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Title: The Kahm Syndicate Author: Aidan de Brune * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1700931h.html Language: English Date first posted: Sep 2017 Most recent update: Sep 2017 This eBook was produced by Terry Walker, Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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THIS book is a product of a collaborative effort undertaken by Project Gutenberg Australia, Roy Glashan's Library and the bibliophile Terry Walker to collect, edit and publish the works of Aidan de Brune, a colourful and prolific Australian writer whose opus is well worth saving from oblivion.
A SMALL room, with a single narrow window, on the fourth floor of an old-fashioned building in Macquarie-street, Sydney, a few steps from Queen's Square. Along the walls were glass-closed shelves extending to within a couple of feet of the ceiling, dirty and discoloured. The glass-enclosed shelving extended under the window, and a single shelf ran across the top of the door. The floor was laid with an old, greying carpet-square, on which stood a big, flat-topped desk, covered with papers neatly tied in bundles. There were only two chairs in the room, one on each side of the desk.
In one of the chairs, a well-padded arm-chair, a slightly-built, partially-bald, young-old man was seated, staring through heavily rimmed spectacles towards the window. His left hand, resting on the blotting-pad, held a sheet of notepaper.
Few who visited the building, on the fanlight of the door of which was inscribed "Crown Law Office," knew of the small chamber on the top floor, or of the man who occupied it. Very few of those who worked in the building knew exactly what position Oliver Manx held in the organisation. It was rumoured that he held some obscure post under the Public Prosecutor, yet no papers bearing his autograph, or initials, filtered into the general business of the offices. It was definitely stated that he had never been known to hold any communication with any official in the building.
Punctually as the city clocks struck nine each morning, Oliver Manx descended from a tram in Queen's Square and walked the few yards to the Crown Law Office. Invariably he was dressed in a faded blue lounge suit, and wore a cap—a cap that the chief messenger of the department looked upon with distinct disfavour as lowering the dignity of a Government Office to that of an ordinary business or factory. Once the cap had been of large check patterned cloth, but many rains and suns had faded the design to a nondescript greeny-grey. In his right hand Oliver Manx grasped a heavy bloodwood stick, and from his left fingers dangled a light attaché case. Just as punctually as he arrived, Manx descended the stairs at five o'clock and passed out into the street. During the seven hours' interval no-one in the department heard or saw him.
There was a telephone in the small office, but the instrument was not connected with the switch-board in the department, nor with the general exchange that serves all the New South Wales public offices. The number was not listed in the telephone directory. More peculiarly, the instrument did not possess a bell—the only sound that came from it, when connection was desired, was a distinct click, at half-second intervals.
In all, Oliver Manx was a mystery—not to the general public, who were in entire ignorance of his being, but to the officials surrounding him during the work-day hours. He was more than a mystery—he was one forgotten. If a caller had visited the building, asking for him, he would have been met with a blank stare; then a distinct effort of memory; and finally the direction: "Straight up the stairs to the top floor—the door opposite the head of the stairs." Fortunately for the official memory of messengers, Oliver Manx had no callers.
Yet Oliver Manx was not entirely forgotten. In various Government offices high potentates held in their memories the dial-number of that strange telephone instrument. Certain high police officials were so well aware of the number that they dialled it automatically when they wished to communicate with Oliver Manx. Gentlemen of record in the Darlinghurst, Woolloomooloo and Surry Hills district would have given largely to have learned that number—and its connection with Manx—a personality they both hated and feared.
With a sudden grunt Oliver Manx came out of his reverie, let the letter he held fall to the desk, and snatched up a newspaper from the floor. Swinging his chair round, so that the light from the window illuminated the page, he folded the sheet to show a single double-column heading:
ANOTHER GANG KILLING
Oliver Manx smiled strangely as he re-read the heading and the stagger sub-heads that followed. When he turned to the reading matter beneath the headings his lips had set in a hard, straight line. He read:
Just before nine o'clock last night Constable Knight, attached to the Darlinghurst Division, found the dead body of a man in Horton-street, Darlinghurst. The flying patrol was quickly on the spot, followed by the hospital ambulance, but the man was past help.
Inspector Darin, in charge of the flying patrol, stated that when he arrived on the scene the body was still warm, and that the doctor had stated that death had occurred within a quarter of an hour. He identified the man as "Babe" Shaver, a member of "Gunner" West's gang, and a dangerous criminal, well known to the police. He added that Shaver had only been released from gaol during the previous week, after serving a three years' term at Goulburn for robbery with violence.
Shaver had been killed by three bullets fired into his chest at close quarters. Dr. Hunder, who had been summoned by Constable Knight before the flying patrol arrived, states that all three wounds were mortal, and that the man could only have lived a few seconds after the first shot was fired.
This is the fifth killing in the Darlinghurst Division during the past eight days, and so far the police have failed to make an arrest. In every case the victim was of criminal repute and, peculiarly, had recently been released from gaol.
There is no doubt—
And so on. Oliver Manx smiled wryly as he laid the newspaper aside. The police department were in for a press-chastisement. Gang killings had become too common of late, and to the gentlemen who occupied editorial chairs even the death of a gangster had to be followed by swift police reprisals. Oliver Manx mused. In his private opinion it would be more to the point to draw a cordon about the infested area and allow the crooks to exterminate one another at leisure.
He turned to the desk and picked up the letter he had held a few moments before. It bore no printed heading and was typewritten, single-spaced, and with very narrow side-margins. A well-worn purple ribbon had formed the impressions—a ribbon so well-worn that it concealed many of the clues showing in ordinary typing. The page was headed: "To all it may concern." The letter had been forwarded to him from Police Headquarters by a plain-clothed constable who required no directions to find the little office under the roof of the Crown Law Department.
The letter stated:
Gang killings have been far too numerous of late, yet
gang-killings serve a useful purpose in that they remove from society those
who are a menace to it.
Darlinghurst has obtained an unenviable notoriety for these gang vendettas. The district has become a menace to the city of Sydney, and to Australia as a whole. It is possible to believe that the police in the district are incompetent, or are hand in glove with the underworld of the district. This must cease. Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and Woolloomooloo must be cleared of the undesirable elements that have flocked there from all over Australia.
We, the undersigned, charge the police officials of the Darlinghurst Division with malfeasance. Under their protection the gangsters of these districts work with impunity. Very definitely we charge the police officials of these districts with accepting bribes from known criminals, and others who infringe the laws in lesser degrees. Darlinghurst, in particular, is a hot-bed of starting-price gangsters, openly plying their trade, and sly-grog houses just as openly conducted. Prosecutions are rarely instituted, and then only when graft is not forthcoming in sufficient amounts.
For the information of those in authority we definitely charge: That cheap bookmakers openly operate in their homes, with their street-doors wide open for their clients to enter. Every street in these localities has one or more sly-grog shops. That so-called billiard saloons in these districts are little more than places where illicit liquor can be obtained after the official closing hours. That 'clubs' are established everywhere, in rooms as small as ten by eight, where the sole business is the selling of liquor. That drug-running is a recognised trade in these districts, and is openly sold across the counters of so-called respectable shops. That many of the large blocks of flats in the Darlinghurst district are little better than brothels, and that the owners, claiming to be reputable members of the community, have turned out tenants of good repute to make room for prostitutes, who are willing to pay a far larger rent. Hold-ups are of nightly occurrence in these districts; the cat-burglar flourishes. Intimidation and terrorism is fast growing—the average, law-abiding citizen is warned to close his eyes to flagrant infringements of the laws, under the penalty of violence.
Only one line is drawn by the police; that is, when gangland commits a crime that is so outrageous that it attracts interstate attention. Then an arrest is made. We instance the recent hold-ups of Government officials carrying large sums of money through the streets. In the first case no arrest was made, as neither of the victims was injured—only the taxpayers' money was taken. In the second case one of the officials was permanently blinded. Then an arrest was made as quickly as possible—as a victim had to be found to appease public indignation.
We, the undersigned, declare that the present impossible conditions can no longer be permitted to exist. If properly constituted authority cannot deal with these evils, then private individuals must combine for their own protection. We hereby give notice that unless the present reign of terror in Darlinghurst and the adjacent districts is ended, and the criminals concerned scattered or imprisoned,
We, the undersigned, will take action against both police and gangsters within three days.
THE KAHM SYNDICATE.
Oliver Manx again dropped the letter on the desk and turned to stare out of the window with expressionless eyes. From where he sat he could see the top storey and roofs of the grey-stone building that had once housed the Sydney Mint. Beyond that was only blue sky. In his mind's eye he pierced the grey walls that blocked his view, looking to the distant heights of Darlinghurst—the tall buildings lining the steep ridge, and below, in the hollow before, the' huddle of low, dilapidated hovels of Woolloomooloo.
The Kahm Syndicate! Who were the Kahm Syndicate? He wondered what standing had they in the community? Who were its members? Why were' they seeking to usurp duly constituted authority?
Oliver Manx mentally admitted that the Syndicate had great reason in their charges. Darlinghurst had become a hot-bed of crime that the police appeared incapable of cleaning up. Day after day, night after night, since the Police Department had received the first warning from the Kahm Syndicate that the plague-spots must be removed from the boundaries of the city of Sydney, he had wandered through the named districts, noting, analysing. He had learned that the Syndicate had good reasons for its statements. He had seen police officers talking at street-corners with well-known gangsters, calling, and being called, in terms of familiarity and friendship. He had seen men and women admitted into the big hotels of the districts during the late night hours—he had seen men and women emerge from these hotels in the early hours of the morning, staggering under the influence of drink they could only have obtained by direct violation of the licensing laws. He had seen brawls start after midnight on the very doorsteps of these hotels, by men under the influence of liquor—and the police using a patience and restraint evidently inspired by well-greased palms.
He had spent hours loitering before the doors of important blocks of flats in Darlinghurst—to see victims led within by highly painted women. He had seen furtive men lounging against posts and walls, apparently of no occupation, accosted by apparently respectable citizens—and to witness the secret exchange of money for small white packages of sinister significance. He had seen these men shuffle off at the approach of a patrolman, with a grin and a sly nod of understanding.
He had bought sixpenny packets of cigarettes in shops—packets that contained a single row of cigarettes at the front, and a folder of white paper behind. A banknote on the counter and an understanding nod had been air that was required for the purchase. He had walked the streets during the daytime, noting the men, well-dressed and apparently flush of money, who appeared to have no business save to lounge at street-corners, to nod familiarly to constable and police officer, exchanging comments on weather and sport in tones that tokened entire understanding. He had wandered through the back streets, noting the houses where the street-doors stood wide open—and within, a man seated at a small table with a telephone at his elbow, a wireless loudspeaker blaring out the running of horses and the results of the afternoon racing.
Such was Darlinghurst—a city in itself where work seemed unnecessary and foolish—where everyone was well-clothed and fed—a city where crime and graft reigned, and the laws made in Macquarie-street and at Canberra were derided with foul oaths. He had made report—a voluntary report—of all that he had witnessed. There had been no need for the Police Department to forward on to him this last letter from the Kahm Syndicate; the officials had every detail set out therein in the reports on their files, signed with the queer monogram of strokes and circles they knew to be his sign-manual.
The Kahm Syndicate! Oliver Manx nodded his head vaguely. What would they do? Would they carry out the threat openly stated in the letter on his desk, and take measures to clean up this plague-spot on the national left? Then, what would happen if they took action they thought necessary? His shoulders went up in a characteristic jerk. There would be trouble—much trouble. Days and weeks might pass before authority again gained the upper hand—and during those days the Kahm Syndicate and gangland would fight a bitter battle—a battle of death and destruction.
The Kahm Syndicate! The name seemed strangely familiar. Oliver Manx turned to the desk again and ruffled the leaves of the telephone directory. He came to the letter "K" 'and ran his finger down the columns. Yes! He had not been wrong. There was a Kahm Syndicate—and with offices in Alford House, Pitt-street. That was strange! Why had he turned so automatically to the telephone directory? He knew that he had remembered. Again his eyes sought the Mint roofs. He had remembered, yes—but what? The Kahm Syndicate! But no body of men who intended to place themselves outside the laws would dare to take offices in the centre of the business quarter of the city—in bold defiance of the authority they declared corrupt and venial!
Oliver Manx smiled; then stood up and stretched. He went across the room and drew back a section of the shelves. Behind showed a big cupboard.
He bent the door back until the click of a spring told him that it was held. On the inside of the door was a large, full-length mirror, so arranged that it reflected a strong light from the window. Over the mirror was a powerful, shaded electric bulb. He switched on the light and lowered the shelf before the mirror, fitting it into place across the glass. From the cupboard he brought out a filled suit-hanger.
A few moments and he had changed. The round-shouldered, young-old man who had entered the Crown Law Office two hours before had disappeared. In his place stood a middle-aged man, upright and dignified, with thick, greying hair and well-filled ruddy cheeks, well dressed and with the appearance of a good social standing.
A last glance at the mirror and Oliver Manx switched out the light, folded up the shelf, and swung the door shut. For a moment he remained lost in thought, flicking from one hand to the other a pair of new, light-coloured gloves. Presently he withdrew from a waistcoat pocket a heavy silver card case and opened it, running the cards out on his palm; staring down at the name engraved oh them.
Thaddeus Keene, retired stockbroker and member of the Circle Club; Melbourne, Victoria, was about to interview the Kahm Syndicate.
THADDEUS KEENE was well known in Melbourne; Oliver Manx had seen to that detail. Keene was a great traveller, and had no relations, few friends, and a host of acquaintances. He travelled widely. Acquaintances are rarely inquisitive. They ask questions when met, some of their questions bordering on the inquisitive; but with absence comes forgetfulness on their part.
Certainly it was strange that with Keene's re-appearance in Melbourne social life, Oliver Manx made one of his frequent absences from Sydney.
Oliver Manx had found Thaddeus Keene useful. Yet he was only one of quite a number of unattached Australians who roamed their country, turning up at infrequent intervals in the cities and towns they call "home." None of them claimed to have relations, friends, or intimates. They held only one likeness. Whenever one of them appeared in public in any city, the others, including Oliver Manx, were absent from their home towns, on private and unobtrusive business.
A final glance about the small office and Oliver Manx left the room, closing the door behind him. The spring lock held the door fast against intrusion, for in spite of the fact that the building was invaded by a host of cleaners each evening, there was only one key to that lock. Turning towards the head of the stairs Oliver Manx passed leisurely through the building. On the stairs and landing he passed many officials of the Crown Law Department, and visitors. None of them recognised him, although many were familiar with the appearance of the slight, round-shouldered man who occupied the room at the top of the house.
In the vestibule of the building, once the reception hall of one of Sydney's first houses, Oliver passed the hall-porter, a resplendent individual with the air of an English duke. The official stared for a moment, then turned away. His manner showed that he took the man passing him to be some casual citizen who had dared to invade the sacred precincts of the department. Certainly, he puzzled, for he did not remember so obviously an important person entering the building.
On the street pavement, Oliver turned towards Queen's Square. In King-street he nearly collided with a hurrying newsboy, shouting unintelligibly in the jargon of the street. For a moment the boy halted:
"Paper, sir?"—and Oliver caught sight of the yellow and black bill draping the small figure. The big, black type asked a question:
WHAT IS THE KAHM SYNDICATE?
Oliver dropped coins into a grubby hand and took the loosely folded newspaper. He sighed; so these people who intended to take the law into their own hands could not keep their intentions secret? Moving close to one of the shop windows, to be out of the hurrying throng, he opened the newspaper. As he had guessed, the statement he had received from the police that morning was printed in full.
Who are the people comprising the Kahm Syndicate?
asked the Star in shrieking streamers.
What purpose have they? Are they defying
police, as well as the gangsters who infest our city?
These, and other pertinent questions were prominent in stagger-sub-heads. Even the almost stereotyped editorial on the sins and virtues of politicians had been "lifted" into an obscurity for the issue. In place of the usual political propaganda—carefully ignored by the average reader—a member of the editorial staff wrote learnedly on the "Kahm Syndicate;" at one time comparing it to a heavenly visitant undertaking the work of cleaning up a grossly immoral and vicious city, in other phrases declaring it to be another phase of criminal intrigue to which the country had become accustomed. All this in accordance with the policy of Sydney's one evening newspaper to balance carefully on the top rail of the fence for the moment.
Oliver folded the newspaper and tucked it under his arm. For a moment he was thoughtful, a little frown-pucker showing between his eyes. If the newspapers were going to boost the Kahm Syndicate his task would be doubly difficult. He strolled on to Pitt-street.
Alford House is one of the most important buildings in the city of Sydney. Very new, and with elaborate appointments, very correct porters and discreet lift-attendants, it had recently been opened by a clever-advertising insurance company. In the vestibule Oliver paused a moment, scanning the long index of tenants. The Kahm Syndicate occupied a suite of five offices on the third floor. He strolled on to the lift and entered, giving the number of the floor he required in a cool, precise voice.
Almost opposite the lift-stop were large, double, full-glass doors, inscribed in gold with the words "The Kahm Syndicate." The lettering carried no indication of the business being carried on in the offices. Beyond the doors stood a solid, expensive-looking counter, and beyond the counter, in dignified employment, more than a dozen clerks. As Oliver approached the doors they swung open before him, automatically. He passed on to the counter.
"Mr. Kahm in?" asked Oliver Manx.
"Mr—who?" The girl who had come to the opposite side of the counter raised plucked eyebrows. "There is no Mr. Kahm."
"Sorry." The tall, dignified, very straight form bent slightly. "I should have said, your manager."
"Your name, please."
Oliver Manx produced the heavy silver card-case and took out one of the slips of pasteboard. The girl accepted the card gravely and passed it to a diminutive page-boy, who suddenly materialised at her side. The boy went to a door, knocked, listened a moment, then entered the room. He returned to sight quickly and, lifting a flap in the counter, invited Oliver Manx to enter. Lowering the flap, the boy entered a room, motioning the investigator to follow him.
Purposely, Oliver slackened his pace as he set foot in the handsomely furnished office, staring keenly at the chubby-faced, bald-headed man seated behind the big desk. He was puzzled. From the moment he had entered Alford House he had been in a wilderness of surmises. In these offices he had seen no indications of the business carried on by the Syndicate—and now he was called upon to state his business with the firm.
And he had none. For a full half-minute he stood in the doorway, scanning the man behind the desk, the page-boy at his elbow waiting to close the door on him. The man behind the desk was waiting, a smile of expectancy on his full, over-red lips.
Secretly Oliver smiled. Here was a game he could play perhaps better than the man before him.
"Mr. Thaddeus Keene?" The man behind the desk spoke at length.
"Of Melbourne," Oliver murmured. "I have the pleasure—"
"Archibald—Maurice Archibald." The stout man beamed. "Will you not sit down?" He indicated, with a jerky motion of his right hand, still holding a heavy golden fountain-pen, the chair before the desk. Oliver bowed, and made rather a ceremony of seating himself. He was waiting for the lead that did not appear likely to come.
"I was expecting to see a—a Mr. Kahm," he ventured.
"There is no Mr. Kahm." Archibald spoke slowly. "That is the name of the syndicate."
"Ah—the syndicate." Oliver nodded understandingly. "I used to know a Mr.—er—Kahm in Melbourne. I thought—"
"Then this is a social call." The stout man smiled brightly. "I am most pleased—and disappointed. Pleased that there is not a Mr. Kahm—in Sydney and—"
"Disappointed that you are not interviewing a business customer," interjected Oliver. "Perhaps one day, when I have knowledge of your business—"
"So? I forgot!" Again the man turned a beaming face for a moment on Oliver, then bent to one of the desk drawers. "This is a social call."
Almost magically a silver humidor appeared on the desk and opened. Archibald pressed some spring, and one of the compartments came up, holding inviting-looking cigars.
"A social call! Hardly that." Oliver carefully selected a cigar. "I am interested in Melbourne newspapers."
"Ah, a Sydney representative of one of the big dailies in our sister city?"
"If I may claim that." The investigator drew forward the stand-lighter. "Have you seen this afternoon's newspaper, Mr. Archibald?"
Instead of answering the question, Archibald pressed a bell-stud on the desk.
"Don't trouble," said Oliver, unfolding the newspaper he had carried into the office. He spread the sheet on the desk facing Archibald.
"Ah! The Kahm Syndicate!" The stout man read the big display headings carefully. "So that is the reason for your call, Mr Keene?"
"I am interested."
"Shall we say, a mere matter of curiosity?"
"Very bad! Very bad! Curiosity—"
"—is human." Oliver Keene smiled. "Darlinghurst is an interesting district."
"M-m-m-m!" The play of air between the man's lips was long drawn. "So you connect my syndicate with this—er—"
"With this—er—" repeated Oliver.
"I really don't see the connection." A hint of sharpness underlay Archibald's suavity. "The coincidence of names, yes! By the way—how did you discover—us?"
"Curiosity, my dear Mr. Archibald." The special agent's voice was very bland. "I happened to look in the telephone book after—er—reading the—er—newspaper—and—" he paused. "May I inquire your business?"
"We are Systematists, Mr. Keene."
"Even—Darlinghurst?" Oliver smiled quietly. "I thought that had been already accomplished."
The man on the opposite side of the desk lifted his light eyebrows.
"By the gentlemen of the so-called underworld," explained Oliver.
"Is that sufficient?" Almost a defiant note sounded in Archibald's smooth voice.
"I believe the police authorities think different."
"And you agree with them? Are you—or—connected with the police, may I ask, Mr. Thaddeus Keene?"
"The police do not require assistance from private citizens," the special agent countered. "If they asked my co-operation—"
"Which, undoubtedly, they will do?"
"For what purpose?" queried Oliver, apparently much surprised. "Beside their trained experts—" He shrugged. "Really, Mr. Archibald. I came here as a matter, of curiosity—to discover if my old friend, Charlie Kahm—"
"Two and four!" The stout man leaned forward, pointing first at himself and then at Oliver.
"Two and four? I do not understand."
"K-1, A-2, H-3; M-4," spelt the man; "Shall we agree that I am the second letter—then you must be the fourth. Understand?"
"'A' for Archibald; 'M' for—"
For a moment the eyes of the two men met and held; then Archibald started to laugh, wiping, his eyes with a very immaculate handkerchief drawn from his cuff. He rose from his chair indicating that the interview was at an end.
For a moment Oliver was nonplussed. Had the man recognised him? Very few people knew him in any manner. Very few people connected the Oliver Manx of his daily life, with the Crown Law official who spent so many hours of his life in the top room of the Macquarie-street building. Two men only could connect Thaddeus Keene with Oliver Manx—and neither of those men would utter one word of betrayal.
In some way this man, conventional in appearance and manner, had penetrated his disguise. Oliver sighed. He had rather fancied the identity of Thaddeus Keene. He had spent years perfecting the character, giving it a history and surroundings that could not be challenged. Thaddeus Keene had served well, particularly in dealing with rogues in the higher walks of life. Now Thaddeus Keene had to disappear. He had to die—to pass out of this world convincingly. That would be a trouble, requiring careful preparation and work. There must be no link left to connect him with any other manifestation emanating from the little office in the attics of the Crown Law Department.
"Going, Mr Keene?" Archibald came round his desk, hand outstretched. "So sorry there is no Mr.—er—Kahm to welcome his old friend, Thaddeus Keene, to these offices. If if you should chance upon him, I trust you will convey to him my sincere regrets. You will, I hope tell him I did my best to substitute for him—er—efficiently?"
"You shall have the best testimonial I can give, Mr.—er—Archibald." Oliver Manx moved to the door. "Sorry to have troubled you unnecessarily. Perhaps at our next interview—"
"A business one, Mr. Thaddeus Keene?" The man spoke ironically. "Still, I'll be pleased to see you any time." He hesitated. "If by any, chance—"
"Yes?" Oliver turned, at the door, suddenly.
Archibald, in turn, hesitated. "I was only going to suggest that police work is sometimes rather difficult for—er—amateurs."
Before he could think of a satisfying, retort, the door had opened, and Oliver Manx found himself in the outer office, the door, closing behind him. For a moment he paused, staring, about the big, well-appointed room, at the clerks busy at their desks.
What business were these people engaged upon? What, exactly, was the business of the Kahm Syndicate? The Kahm Syndicate—Systematists—Systematists! To systemise Darlinghurst—the crook gangs who had usurped authority in the district—to clean up the underworld that had grown almost all-powerful during the past few years?
He shrugged, moving towards the big glass doors. There was still time. Archibald had shown his hand almost plainly. He had denied nothing—and therein had shown his undoubted cleverness. Yet—
A word from him and this place would he raided by the police. But, what would they find? Nothing—he was sure of that. There would be a quantity of books—showing a properly conducted business, operating in a perfectly legitimate manner. The Kahm Syndicate would reveal its membership, men of undoubted standing and probity. There would be apologies for them; troublesome questions for him and the police to answer; claims to investigate; uncomfortable interviews with the Minister—quite an amount of work and worry—And Archibald would be everywhere, with his infernal smile and suave speeches—
Very leisurely, Oliver Manx, still in the person of Thaddeus Keene, of Melbourne, left the offices and descended in the lift to the street level. Full of thought, he strode out of the building. On the threshold he paused, feeling for his cigarette case. Something splashed on the wall of the building, close to his head. A soft, sinister "plop" sounded through the din of traffic. Again came the soft "plop"—and Thaddeus Keene fell heavily to the pavement.
"Here! What's up?" Official blue thrust through the fast-gathering crowd and bent over the prone man. "What's happened to him?"
"Wounded. Someone shot me." Oliver Manx struggled to a sitting position, secretly scooping up one of the splatters of lead and nickel on the ground almost under where he had lain.
The constable knelt beside Oliver, trying to force away the hand the secret agent pressed to his side.
"Quick! You fool! A taxi! Get me into it without loss of time!" Then in a whisper that only the patrolman heard. "Police business."
For a moment the constable hesitated, his mouth opening as if he were about to ask a question, Oliver struggled to his feet.
"Quick!" The secret agent had his hand on the constable's shoulder, his mouth but an inch from the man's ear.
"What's the matter, Joe? What's up with him?" Another constable materialised; at the edge of the crowd, pressing a way through.
"Clear those rubber-necks away, Tom." The first constable was now recovered from his surprise; visions of promotion dancing before his eyes. He straightened. "Here, give him room to move, you! Pass on there! Can't have the street littered this way! Pass on!"
"Can I be of assistance?" A slender, dark man paused at the constable's side. "I am a doctor."
"Don't think it's serious, sir. Just a fall. I'll get him to the hospital as soon as possible."
A taxi had drawn to the curb. Pushing through the curious onlookers, the constable supported Oliver to the door and wrenched it open. Pretending excessive weakness, the secret agent allowed the two constables to help him into the vehicle. The constable jumped in and closed the door.
"Feeling bad, sir?" The man spoke as the taxi turned into Martin Place. "Won't be many minutes before we get there."
Oliver Manx had twisted on the seat, looking out of the little rear window. So far as he could see there was no-one following them. He turned to face the police officer.
"Missed me by a hair's breadth, constable." The secret agent smiled. "Damned bad shots! Still, don't forget, I'm seriously wounded. You'll assist me into the hospital—and I've got to look a real serious case. Insist that I'm taken at once to the operating room—and then leave the surgeon to me. I'll handle him. Your job is to get on the telephone, to the Assistant Commissioner, Mr. Ramsay! Don't forget. You're to speak to him only. Report that Mr. Thaddeus Keene was shot and seriously wounded in Pitt-street."
"There's no 'but' about it. You do as I say, or you'll lose your chance of that stripe. Don't say on the telephone a word more than I've told you. The Assistant Commissioner will understand. Then you'll wait at the hospital until he comes. Tell him I want a watch placed on Alford House—the offices of the Kahm Syndicate, and particularly on Maurice Archibald, the manager. He's to be shadowed everywhere. Get that? Good! He'll want the telephone then. Stand by him and when he's finished bring him to me, wherever I am. I shan't leave the hospital until I've seen him."
The taxi swung through the narrow gateway into the Sydney Hospital drive-way, and pulled up before the accident ward door. Feigning intense weakness, Oliver allowed himself to be lifted from the taxi and carried into the building. In the casualty ward he recovered quickly, putting aside the intern who hovered about him.
"Just one thing more." Oliver, Manx included the two men in his speech. There will be inquiries—"No, don't worry me, I'm not injured. Listen to what I say. There'll be inquiries. You will report that Mr. Thaddeus Keene, of Melbourne, was shot and seriously wounded before Alford House, in Pitt-street, this afternoon. The assailant is unknown. Mr. Keene had just come from the Kahm Syndicate offices, where he had been on important business. Get that, both of you? I want the newspapers to have that at once. If you've got any questions, keep them for Assistant Commissioner Ramsay, He may answer them."
Oliver Manx paused and looked at the two men with him. The constable showed perplexity on his face, but nodded. He recognised that here was something he could not understand—but the name of the Assistant Commissioner satisfied him. The intern looked grave.
"I don't know that we can support such an imposture, even if I—"
"Sorry, doctor." Oliver Manx smiled frankly. "You'll find that Mr. Ramsay will take all responsibility from your shoulders. Now, please, will you take me to a private room and detail a very discreet nurse as my attendant. She's not going to have a very busy time, for I expect to be out of here soon after dark. By the way, doctor, you know my name; may I know yours?"
"I am Ralph Murray," the young man answered slowly. "I am afraid, Mr. Keene, you're running foul of a lot of regulations."
"Sorry." Oliver Manx held out his hand. "This is an emergency that has to he met by complete disregard of all rules and regulations. You will find that you have the police and the Crown Law office behind you, so—"
The telephone bell interrupted shrilly. As Dr. Murray turned to answer it, the secret agent caught him by the arm. "That call is about me," he stated emphatically. "You know what to answer. Don't hesitate, man. A lot you don't understand depends on you."
For a moment the intern hesitated, then turned to the instrument. He listened for some seconds, then covered the mouthpiece with his hand and faced Oliver Manx.
"A Mr. Kahm wishes to know how his friend, Mr. Thaddeus Keene, of Melbourne, is progressing. He also wants to know if he can come and see him?" Oliver nodded, then shook his head in answer to the second question.
"I'm too dangerously wounded to be seen by anyone," he stated. "I'll see him—sure; but at my own time—and in my own manner."
IMMEDIATELY Dr. Murray replaced the receiver on the telephone hook, Oliver Manx repeated his request to be shown to a private room. At the door he turned suddenly to stare at the nurse who had been a puzzled witness of the late scene.
"I forgot you, nurse." For a moment he hesitated, carefully, scanning the girl's face. "Yes, you'll do. You can keep a still tongue! Anyway, you're elected—my nurse during my long and dangerous illness." The secret agent grinned widely. "You won't find your job onerous—just to shoo away all visitors." He swung round on the doctor, waiting in the corridor. "Get another nurse here, doctor, and let—" He paused.
"Nurse Torrens," completed Dr. Murray.
"—Nurse Torrens attend on me," concluded the secret agent. He walked to the door, to follow the doctor, as if the matter held no dispute. For a second the intern hesitated, then shrugged. This young-old man, evidently carefully disguised, had assumed complete command of the situation. He claimed to have complete police backing—and was certainly backed by the constable in the room, who raised no objections to his demands. There could be nothing wrong. Yet he paused for thought before giving the orders Oliver Manx waited to hear.
"All right, nurse," he said resignedly. "Will you ask Nurse Thorne to take your place in the reception room? I am putting Mr. Keene in room 79; you will follow when you are finished. Tell matron I would like to see her in a quarter of an hour, and that room 79 is engaged."
He paused, looking at the constable questioningly.
"Constable Harris has his orders," said Oliver Manx, interpreting the intern's unspoken question. "Mr. Ramsay will he here within a few minutes, and will take charge—until then I want Constable Harris about here, to prevent unauthorised visitors."
"Unauthorised visitors?" Dr. Murray lifted his brows.
"Just so. Mr. Ramsay, when he comes, will tell, you what we are up against. I should not be at all surprised at your receiving quite a number of callers—all most anxious to have just one glimpse of Thaddeus Keene."
In a long corridor on the second floor, Dr. Murray opened a door and switched on the lights. Oliver Manx entered the room and hesitated, looking at the window.
"Switch off the light a moment, doctor. I want to have a look outside."
Mechanically the medical man obeyed. The secret agent went to the window and threw up the sash; he put his head out and peered down the wall to the court below. With a little grunt of satisfaction he brought his head into the room again and closed the window, pulling down the blind.
"Sit down, doctor; if I may take the privileges of a host here." A quiet smile bent the secret agent's lips at the sight of the medical man's astonished face. "We may as well be comfortable while waiting for Mr. Ramsay's arrival. Smoke?—or is that against the rules?" Oliver Manx leaned forward, open cigarette case in his hand.
"Well—" Dr. Murray leaned forward, laughing, and took a cigarette. "—you've fractured so many rules during the past half-hour, Mr. Keene, that one more—"
"Hospitals mend fractures—that's their business." The secret agent flicked a lighter to flame.
"Of course, you want to know what all this commotion is about. Well, I'm going to tell you—Of course, you understand, that secrecy is essential?"
With a few well chosen words he told the history of the Kahm Syndicate as then known to himself and the police, their public declaration of war against the gangs trying to dominate Sydney suburbs. He frankly doubted the bona-fides of the Syndicate, stating that he believed the real motive to be the organisation and monopoly of crime. As he proceeded in his recital he appeared to forget the intern listening absorbedly to his words, and spoke as if reviewing his case for personal elucidation. He had just finished his recital when a knock came at the door, and, in answer to the intern's permission, Nurse Torrens came into the room. She glanced inquisitively, and somewhat amusedly, at her "patient."
"Assistant-Commissioner Ramsay has arrived," she, said quietly. "He is busy at the telephone at the moment, but says he will come up here directly he has finished."
"Good!" Oliver Manx placed a seat for the girl. "Sit down, nurse. We may see a good bit of each other before this adventure ends, so it is well to get acquainted. Going, doctor?"
"There are other accident cases besides yours." Dr. Murray spoke gravely. "Perhaps not as serious; yet—"
Oliver Manx laughed. "Well, I can't expect to turn the Sydney hospital right upside-down," he said. "I will certify that you have done your best in the short time at your disposal, so far."
The doctor laughed.
"One thing more." The secret agent halted the doctor at the door. "How long does it take a man suffering from a severe—almost fatal—bullet wound to recover?"
"A month—often longer."
"You're not going to stay here a whole month, Mr.—" the nurse asked quickly, with some astonishment.
"Oliver Manx." The secret agent supplied his name at the nurse's pause. "No such luck! I expect to leave here shortly after dark."
"But—what am I to do then?" asked the girl perplexedly.
"Keep to this room, just as if you had a real patient—read a book, do some sewing—anything you like, so long as you pose as a nurse attending to a dangerously wounded man."
Phyllis Torrens laughed; then made a move. "Won't that be terribly dull?"
"Sorry." Oliver grinned. "You'll have the recompense of knowing that your boredom is in the interests of your country."
"I prefer an invalid." The girl laughed.
"Is that a compliment?" Oliver Manx coloured slightly, trying, to look very innocent. "If so—"
The door the room was jerked abruptly open and a tall, soldierly man of about fifty years of age entered. He stared from the man to the girl for a moment.
"Hullo, Manx. Hope nothing serious is the matter?"
"Not a thing, Mr. Ramsay." The secret service man shook hands warmly with the Assistant Commissioner. "I hope Constable Harris put you wise to the arrangements I have made?"
"He told me there was nothing the matter with you—except, perhaps, a scare." Assistant Commissioner Ramsay laughed. "Let's have the talk."
He found a chair and looked questioningly at the nurse as Oliver Manx, without preface, commenced an account of the late happenings at Alford House.
Nurse Torrens went to leave the room, but the secret agent stopped her.
"It is just as well that Nurse Torrens should know all there is to know, Mr. Ramsay," he said. "She's got a difficult part to play during the coming days. Sit down, nurse, you're in this, right up to your neck."
Assistant Commissioner Ramsay listened intently to the secret agent's report. At its conclusion he made no comment, merely asking:
"What comes next?"
"Thaddeus Keene will be in hospital, unable to see anyone. I want Constable Harris' clothes," he added. "I've got to get out of here unseen—and fortunately he's about my size. You can get someone to bring a suit of clothes here for him to get away in."
"What about those you're wearing?"
"Too distinctive." Oliver Manx shook his head. "No, when he goes out of hospital there'll be someone on the watch. They'd recognise those clothes, and perhaps take a pot-shot at him."
Assistant Commissioner Ramsay nodded. "I guess so. What's going to happen to you?"
"I've got a burrow I can duck into—more than one in fact. For the next month or so I'll disappear. When I show up again at the C.L.O—"
"Exit the Kahm Syndicate?" laughed the Assistant Commissioner.
"—and most of the Darlinghurst gangs, I hope," added Oliver Manx.
For more than an hour the two men remained in consultation, Nurse Torrens passing in and out of the room as if in attendance on a patient. A deep colour had invaded her pretty cheeks at knowledge of the big and exciting man-hunt she had become involved in.
Whenever she entered the room she glanced at the secret agent curiously. What sort of a man was he really? She could not place him, as she was accustomed to placing the men she met. That was, she believed, because he was still in his disguise. She liked his voice, his manner—both she believed were real and so vastly different from the grave, dignified man his outward appearance indicated. And—he was going to leave the hospital to venture alone into the big world, to fight the organised crime which had grown up in the city.
"Well, that's settled!" Assistant Commissioner Ramsay stood up and held out his hand to the secret agent. "I'll send Constable Harris to you, Manx. By the way, how do I communicate with you in the future?"
"You don't." For a moment Oliver Manx looked very grave. "Yet we've got to keep in touch. I'll find a way—looks like the best thing will be for you to have me picked up for questioning now and again. You can stage a police magistrate's hearing if you want to make things very real, but you mustn't detain me with any long sentence. Yes, and that will be wise, it'll do me good—the appearance that I'm under suspicion, and that the police can't get anything on me. That'll do. I'll get a name to you, and an address."
"Joining one of the gangs?" Ramsay nodded understanding.
"I've got to be with them. Fact, I'm one of a gang at the moment—have been for quite a time."
For a moment the Assistant Commissioner hesitated, then returned into the room and shook hands gravely.
"Well—take care of yourself, Manx. There's a lot depending on you."
He turned abruptly and left the room.
Phyllis Torrens watched the door close, fascinated by the thought that lay behind the police officer's words. She turned and stared at Oliver Manx openly.
"That will be very dangerous," she said faintly.
"What? Oh, I understand." The secret agent came out of deep thought. "Well, so is your work nurse; you've nursed dangerous infectious cases?"
"Of course. But—"
A knock sounded on the panel of the door and she went to answer it. Constable Harris came into the room, a look of perplexed wonder clouding his big face.
"Good!" Oliver Manx came to his feet. "Now, if you will excuse us, nurse. I have to change clothes with Constable Harris."
Nurse Torrens left the room. The secret agent turned to the constable. "The Assistant Commissioner has told you what you're to do?" he asked. "Good! Now strip. You can put on these things, or get into the bed, until they bring you other clothes."
"Yes, sir." The constable spoke dazedly, loosening his belt.
While the two men were exchanging clothes, Oliver Manx went very carefully over the actions he required the constable to make when he left the hospital. At the conclusion of his instructions he repeated them briefly.
"Understand. You'll remain in this room for an hour after I have left. Then you'll walk out of the hospital, into Macquarie-street. I am certain you will find someone at the gates, examining everyone who comes out of here. Don't worry; let them have a good look at you. Light your pipe and let the light of your match well illuminate your face. Get that? They've got to be certain you are not me in disguise; they've got to be certain I am still in here, very seriously ill."
"Right, then." Oliver Manx pulled the official belt tighter. "Assistant Commissioner Ramsay wants you at Headquarters to-morrow morning. Put this night's work over right and there's a stripe for you, if not more. Now, use what wits God gave you, man. You're in something big—understand? You'll never get another chance like this. I'll get your uniform back to you somehow." He held out his hand, gripping the constable's fingers firmly. In the corridor, outside room 79, he found Nurse Torrens waiting.
"Good-bye, nurse. I'll see you again shortly.
"Why?" The girl showed her surprise, "Why, I thought you were the constable. You've got his walk and manner—"
"Bit of an actor, eh?" Oliver Manx laughed. He turned when he had proceeded a few steps down the corridor.
"By the way, nurse, you've arranged your relief and all that? Remember, you're in the State's service now."
"And you're my commanding officer—"
"—and patient," supplemented the secret agent.
"Yes, sir." The girl saluted smartly and mockingly.
Yet, as she stood watching the tall, lithe figure walking down the corridor, there came a little choke in her throat. It was like watching a man—men—marching to a big battle; but here was just one man, walking from safety into the unknown to battle with organised crime.
Oliver Manx walked down the corridor and entered the lift, telling the man to take him to the ground floor. Outside the reception room he halted for a moment, then shook his head and proceeded through the door into the driveway. He had sought to seek Dr. Murray and bid him farewell, but that would be unwise. Some exclamation might come from the intern—some involuntary word that might have indicated to an onlooker that things were not just what they seemed to be.
He went quickly to the big gates bordering Macquarie-street. Two or three men were on the pavement, evidently waiting for someone visiting the hospital. He scanned them carefully, trying to discover if any one of them had been put on guard over the supposedly wounded Thaddeus Keene. He could not decide that any one man was acting in a suspicious manner; yet he was certain that the hospital was closely watched. He was certain that the hospital would be closely watched until some definite news of Thaddeus Keene were obtained by the man who had ordered his death.
He shook himself impatiently. It was dangerous to leave the hospital in that manner—dangerous for himself and for those he had left to guard his secret. The gangsters would have no compunction in taking revenge on those they believed had assisted him to deceive them. Dr. Murray—Nurse Torrens—Phyllis—
Oliver Manx shrugged and turned southwards. What other course could he have taken. He could not have remained at the hospital—a seriously wounded man. To have walked out of the hospital as Thaddeus Keene would have been foolish. He might just as well write to—to the Kahm Syndicate—to gangland—informing them he was on their trail, and knew enough to make them feel uncomfortable—yet not sufficient at the moment to place them behind bars.
As he came alongside the tall iron railings of the Mint grounds, he glanced up at the top storey of the Crown Law Office across the road. If he could get into that building! A moment's hesitation and he crossed the road. He was the policeman on patrol duty—there could be nothing suspicious in him going up to the doors of the house. If opportunity offered, he might slip his key into the lock—a matter of moments, and he would be in the building and the door again closed—
With his hand on the wood of the door, glancing back on the street in search of watchers, he paused.
There was no possible reason why he should go to his office; he had other places already prepared for his reception—places where everything was prepared for his change from the personality of a constable to any other character he chose to assume. He turned from the door carelessly and recrossed the street.
In shelter beside the tall posts of the District Courthouse, in Queen's Square, he waited again, keenly scanning the passers-by. He did not believe he had been followed; he believed the watchers at the hospital gates had believed him to be the constable who had carried Thaddeus Keene into the hospital. Yet, if there had been any suspicion in the watchers' minds—then he must know at once, for here started the most dangerous phase of his flight to sanctuary.
A full quarter of an hour passed before he felt he could safely move. With apparent carelessness he walked toward St. Mary's Cathedral. Here he was on dangerous ground—the joining of two patrolmen's beats. And still more danger lay ahead. He had to get into Woolloomooloo—into the Darlinghurst Police District. Watching around with the greatest caution, he turned down by the cathedral and crossed the narrow neck of parkland into Cathedral-street.
Again he found refuge in a dark doorway, watching keenly for signs that his movements had aroused suspicions. His progress was becoming still more dangerous. He was a police patrolman—and he was seeking a gangster's shelter; he was a lone patrolman walking through a district where his comrades only ventured in pairs.
Again satisfied that he was unwatched, he came out of his shelter and moved eastwards. Cathedral-street was well filled, for the night was warm and the houses ill-ventilated and close. As he passed crossroads he saw that they, too, were well-filled. Men and women sat or lounged in the doorways; children played noisily in the streets. Every one of these men and women, even the children, were potential menaces. Once the new-hello was raised—and one dirty, sharp-eyed brat might raise it—and his life would not be worth a minute's purchase.
Yet he moved on, keeping in the shadows so far as he could—yet the many wells of light streaming from shop windows had to be passed, and they were continued menaces. Once a woman looked towards where he was standing, waiting, and a shiver ran down his spine. Without thought he moved forward, slightly increasing his pace. Had she seen him? She had not raised an alarm!
He moved forward faster; he had to find sanctuary before gangland awoke to his presence in their territory—and sanctuary was still far away! Hugging the shadows, he turned into Burke-street. Here the menace of discovery was more acute. Women sat on their doorsteps, talking in shrill, argumentative tones; the pavements wore littered with dirty, shrieking, squalling children; men lounged in dark alley-ways and shadows, talking from corners of their mouths, spitting, voicing foul oaths—their language a jargon almost unintelligible to the average person.
Oliver Manx went on, keeping as fast a pace as he dared, believing that he would pass unnoticed with speed—that slowness and hesitation would bring suspicion.
Two hundred yards from the end of the street, where it debouched on to the wide, open street bordering the wharves, Oliver Manx again paused. He had to cross the street to a narrow road opening on the other side. He glanced around him; the street seemed full of eyes—and every eye was fixed on him with deep suspicion. He glanced back along the path he had come—and thought all the children in the street appeared to be concentrated in a mad charge to where he stood. Almost in panic he darted forward, abandoning strategy for speed.
Then came a cry from up the road, near Cathedral-street, and while heads were turned in that direction he went leisurely across the road and was swallowed in the shadows of the ill-lit by-way. Now the tension that had held him was relaxed. He was almost in safety. A few yards along that byway a narrow alley opened, bordered on both sides by broken, high wooden fences. A quick glance back and he slipped into the heavier darkness. Suddenly he flattened against a fence bounding a yard. Three men were coming down the alley, talking in low, tense whispers.
Oliver Manx whipped the distinguishing police cap from his head and crushed it between his body and the fence. In the darkness the men might not notice the uniform—they might take it for an ordinary suit. If there was darkness; if one of them did not strike a light, showing the reflections of buttons and belt; if some lodger in a room overlooking the alley did not make a light that would stream on him through uncurtained windows.
He waited, almost a lump of terror rising in his throat. The men came nearer, and the secret agent froze to immobility. Now he could see the dim outline of their round, bullet-shaped heads, crowned by rakish caps. Gradually their bodies formed a stronger darkness within the surrounding darkness, almost against him. Another couple of seconds and the outside man almost touched him. They had passed—
"Wot th' 'ell!" One man had halted, turning with the quick, defensive gesture of the hunted animal. The lighted cigarette, dangling from his lower lip, firmed and glowed as the man pulled on it. Oliver Manx could see the whiteness of the expelled smoke against the surrounding darkness. Again the man drew on the cigarette, leaning forward until the faint glow reflected on the buttons of the uniform.
"A blarsted fuzz!" A man spoke in dispassionate tones. From the hands of another man a match spluttered and flared.
"A cop! Where's 'is mate?" One of the trio spoke eagerly, his small eyes darting from side to side of the alley-way inquisitively. "Blarst! Th' tike's alone!"
For a moment there was a hesitation, then in ominous silence the three men drew closer. Oliver tensed himself; almost he sensed the death menace in their slow, poised, movements. Again a man struck a match—now close to the secret agent's face.
"A gig—an' lonesome." A harsh laugh came from the group. "Look at 'is buttons—an' 'is belt!"
Now Oliver Manx knew what had betrayed him to the keen eyes of the gangsters. Some flicker of light had illuminated either buttons or belt. Mechanically he moved a step to one side—and the three men moved with him, in silence.
"Wot a lark—A bull bum alone!" The man who had struck he matches giggled. A shrill whistle rent the night air. From far distance it was immediately repeated. The 'Loo was awakening, and to a copper-hunt, the rarest enjoyment they could mentalise. Suddenly Oliver Manx lashed put with his fists, striking right and left, thrusting himself forward with the added impulse of a foot against the fence. The men, taken unawares, gave ground. He felt the impact, of fist against flesh, and heard a disgruntled grunt. One of the men fell backward suddenly, across the alleyway, swearing foully. Into the opening in the ranks he left Oliver Manx drove fiercely. He was free for the moment, the threatened attack disorganised. Wheeling sharply, he ran up the alley-way in the direction from which he had come.
Turning into the narrow road, he collided heavily with a running man, and staggered back. Again he drove-forward, hitting heavily with flailing fists. The rough, slight of build, gave way before his rush. Immediately Oliver Manx sped on through the night.
Shrill whistles were sounding on all sides now. Woolloomooloo was awake for the chase. He heard heavy boots pounding the pavements, the slither of slippered feet. Below the shrillness of the whistling he sensed the low hum of voices, the subtle rumbling of the hunters.
He came into Pelton-street—wide and well-filled with humanity, dodging from the pavement into the roadway. A shoe, flung by a woman lounging in a doorway, caught him under his ear, staggering him for the moment. As he faltered, a shrill whoopee broke the hum of voices. A youth, little more than a lad, dove for his legs. He countered with an upthrust knee that connected with his assailant's chin, rolling him, cursing, into the filth of the gutter. As he lunged forward again sinewy arms wrapped around his throat.
He had failed; here was the finish. For a second he relaxed, then all fighting instincts, returned with renewed force. He tensed, bent suddenly, taking the man unawares, and pitched him clean over his head.
His own sudden movement sent him staggering forward, almost onto the fallen man. He jumped, barely missing the outflung hands clutching for his legs. For a moment the road before him was clear, yet he realised that the human wolves were closing fast on him. He sped forward, elbows pressed to his panting sides, fixed determination in every tensed muscle.
He swung to the right, into Lant Row, to find it strangely empty. Fifty yards along he came to the entrance to the alley in which the gangsters had surprised him, and turned into it. Past the brick wall of the flanking house he came to the wooden fence. His fingers brushed over the slats, counting the doorways. At the third he halted and looked back. There was no-one in sight. He pressed closer against the woodwork, feeling for a length of string that worked the latch. For a second there was a lightening of the darkness before him; then he swung the door shut, leaning against it in utter exhaustion.
The house before him was in darkness. Picking a careful path through the rubbish that littered the yard, the secret agent came to the house wall. A few moments and he found the door. It gave under his hand, and he slunk into the dark passage. Stepping forward slowly, his fingers trailing on the left wall, he came to a door. A key from his pocket opened it. The door closed behind him, with the click of a spring lock. He had found sanctuary!
For long minutes he leaned against the door, allowing his senses to dull again from the frenzied excitement of the past minutes. Then he pulled a box of matches from his pocket and lit the gas bracket, hanging from the centre of the ceiling. The sudden flare of light blinded, him for the moment, yet swiftly he commenced to strip the uniform from his body. In the wall-cupboard he found a gaudy suit of pyjamas and donned them hastily. When in them the upright, drilled aspect of the uniformed man fell from him and in its place came the likeness of a slouching, evil-faced gangster.
On the dressing-table, composed of an old packing-case covered with faded-patterned cretonne, was a twist of tobacco and some papers. Steadying his jumping nerves, Oliver Manx rolled a cigarette, and, with it dangling from his loosened lips, went to the bed. He slipped between the coarse sheets as sounds of boots came from the passage without the door.
"YER there, Joe?"
The shuffling footsteps had halted at the door of the room. Oliver Manx sensed the presence of more than one man outside the door. He remained silent. A drumming of fingertips came from a panel of the door. Again came the question:
"Yer ther', Joe?"
Still the secret agent made no reply. He knew the voice came from Mart Deeling, the tenant of the house, and his landlord. Mart owned the shop that faced on to Wellsome-street—a shop that was a place of strange lumber, covered with the dust of years. Mart was a fence, one of the cleverest in the city. Only once, many years previous, had he been in the hands of the police. Now he protested with voluble regrets at the lapse of his earlier years; yet carried on his illegal trade amid open suspicion that never formulated into evidence.
"'E ain't ther'." Mart's voice sounded through the thin panels of the door. "Cum t' thing o' it, I ain't seed 'im fer days. Gorn over th' 'ills, maybe."
Another voice rumbled. Oliver Manx could not distinguish the words. "I tells yer, 'e ain't," protested Mart shrilly.
"Open the door," a third voice commanded abruptly. "I want to see this Joe Kline—get me?"
The secret agent started, rolled restlessly on the scanty pillow, tossing with his feet the thin covers. He had to make it appear he had been in bed for some time.
"Joe won't like it," protested the old fence. "If 'e—"
"Who matters—this Joe Kline or I?"
Oliver Manx wondered. Who was this man who dominated so thoroughly the old fence. His speech showed signs of education. Had he ever met the man. From the words used he believed not, yet something in the tone seemed familiar. The "Unknown" wanted to see him! Well—he wanted to see the "Unknown." His curiosity was well aroused.
The soft click of metal on metal sounded at the door. Oliver smiled secretly. Evidently Mart Deeling owned a key to his room, although when he had rented it the old man had protested volubly that he was handing over the only two keys that fitted the lock. For a long time the secret agent had suspected that the fence could enter his room when he chose. He cared little for that. There was nothing there that could betray him, except—
Except that sliding panel in the wainscoting which he had spent days constructing—the panel behind the bed. There lay the clothes and makeup of Joe Kline—And on the chair in the centre of the room was the constable's uniform. Oliver Manx cursed himself for a fool!
"War's th' matter?" he growled sleepily, on impulse. "Who's ther'?"
The key, almost connecting the wards of the lock, was hastily withdrawn.
Again came Mart's oily voice.
"Yer ther', Joe?"
"Wot ov it?" Oliver grumbled. "Carn't a man 'ave 'is sleep art wi'out sumun rousin' th' place on 'im?"
"Sorry, Joe." The fence's voice was ingratiating! "Thought yer wasn't in!"
"Well, I is in! Wot ov it?"
"'Ere's a gent as wanta see yer."
"'E can want. Getter 'ell out ov it!"
He forced a great creaking of the bed, as if he turned, composing, himself for slumber again.
"Here! Wake up, Kline! Open this door!" The third man spoke, commandingly.
"W'oos yer?" the secret agent grumbled. "Wotya want?"
"I want you. Tumble out there, or I'll burst the door in."
Oliver Manx was thinking quickly. What was he to do? If he opened the door the man would come into the room. They could not miss seeing the patrolman's uniform on the chair. They would conceive suspicions, ask questions. He could not afford to have suspicion directed against "Joe Kline," "snow" addict, petty thief and underworld degenerate.
Yet, if he refused to open the door, this unknown man would burst it in. Then the men—he believed there were many in the passage—would stream into the room and search it. That would be still more dangerous.
"Youse ther', Mart?" He yawned loudly, stretching until the bed creaked protestingly. "W'oos th' big noise wi' yer?"
He was out of bed now, groping for the secret panel in the wainscoting, and the safety that lay behind it. Now he had the panel open, and his fingers clutched the bundle of rags that formed the outer covering of Joe Kline. He dragged them out, loosened the cord that held them together, scattering them on the floor. Again he reached into the cavity behind the panel—for the tin box he knew was there.
"Never mind about Mart Deeling," the masterful voice spoke. "You're dealing with me—and I don't appreciate being kept waiting."
"Kinder boss, ain't yer!" Oliver Manx spoke derisively. "Ah! I'll 'umor yer! 'ol' yer kick till I get m' bloomers on."
The red towselled wig was now on his head and the coarse, worn trousers in his hand, pulling them over his pyjama'd legs. Fumbling forward, he reached for the matches he had left on the dressing-table. He struck a light, knowing well it would reflect into the passage under the ill-fitting door—and deliberately allowed it to go out; at the same time seizing the constable's garments and jerking them under the bed. Again he struck a match, and this time applied it to the hissing gas-jet.
As he lurched towards the door he stumbled into the chair and sent it hurtling in the direction of the bed.
"Now—Hurry up there!" The big voice spoke impatiently.
Oliver Manx turned the knob of the look and drew the door open a couple of inches. In the passage he could see the dim forms of many men. Standing close to the door, and partially illuminated by the light from the room, was a big, massive man, dressed in a dark suit and with a bowler hat set at a rakish angle on a round bullet head. From between the thin lips protruded a cigar, the end glowing redly.
"So you're Joe Kline." The big man thrust his head forward, peering at Oliver Manx. "Joe Kline! I don't remember you!"
"Why sh'ud yer." The secret agent spoke aggressively. "I don't run 'yer lay."
"What's my lay?" The red of the cigar jerked sharply.
"Dunno. Don' care!" Oliver Manx let the door slip slightly more open, lounging against the doorpost in the gap.
"Just to make your acquaintance." The big man laughed harshly. "So you're Joe Kline! I've heard of you."
"'Ave yer." The secret agent spat carelessly into the passage at the man's feet. "Nuffink goo', I serp'se. Yer kin' wouldn't. Wot are yer—a nark?"
The big man lurched forward suddenly—aggressively; then stayed the hand he had raised. He laughed shortly. "Not very hospitable, are you?" he taunted. "Thought you'd ask a visitor in and give him a chair."
"I likes vis'ters at vis'tin' times," Oliver Manx grumbled, still watching the man carefully. "Nine o'clock."
The big man jerked, his raised arm so that the light of his hard-pulled cigar illuminated the dial of his wrist watch.
"You're early to bed?"
"Wot ov that?" The secret agent drew back reluctantly. "Come in, if yer wanta. Say, wanta pack wi' yer? Arl ov yer vis'tin'?"
The big man had pushed into the room, glancing about him inquisitively. He turned at the secret agent's question.
"Get out, Mart—and you, too, Bill. I'll talk to this bird alone."
Reluctantly the old fence, half-way through the door-way, withdrew, muttering some unintelligible protest. Oliver Manx flung the door shut and went to his bed, grumbling in an undertone. The big man picked the overturned chair and seated himself.
"Well, wot's th' gab?" asked Oliver.
"Just visiting—as you put it." The big man paused. "What's that, under the bed?"
The secret agent looked down. From under the bed protruded the leg of the trousers of the constable's uniform. With an effort he repressed a start, then kicked the garment carelessly.
"Me other suit."
"And you keep it under your bed?"
"Mart don' run t' fancy trimmin's in 'is rooms." The secret agent laughed shortly; yet his heart was thumping wildly. Had the man noticed the official blue of the uniform? He thought not. Lolling back on the pillow, he added: "I keeps it und'r me bed 'cos I didn' put it in th' war'robe. Any objecshuns?"
"None whatever; if it pleases you. Now, what's your lay?"
"You know what I mean; Cough it up quickly."
"Why sh'ud I? W'oor yer?"
"Alec Grosse is my name. Heard of me?"
"Then you don't work hereabouts?"
Oliver Manx did not answer.
"You don't work about, here, then?" repeated Grosse. "Got a tongue?"
"I works w'ere I likes," grumbled the secret agent angrily. "Wot's that t'yer?"
"Just what I choose it to be." The big man paused. "What's your lay?"
"Ask Mart; he may choose to answer. I'll tell you this much; it'll pay you to answer my questions."
"I ain't no runner."
"No; you're a sniffer. Where do you get it?"
"I ain't tellin'."
"Then you'll get no more' round' the 'Loo, or elsewhere. Get that?"
"So yer ses."
"And what I says goes." The big man rose to his feet. "Joe Kline—if that's your name—"
"An' wot's it ter yer if it ain't?" demanded Oliver Manx aggressively. "Them as asks queshuns roun' 'ere—"
"I know all about that," interrupted Grosse. "Now, just you ask a few questions of Mart, and others—and then see me to-morrow morning, at ten."
"That's one of the questions you can ask Mart—and others. I'm not difficult to find—to those on the up and up. Maybe I'll have a job for you."
"I ain't lookin' fer tricks."
"That's my lookout, not yours." Grosse went to the door, then turned suddenly, "Seen to-night's paper?"
"Nope." Oliver Manx shook his head.
"Then you know nothing of the shooting in Pitt-street this afternoon?"
Oliver Manx's heart missed a beat in surprise. For a moment he stared blankly at the man. Had he chanced on a clue to his assailant? Then—to his mind flashed the story of the killing of "Babe" Shaver he had read that morning. Had this man—? No, he was not the cold killer type; he was the directing brain:—not the Hand.
"Wotter yer?" The secret agent sprang to his feet, feigning terror mingled with anger. "Yer not a—a—Yer not a—Johnny Law?"
Oliver Manx sprang to his feet, calling loudly for Mart Deeling. He believed the old fence was not far away. Grosse took a couple of quick steps across the room and shoved him back on the bed, a big hand against his chest.
"Mart! Mart!—A dick—'ere!'—'elp! 'elp!"
"Shut your trap." The man's big fingers, came up, closing relentlessly over Oliver Manx's lips. "I'm no sugar-cop."
"Then wota yer?" Oliver Manx squirmed from under the man's loosened grip. "'Ere. I've no truck wi' yer. Yer' ain't 'onest!"
Again Grosse laughed; more good-humouredly this time.
"You're getting it straight, Joe; and you've got your orders. I'll look out for you to-morrow at ten. Understand? If you don't turn up—I'll—send—for—you."
A sinister threat lay behind the closing words, and a shiver ran down the secret agent's spine. Before he could voice a question, the man passed out of the room, closing the door behind him. For long minutes Oliver Manx lay on the ground close to the door, listening to the man's footsteps receding along the passage toward the shop. He heard the sound of voices in the distance, but could not catch the words. Then came the closing of a door—he believed it to be the shop door, and silence.
The man had gone, and without one word to explain the reason for his visit. There only remained the order for the next day—an order backed by a threat unspoken that made him shiver.
Alec Grosse. The secret agent ran over the names of those he remembered to be under suspicion. Carefully he detailed the physical points of the man. He could not connect him with anyone who had come into his work. Yet the man was a crook. There could be no doubt of, that. He had subtly reacted when Oliver Manx had forced on him the fact that he was a crook—a straight crook.
He stood up, reaching for the knob of the lock. He almost turned it, to go in search of Mart Deeling. The old fence knew this man, Grosse, well, that was certain. He had not come to the room when he was called—and the man denounced as a police-spy.
And he was to see the man on the morrow. For what reason? Grosse had said that he had work for him, but he had not said what kind of work. He had spoken of the shooting that afternoon! What did the big gangster know of that?
Had he stumbled, by chance—while a fugitive from gangland—on the very man he had searched for, long and vainly, through the ordinary investigation channels? He believed so. He believed that Grosse was one of the heads of the organisation that was fast binding the gangsters of Darlinghurst and the surrounding districts into an organised body for the looting of the city. One of the heads, only. The dome-like bald head of the man in the Pitt-street office rose before the secret agent's mental eye. Archibald—Maurice Archibald appeared more likely to be the supreme head. Yet—
What had he on the manager of the Kahm Syndicate? Only that he was the visible head of the mysterious, strangely-named syndicate, occupying magnificent offices in the heart of the city; conducting a business he could not fathom.
His suspicions were nebulous; his facts on which they were built mere conjectures. How had he placed the men? Archibald, the brain, lurking amid luxury in a city office; Grosse, the organiser, directing the working of the schemes Archibald evolved, in the heart of gangland. Yes, that was a reasonable theory. But he had to connect the two men—at the moment he had no evidence that they were even acquainted.
Grosse and Archibald! Archibald and Grosse! And—he had an appointment with Grosse for the next day. What was he to learn then? Grosse had only made the appointment when he was convinced that Joe Kline was a crook, a drug-addict—that he was a crook that would serve some unrevealed purpose.
Filled with thoughts, chaotic and illusionary, Oliver Manx crept into bed. Then he remembered. Almost he had destroyed, by a moment of carelessness, the work of months spent in building up the character of Joe Kline, crook, "snow" addict, and accepted member of Sydney's underworld.
Crawling out of bed he withdrew from behind the secret panel the tin box containing the Joe Kline makeup. The lid of the box opened to show a fine mirror. Setting the box on the dressing-table, he sat before it and carefully fixed the red wig. Very carefully he worked on his face. A few lines and wrinkles, meticulously drawn, a little stain colouring; more than anything else, a change of poise and that inner thought that reflects on the whole physical aspect—and Joe Kline lived again.
While he worked his thoughts were busy. Grosse had seen him without make-up, only the flaring red wig perched on his head. Throughout the interview Oliver Manx had been careful that the master-crook should not get a square look at his face. Would he recognise him again—recognise him as the man he had visited in the dingy lodging house? He believed he was safe. The disguise was slight—yet all sufficient.
Very carefully he restored the tin box to its place in the cavity, behind the secret panel. Tying up the uniform in a compact bundle, he thrust it into the cavity. He would have to get rid of that the next day; either return it to Headquarters or dispose of it—outside of Woolloomooloo. It was dangerous to retain it. Already the tale had spread through the quarter—that a flattie had ventured into the heart of the 'Loo alone. For days every man, woman and child in Woolloomooloo would be on the watch for that man.
Another very careful search of his room, for evidence that he was not the crook and drug-fiend he posed to be, and Oliver Manx crept into his scanty bed. For long minutes he lay pondering the many problems that crowded his mind—and at every turn of thought he came up against the massive, aggressive figure of the gangster Grosse; the large, ruddy, pugnacious face, the coarse skin almost scraped from it by the unmercifully wielded razor, the small, keen eyes, the pointed, discoloured teeth gripping with brutal violence the large, rank cigar. Alec Grosse—Alec Grosse—Who was Alec Grosse—and what power did he wield in that underworld that he, Oliver Manx, was deputed to investigate and destroy. Alec Grosse—
The sun was streaming into the small, dirty room behind the junk shop occupied by Mart Deeling when Oliver Manx, alias Joe Kline, awoke the next morning. He awoke quietly, instantly, with the stillness and alertness of those lone hunted. For long moments he lay inert, peering from under half-closed eyelids about his room—and no watcher could have declared the moment when consciousness came. He lay watching long after he was convinced that he was alone; watching the play of the sunlight on the floor from the big, burning globe just peering over the tall buildings lining the ridge of Darlinghurst, streaming over Woolloomooloo. He watched the closed door, held by a spring lock, through which his strange visitor from those who ruled the underworld had passed the previous evening. His eyes, unclosing a little more, passed from article to article of the furniture of the room and came to the bed, searching idly the tumbled covers.
Oliver Manx sat up suddenly, his breath catching in his throat, his eyes staring down at the grey-whiteness of the counterpane. Someone had been in his room the previous night—after he had closed the door on the gangster. Someone had been there unknown to him—and he, who prided himself on his alertness, asleep or awake, had not heard them.
On the counterpane was pinned a letter. Again the secret agent stared at it incredulously. Slowly he reached out a hand to it, then withdrew it. Careful not to disturb the covers, he drew up his legs and, raising the bedclothes on one side—slipped out of bed. Almost without any disturbance of the bedclothes, he was on the floor.
The chill air of early-morning clasped shivery fingers on his bed-warm flesh. Yet he did not notice the cold. His whole interest was centred on that scrap of paper in the envelope pinned to his cover. Bending over the bed, but careful not to touch it with any portion of his body, he scanned the envelope. It was addressed to him. He turned sharply and went to the door.
The lock-bolt was shot home and the catch up, as he had left it the previous night. No one could have come in that way; of that he was certain. Yet, why certain? Mart Deeling had a key that would fit the lock; that had been proved the previous night. But the catch was up, holding the lock-bolt in place. That could be managed by one who understood locks. He knew that trick!
A shrug, and he returned to the bed, unpinning the envelope and again examining it carefully. It was addressed to "Joe Kline," and the last word was followed by an exclamation mark. Then the person who had addressed that envelope had known it was an assumed name. Did he know his real name—or, was it a woman who had written that letter? That was possible! Oliver Manx did not profess to be a handwriting expert, but he thought the writing more feminine than male.
Dropping the letter on the bed, unopened, Oliver Manx went to the wall cupboard. From a top-shelf he brought a small box and placed it beside the letter on the bed. The box open, he drew from it a small, powerful magnifying glass and scanned the letter for fingerprints. There were none! Then, how had the letter been pinned to the bed-clothes; surely it must have been handled.
A few specks of white paper on the dinginess of the counterpane caught his eyes. The secret agent examined them through the glass carefully. Suddenly he smiled. The letter had been covered with a piece of paper while it was held for pinning to the bed-clothes. The paper had been caught by the pin and torn away, leaving a few fragments under the letter.
He picked up the letter and withdrew the contents, handling it carelessly. He was dealing with someone who knew the value of fingerprints. There would be none on this letter. In the envelope was a single sheet of paper. It bore no address or date, and but a few lines of writing. Oliver Manx whistled softly as he read the words:
Dear Joe Kline! (again the exclamation mark).—You are really interesting—almost as interesting as Alec Grosse, whom I believe you are to interview at ten o'clock to-day. I shall be at the corner of Maling and William-streets, on the north pavement, at noon, to receive your report. Please do not fail me, or—You know Mr. Alec Grosse is very anxious to learn your real history.
The letter was signed twice, once with a remarkably clever drawing of a cat's head, and the second time in words: "The Grey Cat."
WHO was the grey cat? For long moments Oliver Manx sat on his bed pondering the question. The Grey Cat knew of the interview between himself and Alec Grosse, in that room the previous evening. The Grey Cat knew his real identity—the exclamation marks after his name were far too suggestive for his comfort.
A little shiver ran down the secret agent's spine. He had received orders to interview the master-gangster that morning, possibly in reference to some devilry for which the man considered him particularly adapted. He had now received orders to meet the Grey Cat at noon, to make a report of his interview with the master-gangster.
Who was the Grey Cat?
Again Oliver Manx bent over the single sheet of notepaper. The big, angular characters were suggestive of a woman; still more suggestive were the exclamation marks.
Exclamation marks, were not common signs for an average letter-writer to use. They are far more the marks in use by creative writers—even the journalist, who is in main fact, more a recorder than a writer, makes little use of them. Again the secret agent studied the handwriting. Now he was certain that the note had been written by a woman—and one with more than average education.
Who was the Grey Cat? With tense concentration Oliver Manx went over the names and personalities of those he had met in his search for the rulers of Sydney's new underworld. Although many women were under his suspicion of being affiliated to the new organisation, he could not pick one to whom he could attribute this letter.
Replacing the letter in its envelope he stowed both away in his pocket; then devoted his attention to recreating the character of Joe Kline. He realised, that before him during the next half-dozen hours lay the 'supreme test' of his disguise. If he passed muster with Alec Grosse, he might penetrate far towards the solution of the problems before, him. He thought he could satisfy Grosse; the Character of Joe Kline, snow-addict and cheap crook, had been built up with much care and thought. Except in connection with this episode of the Grey Cat, he believed his impersonation to be impregnable.
If he satisfied the master-gangster and won for himself a place in the organisation for the control of the underworld he believed was being constructed in the Three Districts, he still had the Grey Cat to deal with. How could he contend with her? He did not believe she would be satisfied with anything less than a complete account of his interview with Grosse, supported by what proofs she chose to demand.
Oliver Manx finished his dressing and stood before the small mirror perched precariously on the packing-case that served for a dressing-table, surveying his handiwork. It was good, he admitted that to himself. Then he turned to his pockets, noting that everything he was likely to need while he was absent from his room was in place. Next he turned to the room, itself; going over it scrupulously, packing into the secret receptacle behind the bed, anything that might give cause for suspicion, if the room was searched in his absence. Searched it would be, he was certain of that. He believed that Mart Deeling, or one of his associates, would go over the room carefully immediately he left it; that a full report of all it contained would be in the master-gangster's hands, before even he interviewed him.
At length, satisfied, that he had safeguarded everything possible, he went to the door and examined the fastenings. Again his brows wrinkled in thought. The door was safe—no one could have passed into the room through the doorway during the night. Yet the Grey Cat had been in his room and had pinned a note to his bedclothes.
A sudden thought came to his mind. Very carefully, he passed over the walls of the room, moving out the furniture into the centre of the room so that his inspection could be the more complete. Nowhere could he find any signs of a secret door. Yet, with that note on his bed, there must be some way into that room than through the door—unless, and that was the only possibility, the Grey Cat could claim the confidence and assistance of Mart Deeling.
Again he frowned, swearing to himself that before another night passed he would hold the secret.
Again he examined the door carefully before opening it. Lurching into the passage he called impatiently for Mart Deeling. He heard a querulous voice muttering in one of the front rooms, and grinned. The old fence did not like being disturbed at that hour of the morning. Yet it was for that purpose, for the purpose of awakening Mart Deeling out of his sleep and questioning him before his senses were fully alert, that Oliver Manx had risen early.
"Mart! Mart! Where th' 'ell are yer?" The thin, irritating voice of Joe Kline, rang through the passage. "Wother 'ell d' yer keep a bloke waitin' fer?"
An unkempt, dirty head poked from a door some way up the dingy passage. Two suspicious eyes gleamed in the semi-darkness.
"Wot's bit yer, Joe? No, I ain't gotner sniff. Get backter bed, can't 'yer?"
"Don't wanner sniff." Oliver Manx stimulated the manner of a man who had had his morning dose. "Yer got yer orders. Wotter grousin' abart?"
"Wot orders?" The shaggy head came forward into the passage, followed by a long, goose-flesh neck. "Wot th' Big Boy sed, blast yer!" The secret agent lurched down the passage aggressively. "Wotter yer keepin' me waitin' fer?"
"Ther's lots'r time," grumbled the old fence. His eyes searched the man in the passage suspiciously. "Wotter yer knockin' so early fer?".
"Cut it!" Another lurch brought Oliver Manx close to the door. He stretched out his arm suddenly, fastening his fingers on the back of the out-thrust head and dragging the fence into the passage. He released him suddenly and leaned back against the wall, roaring with uncontrolled laughter.
"Wotter sight!" he chortled, and his laughter was real, not assumed. "Mart's gotter nightie on—a real tart's nightie. Lor', Mart, wot's yer fancy got—one leg o' yer 'jamas?" He turned to the stairs, bellowing up them. "Hey, boys! Cummon! See all th' sights an' nuffin' ter pay—Mart's in a skirt's fancy frills, an' showin' 'is 'airy, bussum! 'ere! Cummon, an' 'ave a wink!"
Again he lurched on, this time catching the fence in full flight to his room and driving him along the passage. There was cause for Oliver Manx's merriment. Mart Deeling was clad in a robe that had, once graced the night-chamber of a society dame. Now dirty and torn, the low-cut neck and ornately ornamented bodice arid sleeves were supremely ridiculous on the fence's scraggy figure, surmounted by his thin, straggling grey beard and whiskers. The full train of the robe swept the filthy passage-floor, at times revealing the malformed toes of the old man.
"Chuck it, Joe!" Mart Deeling huddled the voluminous folds of the robe about his scanty figure. "Yer shot full, y'are. Take a rest or it'll bring yer t' trouble."
"Wot if I is shot?" The secret agent turned sharply on the old man, his hand slipping to where his gun hung in the shoulder holster under his left arm. "Wot's that t'youse?"
"Nothin', Joe." The fence spoke placatingly. "Nothin', me boy; only I don't, want yer in trouble."
"Who'll trouble me?" The gun was now in Oliver Manx's fingers, wavering under the old man's fascinated gaze. "I—I'll shoo' th' dam'd cows—I—I'll—"
Deeling suddenly turned and bolted into his room, turning swiftly and slamming the door shut. The secret agent heard the key turn in the lock.
Keeping up the pretence of being drug-mad, he lurched to the door, and hammered on the panels with the gun-butt.
"Cum outer ther'," he shouted. "Cum outer ther', or I'll shoot th' —— lock orf!"
"Put th' gun away, Joe." The old fence's quivering tones hardly penetrated the wood of the door. "I ain't goin' ter be sho' up w'en yer 'op-headed."
Oliver Manx smiled secretly in the darkness of the passage. He had Mart Deeling just where he wanted him. With the first words the old man had spoken that morning he had understood that he was not to be given Alec Grosse's address until just before the hour for the interview. At this moment the old fence was stalling for time, yet terrified out of his wits. The old man had to be forced to speak, and at once. It did not suit the agent's plans to have to hang about the house until Mart thought it was time to pass on the instructions he had received.
Oliver Manx wanted time to survey the surroundings in which he was to interview the master-gangster—time to plan for any eventuality that might occur.
"Cum outer ther'!" he shouted, hammering anew at the panels of the door. "Blast yer, won' yer under-stan'? I gotter int'view a gen'lemun an' I wanter 'is address."
"Ther's 'eaps o' time, Joe." The quivering accents came through the door.
"Ther' ain't!" Oliver Manx laughed shrilly, keeping up a continual drumming on the door. Already other boarders were on the stairs, all interested in an impersonal manner in the comedy being played out in the passage. The secret agent sensed that they would not interfere. Mart Deeling was not too popular, especially among his roomers.
"Watch it, Mart; I'm countin' ten an' if I don' get th' layout then I'll blow th'—" He finished the sentence with a stream of profanity that showed how earnest a student he had been of Woolloomooloo customs and speech.
"Alri', Joe." Mart Deeling capitulated. The key grated reluctantly in the lock, yet the door did not immediately open. "Put away yer gun, Joe; yer don' wan' it, an' it's dangerous."
"Alri'!" Oliver Manx spoke as one making a big concession. "Yer show up an' par' wi' wot I wan' an' ther'll be no trouble. See?"
It was a signed and sealed armistice. The door reluctantly opened. Mart Deeling's head came into the secret agent's view, peering suspiciously through a crack barely wide enough for the two eyes.
"Yer oughter be careful, Joe." The door opened a fraction more when the old fence saw that the gun was no longer in sight. "Ther's 'eaps o' time for yer; w'y, it ain't nine yet—An' I wos just goin' ter cook yer a nice steak affore yer went t' Alec's. Now, be a good boy an' go an' lie down fer 'arf-a-'our an' I'll get yer brekfust an' then tell yer th' lay-ou' fer th' mornin'."
"Cut it!" Oliver Manx's hand moved suggestively towards his armpit. "I don' wanner yer steak—I can buy wot I wan'—see." His hand dove into his trousers' pocket, coming out clutching a handful of silver. "I buy me brekfust w'er' it won' choke me. Get that? Now, choke up!"
For a moment the old man's eyes were steady, then wavered uncertainly. Oliver Manx smiled to himself. The man was about to give way to his insistence; too scared to longer hold out against his fixed, drug-strengthened importunity. Again he lurched forward, moving in an ungainly manner, yet too swiftly for the old man to avoid him. He caught the fence by his throat, forcing him back into his room; then kicked the door shut.
The secret agent glanced about him curiously. The room was small and without a single window. On one side was a door, partly open, and beyond it he could see the interior of the shop, the front door and the fanlight above it, still tightly closed. The atmosphere of the room almost choked him, the foetid stench of stale humanity, fostered through the long night hours, made him retch.
Against one wall of the room stood a narrow iron cot, very similar to the one in his own room. On the opposite side of the chamber was a bare kitchen table, liberally bespattered with grease. On it stood a small kerosene stove, and around the edges of the table hung from rusty nails a strange collection of decrepit cooking utensils. In the corners of the room were piled tall collections of wearing apparel, and apparently from one of these heaps old Mart had garnered his present night apparel. From the centre of the blackened, peeling ceiling depended a gas-bracket, ending in a single jet, now lighted and emitting a feeble glow and hiss, as if at protest at being alight at that hour of the daylight. So far as Oliver Manx could see, the only article of value in the room was a solid steel safe, before which lay a high pile of clothing and other linen. From the position of things it was apparent that most of the time the safe was hidden under the cast-off goods.
"Well? Spit it out!" The secret agent advanced further into the room, the old man retreating hastily before him, until he stumbled over the tail of his night-robe and fell sprawling on the bed. "I ain't got all th' day fer yer."
"Th' Big Boy sed as I warn't ter tell yer till a quar'r-t'-ten," mumbled the old fence, feeling his throat tenderly.
"An' I ses—" The secret agent made a motion towards his gun.
"'E'll kill me!" Mart Deeling lay on the bed whimpering. "Joe, I dare-sent.'E'd kill me!"'
"'E ain't 'ere;" Oliver Manx laughed, trying to appear fully shot with the dope. "An' I'm 'ere—an' wi' a little pers'ader as yer know orfs. Get me, Mart?. Yer ain't 'oldin out on me. I ain't fergot las' ni', an' th' key as yer swore yer 'adn't—An' ther's them abart as 'ud wanter know—" The secret agent's voice dropped to a lower and threatening tone. "—ther's them in t'is 'ouse as 'ud like ter knows as t'er doss is search'd w'en they isn't in." He paused a moment, then continued: "I don't say as I've missed anythink, bu' I migh' 'ave—an' if I tells th' boys abart th' keys an'—"
Behind his front of intense drug-egotism, Oliver Manx had been watching the old fence keenly. He had seen the small, cunning eyes wander to the head of the bed when he mentioned the keys to the various lodgers' rooms. Suddenly he dived for the bed, throwing the old man roughly aside. From under the dingy pillows he brought out a large bunch of keys and pitched them on the floor in the middle of the room.
"An' yer can' say as yer 'aven't got 'em," he concluded. "Yer —— nark!"
"I ain't," wailed Mart Deeling, almost crying, a pathetic figure of humour as he squatted on the foot of his bed, wrapped in the once-white discarded night-robe of some fashion dame. "Yer won' giv' me away to th' boys, Joe?"
"Wot's th' Big Boy's 'ang-out?"
"Yer won' git ther till fiv' min'tes ter ten, Joe?"
"I ain't givin' yer away."
Mart Deeling leaned forward whispering, his eyes darting from side to side, in mortal terror of being overheard. Oliver Manx nodded.
"An' yer won' tell th' boys abart th' keys, Joe," continued the old fence.
Cringingly, the old man brought the keys to the bed and detached one from the bunch. He held it out, hesitatingly.
"I ain't used it never, Joe, 'onest, I ain't."
Oliver Manx slipped the key into his pocket and turned to the door. There he hesitated, half turning. Was it safe to leave the old man free? It was probable that, once he had left the room Mart Deeling would take some means to communicate with Alec Grosse, informing. him of the scene in that room. But would the master-gangster accept, any explanation the rascally fence chose to make for disobeying his instructions not to reveal the address of the meeting-place until close on the appointed hour?
Oliver Manx did not think so. He believed that the Big Boy would turn on the old man angrily for disobeying definite instructions. He would not care one iota if the old man had had to take a beating up in defence of the instructions he had received—all he would understand was that he had been disobeyed.
He could not strike down the old man in cold blood, yet his fingers strayed to the butt of the gun in the shoulder-holster, beneath his vest. He could threaten, but would those threats have any effect when he had left the old man. Would not Mart Deeling consider what effect his statement would have on the master-crook, and act accordingly. If he thought he could get away with some tale that would put "Joe Kline" in bad, without betraying himself, surely he would consider some revenge for the bullying he had sustained that morning.
Still, there was another way. Suddenly he turned on the old man sitting, on the edge of the bed in his grotesque costume, furtively watching him.
"Git over ther'!" Oliver Manx pointed to the kitchen, table against the opposite wall.' '"Git 'ol 'ov that pen an' a piece ov paper. Now write. Quick, I ses! Writ' as 'ow yer've search'd th' boys' dosses an' that yer've got spare keys ter th'r' 'rooms,—w'en yer sed as yer 'adn't; Git on! Writ', yer toad! Quick!"
"I daresent, Joe! I daresent!" the old fence wailed; yet he went across to the table and drew out the chair before it.
"Yer'll writ', or—" Suggestively the secret agent allowed the butt of his gun to peep from under his vest. "Writ', I ses; damn yer! Quick!"
Still Mart Deeling hesitated. Oliver Manx brought the gun fully into sight, reversing it in his hand, to use as a bludgeon, and handling it suggestively.
"Don't, Joe. I'll, write." The old man was trembling with terror. Hastily he scrawled a few lines on the paper and backed from the table. Oliver Manx stepped, nearer as the old man retreated, and scanned the writing. "Alri'." He caught up the paper and backed to the door. "Now, keep yer trap shut, an' I won't say nuffink. Blab a word an' th' boys'll fin' this an'—"
He opened, the door and glanced into the dim-lit passage. The men who had congregated on the stairs were not there now. Another glance at the old fence, watching him furtively, and he suddenly slammed the door shut.
For a moment he considered. It would be unsafe to carry the paper on him through his visit to Alec Grosse. More than likely the old fence was now crouching at the door of his room, intent on learning what he proposed to do with it. If he took it with him, it was probable that Deeling would send some tale to the master-gangster that would cause him to be detained and searched. The paper would mean nothing to Grosse.
He must hide the paper; put it in some place where it would be safe for the time, but where a whispered word would carry to that house, to the man in the room upstairs. He must put it where they could find it without much difficulty. Thoughtfully he went down the passage to his room and starred about it thoughtfully. He could place it in the secret receptacle behind the bed; but he dared not allow anyone to go there; that place contained too many secrets dangerous to him. Then, where? He glanced round the room, puzzled. Then sudden thought came.
He went to the wall opposite the door and pinned the paper, writing facing the dingy wall-paper to the wall. Then, with a crayon he wrote some words on the back—a simple name and address, fictitious, but sufficient to satisfy anyone's curiosity who entered the room—if the old fence still possessed a key to the lock. A moment's reflection and he nodded, satisfied. The paper would be safe there. It would be easily found, if he had to betray the old fence for his personal security, or in revenge.
Again he searched his room for any signs of his presence there that would betray his identity as Joe Kline. He could find nothing amiss. He glanced at the paper on the wall again. Already it had blended into part of the dismal room.
Listening at the door for a moment, he slipped out into the passage and went to the door leading into the yard. There he paused, glancing up at the face of the house. So far as he could see there was no-one at any of the windows watching him. He went to the yard-gate and listened. He could hear no sounds from the alley-way on either side. Lifting the latch, he slipped furtively into the alley, and, before closing the gate, again glanced up at the windows.
He was free of the place. No-one had watched him go out of the yard, from the windows, so far as he had seen. He had watched, more as a general precaution, for he had not thought that Mart Deeling would go up to any of the roomers' rooms to watch him; for the time he would keep to the shop and his own room, until the events of the morning had faded from onlookers' recollection. Now, before him was his great adventure—the adventure he had begun to believe would lead him to the heart of the mystery he had set out to uncover.
The mystery—the uncovering of the new crook kingdom that was being set up in the Three Districts. Who were its rulers, and what were their objectives? For the present he could only guess—he knew nothing. All he knew for certainty was that organised crime was on the increase, and a hundred times more dangerous than hitherto, in the Three Districts. He guessed that the Kahm Syndicate was in some measure mixed up with the new organisation, and that Alec Grosse was one of its agents. And Alec Grosse had come to him, seeking him for some unknown purpose.
Alec Grosse had come to him! Why? In the light of day he discounted the thought that the master-gangster had come to him because of the turmoil of the previous night. The man's appearance in the fence's house had been too opportune for that. No, Alec Grosse had had some definite purpose in seeking out Joe Kline. What could that purpose be?
Another element had entered into the maze of theories that cluttered his mind—The Grey Cat! The woman who signed herself "The Grey Cat." Who was she, and for what purpose had she been watching happenings in Mart Deeling's filthy hovel. She had warned him that his secret belonged to her—that his safety, his very life, depended on his obedience to her orders. Were the Grey Cat and Alec Grosse connected in any way in the maze of the underworld? That might be, but from the tone of the note he had found on his bed that morning he believed they were in opposition.
At his one meeting with Grosse the master-gangster had not mentioned the Grey Cat—yet the woman had shown her open curiosity regarding the gangster. For a second he paused, standing on the edge of the pavement, staring abstractedly up and down the street. He felt himself wandering in a maze, and he could not even guess which of the avenues before him would lead to the solution he sought. He had to blunder on, marking each point as it came under his observation; walking blindly along a track abounding with dangers on every side, knowing that death stalked beside him, grinning from a bare skull, waiting for the moment when he might slip, to reach out a hand of dry bones and gather him into the kingdom of the lost.
"Say, Joe! Wotter yer lookin' at?" A shrill voice sounded at his elbow. He looked down at the diminutive larrikin standing beside him. "'Ere!" The boy thrust a dirty scrap of paper into his hand.
"Yer tart sen' yer that."
With a shrill whoopee the youngster sped across the road into the mouth of a narrow lane, and disappeared. Oliver Manx looked down at the roughly folded paper in his hand. Before he saw the big angular writing he guessed the writer—the Grey Cat!
"At the corner of Maling and William-streets—noon."
And underneath the words the bold outline of a cat's head!
A SHORT laugh of aggravation came from the secret agent's lips. The Grey Cat again! In some manner she had trailed him from Mart Deeling's rooming-house that morning. She had watched him pass through the streets, and had picked out that urchin to bring him a fresh warning that he was under her observation—at her commands! But—Had she watched him, or had she only acted on guesswork? If she knew Grosse—the locality where the man would interview him that morning—then it would be easy to pick out some boy of the streets, bid him follow a certain distance and then deliver the note. That was the more probable method employed.
There came the thought: Why the second reminder? Had the Grey Cat believed her first letter, pinned to his bed, not sufficient to bend him to her will? Or, was the woman pandering to some sense of the dramatic? Her assumption of the nom-de-plume of "The Grey Cat" was dramatic, almost bizarre.
Against that theory he had the instinct that had risen in his mind when he had seen the first note that morning. The few, firm strokes that formed the cat's head were not the work of a person who allowed a sense of the dramatic to overlord practicability. He was certain that behind the two messages lay some definite, well-considered purpose.
For long he stood on the pavement considering, but failed to come to any determination. Fate must order his decisions when he came face to face with the Grey Cat that day at noon.
The smell of cooking food from a nearby shop awoke him to the thought that he had not broken fast that morning. He went up to William-street and entered one of the eating houses. As he seated himself at a table, he glanced at the cheap nickel clock on the shelf behind the pay-counter. The clock marked half-past nine. He had not much time to spare!
At ten minutes to the hour he arose from the table and paid his bill. On the street he turned up the hill, toward Darlinghurst. Now he was getting into better surroundings. He glanced down at himself, his clothes, and grinned. He was the typical hobo, a no-account waster. In Woolloomooloo he had merged well into the general surroundings; here, mounting the long hill to King's Cross, he felt himself more conspicuous.
He passed Maling-street and glanced right and left in search of someone he could identify as the Grey Cat. Many people were loitering on both pavements, but he could see no-one he could possibly identify with the mystery woman.
He passed on slowly, coming at length—almost as the main road debouched to the Cross—to Unwin-street, and turned into it. A couple of hundred yards towards the harbour and he saw on his right a big garage. On a panel set midway up the wall, and across the width of the building, he read the name: "Grosse and Co.—The Better Garage."
So Alec Grosse used his own name, or the name he was known by in the underworld, for his public business. Almost a respect for the master-gangster came to the secret service man. Grosse was, in his own way, almost a great opponent.
Oliver Manx waited some little distance from the building until the clocks of the district chimed the hour; then went boldly into the garage and asked for Alec Grosse.
A man, tinkering at one of the many cars on the floor, looked up inquisitively, took some time to stare at his questioner, then jerked his head toward the door at the back of the building on which was lettered "Offices".
"In there, buddy."
Oliver Manx nodded his head in thanks for the information and went to the door. He opened it and saw before him a narrow, counter barring a medium-sized office. A girl, seated at a desk facing the counter, looked up inquiringly:
"Mister Grosse, pleas', miss. Mister Alec Grosse 'e tol' me ter call at ten."
"Come through." The girl pointed to the flap of the counter. "You'll find him in there." She nodded to a door at the side of the room. "Another of those bums," she added, partly under her breath. "They'll skin the last cent off that poor man."
Oliver Manx smiled slightly as he crossed the office. So that was the reputation Alec Grosse had built up in his office. He was the generous benefactor of out-of-works! It was a good disguise, matching the well-conditioned garage filled with signs of payable work and a thriving business.
Who would suspect that the "generous" and "wealthy" Alec Grosse was the king-pin around which circled a gang of crooks and outlaws threatening the law and order of the State?
Assuming an air of diffidence he did not feel, the secret agent knocked at the indicated door. A big voice he well remembered bade him enter. As he stretched his hand to the handle the door opened smartly, framing, a slight, well-made girl, obviously Grosse's personal secretary.
Oliver Manx drew aside for the girl to pass. For a moment she looked at him, in silent thanks, and the secret agent felt a thrill run through him. She was red-haired and—her eyes were green, with small, delicate pupils—the eyes of a cat! An abrupt motion from the master gangster and the secret agent entered the room.
For a moment the eyes of the men met, and held. "So you've come." The big man broke a short silence. "Well, anything to say?"
"Drop that talk—that isn't you." Alec Grosse spoke quickly.
"Why not?" Instinctively Oliver Manx reacted to the command in the man's voice. "I talk as I like."
"In Woolloomooloo, perhaps—not here." The big man leaned back in his chair, tapping his front teeth with the end of a fountain-pen. "Here you talk as I wish."
"And if I don't choose to?"
"Then—" For a moment the man's ruddy face was suffused by a sudden rush of angry blood; then he laughed. He pointed with the pen-end to a chair.
"Sit down." Again Oliver Manx obeyed automatically; yet he felt he should rise again to his feet. Every fibre of his being was opposed to this man's arrogant manner—his assumption of command.
"Want work?" Alec Grosse spoke after a few minute's silence.
"I've got me own lay," answered Oliver Manx aggressively.
"Not much' good, is it?" The big man's hard glance swept the worn-out garments of the supposed crook. "But you'd a better suit under the bed last night. Why didn't you wear that to-day?"
Oliver Manx's heart missed a beat. What did this man know? Had he seen more than the trouser-leg of the constable's uniform?
"Look here—" The secret agent started to his feet with assumed anger. "I ain't askin' yer fer any-think, am I? T'en keep yer remarks ter yerself. I don' wan' em."
"Cock-o'-the-walk, aren't you?" the big man sneered; then burst out laughing and held out his hand. "Shake! I like a fellow to have a bit of spunk in him."
The man radiated power. Almost against his will Oliver Manx placed his fingers on the big palm; to have them crushed as if in a vice. For a moment he almost winced, then set his teeth and stoically bore the pain, returning the pressure to the best of his ability.
"You've got pluck." Grosse spoke as if he had been applying a test. "I like that. Well, want a job?"
"I ain't sed so." The secret agent's face was blank. It was not to his interest to show willingness. "Wot job? In th' garage?"
"Think you'd, like that? Know anything about cars?"
"A bit. I can drive."
"And keep your engine running silent? Anything else?"
"I'm not talkin'."
"No?" Again came the big laugh, "You're certainly not talking, so far as I can hear. Well, a still tongue goes down with me all right. What's your lay?"
"Garage proprietor—and philanthropist." Alec Grosse leaned back in his chair and laughed again. "What do you think of that?"
"If yer've got th' guts ter back it wi' sumthink real."
"You're looking for easy money, then?"
"I ain't sed so."
"I'll take if, that if it was offered—perhaps?"
Oliver Manx did not answer. For some seconds the big man behind the desk was silent, staring intently at the secret agent. A slight smile was flecking the hard lips, creeping up to the wrinkled corners of the hard eyes. Oliver Manx felt uneasy. He wondered if he had overplayed his part?
"Where have you come from?" asked Grosse suddenly. "Wait a moment, you needn't take the trouble to lie to me. It's quite a time since I first heard of you, and since then you've been away from that dump in Rumble-street. Where have' you been?"
"Over th' 'ill."
"In the Big House?"
"For how long?"
"Where's the boodle?"
"With Mart Deeling?"
Oliver Manx made a gesture of disgust. Grosse nodded understandingly. After a moment's pause he asked suddenly "Gangster, eh?"
"Like a shot, sumtimes."
Suddenly the master-gangster leaned forward across the desk, the pen in his hand pointing straight at Oliver Manx's face. "Cut that out," he said. "Understand, I don't stand for dope. You—cut—that—out!"
"I'm n'working fer youse."
"Is that all you know?" The big man laughed heartily. "Well, I've made up my mind that you are. Get that? I almost made up my mind last night, but thought I'd have a look at you by daylight first. Now, that's settled. You'll do what I tell you—"
"Blast—" The secret agent came to his feet with assumed indignation. "—of all the—"
"Sit down." The command was quietly spoken, yet held a threat. "I've told you—you're working for me now, and you'll do as you're told."
For a full half-minute the two men, both now on their feet, stared into each other's eyes, then Oliver Manx allowed his gaze to fall. Alec Grosse gave a self-satisfied little laugh.
"It's no good, Joe Kline." There was almost a kindliness in the deep voice. "You haven't a chance in the Three Districts unless you fall in with my wishes. You say you've been away for the past eighteen months—in the Awful Place. Well, during that time there's been some changes. Men who know things—who have the ability to do things—have taken charge. They've cleared out the little fellows, and organised those they thought worth-while, properly. We're out for business, big business, and we won't have lone wolves butting in and bulling things up."
He paused a moment, and when he continued speaking the hardness had returned to his tones.
"You mayn't like it at first, but you'll have to accept it. We don't like opposition and we don't get it or—" he paused significantly "—or those who think of opposition manage to find their way back—over the hill—and it's a damned tall mountain by that time—or—some of them find it awkward—walking on air."
The last words, significantly spoken, sent cold shivers down the secret agent's back. He well understood the allusion. He understood the offer that was being made to him. He was offered a part in the gang organisation, and if he did not accept that offer he had the choice of getting out of the State—or meeting the ultimate end. Now Oliver Manx understood much that had been only guesswork with him during the past months.
He had guessed that crime had been organised on a big scale in the Three Districts. He had known that many crooks who in days past had spent their freedom around Sydney had taken sudden desires to travel. He had studied police reports stating that other crooks who had been indexed "unreformable" had suddenly started to lead irreproachable lives—so far as police information went. And—he had wondered.
Now he knew; he knew that those amenable had been gathered in under the leadership of men who knew how to organise for mutual protection and aggression. He knew that Sydney, and indeed the whole State, was threatened by a strong organisation containing men who could plan logically and successfully—men who had at their command powers and information he could only guess at. Who were these men?
Instinctively, his thoughts went to the well-appointed offices in Pitt-street; to the rotund man with the shiny, bald head and the plausible steel-like manner. Yet he could not connect them with this man—Alec Grosse—who stood before him, glowering down on him, awaiting his pledged word to obey his commands.
"You've got my meaning, I see." The master-gangster spoke again. "You're sensible. I've given you rope to say what you thought because I believed you'd be useful to us—and because you didn't understand what you were up against. You'll get no second chance, and you haven't long to make up your mind. Now, what are you going to do? Come in with us, or take it on the run—after twenty-four hours."
Take it on the run! Oliver Manx well knew what lay behind those few words. He knew that he would be allowed to leave that garage in safety—to get back to his dingy room in Mart Deeling's rooming-house unmolested. Yet word would have sped before him that he was to be watched. From that moment he would never be unobserved. Eyes would follow him wherever he went. He might double and dodge—and those eyes would still follow him, for they were too many for him to dodge. Behind those eyes would he the untiring brains, forecasting and anticipating his every movement; grinning lips below, in grim amusement of his futile evasions. A time would come when he would make a slip, find some avenue in his defences unguarded—and someone would find a poor, broken body by the wayside, in a field, in a room—all that remained mortal of Joe Kline, drug addict and cheap crook.
"You don't give a chap a chance," he muttered, his lids closely veiling his eyes, in fear they might betray his triumph in penetrating into his enemy's camp.
"What chance do you want—you'll get the chance of plenty of money; a decent life in respectable surroundings. What more do you want?" The big man spoke quickly. "Up to the present you've worked on your own, and a fine mess you've made of things; living in Mart Deeling's doss-rooms, eating at cheap grub-joints, slinking about the streets in fear of flatties and narks, not knowing that when you turned the next trick some dick's hand wouldn't fall on your shoulder and scoop you in rummy. You're worth more than that, Joe Kline. Oh, you needn't stare at me. I've made inquiries and I know—"
Alec Grosse paused and came round the desk. "I hadn't heard of you when you went up for your stretch," he continued. "If I had, and had seen you, I'd have had you sprung. Don't look; I could have done it, and would have, for you're one of the men I want. I knew of you! I knew what you went up for before you told me—" he hesitated. "I thought Joe Kline went up for a couple of years and—"
"That's what the Big Boy said,", interrupted Oliver Manx, grinning. He was thankful that he had assumed the character of a real crook; assumed the character and even the lodgings of the real Joe Kline. The real man was still in Goulburn—and would remain there until he sent the word for his release—and that would not be until he had succeeded in his task—or definitely failed.
"Yer fergit, ther's time orf."
"That's so," said Alec Grosse. "But I understood you forfeited that for misbehaviour. You didn't? Well, you won't go back. I'll take care of that."
"Is that so."
"That is so. You obey orders and you'll be taken care of—and well paid."
Again came one of those long pauses in which the master-gangster, seemed to indulge. For long seconds he stared fixedly at the supposed crook.
"These are your orders," he said slowly. "You'll come to me for what dope you want—and you'll get damned little of it, for I intend to break you of that habit. Oh, yes; we sell it to others; but they don't matter. You do; you're going to work for us—and that stuff don't help none. You'll come to me for your orders in regard to your work; and you'll only come when you're sent for. I'll take care of the means to that end; all you have to do is to obey when you get the word. Get that; you won't come when you choose, but immediately you're required. And there's no questioning what I say. Try it, and I'll discipline you. Don't think you can get away with it and sniff when you want to. There's not a runner in Sydney who'll give you even the sight of the outside of a packet—and they'll let me know if you try any tricks—" The big man stopped suddenly. "Got any on you now?"
"A bit." Oliver Manx was thankful that he had taken the precaution to always carry part of a packet. Alee Grosse half held out his hand then withdrew it.
"Keep what you've got, and use it carefully, for it's the last you'll get, unless you get too bad to do without it. As for your work—"
Again came the strange pause. The big man turned slowly on his heels and went round his desk, seating himself. Presently he continued: "You'll come here at eight o'clock to-night. You'll find me here and I'll give you your orders on your first job with us. It's a simple matter, but you'll do as you're told, implicitly. Understand?"
Oliver Manx nodded, rising from his chair. He thought the interview was ended, and a twinge of disappointment came to him. He had hoped to learn far more. Yet, what more could he have hoped for. He had penetrated into the gang who were usurping authority throughout the underworld. If his luck held he might, in time, work his way into the inner, controlling ring.
"Where are you going?" The master-gangster stayed him with an imperative motion of his hand.
"Home—till eight o'clock to-night."
"To Mart Deeling's. That's the only doss I've got."
"Deeling was told half-an-hour ago that you would not return to his house. I sent him money to cover what rent you owed, and told him he could have anything you had left in the room. I received word from Mart that you have the only keys of the room. Where are they?"
Reluctantly Oliver Manx put his hand in his pocket. His brain was in a turmoil. He wanted time to think. He was barred from the place he had named his sanctuary—and sanctuary it had proved to be on more than one occasion since he had come to Woolloomooloo. Time and again he had fled down the narrow alley between the backyards of the two rows of houses, to disappear in the deep shadows from his pursuers, to find sanctuary in that mean, dirty room. Yes, it had been sanctuary, and a pain gripped his heart at the thought of being barred from it. He had to go back to that room.
There were things there that he dared not let be uncovered to the eyes of crookland. There was the secret panel behind the bed which he had constructed with so much labour during the still hours of the night. There were things in the hollow behind that panel.
He had to go back to that room. In the recess behind the bed lay the constable's uniform in which he had escaped from Sydney Hospital. He had to get that away; he had to retrieve the letter he had forced Mart Deeling to write from where he had placed it on the wall. It was the only hold he had over the old fence. Without it, Mart might speak of that interview in his room during the early hours of that morning.
In sudden anger he turned furiously on the big gangster.
"Wot th' 'ell—"
"Cut that!" The cold, dominant tones broke through his ill-considered words. "What have you there that's important? Swag? You told me you'd fenced your last haul. Then you're holding out on me?" The deep light that blazed in Alec Grosse's eyes almost overawed the secret agent's poise. "Come clean, I say, or—"
"I'm clean!" With his anger now in control, his nerves steady, Oliver Manx leaned across the, desk-top, facing the big man, his fists clenched, his knuckles resting on the desktop.
"I'm clean—but I don't stand for anything you choose. Get that? I'm going back to Mart Deeling's house, and I'll stay there just long as I choose—and if you, or that gang of toughs you boast you rule, try to get up to any tricks—to put me out—"
He laughed angrily. "Try it! Try it, I say! I'll put you and some of them just where you belong—in the hottest hell that man or devil ever thought of."
With a shrug of contempt, his fingers within a few inches of the gun in the shoulder holster under his left arm, he turned to the door.
"STAND right there!"
Alec Grosse was again on his feet, his face suffused with anger. One hand was outstretched, the fingers' pointing at Oliver Manx, the other rested on the lip of a half-opened drawer of the desk. With his fingers on the door-knob, Oliver Manx turned and faced the man.
He knew that he had reached the critical point of the long interview; that if he now gave way to this man his mission, his very life was endangered. It was impossible for him to carry on his investigations without a certain freedom of action, and Grosse had plainly showed that he intended to impose restrictions that would be tantamount to constant espionage.
"Well?" The secret agent spoke contemptuously. "Anything more to say; any more orders to give? Bah!" He turned to face the gangster squarely. "What do you think you are—a damned little tin-god on wheels. You turn me out of my doss; you tell me I shall live where and how you like! S'pose you'll tell me what I'm to eat, and what I'm to wear—Where's this sort of thing to end? Who the hell are you?"
"By God, I'll show you!" The big man could hardly articulate for passion. "You—you defy me?"
"Defy you?" Oliver Manx threw back his head and laughed loudly. "Who wouldn't—with that tripe you try to put over. I'll go further than defy you, you cheap skate. I'll tell you now, you're exceeding your instructions—that your bosses won't stand for your so-called orders. Try! Tell them your instructions; tell them what I've said, and see what they say to you then? They'll call you down, good and sharp—and they won't be far wrong. What d'yer think yer are—a damned Legree; slave-driver Of men, free, white, and twenty-one?"
The little ornate clock on the desk, almost midway between the two men, ticked loudly through the long seconds of silence that followed Oliver Manx's defiance. Gradually the red blood of anger left Grosses full, ruddy face, leaving it paler than wont, and his muscles relaxed. He sat down suddenly, something in the nature of a ghost of a smile playing the cruel, firm lips.
"I've heard of you, Joe Kline," he said slowly, and the secret agent could see that he was riding his anger hard on the bit. "They were right! Dope-head! Yes, that's right. You must be stoked right up to the neck to talk to me like that!"
"Takes dope to talk to you, does it. Perhaps it takes dope to talk to me." Oliver Manx laughed. He thrust two fingers into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out the little fold of cocaine, throwing it on the desk. "Here! Take a sniff yerself, and get some real pluck in yer. Take a sniff, o' man, you need it—and you've sold enough of the stuff to others to deserve one sniff fer yerself! No? All right! Truth, it would be waste of good stuff on any think likes yer. Ta-ta! See yer' t'nigh'. Eight o'clock you said? Right! I'll be here—and then we'll talk turkey. S'long!"
Oliver Manx watched the big man for a moment; then, with a shrug, turned to the door. As his hand grasped the door knob Grosse spoke.
"You can't open that door."
"No? Can't I?" The secret agent caught at the knob and turned it. The door held shut, controlled by some secret catch. He tugged harder, but the door would not budge. Swiftly he turned to face the room again, his right-hand fingers caressing the lapel of his coat. "Open that door!"
"We'll talk first." Alec Grosse leaned forward, pointing to the chair the secret agent had occupied. "Sit down, Joe. Perhaps I was a bit hasty, but I've a hot crew to drive!"
"You're not driving me."
"You've got to obey orders—if you come in. You know what'll happen if you don't."
"Yes? All right! I sed I'd come-in—on terms."
"The only terms will be dictated by—" The big man paused.
"By the men who're behind you," corrected the secret agent "Well, who are they?"
"That you'll never know." A graver note came in the gangster's voice. "That is, unless, they want you to. Until, they do—the only head you'll know is me. You'll take your orders from me; I'll pay you for your work and look after you—but you'll obey my orders."
"That's O.K. to me—for the work. Not the kind of orders you've tried to put over this morning, though."
"Then you go out—on your own." The big man leaned forward, a snarl on his lips, "God, man, you're still full of hop! Quiet down, if you know what's good for yourself. Oh, get out, it's no good talking to you, as you are. Get out, the door's loose now. Come here at eight tonight if you're coming in; if you're not coming in, keep going—fast. You'll have' twenty-four hours from eight tonight to get out of the State, then—"
"An' wot ov th' Rumble-street dump?"
"What are you so keen on that place for?"
"Just becos yer don't wan' me ter go hack there." Oliver Manx laughed shortly. "T'ink I'm stuck on ol' Mart's beds? Yer ain't slept in 'em, or yer'd know sumthink. Gee! They're 'ot!"
"Go back if you want to." Alec Grosse threw up his hands, in surrender. "You're mad if you do, though. Lord, man, I'm offering you something far better. There's a flat in Newthorp Crescent waiting for you—the swell place round here—with lots of good tucker and good clothes, and—" The big man paused, his small eyes fixed on Oliver Manx's face. "Just listen to this, Joe Kline. I ain't in love with you—more especially since you've been here; but I've got to obey orders, just as you'll have to—if you want to stay in the Three Districts. There's those, however, who think you'll be useful—and they like their own way—But they won't stand back-chat from you, same as I have."
Alec Grosse paused; into his eyes crept a harder expression.
"Shall I tell you what would happen if you dope-chatted to them? They'd have smiled at you—and talked softly and kindly—and—and you'd have gone out from the room thinking what a fine feller you were—and all cocked up—and sniffing hard to keep up your pluck that'd 'ud just gone on singing and singing—And one evening th' flatties 'ud have found you—And you wouldn't have done any talking to them—You wouldn't have listened to what they sed. Get me? You'd have just lain there, with your face up to the night-sky an' your feet in the gutter. An' the choked 'ud have come and knelt beside you and poked at the hole in your chest—An' the flatties would have looked on, and told of the time when you were in Goulburn an' poked fun at the talking-bloke—Yes, Joe, that's their funny little way of dealing with big-mouths like you. They'd have listened like I've listened to you this morning. They'd have watched you—as I'm going to watch you, Joe Kline—and the first slip you make—"
The sudden curl of the big strong fingers lying on the blotting-pad spoke suggestively of what was in the big man's mind. A chill ran up the secret agent's spine. Grosse had no need to threaten. He knew the man was his enemy; had been his enemy from the first moment they had met. He wondered at the power of the concealed men who guided the destinies of the men they held in their power. They were big—big—even though they were criminals. Otherwise they could not have held this Alec Grosse, gangster and garage proprietor, to their bidding. God, if he could only lay bare their identities!
"I'm taking the job you offer, Alec Grosse." The secret agent forced himself to speak calmly. "I'm linking up with your crowd because I sees it'll pay me. You're boss, in work—otherwise we don't mix and never would. I don't stand bullying from no man. That's final. If you doubt it—" He laughed suddenly, changing his tone swiftly. "You've got a gun in that desk-drawer—you've had your fingers on' it for the past ten minutes; they're on it now. Yeah! You tried to fool me you held the switch that held the lock of that door—but I didn't fall for that. Yeh, here's my hands—right here in front of you. You've' heard of Joe Kline—an' that he can handle a gun. Well, mate, take your time—Pull that gun and shoot, if you've got th' nerve. I'll go for the gun, my own way—an' we'll find out who's the better man. No? Haven't the pluck? I thought so! Just remember that, if you feel inclined to play tricks. I'm no man's fool, least of all yours. We're going to work together—and you're to give th' orders. That goes wi' me, so long as those orders are on work—not my private affairs. Remember that, and. there'll be no trouble."
Coolly he turned his back on the gangster, not troubling to watch the man unclench his fingers from the gun in the drawer. At the door, he paused and looked back over his shoulder.
"Eight o'clock, sharp—S'long, Alec!"
He swung, open the door and passed through, catching it closed behind him. On the mat outside he nearly collided with the red-haired typiste who had been, in Grosse's office when he entered. Only his quick arm round her waist saved her from a fall.
"Is Mr. Grosse disengaged now?" The girl looked up at him, and he thought there was fright in her eyes.
"I've done wi' 'im." Oliver Manx looked down at the girl, curiously. A sudden thought came to his mind.
Who was this girl? From her manner, her position in that office, she had the impression of being Alec Grosse's personal secretary. But was that all? Again he scanned her, this time closely.
A sudden flush mounted to the girl's face, as she sensed his regard. She turned on her high heels suddenly, and with a swirl of skirts entered the inner office. As she closed the door she turned and faced the staring secret agent—and something closely resembling a faint smile parted her red lips.
Again the sudden thought hammered at Oliver Manx's brain. Was this girl the Grey Cat—the woman who had twice sent notes of command to him? He had reason for the suspicion. The girl was in a position where she could know much of the big gangster's movements; where she could spy on him, thwart his plans, if she held any antagonism against him.
The Grey Cat could not want a better opportunity, if she was antagonistic to the man. Red-headed, and with grey-green eyes! He stared at the blank face of the door long after the girl had closed it, still visualising those eyes—cat's eyes, he named them—peeping round the edge of the door. Grey-green eyes, with the pupils contracted in the day-light to mere pin-points! The eyes of a cat!
A giggle from a girl seated at a desk close by where he stood made him aware that he was attracting attention. He turned sharply and went to the counter, lifting the flap and passing through to the door. Something caused him to look back, and the eyes of the girl at the inquiry desk met his.
"Well, did your touch, big boy?" The girl smiled scornfully.
"Sorry, sister, that dinner'll have to be postponed. Th' touch didn't come orf." He stared hard at the girl's mass of light, fluffy hair. "Y'know," he leaned on the counter, speaking confidentially. "Gents allus prefer blondes. That's why I was unlucky."
Before the girl, who had flushed scarlet at his words, could find an answer, Oliver Manx had passed through the door to the garage.
As he lounged on toward the big street doors, the man who had directed him to the offices, called: "Get yer job, mate?"
"Got ter cum back agen, later. Sed 'e'd see wot 'e cud do."
"Good fer yer! Here's luck!"
"Dry luck, eh? Well, it'll 'ave ter do till I touches."
With a careless wave of his hand at the man's answering laugh, Oliver Manx went out on the pavement. Out of sight of the garage he stopped and sighed with relief.
The late interview had strained his nerves to the utmost. A nearby church clock chimed. The secret agent counted three quarters. A quarter to—what hour? He glanced round and in a shop almost behind him saw a cheap clock on a shelf.
A quarter to noon! And he had been in Alec Grosse's offices all that time. A quarter to noon, and at that hour he was to meet the Grey Cat—or she threatened to reveal his true character to Alec Grosse! If she did that—And he was to meet the big gangster again that night! That meeting would not be pleasant. Alec Grosse already hated him. The feeling had been mutual—the antagonism real—from the moment the two men had first faced each other.
If the Grey Cat spoke there would be no hesitation in the big man's mind, at their next meeting. If the Grey Cat revealed that the man known as Joe Kline was, in reality, the Oliver Manx, elusive and successful enemy of Sydney's underworld, then Grosse would act without seeking further proof. There would be others at that interview at eight o'clock that night—men who would have no hesitation in shooting down an enemy, and rejoicing at the deed.
To his memory came the short paragraph he had read the previous day in the newspaper, in that little room under the roof-trees of the old house that sheltered the Crown Law Office. He pictured the gangster, "Babe" Shaver, lying in the gutter of a by-street in Darlinghurst; the gaping holes in his chest where the three bullets had buried themselves; the sightless eyes staring up at the night-sky.
What offence against the laws of gangland had the "Babe" committed? The answer to his question came to the secret agent's mind almost without effort. Twice Grosse had threatened him with death. At one time he had spoken of "holes in his chest!" Then, had the "Babe" been victim of the men who sought to link the criminal activities of the Three Districts under their undisputed sway? There might lie the solution of the murder the police were even then investigating. Would that crime finally go into the records of unsolved murders? There were far too many of them on the State's list! Had the "Babe" been given the same choice that he had been given that day. Had Alec Grosse spoken to him the same words he had voiced that morning—"join up or get out?"
Some thought at the back of his memory clamoured to be brought to light. Oliver Manx paused on the pavement, heedless of the busy throng surging past him. What lay in his brain that he could not make clear? "Babe" Shaver and—Why, the "Babe" had been a member of "Gunner" West's gang! "Gunner" West! "Gunner" West had been one of the five recent victims of the supposed gang-feud recorded in the newspapers!
Again the chimes of the church clock broke on his reverie. He listened, counting the strokes of the bell. Noon! Then—
Automatically; his steps brought him to the corner of Maling-street, but on the south side of the main road,, He glanced across the wide road. So far as he could see, no-one was loitering on the north pavement. Waiting for a slackening in the steady stream of traffic, Oliver Manx crossed to the opposite pavement. For some reason he did not trouble to analyse, he took the east corner of Maling-street. A busy "cash and carry" store was located at that corner, a stream of laden women continually passing the wide doors.
For minutes he waited, lounging against the wall, apparently careless, but vigilantly alert. He could see no-one he could imagine to be the Grey Cat—and shrugged. Still he waited, watching the passers-by and the stream of traffic in the roadway, from under half-closed eyes. Again came the clock chimes—a quarter past the hour! The Grey Cat had not kept the appointment she had, herself, made.
For a moment Oliver Manx waited, undecided, then turned on his heels and strolled up the road. Again he paused, and retraced his steps to the corner.
He wanted to see the Grey Cat. He was curious to see the woman who alone, amid the thousands of that city, had penetrated the disguise he had built up with so much thought and labour.
Who was the Grey Cat? What was her interest in him—in the problems confronting him? What was her interest in Alec Grosse, and the men who moved in the shadows behind the master-gangster.
Abruptly he turned up the William-street hill again. The Grey Cat would have to make another appointment, if she still desired to see him! Then he stopped again. Had she seen him? Had she only desired to bring him to that spot to see him, remaining, herself concealed? That might be! Then—by coming to the corner of, Maling-street at her unreasoned demand, he had betrayed that he feared investigation.
Absorbed with the thought, he waited on the pavement—to be suddenly enveloped in a surge of women coming out of the cash and carry shop. He stepped back to free himself from the crowd—and something was slipped into his fingers. A piece of paper.
He turned swiftly away, almost upsetting a short, stout woman. "Look where yer're goin', yer big lout!" The woman shrilled. "Why don' yer get work. Lazin' abart th' street, expec'ing yer coun'ry t' keep yer!"
"Yer ain't on th' dole, ain't yer, Mother Marsh. Naw, I don' think!" bantered a woman in the group. "Why, 'e's a good-lookin' bloke, mother; why don', yer make up t' 'im. He'd make a fine fancy-boy fer yer."
"Fancy boys is stale ter Mother March," A third woman interposed, "'ere, let's 'ave a look at yer, lovey. If yer measures up, I might giv' yer a chance wi' me!"
A tall skinny woman, with a face marred with the imprint of drink over long years, caught him by the arm and swung his round.
Oliver Manx cursed under his breath. These women, with their banter and fun, had destroyed all hopes of identifying the Grey Cat.
"No goodter, me!" The skinny woman laughed, "'e ain't stronk enuff. I likes 'em strong—strong enuff t' crush one orful!"
With a sudden wrench the secret agent tore his arm from the woman's hold and walked quickly up the street, their loud, coarse laughter ringing in his ears. Seeking a quiet doorway, he opened the note he had held in his hand. There were only a couple of lines of writing:
Thanks, Joe. I only suspected before, now I know. You wouldn't have kept the appointment if you'd not had something to conceal, eh? Be wary, Alec Grosse will give you a job tonight that will take you far from Woolloomooloo. While you are away he and his men will search your room at Mart Deeling's.
Search the dump at Rumble-street. He could not allow that! If they discovered the secret panel behind the bed—
The panel had not been constructed to withstand a careful, methodical search. Almost certainly Grosse would find the spring—And within the space hidden by the panel lay the constable's uniform. That would be accepted as damning evidence against him. Within the hour the hue and cry would run through the Three Districts. "Joe Kline" would be proclaimed a spy! To be discovered; to hear the "view hullo" behind him; to know that the pack were on his heels! To be chased down, in spite of all his cunning; to be brought to bay!
Almost he could feel the final stinging blow on his head that would end any defence he could put up. He could feel the pavement coming up to meet his sliding body; the impact of heavy boots on his flesh; the final agony, and—
He laughed bitterly, almost hopelessly. How could he remove the uniform in the broad daylight? That would be impossible. It would be impossible to even get into that room. If the Grey Cat had informed him rightly, the place would be closely watched until the master-gangster arrived to conduct the search.
He must get into that room—but he dared not go there until after dark—and soon after nightfall he had to see Alec Grosse, to go out on business for the gang he firmly believed would bring him in touch with those shadowy heads who aimed at an autocratic kingdom in the Three Districts' underworld.
AGAIN the church clock chimed—the half hour after noon. Again Oliver Manx turned, this time walking quickly down William Street in the direction of the city. His brain ached with thought, a wave of irritation had submerged for a moment his keen, analytical sense. He had hoped much from the interview with the Grey Cat. Who was this girl who named herself The Grey Cat?
More, what knowledge had she of Alec Grosse and the men who worked. behind him? He believed she knew much. If he could discover what she knew. The girl in the garage office? No, not her, in spite of her grey-green eyes. Possibly for the moment he had been startled to suspicion by the peculiar cat-like qualities of her eyes. That girl had no interests—other than to retain what appeared to be a comfortable, well-paid job.
Then, who was the Grey Cat? Rapidly he passed in review every girl he had come in contact with during the time he had been Joe Kline. There had not been many—and one by one he put them from his mind. Yet the thought hammered at his brain. Who was the Grey Cat? He shrugged. Time would have to answer that.
At the Bourke Street corner he again hesitated. Should he go down to Rumble Street—to old Mart Deeling's lodging house? With sudden decision he turned down the slight hill leading to Woolloomooloo. Yes, he would go to the place he had named his sanctuary. Grosse might be suspicious if he avoided the place. He would go there, as if he believed the master-gangster's promise that he could still retain the room. Grosse was having the place watched, he was certain of that. He might have him watched! Involuntarily, he glanced cautiously about him. Was there someone on his trail at that very moment?
For long moments he loitered along the street, watching about him carefully. He could see no one behaving in any suspicious manner. Then, with a few tugs and touches at his clothing and face, he went on. Again he was "Joe Kline" known around Rumble Street.
Sauntering along, inconspicuous in that area of crookdom, he passed the narrow alley that led between the two rows of houses, and came to Rumble Street. The door of Mart Deeling's junk shop was open, yet there was no one in sight within the shop. Oliver Manx expected that. Mart Deeling was rarely visible from his shop door; he preferred to lurk in the little, foul-air inner room, watching—always watching.
As he entered the shop the secret agent's careless, lurching walk became more pronounced. Just within the door he halted; swaying.
The old fence materialised slowly in the gloom at the back of the shop. Oliver Manx had the impression that the man had seen him from the moment he came within view of the door—had been waiting for him; yet-now he exhibited surprise, and even anxiety.
"He-ha-he!" The old man came forward, rubbing his grimy clams. "So y'cum back, Joe—An' yer seed th' Big Boy, eh?"
Oliver Manx did not reply immediately. His cold, keen eyes, under the lowered, artificially puffed lids scanned Deeling's face intently. The old man had changed from the florid female night-dress to a pair of trousers too long in the legs for him, and a dirty, torn shirt. He wore no collar, and the missing buttons of the shirt revealed a long length of scraggy, hairy flesh. Over the shirt was an ancient swallow-tailed coat, far too small for even the fence's narrow shoulders. He wore no waist-coat.
"Y-e-a-h! I've cum back." The secret agent swayed between the doorposts. "Gi' us a sniff, Mart!"
"Heha-he!" The old man sniggered. "I ain't got none, Joe. Dopy Taylor ain't been alon' this week."
"Yer a bloody liar." The secret agent spoke, dispassionately. "Yer've got tons ov it 'ere, 'and it out! I got th' 'oof!"
"I'm tellin' yer th' trufe, Joe," Mart protested. "I ain't got none!"
"Blast yer!" Oliver Manx staggered, forward. "I wanter sniff! Go an' get it—an' don' be all th' blazing day abart it!"
"W'ere yer goin' Joe?" Mart Deeling's voice showed nervousness now. He tried to get between the secret agent and the inner door.
"The darn. W'ere d'yer think?
"Yer don' live 'ere now, Joe. Yer've fergotten—"
"I ain't fergotten—I lives 'ere. Get t' 'ell outer it."
"Yer don' live 'ere an' I've let yer room!" The old man shrilled. "Th'—Yer know—tol' me as yer w'udn't be back an' sumone wanted a doss, an'—"
"Yer bloody liar!" The secret agent shouldered Deeling aside. "I lives 'ere an' yer knows it."
"Yer don'—true, yer don', Joe." Deeling was pathetically eager. "Yer don', Joe—an' yer knows it. Didn't a bloke cum from th' Big Boy as yer sen' t'pay me wot yer owed me. Yer know 'e did!"
"Pay yer wot I owes yer." The secret agent swung round angrily. "An' wot was that? I don't owes yer nuffink."
"Yer did—" The cracked, gin-sodden voice quivered. "I—"
"Cough it up." Oliver Manx caught Deeling by the neck, wrenching him round. "Yer don' cum none o' those tricks wi' me. Cough it up, I ses! Yer knows wot I got—th' screed yer wrote th' morning. Spring th' flats or I'll—
"Yer can't." The old man wriggled painfully under the tightening fingers. "Yer can't, Joe. Yer ain't got it no more. I foun' it an'—"
Impulsively the secret agent released the old man and dived into his pocket for his keys. Then he remembered. That morning Alec Grosse had asked for them. Without thought he had produced them and dropped them on the man's desk. He had left them there, in spite of his intention to retrieve them. Then—
"W'o's in t'ere?" He turned on the old man savagely. "None ov yer lies. W'o's in me room?"
"No one, Joe." Mart Deeling was fawningly obsequiously. "'E ain't moved in yet. Sed 'e'd be in t'-night."
His back against the door of the corridor Oliver Manx thought quickly. So Mart Deeling had been in the room. He had found the confession wrung from him. Alec Grosse had wasted no time. His amiability at the end of the troubled interview had been false; his statement that "Joe Kline" could go back to Rumble Street insincere. Immediately he had been alone he had found the keys on his desk and had despatched them to the old fence without delay.
Mart was insistent that a new man was occupying the room. He did not believe that. He could not think that the master-gangster would allow anyone in that room before he had personally searched it. Then—Then he had not sent the keys to Deeling; he had retained them. The old man was again lying.
Before Alec Grosse had searched the room! The thought recurred. Why should the master gangster search the room? What suspicions had he? Alec Grosse had told him that he wanted him to join the gang—that he knew his record and thought the gang could make use of him! No, not Alec Grosse had thought that, but the men who stood in the shadows behind him. They wanted him! For what reason?
Then, what were the relations between the master-gangster and those unknown men? Were their intentions toward himself entirely amicable? The secret agent wondered. Again, did those shadowy rulers who claimed to be autocrats in the Three Districts fully trust Grosse; did Grosse trust them. These were unanswerable questions. All he knew for the present was that his room was to be searched...For what? There was only one answer. Either Grosse, or the men behind him, had certain suspicions which a search would solve.
Then, what were those suspicions?
Oliver Manx was thinking quickly—keenly. Should he try and force his way into that room? If he did—if he could get into that room without the keys—what then? He could not go to the sliding panel in the wainscoting during the daylight hours. If he did that, then he could not remove the articles concealed there. No, to force a way into the room would be to crystallise the old fence's suspicions, already too greatly aroused. Mart would call for help; he could find himself confronted by enemies, overawed at the ire of Alec Grosse against him.
Almost he shuddered at the thoughts that crowded his brain. Oliver Manx knew what to expect, if his disguise was penetrated in that house. In the hovels and dens of Woolloomooloo tales were told darkly, in veiled hints and coarse jests, of men who had been deemed to be spies from those who ruled law and order. There had been no trials, no accusations, no defences. The mere suspicion, arousing the blood-lust of super-beast humanity, had only been assuaged by blood.
"Alri'." Oliver Manx grumbled. "I'll fin' a noo doss. Giv' us a sniff, Mart, affore I goes. I'm 'ungry for it!"
"I can't, Joe," Mart Deeling wailed. "I daresn't—'e sed I warn't ter. Yer t' 'ave no more—an' wot 'e ses goes—yer knows that!"
"W'o sed?" Oliver Manx grumbled, disgustedly.
"I don', blarst yer." The secret agent simulated anger. "Blarst yer! Cut a man's' doss' an' t'en 'is sniff. T' 'ell wi' yer! Outer me way!"
Thrusting the' old man aside so vigorously that he fell on a pile of junk, Oliver Manx strode to the door. On the outer step he turned:
"An' get this, Mart! I'll 'ave wot I wants 'n 'spite ov yer an th' man up there. Get that? In spite o' yer both and—" He thrust his chin forward aggressively. "Watch yer step! W'en Slim King comes out watch fer yerself!"
Catching the edge of the door, Oliver Manx slammed it shut with such vigour that Mark Deeling, struggling up from the pile of junk on which he had fallen, fell again, bringing on his bald head a fresh avalanche of the malodorous wreckage lumbering the shop.
Seven hours to go! Passing the narrow, dirty street, dodging the children playing in the gutter, answering the banter of men and women idling in the doorways, Oliver Manx went up to William Street. At the Boomerang Street juncture he paused and fumbled in his pocket for a coin, to purchase a newspaper. Then he went on, into the Park, and found a seat under a shady tree.
For some time he scanned the columns of the newspaper, then a sense of restlessness overcame him. He wanted to be doing, yet he believed he dare not venture. Always he had a sense of being watched. He looked around covertly, at the men lolling on neighbouring seats, but could not single out any individual who appeared to be taking any special interest in him. At length, his restlessness overcame his prudence and he left the seat, making for College Street. Moving southwards, he came to the corner of Francis Street and turned into it. So far, he had not seen anyone trailing him.
Turning the Young Street corner, he backed quickly into the door of an empty shop, and waited. For long minutes he stood waiting; watching openly now. No one followed him round the corner. With a sigh of relief he went down the street, circling back to Hyde Park. He had been mistaken, he was not being watched.
Again in College Street he went in the direction of Queen's Square. From the slice of wide pavement before the Court House he crossed to the Macquarie Street corner, and paused. Why had he come there? He could not have told. He glanced about him eagerly, again experiencing the sensation that hostile eyes were watching him. Suddenly he straightened and, quickening his pace, walked down King Street to Phillip Street. There he turned in the direction of the Harbour.
Time and again on the bare half-mile he paused and turned, still believing that he was being followed, yet he could not see anyone in his vicinity who was acting suspiciously. He came to Circular Quay and sought and found an empty telephone box. The door tightly closed, he dialled a number.
"Q—R—S—A—" he said softly when a voice at the other end of the line spoke. Then, without waiting for any reply he proceeded to give a minute description of himself, finishing: "Have that man identified at the Quay, Watson's Bay wharf, immediately, and followed. Discover who is shadowing him. When certain, arrest shadower for loitering, and take to Central Lane. Tell them to hold that person for further instructions."
Receiving a bare acknowledgement of his message, Oliver Manx left the booth and passed the next ten minutes staring over the railing on to the water of the harbour. Satisfied that he had given sufficient time for his watcher to be on duty, he strolled in the direction of George Street. Still the feeling that alien eyes were on him persisted.
Very gradually he began to assume the pose of a man overcome by drink. A few yards up the street he saw a patrolman coming towards him. Waiting until the man was level with him, he lurched violently against him, throwing his arms around the man.
"Arrest me, quick! Quick, you fool!" he muttered, his face pressed against the uniform coat. "Police business!"
A heavy hand came down on his shoulder and he was forced back. A quick glance at the man's face and he knew that his instructions had been heard and understood.
"'Ere! Wot's th' joke?" Oliver Manx protested. "I ain't done nuffink."
"That's the trouble with you fellows; you never do anything—and so get into trouble."
The patrolman's face was stern, but a twinkle lit in his brown eyes. "Cummon!"
Putting up a semblance of a struggle, the secret agent allowed himself to be pushed across the road and urged in the direction of George Street North Police Station. With apparent reluctance and insobriety, he was thrust into the office and into the small dock. As the patrolman was letting down the barrier, Oliver Manx muttered:
"To be put in the cells for observation. Sergeant to visit, me in ten minutes."
Less than a couple of minutes later Oliver Manx passed heavily-grilled gates into a concrete corridor, lined with cells. The constable, escorted by the station gaoler, escorted him into the cell at the far end of the line. As the door slammed and the bolt was shot, the gaoler whispered: "Sing, damn you! Sing!"
Waiting a few minutes Oliver Manx broke into vociferous song. A few seconds and the gaoler returned, commanding silence. Disregarding warnings and threats, the secret agent shouted, at the top of his voice. Expostulations came from other cells. At length, heavy steps sounded in the corridor and the desk sergeant appeared at the door of the cell.
"Shut that damned row!" The official voice was stern. Then in whisper: "What do you want?"
"Q-R-S-A" Oliver Manx gave the key phrase that was known to every man in the department. "The coffin been here yet?"
The sergeant looked at his wrist-watch. "Due in half-an-hour. Say, what's the joke?"
"No joke. I've got a clever shadow and can't shake him off. Book me for Central and tell the man with the coffin to tell them to put me in a cell for observation. They're to get me in clear at seven sharp. Understand?"
The sergeant nodded. He turned from the door.
"That's all right, Joe." He spoke loudly. "You'll get the doctor when you get to Central. Have a doss till then. Your Rolls Royce'll call for you in a few minutes. Now, keep quiet, we don't like entertainments here."
Again Oliver Manx was alone. He stretched himself on the Tank bed and closed his eyes, refusing to allow his brain to think.
At the end of twenty minutes the cell door opened and the gaoler beckoned for him to come into the corridor. With half-a-dozen men from other cells he was taken into the yard, and mounted the steps of a Black Maria. The door of the lorry closed with a loud clang and a constable took position on the outer step. The van moved with a jerk and rumbled out of the yard on to the street. A quarter of an hour later Oliver Manx stepped into the yard at Central Police Station, and was immediately marched to a cell. Again he composed himself for slumber, wrapping himself in the coarse blanket.
A hand on his shoulder aroused him. He opened his eyes, blinking at the electric light burning in a little barred enclosure. A gaoler was standing beside him, smiling. The man nodded, silently, and turned to the door. Oliver Manx followed him, passing through many corridors until they came to a small door. The gaoler opened this, and stood aside.
"Anything else, sir."
"No, thanks. Much obliged for the accommodation."
With a brief nod the secret agent stepped through the door into a narrow lane. A few steps brought him to Liverpool Street. He turned eastwards and went up to Pitt Street. At the corner he glanced at a clock. It was only a couple of minutes past the hour. Satisfied that he was working well within his time table, the secret agent continued on to Hyde Park. Crossing the park he went down the slight hill into Woolloomooloo, making for Rumble Street. It was not quite dark yet, but dressed as he was he attracted no attention.
He had to work fast for he was due at the garage at eight o'clock to interview Alec Grosse again—and it was fast approaching half past seven. Yet he had not dared give himself more time. He had to get into the Rumble Street dump, into the room he had occupied, and take from behind the secret panel the constable's uniform and the make-up that constituted his danger. The uniform he would drop in some lonely spot in the 'Loo, or take it and the make-up box down to the waterside and drop them in the harbour. At any risk the uniform had to be got from Rumble Street immediately. He might be able to explain the make-up box, if necessity arose to leave it in the hide-hole.
He had run a big risk in leaving the things in the hide-away during the day, but he had not dared to attempt to remove them earlier. He wondered if the room had been searched yet. He did not think so; Alec Grosse would not go there until after dark—until after the appointment at the garage at eight o'clock; when means would be taken to keep him from Woolloomooloo. One thing he had to chance: that Mart Deeling had handed the room to a new tenant. He did not believe the fence's tale of a new lodger. That had been an inspiration to bar him from the room until Grosse had surveyed it.
No, the room had not been searched; it would not be searched until after he had seen Grosse and received his orders for the night. The Grey Cat had said that Alec Grosse was sending him on some errand that would be far from Woolloomooloo. No doubt that assignment was only an excuse to dispose of him for a few hours; yet he wondered what the master gangster had in mind.
Taking a devious route through the mean streets of the district, Oliver Manx came at length to the alley between the two rows of houses. A heavy gloom had settled over the streets, yet it was not yet night. It was dark enough, however, for the purpose the secret agent had in mind. Slipping into the alley the secret agent slid along the line of fencing, carefully hugging the shadows, until he came to the yard door. A touch on the latch, and he stepped into the yard.
He had not the keys of the room, but that did not greatly worry him. He took from his pocket a large clasp-knife, the big blade of which had been ground to a fine thinness. Slipping this between the sashes of the window, he forced back the catch. A few minutes careful work and a slight click told him that he had succeeded; the window slid up. He glanced into the darkness of the room.
So far as he could observe without a light, the room had not been visited that day, except that the piece of paper bearing Mart Deeling's confession had been removed from where he had placed it on the wall. Slipping a leg over the sill, he gained the room. As he straightened, a black shadow rose up before him. Something fell with tremendous weight on his head, and he slid into unconsciousness.
A SENSE of slow drifting through immense space, into a region where intolerable irons thudded incessantly on the base of his brain; the sudden acceleration of movement and of pain, as thought was slowly reborn, and Oliver Manx came back to consciousness. He opened his, eyes, to close them again quickly, to shield them from the innumerable little darts of light that stung his eyeballs—that seemed to even penetrate the flesh of the tightly-pressed lids.
A long interval of time, wherein the secret agent lay quiescent, tensing his body to bear the pain that wracked every nerve. The terrible hammering slowed to a dull monotonous beat and the flecks of light before his eyes grew less numerous and painful. He tried to turn, to move, and the joints of his body creaked with the protest of long disused machinery.
He opened his eyes again, to find himself in dense darkness. For a time he lay still, puzzling his still throbbing brain to discover where he was—to understand what had happened to him in the period before he had been buffeted into unconsciousness.
It seemed ages before he fully remembered. Very slowly recognition of his movements before unconsciousness came to him. He recalled his furtive approach to the lodging house facing Rumble Street; his exultation when he had run the gauntlet of the streets and found himself in the old, lumbered yard before the window of the room he had occupied as Joe Kline, crook and doper. He remembered forcing the window and his stealthy crossing of the sill; then—
Was he still in the room where, behind the secret panel, lay the constable's uniform that constituted his main danger for the moment? His mind signalled for his head to move, and pains of hell shot through the muscles of his neck and back as they tried to obey the telegraphed command—pains as if his neck had been disjointed and reset.
He could not move. A reluctant, cautious flexing of his limbs told him that they were confined. His head was free, but every movement of it caused almost insupportable agony. He relaxed, and for a period drifted into a semi-consciousness that held a soothing healing.
How long a period intervened before some latent thought signalled warnings of danger he did not know. Again he moved his head, stiffly and with effort, turning from side to side in vain survey of the room in which he lay. He could see nothing; every portion of the room was in darkness. Yet he knew he was in a room; through his clothing he could feel the floor boards beneath him.
Now memory returned in full. He remembered every incident of the evening up to a point where some crushing blow had descended on his head, beating him to the floor. He had no reason to analyse thought. Alec Grosse had had his room in Rumble Street watched, and the watchers had seen him enter through the window.
Was he still in the Rumble Street room? That was possible, though hardly probable. Grosse would not leave him there, although the dump Stood in territory he considered entirely his own. No, he had been carried out of that house while unconscious. To where? That, he could not guess.
He was certain the gang had some sort of headquarters in the Three Districts. But where were those headquarters? Again he rolled his head on the floor, seeking to pierce the darkness and discover what surrounded him.
He could not make out the outline of a single article of furniture. All he knew of his surroundings was that he lay on bare boards. At length he decided that there was a window to the room—through what line of reasoning he could not explain to himself, for he could see no light. And, through the same undefined line of reasoning, he decided its location.
For long minutes he remained, his head bent at an awkward angle, staring through the darkness. Presently he thought he could distinguish faint light. He continued to stare and then, with much effort, moved his bound body so that he would watch with better comfort.
He was certain, after a considerable time spent in watching, that he was facing a window. He believed that it was shuttered, or boarded up, yet through some minute cracks filtered a faint lightness on the all-enveloping darkness. Gradually the thought became a certainty—and a faint hope crept into the secret agent's breast.
Yet be was bound; tied so tightly that he knew that if he were then released he would not be able to move a limb for some time. Relaxing every muscle, he tested the tension of the ropes, striving to give the blood in his veins room to flow through and overcome the deadly numbness in which he was held.
How long he lay on the bare boards, alternately tensing and relaxing his muscles, he never afterwards remembered. At length, thought hypnotised his nerves to a belief that he could move within his bonds. Certainly his muscles moved less stiffly. A sudden effort and he rolled over on his face. Another effort and he was on his back again, appreciably nearer the source of the points of light he believed came through cracks in the window covering.
Another double effort and he lay still, staring up through the darkness. Now he was sure he was near a window. The lightened streaks in the darkness that had at first been mostly imagination now showed more distinctly. If he were right, then it was still night without that room. Another long rest, while he relaxed and tensed muscles to his utmost and he put every ounce of his energy into an attempt to burst or release his bonds. He failed, and lay panting after the supreme effort. Yet hope did not forsake him. Another rest to regain energy and he commenced to muscle-worry at his bonds. For what appeared to be hours he worked, using every idea that came to his mind in the contest with the stubborn ropes.
Suddenly, through the darkness, he heard footsteps. They were far away, or many doors intervened. Ceasing his struggles, he lay listening. He had heard footsteps and they were rapidly approaching where he lay; he could hear them plainly now. They sounded in the passage, which he believed lay outside the door on the other side of the room, approaching slowly, but regularly. Oliver Manx lay quiet, watching in the direction from which the footsteps sounded. He noted, with some small satisfaction, that there was a furtive stealth in them.
The sounds of footsteps ceased, and Oliver Manx lay wondering. A long pause, and the sounds again, light as the pad of a mouse, pausing at irregular intervals, as if the person making them had listened for sounds of danger.
A sense of disappointment came over the secret agent. From the sounds, and the direction from which they came, and the faint light he had discovered, he knew he was no longer in the Rumble Street house. If he was interpreting the sounds about him aright, then he was in some strange place, and not on the ground floor of a building.
Again the footsteps halted. Then came a series of sounds he could not. immediately interpret. A loud click, which he believed to be the bolt of the lock being drawn back, and then he sensed a human presence near him.
For what seemed interminable time, he waited. The intruder was making no sounds. What was he waiting for. Then realisation came to the secret agent. Whoever had entered the room was seeking to locate him without making a light. With sudden effort he lifted his bound feet and let them fall with a thud on the floor.
Again came sounds of movement from the direction in which he believed the door to be located. He moved, rolling, scuffling, tapping, as well as he could, with his limbs and body stiff with rope.
Suddenly he sensed that someone stood beside him. He waited, and a presence bent to him; a woman's hands touched the ropes that bound his hands. Fingers sought and found his wrists and, with a suddenness that shocked him to immobility, he was rolled on to his face. Again fingers caught at his bound wrists and he felt the chill of steel between the butts of his hands—and suddenly his hands were free.
Vainly he strove to catch at the hands moving slowly up his arms. Now the cords that restrained his elbows parted—and his fingers lingered on bare flesh. He had grasped a woman's arm. A faint gasp sounded through the darkness; then came a sudden wrench on the arm he held. His numbed muscles could not withstand the strain and his fingers slipped. There sounded a flurry in the darkness, as of skirts quickly swinging. Again came the faint click of the lock. Running feet, light as dropping feathers sounded at the door, receding swiftly into the distance.
He was free! But who had freed him? For a moment Oliver Manx did not wait to think; yet to his mind came three words: The Grey Cat. Had she come to him in that strange prison-place? How had she known of his danger; why had she risked herself among Grosse's gangsters in an effort to give him a chance for liberty?
Prising himself to a sitting position he started to chafe his blood to a normal coursing through his veins. Presently he leaned forward, pulling at the cords that bound his knees and feet. A few moment's work and the knots loosened, and he stretched his legs gratefully.
Yet more than ten minutes elapsed before he could roll over and struggle to his knees. More minutes passed before he could bring up one leg and place a foot firmly on the floor. Nearly half-an-hour elapsed before he was able to stand, waveringly, undecidedly, holding on to the adjacent wall.
A few tottering steps about the room and strength began to return quickly. Feeling before him, and with one hand trailing on the wall, he started to circle the room, he came at length to the door and turned the handle. The door opened toward him. Passing round the door he found the door-posts and, bending forward, looked out on the darkness of the corridor. One hand fumbling before him, he stepped out of the room and turned quickly. Almost he feared to leave the room in which he had lain bound.
He turned again to the corridor, leaving the door ajar, and felt a way along the passage, keeping close to the far wall. He came to a window recess, and his groping fingers passed over rough boards. Now he understood why no light had shone into his prison room; all the windows on that floor had been boarded up. He could feel the heads of the large nails driven through the boards into the window sashes.
Again he sensed the faint rays of light passing through the thin spaces between the boards. Standing facing the window, he searched his pockets. As he half-expected, every article had been removed from them. He had only his fingers with Which to attack the strongly fixed boards.
Almost a sense of terror overcame him. He turned to the wall beyond the window, groping along the dark corridor. What lay further along that strange passage?
Alec Grosse would not leave him in an empty house—alive. Oliver Manx was certain that in that house were members of the gang, yet he could not hear a sound in the house. He groped on, trying to reason out some scheme of escape. He had been carried to his prison room insensible—and the men who had been charged to guard him were in some other part of that house; possibly waiting for orders how they were to finally dispose of him. Then he must make his escape before they returned to his prison-room.
There were only that room, the passage—and the darkness. Again he hesitated, then laughed grimly. The "Grey Cat" had come through that darkness to release him. But—why had she not waited to guide him to safety? She must be very familiar with the house to gain that room without a light!
A few moments and Oliver Manx moved forward, in the direction in which he believed the Grey Cat to have come, groping at the wall, slithering his feet on the floor. He came to a door and tried the lock. It was fastened and he moved past it. He came to another door; also locked. And then another door. Now he knew that so far as he had come there were three doors and a window, on that side of the passage. But—why the window between two rooms; that was certainly strange.
His foot slithered into space. For a moment he waited, regaining his balance by the friction of his fingers on the wall. Then he tested his foot forward again—and dropped to hands and knees. Reaching forward and downward, he found the tread of a stairway.
Again on his feet, he groped for the banisters, and started to ascend the stairs. He came to a newel post and, circling it, found new stairs. He came to a wide landing. A touch on the opposite wall informed him that a passage ran from the stairs into the blackness. Still holding to the banisters, he continued to descend. He came to another landing—and corridor; and yet another. Still the line of banisters continued downwards, following the line of stairs.
Of a sudden, below him, he heard voices. Gripping the banisters, and moving with added caution, he continued to descend. The voices became louder; yet he could not distinguish words.
Following the sounds of the voices, he passed into a corridor, immediately finding a door on his left. Still the voices were before him. He groped on, and came to another door. The men who were talking were in that room. He bent his ear to the panel, to listen.
A bell rang within the room. Oliver Manx slipped back, along the line of wall, and waited. The voices in the room were now silent. There came a tenseness in the darkness, as if the men in the room, like himself, were waiting for something to happen. Sounds of feet in the house, below, passed over uncovered boards and commenced to mount a stairway.
The secret agent retreated silently, and swiftly to the stairs he had recently descended. Looking over the banisters, he saw a faint light on the floor below. It became stronger and visualised as a small circle on the stair-treads. The back-reflection of the light showed a bulky form following up the stairs.
Oliver Manx waited, tensing himself. The man was now within three treads of the stairway from where Oliver Manx waited. The light moved up to the top tread, and waited. A man's form showed in full for a moment at the head of the stairs, almost within touching distance of the secret agent. Suddenly Oliver Manx lurched forward, striking with all his strength at the aggressively jutting jaw.
The blow connected with a jar that sent a numbing shock up the secret agent's arm. He sprang forward, catching the man's sagging body. Silently he lowered him to the ground, catching at the light-torch. For a moment he let the light play on the man's face, then straightened and listened.
He had not been heard. The rumble of voices in the room along the passage had recommenced. Directing the light again on the man on the floor, Oliver Manx commenced to search him. From the man's hip-pocket he drew out a serviceable-looking automatic and slipped it into his own pocket with a sigh of relief. Again he turned to the man, transferring the contents of his pockets to his own, without stopping to examine them. He noted that he became possessed of a couple of clips for the automatic, filled with cartridges, a strong clasp-knife, and a roll of notes, as well as some loose silver. Again he bent to the insensible man, bringing the light closer. Already, signs showed that the man was recovering. Pulling the automatic from his pocket Oliver Manx struck with the barrel, coolly and callously. The man had to remain insensible for some time.
With his foot on the top tread of the lower flight of stairs, Oliver Manx halted suddenly. A door had slammed on the floor below. Then sounded footsteps of a man, accompanied by a low, breathless whistle. Turning quickly, the secret agent sped upstairs. The footsteps below started to ascend the stairs.
Hidden by the bend of the stairway, Oliver Manx, watched the light of a torch flicker from tread to tread. It came to the top stair arid rested for a moment on the white face of the insensible gangster.
"Wot th' 'ell," a deep voice rumbled. "Hey! Hey, boys! Here's 'Quiz' taken a fall!"
A door opened and a stream of light illumined men passing from the lighted room to the dark corridor. Torches came to light and danced weirdly in the enveloping darkness. Gradually they gathered about the insensible gangster.
"Musta bumped 'is 'ead inter th' banisters," said a voice. "Gosh, 'e gotta 'ell ov a wale!"
"Looks like that." Yet there was a dubious note in the answering voice. "I dunno—Looks ter me like th' mark a gun'ud make. Wot ov th' bloke upstairs?"
"'E? Why, 'e's 'og-tied an' locked in th' room. Wot e'ud 'e do?"
"Dunno. Might've got loose."
"Don' be a —— fool. Go up an' 'ave a look at 'im, if yer wants ter."
"Think I will. Cummon, Fred."
Footsteps started to ascend the stairs. Silently Oliver Manx retreated up the stairs, in front of the ascending men. He came at length to the room in which he had been confined. As he opened the door his hand touched the key, still in the lock. Withdrawing it quietly, he passed into the room and closed the door, locking it and withdrawing the key, and placing it in his pocket.
Steps sounded in the passage outside the door. They stopped at his door and he heard a fumbling at the lock, followed by a muffled exclamation, A long pause, during which the secret agent could see the torch-light playing along the bottom edge of the door. They sounded steps retreating on the head of the stairs. A voice shouted:
"'Ey; Duffy! Ringer! Rod. Who's got th' key. Th' door's locked an' th' key's ain't there!"
FOR many seconds there was silence, so far as Oliver Manx could hear, Then came the sounds of feet running up the stairs.
"The' key not 'ere? Blast it! W'o's got it? I swear I left it in th' lock w'en I bumped 'im in!"
"Well, it ain't 'ere now. W'o's got it?"
The voices in the corridor accelerated into a series of accusations and denials, well bespattered with oaths. Within the room Oliver Manx stood by the window and cursed under his breath. He had acted on impulse in coming to that room; and had run himself into a cul-de-sac.
Taking the light-torch he had acquired from the insensible gangster, the secret agent examined the automatic he had acquired. There were seven shots in the magazine and one in the chamber. He shrugged. Still, he had a fighting chance, if he could get out of that room into the open.
A low whistle of amusement came to his lips. The boards were only intended to exclude light. He felt in his pocket again, bringing out the gangsters large, stiff-bladed clasp-knife. Working as silently as possible he edged the blade between the two lower boards covering the window. A small pressure, and the boards creaked. Oliver Manx increased the pressure—and the blade broke with a loud snap.
The secret agent swore under his breath. Had he flung away, in his haste, his best chance of success? He stood listening for sounds from the passage. All that came to his ears were low rumbles of voices. Suddenly one voice came clear:
"Lis'n fellers! I believe th' cow's free. I can hear 'im movin' abart th' room!"
A volley of oaths broke the momentary silence that followed the announcement. Suddenly a heavy body thudded against the door.
"Cummon, y'blokes. Break th' blarsted door down!"
Again came the thud of a man's body thrown against the door, followed by another, and yet another. The door shook on its hinges, but still held. For a moment the secret agent was undecided. Should he wait for the door to fall, and then attempt to fight his way through the building to the street? Had he sufficient ammunition for that? Beyond the cartridges in the gun he had a couple of magazines he had found among the other articles in the crook's pockets. Would that be sufficient—he did not think so. The men on the other side of the door were armed—he was sure of that.
He turned again to the window, almost despairingly. The light from his torch showed that he had moved one of the boards out of place before the knife broke. He picked up the knife and examined the remains of the blade. He might be able to get sufficient purchase with what remained of the blade. He could try; and if he failed, or the crooks, broke down the door before he had freed the window, he could still try to fight his way out of the house.
The door was shaking violently, under the gangster's continued assaults, yet held. Flashing the light of the torch on it, Oliver Manx saw that the panels were splintering badly.
He turned again to the window. He could now wedge his fingers in the widened crack between the boards. A sudden jerk, using every ounce of his strength, and the bottom board came away.
"Naw then! All t'gether. Who-o-o!"
The door shivered violently, and one of the hinges started from its screws. Again came the thuds of heavy bodies at the door and one of the panels broke, falling into the room.
"Struth! Th' blighter's got th' window open!"
Oliver Manx glanced back. He could see a face showing amid the splinters of the panel, A hand was working at the remaining fragments, tearing at them to make a way into the room. A hand came through the opening fumbling at the lock for the key.
The secret agent flung up the sash of the window and peered out. As he had expected to find, he was on the top storey of a tall building. The wall, from the window to the ground was smooth, broken only by the window embrasures. He glanced up towards the roof. A few feet above his head ran the guttering. Could he reach that? If he could, would it bear his weight?
A shot from the door hit the edge of the window, volleying out into space. Another shot followed, the second unpleasantly close to Oliver Manx's head. He waited no longer. Pushing the window as high as he could he crawled on to the sill and stretched up cautiously.
Very cautiously he straightened, holding on to the angle of the brick work. The guttering was still above his reach; so far as he could see, twelve or fourteen inches. Would that guttering hold under his weight if he sprang up that small intervening space?
He had to chance that. Crouching slightly Oliver Manx sprang up. His fingers caught and held the guttering. He swung clear of the window embrasure, and then back to it. As he swung out the second time a hand clutched at his ankle.
A gasp of triumph came from the room. In desperation Oliver Manx kicked vigorously with his free foot. The man was pulling strongly, trying to wrench the secret agent from his hold, indifferent if the result precipitated him to the roadway below. Would the guttering hold? Desperately Oliver Manx kicked out. His foot met something that was not wall nor space. A man yelled frantically and the secret agent was suddenly released. He jerked himself up quickly, getting his elbows on the guttering. It creaked protestingly, shaking ominously.
"Th' ——! I'll get 'im fer that!"
A fusillade of shots sounded below the secret agent. A few hit the guttering, but Oliver Manx had already squirmed up on the roof. Furiously angry at the men's utter disregard for life, Oliver Manx thrust his hand into his pocket and withdrew the automatic. Peering over the edge of the roof he saw heads peeping out from the window he had just left, up at the guttering. Without aiming, the secret agent sent a couple of bullets towards the window.
A curse, loud and turgid, answered the shot. Again Oliver Manx peered over the edge of the roof. The window was now vacant. But, how long would the gangsters allow him to keep them at bay in the room below? If he moved away from guard over the window one or more of the men would certainly attempt to gain the roof. He believed they feared Alec Grosse more than the bullets in his automatic.
He could not stand guard over the window all night. To do so would be to allow the gangsters some opportunity of gaining the roof by some other means. He squirmed round, facing the centre of the roof.
On the roof of the house! Curiously he scanned his surroundings. From where he lay the roof rose in a somewhat steep slope for a few yards, then spread out into a large square flat. From where he was he could see no signs of a trap-door; yet there must be one. In the case of repairs being necessary to the roof; it would be impossible to rear ladders from the street level, to that height.
From the roof territory the secret agent's eyes wandered into the near distance. A short survey, and consideration, and he believed he knew where the house was located. He was in Darlinghurst. Away to the right he could see what he believed to be the glare of lights from the Picture Palace.
One backward glance at the window front which he had escaped, and he crawled up the slope of the roof to the centre square. He cared little now if any of the crooks tried to follow him. That would be a mad act. He could pick them off at leisure as they crawled up the slope of the roof.
Yet he had to watch the length of guttering above the window front which he had escaped. He sat down on the roof, away back on the flat square but sufficiently close to the slope to command a view of the roof-edge. Something trickled warmly down his left leg. Then he remembered; as he had drawn himself up on the roof a pain as from a sear of red-hot iron had struck up his leg. He pulled up his trousers. A bullet had grazed his leg, but the wound was not serious, although quite an amount of blood had escaped. Winding his handkerchief round the wound, he set it firmly in place with his garter. That would have to suffice for a time. As he pulled down his trouser leg, he glanced at the roof-edge.
A hand was groping over the edge. It paused, and gripped suddenly. Another hand came into view. Waiting until it had obtained a firm grip, Oliver Manx aimed carefully at it, and fired.
The sudden disappearance of both hands, a stream of lurid oaths from the darkness, and a yell, told the secret agent that the shot had been effective. He had had little compunctions in shooting, believing that men were holding the climber from below. He listened; but the men in the room were now silent. Had the gangster been precipitated to the street below there would have been turmoil.
The silence lasted for some considerable time. Curious at its duration, Oliver Manx slipped down the slope to the guttering over the window and peered over the edge. There was no one looking out of the window. So far as he could see, there was not a light in the room. Then where had the gangsters gone? What new trick to recapture him were they preparing?
A sudden thought came. There were other rooms and windows on that floor. Had the gangsters gone to those other rooms, with the intention of climbing up to the roof from different angles, and taking him unawares? That was a possibility. Quickly he levered himself from the edge of the roof and clambered up to the flat square. Lying prone on the roofing, he scanned the edges of building. So far as he could see in the dark no attempt was yet being made by the gangsters to gain the roof.
For the time, he was safe. But how long would he be unmolested? For the moment he dominated the roof, but the gang held the balance of the house. He had proved that it would be expensive in lives to try and storm the roof. It would be suicide to return to the room and try and fight a way through the house to the street.
Yet, surely they would not allow him to remain on that roof until daylight. That would be to surrender the victory to him. He had only to wait until the streets were full of people to attract attention. The rumour would soon spread that a madman was on the roof of the building, shooting with a gun at passers-by—and he would make that sufficiently realistic—and the police would come. That would scatter the gang.
Whoever was in charge of the gang would certainly think of that. Again Oliver Manx scanned the roof-edge. Moving as quickly as he could, he passed from point to point, making sure, so far as he could, that no attack was developing from any quarter.
As he was crossing a section of the roof, to examine one of the slopes, he stopped abruptly. At his feet was a dark patch, slightly raised above roof level. Pulling out his torch, he flashed the light on it. He had found what he sought, the trapdoor from the house to the roof. He wondered, did the gang know of this? He thought not, or surely they would have long since tried to force a way up through it.
Keeping a careful watch along the edges of the roof, Oliver Manx knelt and tried to lift the trap-door. It refused to move, evidently fastened on the inside. A series of embedded bolts showed where the hasp lay. He tried to force them but they had rusted into their places and resisted the poor tools he had to work with.
He could not open the trap-door and its presence on the roof was an added danger to him. He wondered why the gang had not thought of a trap door to the roof. Or, had they known of it and deliberately avoided using it until he came to disregard it as a danger spot? That might be possible, but he hardly gave the gangsters credit for such subtlety.
A sound of rending timber behind him made Oliver Manx turn quickly. A sheet of the roofing, over one of the rooms against the slope on the north side, was bulging ominously under some strain applied from below. Standing over the trap-door the secret agent fired a few feet from the bulge into the iron of the roof. Immediately the iron subsided and there was again silence.
A shot came from the far end of the roof. Oliver Manx fired in the direction from which the shot had come, but he could not see anyone. Almost before his shot ceased to echo on the night air, another shot, from a different direction whizzed past his ear. He dropped prone to the roof, beside the trap-door. He could not leave that unguarded to go and see what was happening on the slopes.
A few seconds and the trap-door creaked slightly. Oliver Manx put his hand to it; he could feel strong pressure being applied. Hardly had he withdrawn his hand when a shot passed through the woodwork, and then another.
So they had found that entrance to the roof. For a moment he wondered; then, as another shot came through the woodwork, he realised that the trap-door was locked and the gangsters were attempting to shoot off the lock.
The secret agent waited. Two shots came from the edges of the roof, but the secret agent paid no attention to them; a quick glance had shown him that the men were shooting to distract his attention, and not preparing to storm the roof. Again the trapdoor moved, rising slowly and silently. Waiting until there were about three inches of space showing on the edge Oliver Manx thrust in the muzzle of his automatic and fired a couple of quick shots: He had to wrench his automatic from the quickly closed door. From inside the building came a loud cry and a volley of oaths.
Something dark, showed on the edge of the roof. Oliver Manx took quick aim and fired. A click only sounded from his gun—the automatic was empty. Flicking open the magazine the secret agent felt in his pocket and brought out a magazine, he loaded the gun. Now only remained another magazine in his pocket. When he had used that, he would have to surrender—if help did not previously come.
He looked up at the sky. There was a distinct lightening of the deep blue of night. Over to the east the light had turned grey. Now, if dawn came, and people came on the streets! But, he dared not go to the edge of the roof to attract attention. He had to stay by that trap-door. So long as he remained here he was safe; to leave the trapdoor was to have the roof stormed by the men who waited under it.
He had to be constantly watchful. His neck ached from the strain of continually turning it to survey all part of the roof. Some sense told him that matters could not remain as they were much longer. A little coordination and the gangsters would storm the roof from every side—and the trapdoor. It was impossible that he could shoot every man who came to the roof. He might shoot some, but eventually he would be captured—and capture by Alec Grosse was unthinkable!
The sky was now distinctly lighter. That was in his favour, apart from the fact that it made his watch lighter. He could see the surrounding houses, and the sky-line. Surely he was in Darlinghurst, as he had suspected earlier that night. At any moment now he could attract attention from the street, or from one of the surrounding houses.
For some moments he remained standing, pondering which was the best course to pursue. If he dared to go to the edge of the roof and look down on the street, he might see an early riser, on the way to work. He could get his attention and signal for him to bring the police. Yet, to leave the trap-door, to get on the slope of the roof, was to forfeit the advantage of the central position he held.
He had to chance that. Moving as noiselessly as he could, he went to the roof-edge and peered over on to the street. There was no one on the road, as far as the line of vision went. He turned, and started to climb again the slope of the roof, to watch the trap-door. As his head came over the rim of the flat part of the roof, a voice spoke briefly:
"Put 'em up, Kline! Drop that gun!"
For a moment Oliver Manx hesitated. He was showing little mark to the man now lying beside the trap-door. He cursed under his breath. Why had he abandoned his point of vantage? The gang must have been listening for some false move from him. They had heard his footsteps on the resonant iron, and guessed his thought. Immediately they had heard him at the roof-edge, one of the gang had climbed up through the trapdoor.
He was in an impossible position, on one slope of the roof. The gang commanded all the rest of the space. As he watched, another man came up through the trap-door; and away on the right-hand slope a man crawled up to the flat square.
He could hold out for a time yet, if he shot to kill. But would that serve him? Would the sounds of shots on the roof attract attention from elsewhere? That was more than problematical. Darlinghurst had become accustomed to gang-warfare. The sounds of shots were now only an incentive to the average citizen to get under cover—to proceed as quickly as possible on business that would take him outside the area of disturbance.
Again, the roof of the building was high from the street. If anyone passed in the streets, they might heed the shooting, but would they be able to locate the direction from where the sounds came. He turned to watch the men gathered around the trap-door, and froze. A man was bending to the opening, hauling something through it from the hands of men he could not see. A moment, and he realised that he had reached the end of his tether. The gang were bringing a sub-machine gun to the roof—and all he had to contend, against that weapon were five shots in the automatic he held.
Desperately, Oliver Manx looked about him. There were no means of escape now. With that sub-machine gun on the roof, and the number of men the gang had on guard, they could wait until he starved into surrender or making some desperate efforts to escape, was shot to pieces. As he turned again to look towards the surrounding houses something lying on the gutter caught his eyes. He slipped down the roof again and sought the strange object. It was only a short bar of iron. For the moment he wondered how it could be of use to him. He glanced down from the roof again. On the opposite side of the street, far below the level of the roof on which he stood, was a low house, and lights glimmered in it and in the window of the single floor above the shop.
For a moment Oliver Manx waited. Then, turning and bracing himself on his precarious foothold, he flung the iron bar out into the greying dawn, aiming at the roof of the low house. It struck truly, and the loud clatter of iron on iron filled the morning air.
"Cummon, Kline! Yer can't do an'thin'! We've got yer set! Don't be a fool, man!" The voice came from the flat top of the roof—from a man he could not see.
The secret agent recognised the truth of the words. With a shrug of resignation he started to climb up to the flat roof-top. As his head came over the edging of iron half-a-dozen automatics, as well as the muzzle of the machine gun, were pointed at him.
"Careful, now!" A man standing a few steps before the trap-door spoke sardonically. "We don' wan' yer to have a serious fall, just yet. Yer may, later—'regret'ble accident an' all that! But we wanter talk wi' yer befor' yer goes. Yer've certainly showed us the way, Joe."
There was a significance in the cold tones that sent a cold chill down Oliver Manx's back. For a moment he waited, almost out of sight of the men on the roof, and in that time put the automatic into a secreted holster in the cuff of his sleeve. Two bullets remained in the weapon. If he could retain the gun, he still had a chance; but the men would certainly search him when he surrendered. Would they miss the bulge under his cuff. If he raised his hands promptly, they might. They would pat his body and legs—would they miss his arms. That was possible. He climbed up the slope slowly and immediately he stood on the flat roof, raised his arms above his head.
"Good!" The voice that had spoken before, spoke again: "You're sure giving us trouble, Joe."
Oliver Manx straightened himself, glancing about the roof. There were at least twenty men gathered there, some about the edges of the roof, the majority about the sub-machine gun just beside the trap-door. Then, through the trap-door came the bulk of Alec Grosse.
"Well, Joe, had yer bit of fun?" The master-gangster spoke with heavy good-humour. "You're sure some monkey. Now, what about coming downstairs and having a yarn? Breakfast'll be ready. I told 'em to get it when I heard you were up here. The early morning air makes a man ravenous, doesn't it Joe?"
The secret agent did not answer. For a moment Grosse stared at him stonily, then backed to the trapdoor.
"I'm going down now Joe, and you follow me. Where's your gun?"
"Didn't yer 'ear it?" Oliver Manx laughed. "Took th' 'am-an'-beefie across th' road on th' bean. Made a clatter, sure enuff."
"So that was it?" The master gangster smiled slightly. "Now what did yer think to do with that?"
"Wake th' bloke!" Oliver Manx spoke vindictively. "I sure roused 'em. Th' police'll be 'ere—an' wot'll yer do then?"
"The police! they're friends of yours, then Joe." The man's cold eyes gleamed angrily. "I had quite a suspicion of that. Well, I won't stop 'em finding you. They shall—in the flat of a half awakened man with a revolver in his hand—and a dead burglar, well armed, at his feet. You can't—they can't complain of a man defending his property—and his life!"
WITHOUT speaking, Oliver Manx turned to the trap-door in the roof. He had lost again in his battle against the crook organisation that was trying to dominate the Three Districts; and this time he had no hope of retrieving his mistake. The smile on the master-gangster's face showed that every precaution had been taken to prevent either escape or rescue.
And to remain a prisoner for any length of time meant death. The secret agent had no illusions that the man was only threatening. The organisation could not permit him to live with the knowledge he had acquired of their powers and objects. Alec Grosse would scheme some way whereby "Joe Kline" would die, and in such circumstances that the gang would not be implicated. He had hinted that he was to be a burglar, and shot by some householder in defence of life and property.
At the scuttle on the roof a grinning face showed, beckoning to the secret agent. The face disappeared within the trap-door, and without hesitation Oliver Manx turned and started to back down the ladder into the house. As his head came level with the roof he looked up. Alec Grosse was watching him intently, a sombre look of malice on his face.
He found the passage below lit by lights from gangsters' torches. With an almost inaudible sigh the secret agent abandoned a half-formed plan, to slide quickly down the ladder on to the man who had preceded him, and escape in the darkness.
The gangster on the ladder reached the foot and stood aside for Oliver Manx to come to the floor. As he did so the man thrust the muzzle of an automatic into his back, bidding him turn quickly. The secret agent obeyed, and at the prod of the gun, walked a few steps down the passage. There he was commanded to halt. A moment, and Alec Grosse, his full, ruddy face flushed with triumph, passed him and led to the head of the stairs. A thrust from the gun behind him emphasised the command from the gangster to follow the chief.
Preceded by a couple of men carrying light-torches and illuminating the stair treads, Alec Grosse led the way to the third floor of the building. He turned into a long passage and paused before the door of a room. One of the men opened the door and the gang-chief entered, beckoning for Oliver Manx to follow.
The secret agent found himself in a comfortably furnished room, a big desk occupying the centre of the floor. Evidently the place was used as an office by the gangster in command of the premises. Grosse went to the chair behind the desk and sat down. The gangsters, crowding the room, thrust Oliver Manx forward until he stood before the desk. For a moment the big gangster looked at his captive keenly.
"Anything to say, Joe?" The man asked after a long pause. "Oh, you needn't hurry, the day's young yet and Joe, the thief, won't be discovered until the householder gets up—somewhere around nine o'clock. Plenty of time, if you want to talk."
Oliver Manx held silence. He had nothing to say. Every thought in his head was centred on escaping from his present predicament.
"Nothing to say?" Grosse jeered. "Want a sniff, Joe?"
The secret agent unconsciously shook his head in negative.
"Not want a sniff?" The big man simulated surprise. "So Joe Kline's reformed—given up the 'snow.' Well, well—" He paused and stared hard at the man standing before him. "Well, if that's so, what about Joe Kline passing out."
Again Oliver Manx refused to answer
"If He doesn't 'sniff' there ain't much use for Joe Kline, is there?" Grosse continued. "Then—as we've got someone unknown to us in this room, we'll have to give him a name. Can't call him 'You, there!' Wouldn't be polite. Any suggestions, boys? No, then—"
"Pardon me! Am I intruding?"
A quiet suave voice spoke from the direction of the door. Oliver Manx swung round, thoroughly surprised. A small man stood just within the door—a man he recognised at a glance. He was Maurice Archibald, the manager of the Kahm Syndicate. He would have recognised those hard, steely, green-blue eyes anywhere; the full, over-red lips; the dome-like bald head. Almost a feeling of triumph swept over him. In part he had succeeded. He uncovered the connection between the Kahm Syndicate, of Pitt Street, Sydney, and the Grosse-gang of crooks, of Darlinghurst.
He turned to face the desk again, to find Alec Grosse on his feet; a smile of welcome on his lips; something like fear in his small eyes.
Maurice Archibald came slowly into the room, the gangsters falling aside, fearfully yielding him a path. Without acknowledgement to any, with only a quick searching glance at Oliver Manx, the man went round the desk. As he came to the chair-before which Alec Grosse stood, the gangster stepped away. Without acknowledgement, or even recognition, the Kahm Syndicate manager seated himself. For a moment he waited, staring down at the virgin white blotting-pad before him, then glanced up, first at Grosse then at the prisoner.
"You were talking to Joe Kline, Mr. Grosse," he said in his distinctively quiet and expressionless voice. "Poor Joe! So he's departed to—er—some place where there is little hope of obtaining the—the very necessary drug. Poor fellow! But we'll have to resurrect him again, I fear, unless—yes, unless you, Mr. Grosse—Yes, yes! There is that to consider. If Joe turns burglar and—dies—He must naturally fall into the hands of the police. They will, with their well known curiosity, investigate—They will, with their well-known thoroughness—horrid thought—use sponge and water on him. Poor Joe! Water and sponge will—er—obliterate Joe Kline and—Who will they find? I wonder."
A little snigger ran round the group of gangsters looking on at the tragedy as the little man paused.
"Who will the police find," continued Archibald, in his quiet, precise voice. "They will use sponge and water—and possibly find that Joe Kline is—How shall I put it—-is not Joe Kline; for Joe Kline is still in Goulburn goal. Then, who will they find behind the mask of Joe Kline? Shall I suggest—Thaddeus Keene, of Melbourne—well known retired business man, and traveller. Er—may I ask, of what line of business?"
The snigger superimposed upon the air of the room developed into a small laughter; a laugh of hard indifference, of callous enjoyment of the baiting of a human captive; a laughter that was laced with the anticipation of the blood-scent coming on the air.
"Cut out the cackle!" Alec Grosse spoke sharply. "We all know about Thaddeus Keene—As much as we know about Joe Kline. Give him a! name and end the matter. What about calling him—Oliver Manx, the shadow man of the Crown Law Office?"
A little gasp came from the men clustered in the room. Without turning, Oliver Manx could visualise the astonishment gathered on the watchers' faces: The gasp developed into a faint chuckle, a gloating whisper that rose and swelled into a volume of sound—until the little man at the desk held up his hand. Then there was a deathly silence.
"So! that astonishes you, my good friends! But, why? We knew, long ago, that Oliver Manx was getting curious. Fortunately, I recognised him when he came, as Thaddeus Keene, to investigate me. Almost he escaped me then. A clever trick, Mr. Manx. I congratulate you—but not so clever to assume the name and identity of a gentleman who is enjoying the hospitality of this State at one of its—er—guest-houses. Did you think so meanly of my—er—intelligence service, Mr. Manx, to suppose you could put that over?" He paused. "You have nothing to answer?"
Still, Oliver Manx held in silence. Maurice Archibald waited some seconds, then shook his head gravely.
"I am afraid Mr. Manx does not approve of me. I am sorry," he stated quietly. "That, for me, is a misfortune. I do my best—and I do not receive appreciation." He looked up at the big gangster standing by his side. "By the bye, Mr. Grosse, have you shown Mr. Manx this place of—er—final disposal?"
Alec Grosse did not immediately reply. He glanced down at the little man in the chair, questioningly. Archibald nodded, blandly.
"Why hesitate, my dear friend. I can assure you of Mr. Manx's—ultimate discretion. As you well know—the dead do not gossip."
Without replying, Alec Grosse turned from the desk and went to the wide fireplace. He touched some portion of the overmantel and pulled strongly. The fireplace came forward, working on well-oiled hinges, revealing a dark hole in the wall.
"If you will be so good—" Maurice Archibald rose to his feet, thrusting the chair aside. "We cannot expect our guest to know all our secrets. To venture into that dark aperture might be to risk his life. A misstep, a stumble, and I shudder to think of the consequences."
Alec Grosse grinned widely as he glanced from the little man to the prisoner. He strode into the darkness behind the fireplace and for the moment was lost to sight. Suddenly light came in the darkness, silhouetting the master-gangster's form. Lights sprang to life in some room beyond.
Now Oliver Manx saw that the aperture led into another room. At a motion from Archibald he went round the desk and through the aperture. He had to stoop slightly as he passed into the room beyond, for the space was low. As he came to the point between the two fireplaces he glanced up. Above him was the dividing wall of the two houses, cut away to permit the passage; and on either side of the wall were chimneys. In the further room the fireplace stood out, held by concealed hinges.
"A neat arrangement," commented Archibald, who had closely followed the secret agent. "We are now in another building—a building let out in the most respectable flats, to most respectable people. Not one of the persons living in this house has ever come under suspicion of the police. I can give you my personal assurance on that. For instance, the gentleman and his wife who lease this apartment from the owners of the house, are of irreproachable character. The gentleman is an accountant in the city, owning his own business. If you must know, he has offices in Alford House, on the floor above the Kahm Syndicate. No—There is no possible chance of him being connected with the Syndicate in the police, or public, minds. Not that that would matter, for the Syndicate bears a most irreproachable character. Mr. Lyne—I trust you will remember the name for the short time remaining to you—is a fine shot with the revolver he has owned for some time. I assure you Mr. Manx, the revolver is fully licensed and registered. You know I would not have you—er—terminated with an unlicensed gun That is not my way—"
"Perhaps things are not your way at all, Mr. Archibald." Oliver Manx broke his long silence. "There may be others who will have more to say in the matter than you."
The little man did not reply for a moment. He stared, with some satisfaction, round the handsomely furnished room in which he, Alec Grosse and Oliver Manx stood. Suddenly he turned to the secret agent.
"You know that?"
"I have guessed something."
"Then you are only guessing?"
"With some little knowledge in support."
"I have no evidence—yet."
"You are very cautious, Mr. Manx. Is that wise, in the circumstances? But—" He went further into the room, beckoning Oliver Manx to follow him. "Will you not sit down, Mr. Manx. As I informed you in the other house, we have some time to wait before the last—er—act of—er—our drama, is played. Mr. Grosse may I trouble you to close the doors?"
Alec Grosse hesitated a moment. "Better have a guard in," he suggested.
"Nonsense, my dear fellow!" The little man grinned, seating himself in a comfortable chair. "Our friend, Mr. Oliver Manx is not a fool. He recognises the inevitable. He is going to tell us all he knows. Confession before death, you understand. We—you and I—will give him absolution—if he tells the truth—before we arouse Mr. and Mrs. Lyne."
Alec Grosse nodded briefly. He went to the fireplace aperture and passed through, returned in a few seconds and closed the fireplace back in its place.
"Now, Mr. Manx, we are waiting for you. But, pardon me, I can assure you that chair in most comfortable. Please sit down. The time is a quarter to seven. A little over an hour before we stage our dramatic act. Mr. and Mrs. Lyne are late risers. We do not want—"
The shrill tones of the telephone bell rang, muffled, through the room. Archibald frowned, then rose and went to a small table in one of the corners. He lifted the lid of an ornate rosewood box and lifted out an American telephone. He spoke:
"Well? Mr. A. Lyne here!"
A look of astonishment came on the Kahm Syndicate manager's face as he listened to the speech that crackled faintly on the air of the room. "Yes, he's here! Would you like to speak to him? Of course, anything you say. Hold the line a minute."
Archibald placed the instrument on the table and turned to face Oliver Manx. The expression of astonishment had faded from his face, leaving only lines of humour lurking about the corners of his mouth.
"Mr. Manx, a gentleman wished to speak to you on the telephone."
"To me?" For the first time since he had entered that room—the room that was to be the scene of his death—the secret agent smiled. "A gentleman wants to speak to me?" Oliver Manx paused. "Do I want to speak to him?"
"That is for you to decide." The little man spoke suavely. "I should advise you to comply with his wishes."
"Then, he is—"
"He is—yes." Archibald mimicked the tones in which the secret agent spoke.
"Very well." Oliver Manx went to the table. He lifted the instrument and spoke his name. "Oliver Manx here."
"And—Thaddeus Keene?" A rather oily voice replied, a voice that the secret agent seemed to remember hearing before. It continued: "And Joe Kline?"
"We are altogether." Oliver Manx stated gravely. "Who are you?"
"Is my name necessary?" The silky voice was charged with laughter. "You heard Archibald speak to me. If you want additional proof, then send Alec Grosse to the instrument. But that would be foolish. You want no proof that I speak with authority."
"I will take the authority on trust." Oliver Manx smiled secretly. "How am I to take the words you speak?"
"On trust, also." The voice at the other end of the line spoke quickly. "Some little while ago Alec Grosse made you an offer—when you were Joe Kline. I repeat that offer—not to Joe Kline or Thaddeus Keene—but to Oliver Manx, secret agent of the Crown Law Office. He will be very useful to us."
"I don't doubt that." The secret agent spoke drily.
"You fully realise your present position?"
"Entirely! I am to be shot, at dawn!"
"You are jesting."
"Why not? You are offering me what I cannot accept. Then—why not a jest in place of a sob?"
"You do not recognise the inevitable?"
"I believe I do—But you must excuse me. My time is short."
"Time will stand still—if I bid it."
Without answering, Oliver Manx replaced the receiver on the instrument and closed down the lid of the cabinet. Turning from the table, he found the two men regarding him curiously. He walked slowly to the chair he had formerly occupied, and sat down.
"Satisfied, Mr. Archibald?" he asked.
"You know who spoke to you on the telephone?" asked the little man.
"I believe I can guess."
"You did not recognise the voice? But that does not matter!"
"I did not recognise the voice—entirely yet. I have suspicions—suspicions you are confirming."
Alec Grosse spoke suddenly:
"Don't be a fool man! You've had a good offer, why don't you take it? You're at the end of things. Take what's offered you—and your measly salary from the Crown Law Office will look like chicken feed to what you'll make."
"Now—do you know—" Oliver Manx drawled, staring steadily at the big gangster. "I have an absolute passion for chicken-feed."
"You're mad!" was the only reply the big gangster vouchsafed to make.
"I am afraid he is." Archibald spoke quietly. "Manx would have been an asset to us, but—well, well! Get busy, Alec. You know what to do."
The big gangster took a pair of thin rubber gloves from his pocket and donned them, then rose from his chair. At the bureau, facing the fireplace, he forced the lock and scattered the papers it contained over the floor. He went to a wall-safe and, with a few turns of his wrist, unlocked it, taking out a packet of notes and placing them in his pocket. He then went around the room, apparently looting every receptacle that could have held valuables. Finally, he lifted a large suitcase from the corner and placed this open on the floor; then he loaded into it most of the valuable stuff in the room. When he had finished the place looked as if it had been gone over by a practised burglar in a hurry.
"Good enough?" Alec Grosse turned to the little man.
"The setting is remarkably effective," replied Archibald. "We still have time to spare. May I suggest our friend entertains us with an account of his activities regarding the Kahm Syndicate, and the conclusions he had drawn therefrom?"
He paused a moment, then continued:
"I regret to mention the subject again, but I have remembered certain important engagements I have for this morning. I fear I shall have to depart—on a different road to that to be taken by Mr. Manx, at eight o'clock." He paused dramatically. "At eight o'clock and don't forget, Alec, that Mr. Manx must don those rubber gloves before—eight o'clock!"
EIGHT o'clock! Oliver Manx glanced at the reflection of the clock in the mirror opposite him. It was ten minutes past seven o'clock. Only fifty minutes to wait—if Archibald did not change his mind again and advance the hour for his execution. That was possible. And—during those fifty minutes he was to entertain the gangsters with an account of his investigations!
He had little that he could tell them; yet he had to say something. To keep silence for fifty minutes would be intolerable. The men were watching him keenly, alert for some signs of breaking nerves—the one token of weakness the gangsters hold in supreme contempt. In their code, death is an incident, to be faced with aplomb—with disregard and smiling lips.
Well, he could match them at that; and perhaps provide a surprise for them at the last moment. The automatic, a short, snub-nosed, powerful weapon, nestled in his cuff. The gangsters had not found it when they had searched him. As he had guessed, he had been ordered to hold his hands above his head, and submit to a series of pats about his body. They had not guessed that the weapon they sought lay hidden just above their heads. Possibly, they had been fooled by his last action on the roof—the throwing of the iron bar on the roof of the shop opposite—and his suggestion that he had disposed of the revolver. Whatever the reason for their carelessness, he was still armed, and he would fight to the last, even with so little hope of success.
Through one of the two doors of the room a man would come, holding a revolver "to shoot down the burglar." And—he had but two shots in his gun; for three men. He was determined that at all costs Archibald and Grosse should accompany him into the land of shadows. If necessary for that purpose, the man appointed to be his executioner would have to be ignored. That meant, that the man would accomplish his task—shoot him down. He had to realise that! So far as he was personally concerned, he had to disintegrate the gang by depriving them of two of their chiefs.
He had to remember that behind Archibald and Grosse stood other sinister figures—men whose identity he could at present only guess at, despite his brave words to the gangsters. Who were these men? Of one of them, he had recognised a voice, in part. He had known it—a familiar voice; yet for the present he could not place a name alongside it. Given time, and leisure to think—Time! He had no time!
Again he glanced at the reflection of the clock in the mirror. The larger hand was quickly approaching the quarter-past the hour. Three-quarters of an hour left—if Archibald did not again change his mind!
"Well?" The expressionless, suave voice of the Kahm Syndicate manager broke the silence. "Mr. Oliver Manx is not communicative. We had expected to spend a pleasant hour noting the lines of his investigation. I am sure Mr. Grosse would have been most—er—interested!"
"Then—Mr. Archibald has nothing to learn?" asked the secret agent sarcastically.
"My modesty is discreet." The little man smiled quietly. "May I suggest that Mr. Manx commences his recital by informing us how he came to connect Mr. Grosse with the Kham Syndicate?"
"Mr. Grosse was kind enough to inform me of the connection." The secret agent spoke carelessly.
"You lie!" The big man sprang to his feet angrily.
"Not necessary!" Archibald stared coldly at his colleague. "I take it that Mr. Manx does not suggest that Alec Grosse is a—a traitor; only that he was—er—indiscreet."
"Very indiscreet." Oliver Manx laughed slightly. "I had not been long in his company before I recognised that the organisation he professed to control could not logically own him for leader."
"You recognised the master-hand concealed?" suggested Archibald, with a little conceited smile.
"That was obvious."
"A damned lie!" Grosse glowered at the prisoner. "I told him nothing."
"In words—no." Now Oliver Manx laughed outright, settling himself more comfortably in his chair. "But—"
"You suggest that Mr. Grosse did not easily fill the role of a leader," repeated Archibald.
"That was obvious." The secret agent caught a movement of the door on his right, and spoke quickly. His hands were lying, carelessly, in his lap, his right hand above his left and but an inch or so from the butt of the hidden automatic. "A leader does not have to bully!"
He noted the quick glance that passed between the two men, reading the antagonism that peeped out for the moment from behind the curtains of their eyes. He had suspected jealousy—and now his suspicions were confirmed. The Kahm Syndicate was rife with jealousy as he had suspected. Grosse was jealous of Archibald and, the little man, although the superior, was irked by assumption of authority the big man assumed. Both Archibald and Grosse were full of jealousy of the men who stood behind them.
Could he turn these jealousies to account? Already he had the two men before him almost at open antagonism. If only, through them, he could get a knowledge of the other men, still in the shadows?
"You are a keen observer." Archibald turned to his prisoner, his lips hard, a frozen smile on his face. "So you suggest that Mr. Grosse and I are jealous of each other—and of others?"
"That is obvious, my dear Archibald!" Oliver Manx crossed his legs—and for a brief moment his fingers touched the butt of his automatic. "Quite obvious! The remaining deductions were also obvious. You showed that when you spoke to the unknown on the telephone."
The secret agent was glancing from time to time at the door. It had opened slightly, yet only just past the jamb; yet sufficient to inform him that behind it lurked a listener. Who was that listener? Friend or foe? It could not be the former; yet, somehow, he gained confidence.
If he chose to think obviously, then—he would believe that the listener was the gangster, Lyne, who had been appointed his executioner. But his reason refused the suggestion. The gangster would have boldly entered the room, confident that his major part in that morning's tragedy placed him, for the time, on an equal footing with the gang-leaders. Then—who was the listener?
"Quite interesting," suggested the voice of the little man. "But hardly informative. May I remind Mr. Manx that he came to the Kahm Syndicate before he got in touch with Mr. Grosse."
"The Kahm Syndicate is too fond of writing letters," said the secret agent, drily.
"Such as my letters to the police and the newspapers?"
"And to others." For a moment Archibald was silent, then:
"A letter was written to—er—a certain person—"
"I read that letter," said Oliver Manx gently.
"So?" There was surprise in the gangster's voice. "Then—"
"'Rid' Cann was not too successful in his mission," stated the secret agent. "The letter was found on him when he was unexpectedly arrested."
"He did not let you know," murmured Archibald, almost under his breath. Oliver Manx caught the muttered words; perhaps he had anticipated them.
"You will have to excuse him, Mr. Archibald; he did not know that we read the letter. Really you must give the police credit for some subtleness. I believe Mr.—er—Cann thought the police overlooked a very clever hiding-place. It was a pity he slept so soundly the night he was detained at Central Lane."
"He had opportunities to destroy the letter," stated Archibald, unemotionally.
"There you are mistaken," The secret agent laughed. "Care was taken that Cann should never be alone—before he slept. He slept soundly—after a good supper. Then—when he awoke he had another meal—of paper. I can answer for Mr.—er—Cann's honesty."
"I am glad to hear that." The little man's gloom considerably lightened. "I have a horror of mistakes."
"Such as 'Babe' Shaver made?" asked Oliver Manx.
"So you know that, too?"
"I am afraid my remaining time is too short to tell you all that I know—and suspect." The secret agent laughed again."I am afraid—"
"Please don't apologise." Oliver Manx spoke quickly.
His eyes were again on the door of the room. The crack was now wider; now framing the muzzle of an automatic. He stiffened slightly, and withdrew his eyes. Was he to be shot, with his murderer concealed from his view? Yet his eyes instinctively sought the door again. Now he saw that the automatic was not pointing at him, but towards the secret aperture in the fireplace. That told him nothing. From the direction in which the door opened it would be impossible for the concealed person to shoot at him until the door was still further opened. His hands slipped carelessly over his knees—until the fingers of his right hand again touched the concealed weapon. He had made up his mind. If the gun pointed more directly towards him, he would chance a shot through the wood of the door, at the concealed gangster. Another shot would settle accounts with Grosse. Then he would meet Archibald hand to hand and he had no doubt of the outcome of any physical struggle with the little man. He could easily master him, beat him insensible, and escape before any help could come from the next house.
Oliver Manx glanced at the clock again. It was now well past the half-hour, Only a little more than twenty minutes of life remained—if he could not turn these minutes to advantage. Twenty minutes how. And—there was still hope!
"You read the message to Joe Kline?" asked Archibald, after a pause. "That was clever. I suppose you assumed the character of Joe Kline because of what you read?"
"Your intelligence department was at fault," Oliver Manx grinned. "I was Joe Kline for many months before you wrote that letter."
"Living at Mart's lodging-house?"
"That is strange—" Archibald pursed his lips, as if regretting that he had spoken.
"Am I to give Mart Deeling a certificate of character also?"
The secret agent questioned ironically. "I believe Mart acted in good faith."
"With the organisation you control."
"Joe Kline escaped from Long Bay. He was free for several weeks, and re-arrested at Mart Deeling's dump, some fortnight after he moved in there."
"Then the Joe Kline who was arrested was you?"
"Your intelligence department is becoming, quite—quite intelligent," mocked Oliver Manx. "Have I to tell you that Joe Kline never escaped—that my arrest was but a put-up job by the police, at my request. Take that—and the fact that after his arrest Joe Kline was unquestionably accepted by Mart Deeling."
"Then Joe Kline was never released—did not escape?"
"—the police considered that his health did not warrant exposure to—er—free air."
"I remember—" Archibald spoke slowly. "He received an 'habitual criminals' sentence. Then he has been a prisoner all this time?"
"If you had only realised that before," mocked the secret agent.
"Well; it's gained you nothing," Alec Grosse interjected angrily.
"Only, a rather completer knowledge of your activities."
"Which you will regret you cannot make use of—now," purred Archibald.
The big gangster's words seemed to have restored his confidence. "I am sure you regret that, Mr. Manx?"
The clock marked the quarter to the hour. Oliver Manx glanced swiftly at the door. The automatic had been withdrawn, but the door was now wider open.
"It's rather stifling in here," said Oliver Manx, allowing his voice to falter slightly on the words.
"You will find the air—freer—later," snarled Grosse; a grin of triumph momentarily lighting his big face.
"Do you think Mr. Lyne is awake yet, Mr. Grosse?" suggested Archibald. "I believe he is rather busy in the city at present—and it seems unfair to detain him at Darlinghurst—if Mr. Manx has no objections."
"Not a single objection." Oliver Manx spoke lightly. "I would not incommode Mr. Lyne for worlds."
"Then—" Archibald looked at the big gangster significantly.
"I'll see," said Grosse. He rose from his chair leisurely, and stretched himself.
"I am afraid you are tired," remarked Archibald, irony and venom in his voice.
"Tired of you." The big man flared suddenly; then his mood changed. "Mr. Manx kept us up late last night." He doubled with laughter at what he believed to be a joke.
"Then—" A snarl lay in the little man's voice "—then, if you will suggest to Mr. Lyne—"
"All right!" Grosse moved to the door.
For a moment Oliver Manx's hands closed, and when they parted the butt of the concealed automatic lay in his right hand. He waited until the big gangster had his hand on the door handle before he spoke.
"Put your hands up, Grosse! Right up! Stand still! Right against that door! Archibald, your hands over your head—and sit still! I've two bullets longing to find rest-houses!"
The surprise was effective. Grosse stiffened at the door and his hands went up slowly. Archibald made an involuntary movement, as if to spring from his chair, but the unswerving muzzle of the gun in Oliver Manx's hand taught him caution. His hands went up; and at the secret agent's suggestion, clasped on top of his head.
"Two paces to the left, Grosse—taken sideways!" commanded Oliver Manx. "Now; you behind the door, come into his room!"
A moment's wait, and a hand came round the jamb of the door holding an automatic which it thrust against Grosse's ribs. The door swung still further open—and a woman slipped into the room.
Oliver Manx gasped. The woman—she was only a girl—was heavily masked; a piece of black silk covering every feature of her face. With a suggestive gesture of her weapon she drove the big gangster into the centre of the room, lining him up beside the chair in which the Kahm Syndicate manager sat.
"Who the—?" Archibald gasped. A quick motion from the secret agent silenced him.
"I have the same curiosity as Mr. Archibald." Oliver Manx turned to the girl. "The Grey Cat, I presume?"
The girl laughed, musically, and dropped a mocking curtsey.
"Mr. Oliver Manx appears to welcome the advent of—the Grey Cat—now. I believe he was rather doubtful of her honesty, on a previous occasion."
"Life is precious," the secret agent grinned. "By the way, I believe that is a .45 you are holding?"
"Even secret agents guess right—sometimes."
"And it is fully loaded?"
"Another good guess. Perhaps Mr. Archibald, or Mr. Grosse, would care to—er—experiment?"
Oliver Manx glanced from one to the other of the two men staring in bewilderment at their captors; and smiled broadly. "I am afraid they are not—er—inquisitive," he answered.
"Then—" For the moment the girl's eyes searched the room. "I can see very nice curtain ropes at the windows," she suggested.
"Do you think either of our friends would want to argue if I lowered my gun?" asked the secret agent.
"I believe they are being very careful of their, health, at the moment," the girl replied quickly.
Olive Manx nodded. A couple of minutes and he had the curtain ropes free and was approaching the prisoners. Suddenly he turned back to the windows; cutting the lengths of cord from the blinds.
Standing the two men back to back, one on each side of the wide, armed chair in which Archibald had been seated, Oliver Manx took the thin cord and securely bound the four thumbs of the men, in pairs. Then he wound the rest of the cord about their wrists in such a manner that any attempt to free their hands would put a strain on their thumbs that would be great torture. He then tied the men's feet to the four feet of the chair and stood back to survey his handiwork.
Suddenly Grosse let out a loud bellow of alarm and rage. Immediately the Grey Cat thrust her gun-muzzle into his mouth, stifling his cries. He wrenched sideways, bringing strain on the bound hands, and Archibald let out a cry of surprise and pain.
"Clever!" Oliver Manx looked admiringly at the masked girl. "Now our friends understood that only complete acquiescence to known facts will serve them. To struggle is to inflict torture on themselves. Understand, you two? Just the same, I think I should gag you both."
"Do you think the men in the other house will have heard them?" asked the Grey Cat, nervously.
"No; I don't think so." The secret agent spoke reassuringly. "There is quite a wide passage between the two houses—and if they heard any cry, they might have thought I had uttered it. No; our only danger comes from the man, Lyne. He was to have had the honour of—"
"I know," the Grey Cat interrupted. "For the moment I was frightened."
"I was hoping you would not faint," said Oliver Manx, doubtfully.
"What would you have done if I had?" asked the girl, curiously. "Removed my mask?"
"My curiosity is insatiable," replied the Secret agent with a laugh. "Yet it must remain unsatisfied. We have no time to lose. Come!"
A quick glance at the two bound men, standing one each side of the big chair, absolutely helpless, and the girl led to the door. When they were in the hall of the flat, Oliver Manx hesitated.
"What of the man, Lyne, and his wife?" he asked.
The girl turned to him with a little laugh.
"Look!" she replied, and opened the door of one of the rooms, standing. aside for Oliver Manx to peer in. On the bed, fully dressed, lay two people—a man and a woman—sleeping heavily. For a moment the secret agent surveyed them doubtfully.
"They're drugged?" he questioned at length.
"The usual habit of leaving the morning milk on the mat is rather careless, is it not?" suggested the Grey Cat. "Mr. and Mrs. Lyne rose early this morning with an insatiable longing for morning coffee. The milk—"
"—was drugged," completed the secret agent, with a slight laugh.
The Grey Cat shrugged.
"Come," she said, turning to the hall door. "We must get away at once."
With her hand on the latch, she stopped suddenly. A stress of alarm tensed her slight figure. She looked back over her shoulder at the secret agent. "What is that?"
SOMEONE was climbing the stairs of the building, slowly and with evident effort. With the irregular fall of feet sounded the staccato "tap, tap" of a walking stick, the slight scrape between each "tap" indicating that the owner was leaning somewhat heavily on it.
For the moment Oliver Manx tensed, his hand going to the girl's shoulder. Then he laughed. It was eight o'clock and, even in Darlinghurst blocks of flats, people are about and busy at that hour. Yet his laughter was forced and insincere. There was that in the slow footfalls that drove to his sub-conscious mind warnings of dangers and menaces. The secret agent shook himself mentally, and reached past the girl to open the door.
With a quick movement the Grey Cat squirmed from under his hand and turned to face him, leaning her shoulder against the door, her left hand raised to his chest to push him back.
"Listen!" She barely breathed the word. "Listen! That step! If he comes here—"
"Who?" The man spoke in bewilderment. The girl's manner unnerved him strangely. He laughed forcedly. "Why, my dear? What has the man on the stairs to do with this flat and—" His shrugged shoulder indicating the direction of the room in which they had left the gangsters bound, finished his sentence.
"Then you don't know?" Through the eye-slits in the full mask Oliver Manx could see that the girl's eyes were full of questions. "Haven't you heard that step before?"
The footsteps had reached the head of the stairs. For a space during which one could count twenty there was no sound beyond the door. Then the monotonous "tap, tap" of the stick recommenced, now accompanied by a strange dragging sound. For the moment the secret agent was at a loss to interpret what he heard—then he understood. The man outside the door was lame; one of his feet dragging at each second step.
"He may not be coming here." Oliver Manx unconsciously lowered his voice to a whisper.
"If he is—" The Grey Cat hesitated. "If he is—He must be; he can't be going anywhere else, but—No, no! We must get away!"
"But—" Oliver Manx stood firm against the pressure of the girl's hand on his chest. "But—What of him? He's only one man—and lame."
His thoughts had turned to the two men he had left bound in the sitting-room of the flat. They were men in the heyday of their strength and vigour—and he and the girl had conquered and bound them. Outside' the hall door was only one man—and his footsteps tokened him old and lame. What had they to fear from him?
Tap!—Pause—Tap!—Pause—Slowly, draggingly, inexorably as Fate, the footsteps drew nearer and nearer to the door behind which the man and girl waited. The two within the hall of the flat listened, their breathing bated and soft. Suddenly the secret agent thrust his hand over the girl's shoulder, pressing down the safety-catch of the lock of the door.
"That only delays; gives us time," whispered the girl. "He will—Nothing we can do will make him stay."
The footfalls outside the door had halted; a hand pressed against the woodwork of the door. The pressure on the door relaxed and then followed a long pause; broken at length by the shrill ring of the electric bell, almost above their heads. The sudden sound, coming out of an almost uncanny silence, made them start involuntarily.
The girl's hand on Oliver Manx's chest tensed, pressing him back from the door into the hall. Slowly the man retreated. Again the bell rang in double sets of sounds, the frequent, irregular shrilling of the bell indicating impatience.
"Should we have left the door on the latch?" asked the girl, her voice little above a breath. "But—If he had come in—"
"Who?" The secret agent strove to shake from him the elements of fear the girl's tones had laid on him. "Who? The man outside the door? Who is he? What have we to fear from him? Let me open the door?"
The girl shook her head negatively. Impatiently, Oliver Manx pushed her to one side. She resisted, suddenly bringing up the gun she still held, and thrusting the muzzle against his chest.
"Keep back," she whispered. "You can do no good that way. Stop, I tell you. I am not going to be sacrificed to your impatience! If only you knew—"
A key grating in the door-lock cut short her words. She turned to face the door, the hand holding the gun dropping to her side. The safety-catch held, and the door was shaken violently. Crouching, so that no shadow of his body should fall on the glass panels of the door, the secret agent crept forward and braced his body against the door, helping the latch to hold it against the intruder.
"Tap, tap, tap!" The stick in the hand of the man outside the door thumped the floor impatiently. Again the key in the lock was twisted angrily.
"Come!" The girl's hand on his shoulder, her voice in his ear so close that her breath fanned his cheek, made Oliver Manx look up. She bent and caught at his hand, drawing him upright. "Come! I know a way!"
Reluctantly, the secret agent allowed the Grey Cat to draw him up the hall of the flat. She opened a door and drew him into a room. It was a bedroom. When he had entered, the girl pushed the door close then stood, listening, against the slender opening she had left.
On the hall-door of the flat sounded a strange, irregular tapping. Automatically, the secret agent counted the strokes of the knuckles beating against, the glass panel. "Tap, tap, tap; pause; tap, tap; pause; tap, tap, tap, tap."
Three taps, a pause, two taps, a pause, four taps; repeated again and. again. His brain registered the signal. Again and again the taps came, always in the same sequence, never varying in tone or tempo. Again and again the man counted them; the regular beat, the pause, drummed on his brain, creating a queer, hypnotic numbness.
"Grey Cat!" He spoke in a whisper. "This can't go on. We've got to do something. Think, girl! There's only one man out there—and he's lame. Surely—"
"Listen!" The girl raised her hand for silence. The tapping had stopped. In its place came a strange grinding sound. For the moment the secret agent was puzzled; then he understood. The man was forcing the hall door with a jemmy.
Tensed, the two stood behind the bedroom door waiting. A moment and the hall door gave with a slight rending sound. A long pause, and suddenly the Grey Cat pushed the door she held almost shut, turning swiftly and facing Oliver Manx with her back against the woodwork.
"He's forced the door," she whispered. "Now he'll find them!"
Oliver Manx nodded. He listened to the "tap, tap," of the walking stick now resumed in the little hall of the flat. There were no hesitations in the sounds; they came up the passage directly towards the room where the two bound gangsters stood, one on each side of the big chair. With a sudden movement Oliver Manx pushed the girl to one side and opened the door wider.
For a moment he listened, then opened the door still wider. Now he had recovered from the sense of futility the girl's fears had cast over him. He had his plan fixed. He would follow the mysterious intruder to the room where the gangsters were, and capture him, tie him up, and with the help of the girl escape from the building. Then all that remained was to bring the police to the place.
The "tap, tap" of the walking-stick suddenly ceased. Very cautiously Oliver Manx thrust his head through the opening of the door and looked into the hall. A man's bent form was standing outside the closed sitting-room door. There the man waited for a few moments, then turned to the door opposite; the room where lay Lyne and his wife unconscious.
"Wait here." The secret agent spoke over his shoulder to the girl. He did not want her with him in what he proposed to do, fearing a fresh access of terror of the intruder. "Wait here. I am going to get that man!"
Before the Grey Cat could answer he had slipped through the door opening into the hall, drawing the door almost shut after him. Moving with the utmost caution, he went up the hall to the room into which the unknown had disappeared. To Oliver Manx's relief, he found that the man had left the door off the latch. A few seconds and he had opened the door sufficiently wide to peer into the room.
The man was at the bed, bending over it. When the secret agent first saw him, he was examining the man curiously. He lifted one eyelid and bent lower to examine the eye-ball. A subdued chuckle and a nod, and the unknown turned from the bed and went to the dressing table. A short search and he found what he wanted; returning to the bed with a bottle of smelling-salts, in his hand. He held the strong aromatic under the man's nose.
Lyne moved uneasily—and the unknown moved the bottle to follow the insensible man's nose. Presently Lyne sneezed, and rolled over closer to the woman. The unknown straightened and chuckled again.
"Lyne! Lyne!" He called in a low, well-modulated voice. "Wake up! What are you doing in bed at this hour of the morning?"
The man grunted; his body wriggled and tensed; but he did not make any intelligible answer.
"Lyne! Jack Lyne! Wake up!" The voice, though low, held a firm command.
The unknown man stepped back a pace from the bed and watched the semi-conscious man; leaning heavily on his stick, and at intervals chuckling lowly. Again he spoke:
"Jack Lyne! Wake up!"
The man on the bed strove for consciousness. Again the unknown spoke in that strange, low, commanding voice. "Jack Lyne! You know me? What are you doing in bed at this hour of the day? What has happened to you and Lil? You have no business to be idling here!"
The gangster on the bed opened his eyes, staring up vacantly at the commanding figure standing beside him. He strove to sit up, but fell back inert against the pillows. The unknown made no attempt to assist him.
"Where are Archibald and Morris?" the unknown demanded coldly. "I understood they were to be here at seven o'clock—and have with them that man—Oliver Manx."
That man, Oliver Manx! The words held so much malice and hatred that the secret agent shuddered involuntarily. Impatiently he waited for the man to turn, so that he could see his face. Something about him seemed familiar; yet he could not place him. He could not place the man—give him a name—yet name and place were all but on the tip of his tongue.
If he could get a glimpse of the man's face—and recognise it; if he could give him a name, then he would have moved another step forward towards the solution of the bewilderments that had enfolded him during the past few days. If he could identify the man, couple him with the two crooks who were waiting for arrest in the sitting-room, then he believed that the major part of his work of tracing down the gangsters who held the Three Districts in thrall was accomplished.
If only he could see the man's face! But the unknown resolutely kept his back to the door. Sooner or later he must turn; then would be the moment for the secret agent to act. Instinctively, he glanced from the unknown to the bed. Neither man was formidable, in a physical sense—and he had his gun, still with two bullets in the magazine! He would overawe them, bind them, and place them with Archibald and Grosse in the sitting-room, until he could bring the police to the flat.
He knew that if he acted rightly he should at once enter the room and make the two men prisoners. That was his logical action for, at the moment, he had them at a disadvantage. Yet he waited; waited for something more to happen before he played his hand in this game.
The man had spoken of Archibald and Morris. Morris! Who was this Morris? The man in the sitting-room with Archibald was Grosse. Grosse and Archibald had been with him all that morning, from the time he had surrendered to the gangsters on the roof of the next-door building. Then, who was this Morris?
Morris! A newcomer in this web of crime, he was endeavouring to unravel. Morris? The unknown had spoken of Archibald—and Morris. He had not mentioned Grosse. Yet Grosse, up to that point, had been an important factor in the mystery. Grosse had come to him at Mark Deeling's lodging-house; Grosse had interviewed him at the garage in Unwin Street; Grosse had trapped him on the roof of the next-door house, and had brought him through the secret passage to this flat. In no way had any other person than Archibald intervened. Yet this unknown stranger, who spoke with authority, mentioned "Morris"! Who was this new man in the problem?
Abruptly Oliver Manx turned his attention to the man on the bed. He was speaking.
"You don't know?"
Another effort, and the man on the bed sat up. For a moment he glanced I about the room, tiredly; then his glance fell on the woman, still unconscious, beside him. He turned to her quickly.
"Lil! Lil! What's the matter? Lil!"
"Let her alone." The cool, level tones of the unknown stilled the man's startled cry. "She's drugged; as you were. Who drugged you?"
"I don't know." For a space Lyne stared up at the man standing beside the bed. "What do you mean? drugged?"
"That is obvious."
"But—There has been no one here this morning."
"Who was here last night?"
"Pat and Gerty—and 'Slim.' 'Slim' came in unexpectedly. Lil had asked Pat and Gerty to come up for a game of bridge..."
"At what time did they come here?"
"Round about nine. 'Slim' drifted in close to midnight."
"When did they leave? I suppose you had plenty to drink?"
"That wasn't drugged." Lyne said from the bed and stood, weak-kneed beside it. He passed his hand, wearily, across his eyes, swaying uncertainly. "God, my throat!" He lurched forward, making for a table on which stood a carafe of water and some glasses, on a tray. Ignoring the glasses, he lifted the jug of water and drank, thirstily. "The drinks weren't drugged," he declared confidently.
"No." Lyne nodded affirmatively. "I know that. Y'see, Lil and I have been up this morning—"
"This morning? You're sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. Lil and I got up this-"
"At what time?" The cool, commanding voice broke in impatiently.
"Just after six. I woke first and my getting out of bed woke Lil."
Lil went into the kitchen and made some coffee. The man grinned. "Y'see, we didn't want to eat—I had a rotten throat."
"In other words; you were well shot last night."
"We had a drink or two." Lyne spoke sulkily. "Beer only."
"Until 'Slim' came—'Slim' doesn't appreciate beer. What did he bring with him?"
"That's right. 'Slim' doesn't come visiting empty-handed. He had a couple of bottles of Scotch. I forgot them."
"Where are they?"
The man grinned again.
"We keep all defunct marines in the kitchen."
"So that's why you wanted coffee early this morning—and nothing to eat."
"We weren't shot, though. What's half-a-dozen of beer and a set of whisky among five?"
A long pause, during which the unknown remained motionless, leaning on his stick and evidently considering the information he had extracted from the gangster. He spoke suddenly, as the man turned to the woman.
"Let her be. You say you were up at six, and that Lil made some coffee. Where did you get the—White coffee, I suppose?"
"Of course. Lil doesn't like black, unless after dinner."
"Where did you get the milk from?"
"Out of the bottle. The milkman leaves it in the service-hatch."
"So your milk was drugged." The unknown pondered a moment. "I suppose I have to consider that you're under suspicion—but who from?"
"The milk?" Lyne considered the man standing by the bed gravely. "Drugged?"
The unknown did not answer; he did not even move his head in assent, For almost a minute he was silent, Lyne sitting on the edge of the bed, looking up at him, a bemused frown on his forehead; almost fear in his eyes.
"What orders did you receive for this morning?"
"Grosse telephoned me last night that they'd caught Joe Kline in the Rumble Street dump, and were bringing him to—to next door. He said they were arranging a fake burglary in my flat—that I was to go into the sitting-room at eight o'clock this morning where I'd find a burglar. I was to shoot, to kill—Say, why am I the goat every time? There they're using my flat—"
"Your flat? Do you know the time?"
Lyne swung round to look at his watch on the bedside table. "God! It's after nine—and Grosse said eight o'clock!"
"Where is Grosse?"
"I don't know."
"Go in here—" The unknown pointed to a door, behind which was evidently the bathroom "—and put your head under the tap. There's a lot we've got to find out—and at once. Something's missed fire. Hurry!"
Grumbling under his breath, Lyne turned to the door indicated and passed through it. In a couple of minutes he returned, his head wet and rubbing it with a towel. This he tossed on the bed and went to the dressing-table. Finding a comb he roughly straightened his hair. The unknown waited, leaning heavily on his stick. At length he spoke:
"Have you a gun?"
"Of course." A sly grin came on the man's thin lips. "I don't go about without Joey. 'Tain't healthy!"
"Then follow me—"
The unknown turned slowly and faced the door—and Oliver Manx. The secret agent gasped his surprise.
THE man facing the bedroom door, leaning heavily on a walking-stick, well-dressed, speaking in cool, level, educated tones, was Mart Deeling, the Rumble Street fence. For the moment Oliver Manx stared unbelievingly at the man.
There was no doubt! The man was Mart Deeling! The secret agent rapidly reviewed his memory of the lodging-house keeper. Yet the change was marvellous, almost unbelievable. What a wonderful actor the old man must be, thought Oliver Manx. He had known the fence for months and never for one moment had he believed him to be other than what he showed—an old, miserly, ill-educated, deceitful scamp; a sly, snivelling, traitorous crook.
For a moment further he watched the pair in the bedroom, his brain troubled over the identity of the man with the old fence. The past few minutes he knew to be facts. As Mart Deeling turned to the door the secret agent drew back and to one side in the passage, watching; his automatic raised and ready, waiting for the two men to leave the room.
"Wait!" The new voice of the Rumble Street fence came suddenly.
"Lyne, what do you know of what has happened in this house during the past few hours?"
"Nothing." Lyne's voice was sullen. "You remember, you found me asleep—drugged."
"I know that." Mart Deeling spoke softly, yet there was an undertone of menace in his voice. "I found you asleep; you told me you had drunk coffee that was drugged—" The young-old voice paused. "You were drugged—or you and Lil could have drugged yourselves."
"If you think that—" Lyne's voice held a desperate note.
"I have not said I think that. You know you have not the courage to use it against me. Put it away, man—The other men in the house next door would burn you down if they knew you were even threatening me. Besides—" Again the cold voice paused. "Oh, Well—come on!"
The walking-stick thudded on the carpet of the room again and again, Oliver Manx tensed. A hand appeared on the edge of the partially opened door, pulling it open. As the old fence's form appeared on the threshold the secret agent stepped forward.
"Put up your hands, Mart! Quick! You there, Lyne; up with your hands! Now, Mart—quick march—right forward across the passage. That's right! Don't touch that door-handle! Keep your hands up, I said!"
The surprise was complete. Mart Deeling stood before the closed door of the sitting-room, facing it, his hands raised high over his head, the right hand still holding the walking-stick. Lyne stood beside him, his hands also high in the air, an expression of puzzled bewilderment on his thin, vacant face.
"Drop that stick, Mart. You don't want it. You're not lame—I know that; and I should know. Keep still, Lyne. Thanks! I've wanted a full gun for quite a while. Good of you to think of me!"
"What's this?" The gangster growled. "Who're you?"
"I'll give you all the time to ask questions of Mart presently. Just at this moment, I'm busy. Keep your hands up, I tell you. I'll shoot quick and explain afterwards; understand that. Now, Mart; open that door and walk straight into the room. Straight in and keep going!"
The old fence started to lower his right hand, but the secret agent stopped him. "Left hand, please, Mart. I don't trust your right—not till I've searched you. Thanks!"
Mart Deeling reached down and opened the door, thrusting it right back. Slowly he walked into the room. Oliver Manx pressed the muzzle of his automatic into the gun-crook's back and urged him forward. The man moved sullenly.
Entering the room behind the two men, Oliver Manx had not at first a clear view of the interior. He thought, for a moment, that it was strange that Mart Deeling gave no expression of surprise, but considered that the man might possibly be holding himself in check against any show of emotion.
"Stop now!" The Secret agent commanded, when the two men were well to the centre of the room. "Stand still!"
Half turning Oliver Manx called across his shoulder to the girl waiting in the second bedroom:
"Grey Cat! Grey Cat!"
There was no answer. For a moment the secret agent waited, then shrugged. Possibly the girl had found something of interest and would follow him and his prisoners in her own good time. For the moment he had to devote all his attention to his prisoners. He moved to one side, so that he could see the room past the two crooks.
An exclamation of surprise rose to his lips. When he had left the room Archibald and Grosse had stood one on each side of the big armed chair. Now, the chair stood where he had left it, but of the two men he had tied to it no signs remained.
For the moment he stared amazed. What had become of the men? He glanced searchingly about the room; on the ground beside the chair. There were no signs of ropes or cords there. So far as the room gave evidence to his eyes, they had never been there.
His eyes went quickly to the fireplace. The secret door to the next house was closed and there were no signs visible that it had been opened during his absence from the room. Yet the two men could only have escaped that way. Was that right? He glanced about him again. There was a second door to the room—and he did not know what lay beyond it.
"Get a move on, Mart,", he said brusquely. "Up against that wall, and turn your face to it. You, Lyne, line up against Mart and keep your hands high; both of you."
He waited until the two men had moved into the positions he had ordered; then spoke again:
"Put your hands on the wall—both of you. Keep them there. Now move forward until your toes touch the wall; feet together. Good!"
The men were now safe, in the position he had forced them to assume, for the time. It was impossible for them to swing round quickly. They would have to step back and regain their balance before turning. That would give him the few seconds he would require to regain control of them. Stepping up behind the men, Oliver Manx thrust his hand into Mart Deeling's hip-pocket. He carried no gun there. The secret agent's hands swept quickly over the old fence's body. As he had suspected, the old man was unarmed. Passing to behind the gunman, he searched him also. Lyne had only possessed one gun.
Slipping the remaining gun he still held in a side pocket of his jacket, Oliver Manx caught at the collar of Lyne's jacket and pulled it down well over his elbows. He then returned to Mart Deeling and treated him in a similar manner. Both men rocked on their heels as he handled them.
"I'm warning you two men to keep strictly quiet and obey commands implicitly. You're under arrest—and for murder. I'll shoot—and enjoy pulling the trigger. Understand that and you'll have a chance to defend yourselves in a court of law. Otherwise—Well, there's no defence against a bullet. You know that, or should—"
He stepped back a few paces, pulling out one of his guns and levelling it at the backs of his prisoners. Still moving backwards, he came to the fireplace, and turned. While he had been a prisoner in the house next door, and in that room, he had noted the boss on the mantel Grosse had worked to operate the secret door. A few moments of experiment and he had found the secret. Thrusting his foot against the fireplace he worked the boss until he felt the door jar against his foot when the spring released. A thrust of his hand and the door locked again. Then stepping back to within a few feet of his prisoners, he swung a chair into position and seated himself so that he could have men and fireplace under observation at the same time.
"Like to talk, Mart?" he asked softly. "Yes, you can turn round if you like. Not you, Lyne. Keep your hands flat on the wall, also. I'm taking no risks with you—you're a known killer."
The old fence turned slowly, facing the secret agent, his usually pallid face now flushed and working with anger. He did not speak.
"I asked you if you'd like to talk," suggested Oliver Manx. "There's quite a lot of thinks we should discuss. Of course I guessed a lot directly I heard your voice before and—and it was only a matter of time. You turned then before I guessed—but that didn't matter."
Mart Deeling did not reply. He stood, his hands above his head, glowering at his captor.
Oliver Manx was worried. He had called the Grey Cat and she had not answered. What had happened to the girl. At the first moment he had thought that she had found something of interest and was investigating it; that when she had satisfied her curiosity she would follow him to the sitting-room. But by now she had had time to make all the investigations she could wish—and she had not come to him! What had happened to her? She must have known by his call that he had captured the two men and would require her assistance to secure them. Then, why had she not answered his call?
The absence of his two former prisoners, Grosse and Archibald, was also alarming. He had left them securely tied in this, room but half-an-hour before. He was certain that they could not have released themselves. Then, he could only suppose that the crooks had entered from the other house and released them. In that case, why had they not searched the flat? Why had they contented themselves with the release of Grosse and Archibald, and had made no investigations regarding the Lyne—and himself? Then again, why had Grosse and Archibald not been curious regarding the girl he had named the "Grey Cat"? She had been a big factor in their capture, and surely they would be inquisitive as to who she was, and to get hold of her.
His eyes wandered restlessly about the room, seeking some explanation of the many questions that thronged his brain. In his quest, his eyes rested on the second door of the room, and stayed. Was there someone waiting behind that closed door—waiting until the moment when he was off his guard? If so, then there was another means of communicating between the flat and the house next door—some means of which he was not aware. If he were right in his assumption, then who was behind that closed door? Were the crooks planning to take him between two fires—was the hidden gangster watching from the next room for the moment when he could successfully call in his comrades from the other house to take him prisoner and release his latest prisoners?
Grosse and Archibald, if they had been released by crooks from the house next door, would have told of the Grey Cat. Had that theory any hearing on the absence of the girl? Now he remembered that the hall-door stood open, the lock broken by Mart Deeling when he forced an entrance to the flat. That left a third means of approach to this sitting-room where he guarded his two prisoners, Deeling and Lyne.
He wanted to search the flat; but he dared not for a single moment relax his watchfulness on his two prisoners. Even though he felt himself more than physically equal in a fight to Deeling and Lyne, yet a hand to hand struggle might give some clue to the gangsters in the next house that he was off guard. Yet he must make some search, and at once; if he was to succeed in his mission and take not only the two men with him in that room, but the gang in the next house, to Taylor Square police-station.
His eyes went again to the armed chair to which Archibald and Grosse had been bound. Nowhere in the room were signs of the ropes and cords with which the men had been bound. If men had come from the house next door and released them, they would certainly have not bothered to untie the complicated knots, but would have cut the ropes with a knife. Normally, they would have let the ropes lie where they fell. They had not done so; why had they taken the cords from the room?
Presuming again that the men had come from next door and set free Archibald and Grosse, it was unlikely that either man would have ordered the removal of the ropes. Their long wait as prisoners, standing in extremely uncomfortable positions on either side of the chair would have aroused them to extreme fury. Their tempers would have been so high that it would have been improbable that they would have thought of the subtle touch of removing the ropes and restoring the room to its normal condition.
No. Gangsters alone, from the house next door, had not released Archibald and Grosse. There had been someone "higher-up" with them; someone with a keen, cold, calculating, mind, who had ordered the room so as to puzzle, and bewilder him, if he returned to it. Again, left to themselves, and in the probable state of extreme fury, Archibald and Grosse would have certainly ordered an immediate search of the flat in the hope of recapturing him. More, they would have required to find Lyne; to carry out the subtle murder they had planned.
The minutes passed and Oliver stared straight at his two new prisoners, his thought full of his two recent prisoners; pondering the questions that thronged his brain and caused him to hesitate. He had captured Archibald and Grosse. He had taken Deeling and Lyne prisoners. He believed that Deeling ranked higher in the realm of crooks than either Grosse or Archibald. If his conclusions of the past few minutes were correct, then he had to believe that there was yet another person—at present unknown to him—who held authority over any of the men he had taken prisoners. To his mind came memory of the words Mart Deeling had spoken to Lyne in the bedroom of that flat. He had questioned the gunman regarding someone named "Morris"! Who was this Morris? Was he the supreme chief of the gang who was aiming to dominate the underworld throughout the Three Districts? If so, was this Morris with the crooks in the house next door—in command of them, and at present planning his capture—and Deeling's and Lyne's release? That was a logical thought, for such a man would be more apt to think calmly and plan subtly than any of the crooks who had partaken in the events of the previous night.
"Keep still, Mart," Oliver Manx ordered, rising from his chair. "I've got to have a look-see about this place. Remember what I said; one false move from either of you, and I'll shoot—gladly."
Moving silently over the thick-carpet, he went to the door of the room, he had not yet searched. Turning the handle cautiously and silently, he stood to one side and suddenly thrust the door open.
There was no rush of gangster's into the room. For a moment he waited and peered around the door-jamb. So far as he could see the room was bare of occupants. It was the kitchen of the flat, rather disordered and dirty. On the small table, in the centre of the room, stood the cups and coffee-pot from which Lyne and his wife had drunk the drugged coffee. Beside the coffee-pot stood the milk-bottle, only about an inch of fluid remaining at the bottom of the bottle.
"Nothing there," he muttered, glancing towards his prisoners. He turned swiftly. Mart Deeling was half-way across the room, going to the fireplace. "Stop there!" commanded the secret agent shortly. "Thought you could get away with a trick like that, Mart? Get back to that wall, both of you. Face it, Lyne, toes touching the skirting, quick! I'm just aching to shoot both of you and save the hangman his work!"
The two men sullenly retreated to their places against the wall. Oliver Manx hesitated a moment, then started to cross the room to the chair he had formerly occupied. A thought came in his mind. There was a telephone in the room. It might be as well to call the police to his assistance at once.
Carefully watching the two men against the wall, he went to the table in the corner on which lay the telephone box and lifted the lid. He took out the receiver and placed it on the table. Then he dialled a number, and waited.
"Police?" he questioned, when a voice came on the line. "Good! Q-R-S-A. You understand? Send a couple of cars of police to this address. No, I don't know where I am. I've got a gang of crooks—the ones we want—lined up here, waiting for you. How do you know where to go? Sure, a bit of brains is sometimes useful. Suppose you get on to the Exchange—FX, I believe—and see if they can help you. I'll leave this line open but not used. Make it smart. I've got the gang rounded up at the moment, but how long I can hold them is problematical. Just barge all the men you can spare into Darlinghurst—somewhere about King's Cross I believe you'll find me. A back street, big house with boarded windows, block of flat next door. Almost opposite a ham and beef shop—a two storey place with an iron roof." He paused, and his eyes rested on the dial of the instrument. "Say, I can give you a lead! The instrument here is numbered FX0061. Got that?—FX0061. Right! Rush it! I don't know how much longer I can hold the fort!"
Depressing the hook of the instrument with the hand that held the receiver, he placed the instrument on the table again and dialled "Information." Lifting the receiver to his ear, he waited until the Exchange answered.
"FX0061 speaking. Police business. Check the address of this number and then ring Police Station, Taylor Square—if they're not already in communication with you. Give them the address of this instrument ringing. Do you understand that? Yes; police business—and I'll be extremely sorry for you if you don't carry out my instructions. Now—get busy!"
He replaced the instrument on the hook and turned again to fully face the two men standing before the wall.
"That's your giddy end, Mart. The police will be here any minute now. Inclined to talk before they come? Oh, don't make any mistake; you'll talk here—or at the big house in Central Lane; I'll see to that!"
"What do you want to know?" growled Lyne. Mart Deeling did not answer. He was staring steadily across the room at the secret door in the fireplace.
"So, you're inclined to talk," answered Oliver Manx cheerfully. "Don't suppose you've got much to tell me that I don't know. Yet you might have. Well, we'll start: Who's he?"
He pointed to Mart Deeling.
"You should know," the man sneered. "You've called him by name, more'n once."
"Mart Deeling, eh?" Oliver Manx hesitated. "Suppose it is a bit uncomfortable, standing like that, but I'm afraid you're too dangerous for me to allow you any latitude." He paused. "So, he is Mart Deeling? And how does he stand with the gang? Don't know, eh? Well, I don't believe that. You know, right enough. You know just how Grosse, Archibald and Deeling stand—and you'll tell me presently. Now for another question. What about the Kahm Syndicate? What's that got to do with you gang of crooks? And, who's at the head of it. No answers, eh? I thought you wanted to talk? Thought better of it, I suppose. You'll have another chance in Central Lane—and I'd advise you to think big before you get there."
"You won't be there to ask questions, Oliver Manx." A cold, hard voice spoke from the other side of the room. "Yet you'll know—all you are required to know, and then poof!"
The secret agent swung quickly to face the kitchen door, from where the new voice had come. That door was now open and in the doorway stood a man, a gun in each hand, both levelled at his head.
Oliver Manx cursed under his breath. He had forgotten that the kitchen held two doors—one opening into the sitting-room and the other into the hall of the flat. The kitchen had been empty when he had examined it; but his examination had been hasty and cursory. It was obvious that the man had entered it from the hall, after he had glanced in, and had been lurking there, awaiting some signal to reveal himself.
For a moment the secret agent hesitated, staring at the man as if astonished. Then the gun in his hand, resting on his knees, flipped round quickly and he threw a snap-shot at the man.
Luck held for the secret agent. The chance shot caught the man on the shoulder, spinning him round. The man had also fired, but the shot had been a fraction of a second too late. His bullet thudded into the wood of the mantel. Oliver Manx sprang to his feet, his automatic levelled at the man on the floor; his left hand searching his jacket pocket for the other gun there.
"Throw that gun from you," commanded Oliver Manx tersely. "Both of them, I mean. You're too careless to be trusted with firearms. Throw them out of reach—quick! Good! Now—"
The man strove to rise, but fell back on the carpet with a groan.
"Looks like I'm a better snap-shot than I thought," commented the secret agent. "No, Deeling, go to him and see if you can stop that shoulder bleeding. No nonsense now! Kick those guns to me—no, I said kick, not pick them up. Good! Now, get on with your job. We don't want that man to die."
Lyne moved from the wall, as if to accompany Deeling to help the wounded gangster, but Oliver Manx stopped him with a word. The man scowled angrily as he backed to his place against the wall. Suddenly he grinned, turning to fully face the secret agent.
"You don't really think you can get away with it, Manx?" He drawled. "Well, you can't, and won't, even though you've telephoned your beloved police. Oh, they'll come, never I fear, but they won't find you here. If you want to know why—take a glance behind you!"
Involuntarily Oliver Manx glanced over his shoulder. Now the secret door in the fire place was open and through it streamed the gangsters from the house next door.
THROUGH the group of men clustered before the fireplace thrust Alec Grosse. Following him, and under the shelter of the big man's form, came Maurice Archibald, the Kahm Syndicate manager. Grosse went straight across the room and bent, over the wounded gangster before the kitchen door.
"Sure I sent him in," boasted the big man. "Had to give Manx something to think about before we barged in at the secret door, or he'd have been able to pick us off one at a time. Well, Fred's got him—sorry, but it couldn't be helped."
"So you sent Fred in here alone—it was like your plan?" suggested the old fence. "Yes, you would do a thing like that, Alec Grosse!"
Grosse stared at Deeling in open contempt for a moment, then shrugged and turned to where Oliver Manx still sat. The secret agent had not dropped the automatic, as he had been commanded to do, but sat with his finger on the trigger. Grosse stared a moment, then stepped quickly forward and twisted the gun out of his grasp.
"Don't trouble, Alec." Oliver Manx spoke easily. "The gun has only one cartridge in it—The last."
"Well, we've got a shot or two to spare," the big man laughed breezily. "And we know where to place them. Get me?"
The secret agent shook his head. "Sorry, Alec, you're too late." He hesitated a moment. "I've fired the last shot that will he fired in this investigation—that is, unless you and your men are distinctly mad."
"That within five minutes the police will be here. Already the block is surrounded by police; they're only waiting for the storm troops to raid the houses. Then—" He shrugged significantly.
Archibald laughed. He strolled across the room, his hands thrust deep in his trousers' pockets.
"Am I to know the joke?" asked the secret agent quietly. "Optimism always amuses me," said the little man.
"There we are in agreement," Oliver Manx conceded. "I gather that you are enjoying an optimistic joke?"
"Five minutes," explained the Kahm Syndicate manager.
"Ample time for you to supply me with the few facts I still need," suggested Oliver Manx.
"And then—" Alec Grosse laughed. His fingers exploded in a sound resembling a pistol shot.
"What do you want to know?" Mart Deeling had come across the room. He was again leaning on his stick; one of the gangsters had found it and brought it to him. He limped realistically.
"Very little." The secret agent settled back in his chair more comfortably. "I think I have your organisation sufficiently reckoned up. One point somewhat puzzles me—"
"And that?" Archibald had drawn a chair up, facing the secret agent. "We don't mind you asking a few questions."
"Just how did you get on my track from the hospital to Rumble Street?"
"Not K-A-H-M? You don't want to know about that?" laughed the little man.
"I was wrong there, I admit," said the secret agent. "For the moment I really thought I knew better—later."
"We never tracked you—or got on your track," boomed Grosse, anxious that the credit for the secret agent's capture should not be taken from him. "I had known for quite a while that you were not Joe Kline. Mart Deeling told me of your arrival at his lodging-house—and I checked up and found that Kline was still in gaol. That was two and two—"
"And you made five of it!"
"Why all this talk?" Mart Deeling broke in abruptly. "Don't you men understand he's stalling for time. I heard him ring up the police—that was half-an-hour ago. They should be here at any moment. We've got to—"
Grosse nodded. "We've got a getaway that he knows nothing about. Bump him off and then—" He swung round on the group of men at the secret door. "Get back, you fellows. Into the other house, but leave the doors open. Lyne, where are you?"
The gunman rose from a seat by the window and sauntered carelessly across the room to the group around Oliver Manx.
"You know your job?" Alec Grosse continued. "The front door's busted. That's all to our good—show how he got it." He swung round on Deeling. "Say, you didn't leave any fingerprints there? Maybe you have. 'Slim', go out the front way and wipe off any fingerprints on the door and other parts of the flat Deeling may have been in this morning. Where's that jemmy, Mart?" He took the tool the old fence handed him. "Take this, 'Slim' and drop it somewhere in the flat, after you've wiped it up. Mr. Manx's going to wear rubber gloves, so he hasn't left any fingerprints about the flat. Here they are." He fished in his pockets and brought out the gloves he had worn while faking the burglary in that room, tossing them on Oliver Manx's knees. "Put them on, quick, you! We haven't all day to waste."
Mart Deeling nodded agreement gravely.
"The best way out," he acknowledged. "With Mr. Manx 'safe.' we may be able to beat the rap, as he would call it. If we can—"
"What's to stop us," asked Alec Grosse aggressively. "Back through the door, you boys. In the next house, make a getaway, or—No, fake a two-up game. That'll do, Hide all guns and have plenty of money on the floor. That's it. If the police burst in they'll only find a game in progress. Of course they'll arrest you for playing—but a fine won't hurt any of us. Better than standing for a bump-off, eh?"
"Splendid!" Maurice Archibald nodded beamingly. "If Mr. Lyne is ready—"
"He's got my gun," complained the owner of the flat. "Took it from me when he lined up Deeling and I—"
"A gun I believe." The little man stood up and went to the secret agent, thrusting his hand into a jacket pocket that bulged. "Yes, I thought so! Your gun, I believe, Mr. Lyne."
The man took the weapon with a grin of satisfaction and expertly examined the magazine, then twirled it thoughtfully in his hand. He eyed the secret agent banefully.
"Quite ready?" Alec Grosse watched the men file slowly through the secret door. "Don't forget, Lyne, that you and your wife were drugged with the coffee—when you tell your tale to the police. Better let them come up and find the busted door. They'll barge in here and find you overcome with horror at having killed a burglar. Your tale is that after you and your wife drank the drugged milk you both went back to bed. Some noise awoke you and you came in here. You found a burglar at your desk and shot at him. They can't blame you if you show signs of the drugging. You'd better have a sip or two of that milk, when you've obliged Mr. Manx. Just to give you the doped air."
Lyne nodded. He went to the kitchen door and turned the handle. The door held fast. He turned, with a startled exclamation to Grosse.
"Someone's locked the door!"
Grosse turned sharply. He; strode across the room to Lyne's side and shook the door vigorously. It held fast.
"When did you lock this door, Mart?"
"I didn't lock it."
"Someone did, and took the key." The big man's eyes fell on the wounded gangster lying before the door. "Say, two of you carry Pete into the other house—"
"You can't do that," broke in Archibald swiftly. "If the police raid it for a two-up school they'll wonder if they find a wounded man there—and there'll be a lot of explaining to do. No, that won't do! Pete will have to take his medicine—"
"What do you mean?" asked Alec Grosse sharply.
"There are two burglars in this flat. Lyne kills one—Manx, and wounds the other—Pete. Sorry we've got to frame him, but—"
Grosse nodded. "We'll take care of him until he's done his time and can work again." He turned to the gunman. "Get this straight. There were two burglars—two—two—"
Lyne nodded. "What about you three?" he asked.
"We'll find a hide-away in the next house," suggested Deeling. "More than likely we can get away with it. Anyway, if we're smelt out, we can only be supposed to have been at the two-up school, and have hidden from the police."
Grosse nodded. Suddenly he frowned. "Say Slim why aren't you out of here by now?"
"This door's locked," replied the gangster, sullenly.
"Then try the other door," snapped Archibald, nodding to the door to the flat-hall.
The man went across the room and tugged at the door-handle.
"This door's also locked," he said. A look of fear came in his eyes as he moved quickly to the secret door in the fireplace.
"Both doors locked!" Mart Deeling frowned. "Who locked them?" He waited a moment. "Looks like something's happened." He glanced at Oliver Manx, seated in the middle of the room and smiling quietly. "Say Manx, what do you know of this?"
"I told you."
"I told you that the police would arrive in five minutes. They happen to be on time—that's all!"
"Oh, is it?" Grosse thrust his ugly leering face close to the secret agent. "Is it? What if we bump you off, and chance our luck?"
"You wouldn't be so foolish." Oliver Manx showed no mental disturbance. "There's a lot of difference between circumstantial evidence regarding murder and the finding of the corpse and the murderer together."
"Damn you!" The big man was losing his temper. "Who locked those doors?"
"The police," suggested the secret agent equably. Then a thought appeared to strike him. "Or—"
"Well?" queried the big man, his temper rising quickly. "Or who, damn you?"
"Perhaps the Grey Cat."
"Who's the Grey Cat? That woman who—"
"The lady, whose acquaintance you made this evening when I tied you and your friend Archibald up. Don't you remember her, Mr. Grosse?"
"Stop that!" Exclaimed Mart Deeling as Grosse hit Oliver Manx full on the mouth. "You're wasting time, Alec. Get through the door to the next house. We've got to try that two-up game fake."
"And leave him here to show the police the way through the secret doors—not likely," retorted Grosse savagely. "I'll—"
"Then, it's your funeral," said, the old fence. "I'm going, and Slim and Maurice will come with me. We'll leave you here to deal as you wish with Mr. Oliver Manx."
"I'm coming too," stated Lyne emphatically.
The three men turned with one accord to the fireplace, Mart Deeling leading the way. Just as Lyne, who was the last man to leave the flat disappeared from view, he was thrust back by a surge of the gangsters.
"What the—?" Alec Grosse turned quickly. "What's the matter?"
Archibald, thrusting Lyne back with both hands, came through the secret door, quickly followed by Deeling.
"The police!" exclaimed the little man. "They've broken into the next door house."
"Then out through the front!" Grosse swung on his heels and charged for the room door. His heavy shoulder crashed on it, but it held fast. "Keep back there. I'll soon have this down. Someone shut that fireplace door. What're you leaving it open for?"
As the big man braced himself to charge the door again, it was thrust, sharply back and the Grey Cat stood on the threshold, her gun levelled threateningly at the big man.
"Hands up,!" she commanded sharply.
Immediately the girl opened the door, attracting attention to herself, Oliver Manx was on his feet A couple of quick steps and he stood beside the gunman Lyne. His fist shot up, catching the man on the angle of the jaw. As the man fell, the secret agent caught at the hand holding the automatic.
"Good girl!" he exclaimed. "Now you men! face this way! Quick! I've no time to waste arguing with you. Quick, I say!"
Bewildered at the sudden turning of events, the four men swung to face him. The Grey Cat stepped up behind Grosse and thrust her gun into the small of his back.
"Into the room, please," she said softly. "I should hate to pull this trigger; it—the report might frighten me."
"Fine!". Oliver Manx nodded appreciation of the girl's work. "So it was you who locked the doors—I was wondering where you had got to."
"I went to one of the upstairs flats, to telephone the police," explained the, girl, simply. "When I came down again, I saw—"
"That the tables had been turned on me, eh?" The secret agent grinned. "Well, we've got them now. When the police come—"
A scatter of gangsters came into the room through the secret door. Oliver Manx backed quickly to the wall, ordering the newcomers to line up, with raised hands. A few seconds and the gangsters were followed through the fireplace aperture by a number of police. A uniformed sergeant came with them and immediately took charge of the proceedings. "Check, and mate!" exclaimed Oliver Manx with a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Grey Cat, you've saved my life twice to-day. Now, if you will—"
He hesitated and stopped speaking as the kitchen door opened and a group of men entered, Assistant Commissioner Ramsay in the lead. The police officer came across the room to where Oliver Manx stood, his hand outstretched in congratulation. "Oliver Manx, you've accomplished wonders!" he said.
"With this young lady's help," said the secret agent. "I was just asking her to—"
"The Grey Cat regrets—" said the girl demurely.
"You'd better get those prisoners to headquarters, sergeant." The Assistant Commissioner turned to the officer in charge. "Quite a good haul! Perhaps now the Three Districts will have some peace—for the time, at all events!"
"One moment please, Mr. Ramsay!" Oliver Manx spoke after a moment's thought. "There is a question I would like to ask Maurice Archibald before he leaves us. Regarding the Kahm Syndicate—"
Archibald turned quickly, a mocking smile on his lips.
"K-1; A-2; H-3; M-4." repeated the little man, mockingly.
"Oh, that!" The Assistant Commissioner laughed; "Perhaps I can explain better than Archibald. He might not tell the—er—exact truth. Sergeant, get your prisoners away. Gentlemen—" he turned to the three men who had accompanied him into the room. "—will you please be seated. I shall not detain you long."
The police sergeant saluted, a smile of satisfaction, at his important captures, on his broad face. When the room was cleared of the gangsters, Assistant Commissioner Ramsay spoke again.
"You asked about the Kahm Syndicate, Mr. Manx," he said quietly. "It is the matter of the Kahm Syndicate which brought me out here this morning." For a moment he paused, then continued: "I suppose you remember most of the events of the past twenty-four hours—you should," he smiled.
Oliver Manx nodded.
"Then you remember throwing a bar of iron from the roof of the house next door on to the roof of a house across the yard?"
"Yes." The secret agent spoke thoughtfully. "I had to come to the conclusion that the owner of that shop was one of those Darlinghurst inhabitants who consider nothing concerns themselves unless it affects them personally. Otherwise he would have done this duty as a citizen and reported the occurrence to the police."
"He did just that," laughed the Assistant Commissioner. "You made it his business—when a bar of iron came from the skies and destroyed a perfectly good piece of roofing iron. He got real mad—and rang up Taylor Square. They thought the bar of iron came from an aeroplane, and communicated with headquarters. At first, I thought the same—then I remembered you have been out of touch with us for some considerable time, and began to be anxious regarding you."
"I've been out of touch with you for long times before. Mr. Assistant Commissioner," observed Oliver Manx drily.
"That, is true," assented the police officer. "But on those previous occasions to which you refer I had not been in touch with these gentlemen." He motioned towards the three men who had followed him into the room.
Oliver Manx, lifted his eyebrows interrogatively.
"Perhaps I should introduce them," said Commissioner Ramsay. "Mr. Manx let me make you acquainted with Sir Eldon Kitton, Mr. Herbert Hendel, and Mr. Wilton Morris."
"Mr. Morris—" Oliver Manx swung on the man mentioned, quickly. "I believe I have heard, you referred to before this morning."
"Possibly." The Assistant Commissioner smiled slightly. "His name brings recollections, no doubt. But Manx, have you gathered the significance of the presence of these gentlemen?"
"Quite!" The secret agent smiled slightly. "They, with Maurice, Archibald form the Kahm Syndicate—their initials make the syndicate name."
"Archibald! That scoundrel!" Sir Eldon, stout and dignified, exclaimed indignantly. "Trying to make us—"
"He made you, Sir Eldon," interrupted George Ramsay quietly. "I see now that you have penetrated Archibald's scheme. It was good—really, from his point of view."
"Archibald came to me with a proposal to clean the Three Districts from the present crime wave," explained the pompous property owner. "He—er—persuaded that the police were unable to cope with the situation!
"And so induced you, and the gentlemen with you, to put him in charge of an organisation to clean up—you three gentlemen being the principal property owners in the Three Districts," suggested Oliver Manx.
"And then used our organisation to promote a monopoly in crime in the Three Districts," exclaimed the knight indignantly. "I could—"
"It must have cost you quite a lot of money, Sir Eldon," suggested Oliver Manx quietly. "Very handsome offices, a large staff, splendid appointments!" Sir Eldon preened, himself. "I must say this for Maurice Archibald; that he was a most capable organiser," he stated. "The costs were insignificant. I was quite astounded to find how cheaply he was running the business when I went into accounts with him recently. He had managed to get quite number of citizens to work gratis for the organisation—"
"Let me get that straight. Sir Eldon." Oliver Manx spoke sharply. "Archibald obtained the services of a number of crooks to act as clerks to your organisation, paying them out of the proceeds of the crooked work he was organising under the shelter of your 'clean-up' organisation. He paid them from the proceeds obtained by his crook gangs. On the other hand he had the use of your names and with them could obtain information from even the police department itself.
"He fooled the government with the belief that you were at the head of a perfectly straight organisation, and obtained information from it. He fooled other State Governments in an exactly similar fashion. He wrote letters to the newspapers in your name—and you and your confreres preened themselves that you were protecting your large properties at an infinitesimal fraction of what it should have cost you. You were content that you were getting good publicity for your property, at a public cost, under the pretext that you were undertaking a public work at large expense to yourselves—" The secret agent paused. "Cannot some of you people be even honest with yourselves?"
Sir Eldon wilted under Oliver Manx's denunciations, and his two companions looked decidedly uncomfortable. Commissioner Ramsay sat back, smiling, content that the secret agent should say what had been in his mind but which was impolitic for him to utter. A few moments of silence and Sir Eldon in some measure recovered his poise. He turned to the Assistant Commissioner:
"Of course, Mr. Ramsay, we are most grateful to Mr. Manx for his. admirable work," he said stiffly. "And I have no doubt my confreres will join with me in showing some tangible appreciation in a suitable and—er—usual manner. Really, I had forgotten the time and—er—I have a most important engagement—If you will kindly excuse me—"
"Don't let me detain you, gentlemen," said Commissioner Ramsay, smiling at the discomfiture of the men. "That is, unless Mr. Manx has something further—"
He glanced inquiringly at the secret agent.
"Nothing further, Mr. Commissioner," replied the secret agent carelessly.
Sir Eldon Kitton and his two friends made a somewhat hasty and inglorious exit. The Assistant Commissioner hesitated a moment, then went to the door. He glanced back at the heavily masked girl.
"And this lady?" he asked inquiringly.
"One of my assistants, Mr. Ramsay," Oliver Manx explained airily. "A Miss Torrens—Miss Phyllis Torrens."
The Assistant Commissioner bowed. "I did not know you employed assistants, Mr. Manx. In fact, I was under the impression that you always worked alone."
"You know me." Phyllis Torrens sprang to her feet, staring at Oliver Manx in alarm. "Why—"
Oliver Manx ignored the girl's exclamation, turning to the police officer. "On this occasion I had to have assistance, and Miss Torrens has proved most remarkably capable—in fact, she has saved my life twice. I hope—I am certain—"
George Ramsay, with a quick glance at the girl's flushed face, smiled and passed out of the room. Oliver Manx turned, complainingly, to the girl:
"I was only going to tell him that I hoped to see more of you in the future. I wasn't going to tell that I recognised you when at the hospital—and that you recognised me—"
"Did you?" said the girl softly.
"Of course I did—little Phyllis who was quite a whale for detective stories and swore that she would be the first lady detective when she grew up—and then became a nurse. Why, I even knew you behind that mask."
"So you told Mr. Ramsay that I was your assistant."
"My very capable assistant and I said that—that I hoped to see of you—in the near future—Phyllis."
In spite of her lauded detective ability, the Grey Cat showed that she had not forgotten her schoolgirl ability—to blush.
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