  n c e i  n

It was then but a matter of grouping the letters into words; and, decoded, the first line read:

             Fake evidence in......     

She worked steadily on. It was a lengthy message, and it took her a long time. It was an hour, perhaps more, after Danglar had gone, before she had completed her task; and then, after that, she sat for still a long time staring, not at the paper on the chair before her, but at the flickering shadows thrown by the candle on the opposite wall.

Queer and strange were the undercurrents and the cross-sections of life that were to be found, amazingly contradictory, amazingly incomprehensible, once one scratched beneath the surface of the poverty and the squalor, and, yes, the crime, amongst the hiving thousands of New York's East Side! In the days - not so very long ago - when, as the White Moll, she had worked amongst these classes, she had on one occasion, when he was sick, even kept old Viner in food. She had not, at the time, failed to realize that the man was grasping, rapacious, even unthankful, but she had little dreamed that he was a miser worth fifty thousand dollars!

Her mind swerved off suddenly at a tangent. The tentacles of this crime octopus, of which Danglar seemed to be the head, reached far and into most curious places to fasten and hold and feed on the progeny of human foibles! She could not help wondering where the lair was from which emanated the efficiency and system that, as witness this code message to-night, kept its members, perhaps widely scattered, fully informed of its every movement.

She shook her head. That was something she had not yet learned; but it was something she must learn if ever she hoped to obtain the evidence that would clear her of the crime that circumstances had fastened upon her. And yet she had made no move in that direction, because - well, because, so far, it had seemed all she could do to protect and safeguard herself in her present miserable existence and surroundings, which, abhorrent as they were, alone stood between her and a prison cell.

Her forehead gathered into little furrows; and, reverting to the code message, her thoughts harked back to a well-known crime, the authorship of which still remained a mystery, and which had stirred the East Side some two years ago. A man - in the vernacular of the underworld a "stage hand" - by the name of Kroner, credited with having a large amount of cash, the proceeds of some nefarious transaction, in his possession on the night in question, was found murdered in his room in an old and tumble-down tenement of unsavory reputation. The police net had gathered in some of the co-tenants on suspicion; Nicky Viner, referred to in the code message, amongst them. But nothing had come of the investigation. There had been no charge of collusion between the suspects; but Perlmer, a shyster lawyer, had acted for them all collectively, and, one and all, they had been discharged. In what degree Perlmer's services had been of actual value had never been ascertained, for the police, through lack of evidence, had been obliged to drop the case; but the underworld had whispered to itself. There was such a thing as suppressing evidence, and Perlmer was known to have the cunning of a fox, and a code of morals that never stood in the way, or restricted him in any manner.

The code message threw a new light on all this. Perlmer must have known that old Nicky Viner had money, for, according to the code message, Perlmer prepared a fake set of affidavits and forged a chain of fake evidence with which he had blackmailed Nicky Viner ever since; and Nicky Viner, known as a dissolute, shady character, innocent enough of the crime, but afraid because his possession of money if made public would tell against him, and frightened because he had already been arrested once on suspicion for that very crime, had whimpered - and paid. And then, somehow, Danglar and the gang had discovered that the old, seedy, stoop-shouldered, bearded, down-at-the-heels Nicky Viner was not all that he seemed; that he was a miser, and had a hoard of fifty thousand dollars - and Danglar and the gang had set out to find that hoard and appropriate it. Only they had not succeeded. But in their search they had stumbled upon Perlmer's trail, and that was the key to the plan they had afoot to-night. If Perlmer's fake and manufactured affidavits were clever enough and convincing enough to wring money out of Viner for Perlmer, they were more than enough to enable Danglar, employed as Danglar would employ them, to wring from Nicky Viner the secret of where the old miser hid his wealth; for Viner would understand that Danglar was not hampered by having to safeguard himself on account of having been originally connected with the case in a legal capacity, or any capacity, and therefore in demanding all or nothing, would have no cause for hesitation, failing to get what he wanted, in turning the evidence over to the police. In other words, where Perlmer had to play his man cautiously and get what he could, Danglar could go the limit and get all. As it stood, then, Danglar and the gang had not found out the location of that hoard; but they had found out where Perlmer kept his spurious papers - stuffed in at the back of the bottom drawer of his desk in his office, practically forgotten, practically useless to Perlmer any more, for, having once shown them to Viner, there was no occasion to call them into service again unless Viner showed signs of getting a little out of hand and it became necessary to apply the screws once more.

For the rest, it was a very simple matter. Perlmer had an office in a small building on lower Sixth Avenue, and it was his custom to go to his office in the evenings and remain there until ten o'clock or so. The plan then, according to the code message, was to loot Perlmer's desk some time after the man had gone home for the night, and then, at midnight, armed with the false documents, to beard old Nicky Viner in his miserable quarters over on the East Side, and extort from the old miser the neat little sum that Danglar estimated would amount to some fifty thousand dollars in cash.

Rhoda Gray's face was troubled and serious. She found herself wishing for a moment that she had never decoded the message. But she shook her head in sharp self-protest the next instant. True, she would have evaded the responsibility that the criminal knowledge now in her possession had brought her; but she would have done so, in that case, deliberately at the expense of her own self-respect. It would not have excused her in her own soul to have sat staring at a cipher message that she was satisfied was some criminal plot, and have refused to decode it simply because she was afraid a sense of duty would involve her in an effort to frustrate it. To have sat idly by under those circumstances would have been as reprehensible - and even more cowardly - than it would be to sit idly by now that she knew what was to take place. And on that latter score to-night there was no argument with herself. She found herself accepting the fact that she would act, and act promptly, as the only natural corollary to the fact that she was in a position to do so. Perhaps it was that way to-night, not only because she had on a previous occasion already fought this principle of duty out with herself, but because to-night, unlike that other night, the way and the means seemed to present no insurmountable difficulties, and because she was now far better prepared, and free from all the perplexing, though enormously vital, little details that had on the former occasion reared themselves up in mountainous aspect before her. The purchase of a heavy veil, for instance, the day after the Hayden-Bond affair, would enable her now to move about the city in the clothes of the White Moll practically at will and without fear of detection. And, further, the facilities for making that change, the change from Gypsy Nan to the White Moll, were now already at hand - in the little old shed down the lane.

And as far as any actual danger that she might incur to-night was concerned, it was not great. She was not interested in the fifty thousand dollars in an intrinsic sense; she was interested only in seeing that old Nicky Viner, unappealing, yes, and almost repulsive both in personality and habits as the man was, was not blackmailed out of it; that Danglar, yes, and hereafter, Perlmer too, should not prey like vultures on the man, and rob him of what was rightfully his. If, therefore, she secured those papers from Perlmer's desk, it automatically put an end to Danglar's scheme to-night; and if, later, she saw to it that those papers came into Viner's possession, that, too, automatically ended Perlmer's persecutions. Indeed, there seemed little likelihood of any danger or risk at all. It could not be quite ten o clock yet; and it was not likely that whoever was delegated by Danglar to rob Perlmer's office would go there much before eleven anyway, since they would naturally allow for the possibility that Perlmer might stay later in his office than usual, a contingency that doubtless accounted for midnight being set as the hour at which they proposed to lay old Nicky Viner by the heels. Therefore, it seemed almost a certainty that she would reach there, not only first, but with ample time at her disposal to secure the papers and get away again without interruption. She might even, perhaps, reach the office before Perlmer himself had left - it was still quite early enough for that - but in that case she need only remain on watch until the lawyer had locked up and gone away. Nor need even the fact that the office would be locked dismay her. In the secret hiding-place here in the garret, among those many other evidences of criminal activity, was the collection of skeleton keys, and - she was moving swiftly around the attic now, physically as active as her thoughts.

It was not like that other night. There were few preparations to make. She had only to secure the keys and a flashlight, and to take with her the damp cloth that would remove the grime streaks from her face, and the box of composition that would enable her to replace them when she came back - and five minutes later she was on the street, making her way toward the lane, and, specifically, toward the deserted shed where she had hidden away her own clothing.