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IV. — The "Borough
IT was not a bit like Scotland Yard as Kathleen Kent had pictured it. It was a kind of a yard certainly, for the grimy little street, flanked on either side with the blank faces of dirty little houses, ended abruptly in a high wall, over which were the gray hulls and fat scarlet funnels of ocean-going steamers.
The driver of the cab had pulled up before one of the houses near the wall, and a door had opened. Then the man who had sat with her in glum silence, answering her questions in monosyllables, grasped her arm and hurried her into the house. The door slammed behind, and she realized her deadly peril. She had had a foreboding, an instinctive premonition that all was not well when the cab had turned from the broad thoroughfare that led to where she had imagined Scotland Yard would be, and had, taking short cuts through innumerable me an streets, moved at a sharp pace eastward. Ignorant of that London which begins at Trafalgar Square and runs eastward to Walthamstow, ignorant, indeed, of that practical suburb to which the modesty of an income produced by 4,000 pounds worth of Consols had relegated her, she felt without knowing, that Scotland Yard did not lay at the eastern end of Commercial Road.
Then when the door of the little house slammed and a hand grasped her arm tightly, and a thick voice whispered in her ear that if she screamed the owner of the voice would "out" her, she gathered, without exactly knowing what an "outing" was, that it would be wiser for her not to scream, so she quietly accompanied her captor up the stairs. He stopped for a moment on the rickety landing, then pushed open a door.
Before the window that would in the ordinary course of events admit the light of day hung a heavy green curtain; behind this, though she did not know it, three army blankets, judiciously fixed, effectively excluded the sunlight, and as effectually veiled the rays of a swing-lamp from outside observation.
The girl made a pathetically incongruous figure, as she stood white, but resolute before the occupants of the room.
Kathleen Kent was something more than pretty, something less than beautiful. An oval face with gray, steadfast eyes, a straight nose and the narrow upper lip of the aristocrat, her lips were, perhaps, too full and too human for your connoisseur of beauty.
She looked from face to face, and but for her pallor she exhibited no sign of fear.
Although she was unaware of the fact, she had been afforded an extraordinary privilege. By the merest accident, she had been ushered into the presence of the "Borough Lot." Not a very heroic title for an organized band of criminals, but, then, organized criminals never take unto themselves generic and high-falutin' titles. Our "Silver Hatchets" and "Red Knives" are boy hooligans who shoot off toy pistols. The police referred to them vaguely as the "Borough Lot". Lesser lights in the criminal world have been known to boast that they were not unconnected with that combination; and when some desperate piece of villainy startled the world, the police investigating the crime started from this point: Was it committed by one of the Borough Lot, or was it not?
As Kathleen was pushed into the room by her captor, a hum of subdued conversation ended abruptly, and she was the focus of nine pairs of passionless eyes that looked at her unsmilingly.
When she had heard the voices, when she took her first swift glance at the room, and had seen the type of face that met hers, she had steeled herself for an outburst of coarse amusement. She feared — she did not know what she feared. Strangely enough, the dead silence that greeted her gave her courage, the cold stare of the men nerved her. Only one of the men lost his composure. The tall, heavy-looking man who sat at one end of the room with bowed, attentive head listening to a little clean-shaven man with side-whiskers, who looked for all the world like an old-fashioned jockey, started with a muttered oath.
"Upstairs!" he roared, and said something rapidly in a foreign tongue that sent the man who held the girl's arm staggering back with a blanched face.
"I —I," he stammered appealingly, "I didn't understand."
The tall man, his face flushed with rage, pointed to the door, and hastily opening the door, her captor half dragged the bewildered girl to the darkness of the landing.
"This way," he muttered, and she could feel his hand trembling as he stumbled up yet another flight of stairs, never once relinquishing his hold of her. "Don't you scream nor nothing, or you'll get into trouble. You see what happened to me for takin' you into the wrong room. Oh, he's a devil is Connor — Smith, I mean. Smith's his name, d'ye hear?" He shook her arm roughly. Evidently the man was beside himself with terror. What dreadful thing the tall man had said, Kathleen could only judge. She herself was half dead with fright. The sinister faces of these men, the mystery of this assembly in the shuttered room, her abduction, all combined to add terror to her position.
Her conductor unlocked a door and pushed her in. This had evidently been prepared for her reception, for a table had been laid, and food and drink stood ready.
The door was closed behind her, and a
bolt was slipped. Like the chamber below, all daylight was kept out
by a curtain. Her first thoughts were of escape. She waited till the
footsteps on the rickety stairs had died away, then crossed the room
swiftly. The drop from the window could not be very far; she would
risk it. She drew aside the curtain. Where the window should have
been was a sheet of steel plate. It was screwed to the joists.
Somebody had anticipated her resolve to escape by the window. In
chalk, written in an illiterate hand, was the sentence: —
"You wont be hert if your senserble.
We want to know some questions
then well let you go. Don't make
a fuss or it will be bad for you.
Keep quite and tell us these questions
and well let you go."
What had they to ask, or she to answer? She knew of nothing that she could inform them upon. Who were these men who were detaining her? During the next hours she asked herself these questions over and over again. She grew faint with hunger and thirst, but the viands spread upon the table she did not touch. The mystery of her capture bewildered her. Of what value was she to these men? All the time the murmur of voices in the room below was continuous. Once or twice she heard a voice raised in anger. Once a door slammed, and somebody went clattering down the stairs. There was a doorkeeper, she could hear him speak with the outgoer.
Did she but know it, the question that perplexed her was an equal matter of perplexity with others in the house that evening.
The notorious men upon whom she had looked, all innocent of their claim to notoriety, were themselves puzzled.
Bat Sands, the man who looked so ill — he had the unhealthy appearance of one who had just come through a long sickness — was an inquirer, Vinnis — nobody knew his Christian name — was another, and they were two men whose inquiries were not to be put off.
Vinnis turned his dull fish eyes upon big Connor, and spoke with deliberation.
"Connor, what's this girl business? Are we in it?"
Connor knew his men too well to temporize.
"You're in it, if it's worth anything," he said slowly.
Bat's close-cropped red head was thrust forward.
"Is there money in it?" he demanded.
Connor nodded his head.
Connor drew a deep breath. If the truth be told, that the "Lot" should share, was the last thing he had intended. But for the blundering of his agent, they would have remained in ignorance of the girl's presence in the house. But the very suspicion of disloyalty was dangerous. He knew his men, and they knew him. There was not a man there who would hesitate to destroy him at the merest hint of treachery. Candour was the best and safest course.
"It's pretty hard to give you any idea what I've got the girl here for, but there's a million in it," he began.
He knew they believed him. He did not expect to be disbelieved. Criminals of the class these men represented flew high. They were out of the ruck of petty, boasting sneak-thieves who lied to one another, knowing they lied, and knowing that their hearers knew they lied.
Only the strained, intent look on their faces gave any indication of how the news had been received.
"It's old Reale's money," he continued; "he's left the lot to four of us, Massey's dead, so that makes three."
There was no need to explain who was Reale, who Massey. A week ago Massey had himself sat in that room and discussed with Connor the cryptic verse that played so strange a part in the old man's will. He had been, in a way, an honorary member of the "Borough Lot."
Connor continued. He spoke slowly, waiting for inspiration. A judicious lie might save the situation. But no inspiration came, and he found his reluctant tongue speaking the truth.
"The money is stored in one safe. Oh, it's no use looking like that, Tony, you might just as well try to crack the Bank of England as that crib. Yes, he converted every cent of a million and three-quarters into hard, solid cash — banknotes and gold. This he put into his damned safe, and locked. And he has left by the terms of his will a key."
Connor was a man who did not find speaking an easy matter. Every word came slowly and hesitatingly, as though the speaker of the story were loth to part with it.
"The key is here," he said slowly.
There was a rustle of eager anticipation as he dipped his hand in his waistcoat pocket. When he withdrew his fingers, they contained only a slip of paper carefully folded.
"The lock of the safe is one of Reale's inventions; it opens to no key save this."
He hook the paper before them, then lapsed into silence.
"Well," broke in Bat impatiently, "why don't you open the safe? And what has the girl to do with it?"
"She also has a key, or will have tomorrow. And Jimmy ... "
A laugh interrupted him. "Curt" Goyle had been an attentive listener till Jimmy's name was mentioned, then his harsh, mirthless laugh broke the tense silence.
"Oh, Lord James is in it, is he? I'm one that's for ruling Jimmy out."
He got up on his feet and stretched himself, keeping his eye fixed on Connor.
"If you want to know why, I'll tell ye. Jimmy's a bit too finicking for my taste, too fond of the police for my taste. If we're in this, Jimmy's out of it," and a mutter of approval broke from the men.
Connor's mind was working quickly. He could do without Jimmy, he could not dispense with the help of the "Lot." He was just a little afraid of Jimmy. The man was a type of criminal he could not understand. If he was a rival claimant for Reale's millions, the gang would "out" Jimmy; so much the better. Massey's removal had limited the legatees to three. Jimmy out of the way would narrow the chance of his losing the money still further; and the other legatee was in the room upstairs. Goyle's declaration had set loose the tongues of the men, and he could hear no voice that spoke for Jimmy. And then a dozen voices demanded the rest of the story, and amid a dead silence Connor told the story of the will and the puzzle-verse, the solving of which meant fortune to every man.
"And the girl has got to stand in and take her share. She's too dangerous to be let loose. There's nigh on two millions at stake and I'm taking no risks. She shall remain here till the word is found. We're not going to see her carry off the money under our very noses."
"And Jimmy?" Goyle asked.
Connor fingered a lapel of his coat nervously. He knew what answer the gang had already framed to the question Goyle put. He knew he would be asked to acquiesce in the blackest piece of treachery that had ever disfigured his evil life; but he knew, too, that Jimmy was hated by the men who formed this strange fraternity. Jimmy worked alone; he shared neither risk nor reward. His cold cynicism was above their heads. They too feared him.
Connor cleared his throat.
"Perhaps if we reasoned — "
Goyle and Bat exchanged swift glances.
"Ask him to come and talk it over tonight," said Goyle carelessly.
"Connor is a long time gone."
Sands turned his unhealthy face to the company as he spoke.
Three hours had passed since Connor had left the gang in his search for Jimmy.
"He'll be back soon," said Goyle confidently. He looked over the assembly of men. "Any of you fellers who don't want to be in this business can go." Then he added significantly, "We're going to settle with Jimmy."
Nobody moved; no man shuddered at the dreadful suggestion his words conveyed.
"A million an' three-quarters — it's worth hanging for!" he said callously. He walked to a tall, narrow cupboard that ran up by the side of the fireplace and pulled open the door. There was room for a man to stand inside. The scrutiny of the interior gave him some satisfaction.
"This is where some one stood" — he looked meaningly at Bat Sand — "when he koshed Ike Steen — Ike with the police money in his pocket, and ready to sell every man jack of you."
"Who's in the next house?" a voice asked suddenly.
Goyle laughed. He was the virtual landlord so far as the hiring of the house was concerned. He closed the cupboard door.
"Not counting old George, it's empty," he said. "Listen!"
In the deep silence there came the faint murmur of a voice through the thin walls.
"Talkin' to himself," said Goyle with a grin; "he's daft, and he's as good as a watchman for us, or he scares away the children and women who would come prying about here. He's — "
They heard the front door shut quickly and the voices of two men in the passage below.
Goyle sprang to his feet, an evil look on his face.
"That's Jimmy!" he whispered hurriedly.
As the feet sounded on the stairs he walked to where his coat hung and took something from his pocket, then, almost as the newcomers entered the room, he slipped into the cupboard and drew the door close after him.
Jimmy entering the room in Connor's wake, felt the chill of his reception. He felt, too, some indefinable sensation of danger. There was an ominous quiet. Bat Sands was polite, even servile. Jimmy noticed that, and his every sense became alert. Bat thrust forward a chair and placed it with its back toward the cupboard.
"Sit down, Jimmy," he said with forced heartiness. "We want a bit of a talk."
Jimmy sat down.
"I also want a bit of a talk," he said calmly. "There is a young lady in this house, brought here against her will. You've got to let her go."
The angry mutter of protest that he had expected did not come, rather was his dictum received in complete silence. This was bad, and he looked round for the danger. Then he missed a face.
"Where is our friend Goyle, our dear landlord?" he asked with pleasant irony.
"He hasn't been here today," Bat hastened to say.
Jimmy looked at Connor standing by the door biting his nails, and Connor avoided his eye.
"Ah!" Jimmy's unconcern was perfectly simulated.
"Jimmy wants us to send the girl back." Connor was speaking hurriedly. "He thinks there'll be trouble, and his friend the 'tec
thinks there will be trouble too."
Jimmy heard the artfully-worded indictment unmoved. Again he noticed, with some concern, that what was tantamount to a charge of treachery was received without a word.
"It isn't what others think, it is what I think, Connor," he said dryly. "The girl has got to go back. I want Reale's money as much as you, but I have a fancy to play fair this journey."
"Oh, you have, have you," sneered Connor. He had seen the cupboard door behind Jimmy move ever so slightly.
Jimmy sat with his legs crossed on the chair that had been placed for him. The light overcoat he had worn over his evening dress lay across his knees. Connor knew the moment was at hand, and concentrated his efforts to keep his former comrade's attentions engaged. He had guessed the meaning of Goyle's absence from the room and the moving cupboard door. In his present position Jimmy was helpless.
Connor had been nervous to a point of incoherence on the way to the house. Now his voice rose to a strident pitch.
"You're too clever, Jimmy," he said, "and there are too many 'musts' about you to please us. We say that the girl has got to stay, and by — we mean it!"
Jimmy's wits were at work. The danger was very close at hand, he felt that. He must change his tactics. He had depended too implicitly upon Connor's fear of him, and had reckoned without the "Borough Lot". From which of these men did danger threaten? He took their faces in in one comprehensive glance. He knew them — he had their black histories at his fingertips. Then he saw a coat hanging on the wall at the farther end of the room. He recognized the garment instantly. It was Goyle's. Where was the owner? He temporized.
"I haven't the slightest desire to upset anybody's plans," he drawled, and started drawing on a white glove, as though about to depart. "I am willing to hear your views, but I would point out that I have an equal interest in the young lady, Connor."
He gazed reflectively into the palm of his gloved hand as if admiring the fit. There was something so peculiar in this apparently innocent action, that Connor started forward with an oath.
"Quick, Goyle!" he shouted; but Jimmy was out of his chair and was standing with his back against the cupboard, and in Jimmy's ungloved hand was an ugly black weapon that was all butt and barrel.
He waved them back, and they shrank away from him.
"Let me see you all," he commanded, "none of your getting behind one another. I want to see what you are doing. Get away from that coat of yours, Bat, or I'll put a bullet in your stomach."
He had braced himself against the door in anticipation of the thrust of the man, but it seemed as though the prisoner inside had accepted the situation, for he made no sign.
"So you are all wondering how I knew about the cupboard," he jeered. He held up the gloved hand, and in the palm something flashed back the light of the lamp.
Connor knew. The tiny mirror sewn in the palm of the sharper's glove was recognized equipment.
"Now, gentlemen," said Jimmy with a mocking laugh, "I must insist on having my way. Connor, you will please bring to me the lady you abducted this afternoon."
Connor hesitated; then he intercepted a glance from Bat Sands, and sullenly withdrew from the room.
Jimmy did not speak till Connor had returned ushering in the white-faced girl. He saw that she looked faint and ill, and motioned one of the men to place a chair for her. What she saw amidst that forbidding group was a young man with a little Vandyke beard, who looked at her with grave, thoughtful eyes. He was a gentleman, she could see that, and her heart leapt within her as she realized that the presence of this man in the fashionably-cut clothes and the most unfashionable pistol meant deliverance from this horrible place.
"Miss Kent," he said kindly.
She nodded, she could not trust herself to speak. The experience of the past few hours had almost reduced her to a state of collapse.
Jimmy saw the girl was on the verge of a breakdown.
"I am going to take you home," he said, and added whimsically, "and cannot but feel that you have underrated your opportunities. Not often will you see gathered together so splendid a collection of our profession." He waved his hand in introduction. "Bat Sands, Miss Kent, a most lowly thief, possibly worse. George Collroy, coiner and a ferocious villain. Vinnis, who follows the lowest of all grades of dishonest livelihood — blackmailer. Here," Jimmy went on, as he stepped aside from the cupboard, "is the gem of the collection. I will show you our friend who has so coyly effaced himself." He addressed the occupant of the cupboard.
"Come out, Goyle," he said sharply.
There was no response.
Jimmy pointed to one of the ruffians in the room.
"Open that door," he commanded.
The man slunk forward and pulled the door open.
"Come out, Goyle," he growled, then stepped back with blank astonishment stamped upon his face. "Why — why," he gasped, "there's nobody there!"
With a cry, Jimmy started forward. One glance convinced him that the man spoke the truth, and then ——
There were keen wits in that crowd, men used to crises and quick to act. Bat Sands saw Jimmy's attention diverted for a moment, and Jimmy's pistol hand momentarily lowered. To think with Bat Sands was to act. Jimmy, turning back upon the "Lot," saw the life preserver descending, and leapt on one side; then, as he recovered, somebody threw a coat at the lamp, and the room was in darkness.
Jimmy reached out his hand and caught the girl by the arm. "Into that cupboard," he whispered, pushing her into the recess from which Goyle had so mysteriously vanished. Then, with one hand on the edge of the door, he groped around with his pistol for his assailants. He could hear their breathing and the creak of the floorboards as they came toward him. He crouched down by the door, judging that the "kosh" would he aimed in a line with his head. By and by he heard the swish of the descending stick, and "crash!" the preserver struck the wall above him.
He was confronted with a difficulty; to fire would be to invite trouble. He had no desire to attract the attention of the police for many reasons. Unless the life of the girl was in danger he resolved to hold his fire, and when Ike Josephs, feeling cautiously forward with his stick, blundered into Jimmy, Ike suddenly dropped to the floor without a cry, because he had been hit a fairly vicious blow in that portion of the anatomy which is dignified with the title "solar plexus."
It was just after this that he heard a startled little cry from the girl behind him, and then a voice that sent his heart into his mouth. "All right! All right! All right!"
There was only one man who used that tag, and Jimmy's heart rose up to bless his name in thankfulness.
"This way, Miss Kent," said the voice, "mind the little step. Don't be afraid of the gentleman on the floor, he's handcuffed and strapped and gagged, and is perfectly harmless."
Jimmy chuckled. The mystery of Angel's intimate knowledge of the "Lot's" plans and of Connor's movements, the disappearance of Goyle, were all explained.
He did not know for certain that the occupant of the "empty" house next door had industriously cut through the thin party-walls that separated the two houses, and had rigged up a "back" to the cupboard that was really a door, but he guessed it.
Then a blinding ray of light shot into the room where the "Borough Lot" still groped for its enemy, and a gentle voice said —
"Gentlemen, you may make your choice which way you go — out by the front door, where my friend, Inspector Collyer, with quite large number of men, is waiting; or by the back door, where Sergeant Murtle and exactly seven plain-clothes men are impatiently expecting you."
Bat recognized the voice.
"Angel Esquire!" he cried in consternation.
From the darkness behind the dazzling electric lamp that threw a narrow lane of light into the apartment came an amused chuckle.
"What is it," asked Angel's persuasive voice, "a cop?"
"It's a fair cop," said Bat truthfully.