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- The Voice on the Wire - 20/37 -
of the Hudson, at Ossining. My friend the enemy will soon be realizing a deficit in his rolling-stock and gentlemanly assistants. Two automobiles and three prisoners to date. There should be additional results before midnight. I wonder where he gardens into fruition these flowers of crime?"
And even as he pondered, a curious scene was being enacted within a dozen city blocks of the commodious club house.
THE SPIDER'S WEB
The setting was a bleak and musty cellar, beneath an old stable of dingy, brick construction. The building had been modernized to the extent of one single decoration on the street front, an electric sign: "Garage." On the floor, level with the sidewalk, stood half a dozen automobiles of varied manufacture and age. Near the wide swinging doors of oak, stood a big, black limousine. Two taxicabs of the usual appearance occupied the space next to this, while a handsome machine faced them on the opposite side of the room. Two ancient machines were backed against the wall, in the rear.
In the basement beneath, several men were grouped in the front compartment, which was separated by a thick wooden partition from the rear of the cellar. Three dusty incandescents illuminated this space. In the back a curious arrangement of two large automobile headlights set on deal tables directed glaring rays toward the one door of the partition. In the center of the rear room was another table, standing behind a screen of wire gauze, at the bottom of which was cut a small semicircle, large enough for the protrusion of a white, tense hand, whose fingers were even now spasmodically clenching in nervous indication of fury. Behind either lamp was a heavy black screen, which effectually shut off ingress to that portion of the room.
The man standing between the table and the closed door of the partition, full in the light of the lamps, watched the hand as though fascinated. He could see nothing else, for behind the gauze all was darkness. Absolutely invisible, sat the possessor of the hand, observing the face of his interviewer, on the brighter side of the gauze.
"So, there's no word from the Monk?"
"No, chief. De bloke's disappeared. Either he got so much swag offen dis old Grimsby guy, after youse got de bumps, or he had cold feet and beat it wid de machine,"
"It's a crooked game on me." rasped the voice behind the screen. "I'll send him up for this. You know how far my lines go out. What about Dutch Jake and Ben the Bite?"
The man before the screen shook his head in helpless bewilderment There was a suggestion of fright in his manner, as well.
"Can't find out a t'ing, gov'nor. I hopes you don't blame me for dis. I'm doin' my share. Dey just disappears dat night w'en you sends 'em to shadder Van Cleft's joint. My calcerlation is--"
"I'm not paying you to calculate. I've trusted you and lost six thousand dollars' worth of automobiles for my pains. You can just calculate this, that unless I get some news about Jake, Ben and the Monk by this time tomorrow, I'll send some news down to Police headquarters on Lafayette Street that will make you wish you had never been born."
For some reason not difficult to guess, the suggestion had a galvanic effect on the bewildered one. His hands trembled as he raised them imploringly to the screen.
"Oh, gov'nor, wot have I done? Ain't I been on de level wid yez? Say, I ain't never even seen yez for de fourteen months I've been yer gobetween. I've been beat up by de cops, pinched and sent to de workhouse 'cause I wouldn't squeal, and now ye t'reatens me. Did I ever fall down on a trick ontil dis week? You'se ain't goin' ter welch on me, are you'se? I ain't no welcher meself, an' ye knows it."
The other snapped out curtly: "Very well, cut out the sob stuff. It's up to you to prove that there hasn't been a leak somewhere or a double cross. Send in those rummies,--I want to give them the once over again. There's a nigger in the woodpile somewhere, and I'm no abolitionist! Quick now. Get a wiggle on."
The hand was withdrawn from the little opening, as the lieutenant advanced into the front compartment of the cellar. He beckoned meaningly to the others to follow him. They obeyed with a slinking walk, which showed that they were obsessed by some great dread, in that unseen presence, in the heart of the spider-web!
"Which one of you is the stool pigeon," came the harsh query.
"W'y, gov'nor, none of us. You'se knows us," whined one of the men.
"Yes, and I know enough to send you all to Atlanta or Sing Sing or Danamora, for the rest of your rotten lives, if I want to."
The rascals stared vainly into the black vacuum of the screen, blinking in the glaring lights, cowering instinctively before the unseen but certain malignancy of the power behind that mysterious wall.
"I brought you here to New York," continued the master, "you are making more money with less work and risk than ever before. But you're playing false with me, and I know some one is slipping information where it oughtn't to go. I'm going to skin alive the one who I catch. There's one eye that never sleeps, don't forget that."
"Gee, boss, wot do we know to slip?" advanced the most forward of them. "We follers orders, and gets our kale and dat's all. We ain't never even seen ya, and don't know even wot de whole game is. Don't queer us, gov'nor!"
"Go out front again, and shut off this blab. I warn you that's all-Now, Phil, give this to the men. Tell them to keep off the cocaine--they're getting to be a lot of bone heads lately. Too much dope will spoil the best crook in the world."
The white hand passed out a roll of crisp, new currency to the lieutenant of the gang, who gingerly reached for it, as though he expected the tapering fingers to claw him.
"Fifty dollars to each man. No holding out. Remember, every one of them is spying on the other to me. I'm not a Rip Van Winkle. Now, I want you to keep this fellow Montague Shirley covered but don't put him away until I give you the word. Send the bunch upstairs, for I don't want to be disturbed the next two hours. And just keep off the coke yourself. You're scratching your face a good deal these days--I know the signs."
Phil expostulated nervously. "Oh, gov'nor, I ain't no fiend--just once and a while I gets a little rummy, and brightens up. It takes too much money to git it now, anyway. Goodbye, chief."
As he closed the wooden door to pay the gangsters, there was a slight grating noise, which followed a double click. A bar of wood automatically slid down into position behind the door, blocking a possible opening from the front of the cellar. The lights suddenly were darkened. The sound of shuffling feet would have indicated to a listener that the owner of the nervous hand was retreating to the rear of the darkened den. A noise resembling that of the turn of a rusty hinge might have then been heard: there was a metallic clang, the rattle of a sliding chain and the rear room was as empty as it was black!
In the front room, after payment from the red-headed ruffian, Phil, the men clambered in single file up a wooden ladder to the street level. A trap-door was put into place and closed. Then the men began to shoot "craps" for a readjustment of the spoils, with the result that Red Phil, as his henchmen called him, was the smiling possessor of most of the money, without the erstwhile necessity of "holding out."
Then the gangsters scattered to the nearby gin-shops to while away the time before darkness should call for their evil activities. It was a cheerful little assortment of desperadoes, yet in appearance they did not differ from most of the habitues of New York garages, those cesspools of urban criminality.
From his club, Shirley telephoned Jim Merrivale in his downtown office, purposely giving another name, as he addressed his friend--a pseudonym upon which they had agreed during the night call. Shirley was suspicious of all telephones, by this time, and his guarded inquiry gave no possible clue to a wiretapping eavesdropper.
"How is the new bull-dog?" was the question, after the first guarded greeting. "Is he still muzzled?"
"Yes, Mr. Smith," responded Merrivale, "and the meanest specimen I have ever seen outside a Zoo! When I sent the groom out to feed him this morning, he snarled and tried to claw him. He's on a hunger strike. I looked up the license number on his collar but he's not registered in this state." (This, Shirley knew, meant the automobile tag under the machine which had been captured.)
"When are you apt to send for him--I don't think I'll keep him any longer than I can help."
"I'll send out from the dog store, with a letter signed by me. Feed him a little croton oil to cure his disposition. Good-bye, for now, Jim. I'll write you, this day."
Shirley hung up, and smiled with satisfaction at the news. The man would be glad to get bread and water, before long, he felt assured. However, he despatched a note to Cleary, of the Holland Agency, enclosing a written order to Merrivale to deliver over the prisoner, for safer keeping in the city.
This disposed of the started out from the club house for his afternoon of dissipation. As he left the doorway, he noticed the
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