Chapter XXV. Cornered
 

He did not see John for a moment, and had reached the door of the room when he became aware of a presence. He turned in surprise. He was a smallish, pale-faced man with protruding eyes and teeth which gave him a certain resemblance to a rabbit.

"Hello!" he said.

"Welcome to our city," said John, stepping unostentatiously between him and the stairs.

Master Maloney, who had taken advantage of the interruption to edge back into the center of things, now appeared to consider the question of his departure permanently shelved. He sidled to a corner of the landing, and sat down on an empty soap box with the air of a dramatic critic at the opening night of a new play. The scene looked good to him. It promised interesting developments. He was an earnest student of the drama, as exhibited in the theaters of the East Side, and few had ever applauded the hero of "Escaped from Sing Sing," or hissed the villain of "Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak-model" with more fervor. He liked his drama to have plenty of action, and to his practised eye this one promised well. There was a set expression on John's face which suggested great things.

His pleasure was abruptly quenched. John, placing a firm hand on his collar, led him to the top of the stairs and pushed him down.

"Beat it," he said.

The rent-collector watched these things with a puzzled eye. He now turned to John.

"Say, seen anything of the wops that live here?" he enquired. "My name's Gooch. I've come to take the rent."

John nodded.

"I don't think there's much chance of your seeing them to-night," he said. "The father, I hear, is in prison. You won't get any rent out of him."

"Then it's outside for theirs," said Mr. Gooch definitely.

"What about the kid?" said John. "Where's he to go?"

"That's up to him. Nothing to do with me. I'm only acting under orders from up top."

"Whose orders?" enquired John.

"The gent who owns this joint."

"Who is he?"

Suspicion crept into the protruding eyes of the rent-collector.

"Say!" he demanded. "Who are you anyway, and what do you think you're doing here? That's what I'd like to know. What do you want with the name of the owner of this place? What business is it of yours?"

"I'm a newspaper man."

"I guessed you were," said Mr. Gooch with triumph. "You can't bluff me. Well, it's no good, sonny. I've nothing for you. You'd better chase off and try something else."

He became more friendly.

"Say, though," he said, "I just guessed you were from some paper. I wish I could give you a story, but I can't. I guess it's this Peaceful Moments business that's been and put your editor on to this joint, ain't it? Say, though, that's a queer thing, that paper. Why, only a few weeks ago it used to be a sort of take-home-and-read-to-the-kids affair. A friend of mine used to buy it regular. And then suddenly it comes out with a regular whoop, and starts knocking these tenements and boosting Kid Brady, and all that. It gets past me. All I know is that it's begun to get this place talked about. Why, you see for yourself how it is. Here is your editor sending you down to get a story about it. But, say, those Peaceful Moments guys are taking big risks. I tell you straight they are, and I know. I happen to be wise to a thing or two about what's going on on the other side, and I tell you there's going to be something doing if they don't cut it out quick. Mr. Qem, the fellow who owns this place isn't the man to sit still and smile. He's going to get busy. Say, what paper do you come from?"

"Peaceful Moments," said John.

For a moment the inwardness of the information did not seem to come home to Mr. Gooch. Then it hit him. He spun round. John was standing squarely between him and the stairs.

"Hey, what's all this?" demanded Mr. Gooch nervously. The light was dim in the passage, but it was sufficiently light to enable him to see John's face, and it did not reassure him.

"I'll soon tell you," said John. "First, however, let's get this business of the kid's rent settled. Take it out of this and give me the receipt."

He pulled out a bill.

"Curse his rent," said Mr. Gooch. "Let me pass."

"Soon," said John. "Business before pleasure. How much does the kid have to pay for the privilege of suffocating in this infernal place? As much as that? Well, give me a receipt, and then we can get on to more important things."

"Let me pass."

"Receipt," said John laconically.

Mr. Gooch looked at the big stick, then scribbled a few words in his notebook and tore out the page. John thanked him.

"I will see that it reaches him," he said. "And now will you kindly tell me the name of the man for whom you collected that money?"

"Let me pass," bellowed Mr. Gooch. "I'll bring an action against you for assault and battery. Playing a fool game like this! Get away from those stairs."

"There has been no assault and battery--yet," said John. "Well, are you going to tell me?"

Mr. Gooch shuffled restlessly. John leaned against the banisters.

"As you said a moment ago," he observed, "the staff of Peaceful Moments is taking big risks. I knew it before you told me. I have had practical demonstration of the fact. And that is why this Broster Street thing has got to be finished quick. We can't afford to wait. So I am going to have you tell me this man's name right now."

"Help!" yelled Mr. Gooch.

The noise died away, echoing against the walls. No answering cry came from below. Custom had staled the piquancy of such cries in Broster Street. If anybody heard it, nobody thought the matter worth investigation.

"If you do that again," said John, "I'll break you in half. Now then! I can't wait much longer. Get busy!"

He looked huge and sinister to Mr. Gooch, standing there in the uncertain light; it was very lonely on that top floor and the rest of the world seemed infinitely far away. Mr. Gooch wavered. He was loyal to his employer, but he was still more loyal to Mr. Gooch.

"Well?" said John.

There was a clatter on the stairs of one running swiftly, and Pugsy Maloney burst into view. For the first time since John had known him, Pugsy was openly excited.

"Say, boss," he cried, "dey's coming!"

"What? Who?"

"Why, dem. I seen dem T'ree Pointers--Spider Reilly an'--"

He broke off with a yelp of surprise. Mr. Gooch had seized his opportunity, and had made his dash for safety. With a rush he dived past John, nearly upsetting Pugsy, who stood in his path, and sprang down the stairs. Once he tripped, but recovered himself, and in another instant only the faint sound of his hurrying footsteps reached them.

John had made a movement as if to follow, but the full meaning of Pugsy's words came upon him and he stopped.

"Spider Reilly?" he said.

"I guess it was Spider Reilly," said Pugsy, excitedly. "Dey called him Spider. I guess dey piped youse comin' in here. Gee! it's pretty fierce, boss, dis! What youse goin' to do?"

"Where did you see them, Pugsy?"

"On the street just outside. Dere was a bunch of dem spielin' togedder, and I hears dem say you was in here. Dere ain't no ways out but de front, so dey ain't hurryin'. Dey just reckon to pike along upstairs, peekin' inter each room till dey find you. An' dere's a bunch of dem goin' to wait on de street in case youse beat it past down de stairs while de odder guys is rubberin' for youse. Gee, ain't dis de limit!"

John stood thinking. His mind was working rapidly. Suddenly he smiled.

"It's all right, Pugsy," he said. "It looks bad, but I see a way out. I'm going up that ladder there and through the trapdoor on to the roof. I shall be all right there. If they find me, they can only get at me one at a time. And, while I'm there, here's what I want you to do."

"Shall I go for de cops, boss?"

"No, not the cops. Do you know where Dude Dawson lives?"

The light of intelligence began to shine in Master Maloney's face. His eye glistened with approval. This was strategy of the right sort.

"I can ask around," he said. "I'll soon find him all right."

"Do, and as quick as you can. And when you've found him tell him that his old chum, Spider Reilly, is here, with the rest of his crowd. And now I'd better be getting up on to my perch. Off you go, Pugsy, my son, and don't take a week about it. Good-by."

Pugsy vanished, and John, going to the ladder, climbed out on to the roof with his big stick. He looked about him. The examination was satisfactory. The trapdoor appeared to be the only means of access to the roof, and between this roof and that of the next building there was a broad gulf. The position was practically impregnable. Only one thing could undo him, and that was, if the enemy should mount to the next roof and shoot from there. And even then he would have cover in the shape of the chimney. It was a pity that the trap opened downward, for he had no means of securing it and was obliged to allow it to hang open. But, except for that, his position could hardly have been stronger.

As yet there was no sound of the enemy's approach. Evidently, as Pugsy had said, they were conducting the search, room by room, in a thorough and leisurely way. He listened with his ear close to the open trapdoor, but could hear nothing.

A startled exclamation directly behind him brought him to his feet in a flash, every muscle tense. He whirled his stick above his head as he turned, ready to strike, then let it fall with a clatter. For there, a bare yard away, stood Betty.