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Novkey > Library > Paranormal > Doors of the Night

Doors of the Night

ChapterXXVI—THE LAST PORTAL

Author: Frank L. Packard Total hits: 3821 User hits: 1 Date: 06-17-2014

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Billy Kane had no means of knowing how long he had been, when he finally leaped from the car at the corner of the lane on the street at the rear of the den. He knew only that, beyond any question of doubt or uncertainty, he had outdistanced her. With a quick glance around him to make sure that he was not observed, he slipped into the lane; and in an instant more, through the shed, and the underground tunnel, and the secret door that so craftily opened on the board joints of the rough panelling, he had gained the interior of the den. He ran across it, turned on the dangling incandescent over the rickety table, and running to the street door made sure that it was locked.

He turned then, pushed the bed aside, and pulled up the plank in the flooring that he had loosened once in his search for the secret hiding places of the room, and that had since served him in that capacity as a private depository of his own. From the aperture he lifted out the hand bag containing the banknotes stolen from the Ellsworth vault, and the red flannel sack containing the rubies, which he had torn from around the neck of the Man with the Crutch last night, replaced the plank, set the bed back in its original position, and carried the hand bag and sack to the table. He opened the bag, tossed in the red flannel sack—and stood for an instant eyeing the bag with a frown of distrust. He remembered that it did not close very well, that he had bent the catches with his steel jimmy that night when he had forced the bag open in the room of the Man with the Crutch, and that it was now quite liable to gape apart without warning—in which case, should the contents be seen by anyone, and they could not help but be seen if such an accident should occur in the presence of anyone within eyeshot, it would be likely to prove, not only awkward, but disastrous for the possessor of the bag. His frown cleared. There was still room in the bag for, say, a shirt; and, than a shirt there was nothing better to disguise the contents underneath.

He walked over to the old bureau, that was flanked on one side by the secret door to the den, and on the other by the cretonne hanging that, stretched diagonally across the corner of the room, served the Rat as a wardrobe. There was the shirt that he had worn on the night when he had first come here, the night he had been wounded by the police. Whitie Jack had washed the blood stains out, and had shoved it in the top bureau drawer.

He pulled the drawer open, bent over it, reached in for the shirt, straightened up—and the shirt dropped from his fingers. He did not move. Something cold, and round, and hard was pressed none too gently against the nape of his neck. His eyes had lifted to the mirror in front of him mechanically, and he stood there staring into it now like a man dazed and numbed. An arm was stretched out from behind the cretonne curtains, and a hand held a revolver against his head. It was like some uncanny moving picture that he was watching. For now the cretonne hanging moved; and now a figure moved out from behind the hanging, and stood behind him, Billy Kane, and stared, too, into the mirror, over his, Billy Kane’s, shoulder. There were two faces in the glass now, two faces that in form and features seemed identical—or else it was some strange mirage that caused a double reflection of his own face. And then one of the faces smiled malevolently, leeringly. It wasn’t his own face that smiled. He wasn’t smiling—though his lips moved.

“The Rat!” he said, below his breath.

He felt a hand slip into his pocket, and remove his automatic. And then the other spoke:

“Remarkable resemblance, isn’t it—Billy Kane? And the recognition appears to be mutual—Billy Kane! I’ve been waiting here quite a while for you this evening.”

Billy Kane did not answer. The Rat! The Rat was back! It was the moment, arrived at last, that had haunted him from the moment he had taken upon himself the other’s personality here in the underworld; but though he was more at the other’s mercy with that revolver muzzle boring into his neck, more helpless than he had thought to be when this time should arrive, more powerless where, instead, he had told himself a hundred times that at the worst it could be but a fight man to man, he found himself far more unmoved now than he had anticipated he would be. He found himself curiously composed. There seemed even a grim, sardonic humor stirring in his soul. What did it matter now? To-night he had no further use for the Rat’s mantle—she had seen to that by now. To-night the whole house of cards had toppled anyway, and the ultimate worst had happened, save only that the police had not yet got their steel bracelets around his wrists. And yet there was a significance in the cold menace of the other’s tone, and a still deeper significance, that he did not like, in the other’s ostentatious repetition of his, Billy Kane’s, name. It was obvious that Billy Kane was no stranger to the Rat!

“Get back to that table, and sit down there!” ordered the Rat curtly.

Billy Kane, because he had no choice, obeyed. It was like some weird, extravagant hallucination of the brain. He was looking up from his chair into what seemed to be his own face—only as he studied it now, fascinated by it, he saw what no mirror had ever shown him was a part of his own identity. The face was a little older, a little more drawn, and there was an expression in the eyes, a smoldering something, a devil’s malignity that burned out through the half-closed lids, leaving the pupils like fever spots behind. And he remembered now that she had commented upon the freshness of his face on that first night when they had met.

“You fool!” sneered the Rat suddenly. “So you played the Rat, did you? And did you think I didn’t know? Well, you seem to have liked it—Billy Kane—and so I guess you’d better finish out the act, and play it until the end. You can manage that, can’t you—say, for another ten minutes—until the Rat is dead!”

Billy Kane’s hands tightened on the table edge. It was not only the words, it was the eyes, and the face that were working now, that seemed to possess some deadly eloquence.

“What do you mean?” Billy Kane steadied his voice.

“It won’t take long to tell you,” said the Rat roughly. “You’ve been here long enough to know that apart from the old cobbler and his wife upstairs, who mind their own business and are always deaf when they don’t want to hear, this place is sound-proof to revolver shots. Well, the game is up to-night. Your game—and my game! I’ve got one or two little things to do here, and then I’m going; but I’m going to leave the Rat behind—dead.”

Billy Kane’s fingers began to drum a light tattoo on the table. It was strange that he could force his fingers to do that with an air of such apparent unconcern. He was laboring under no delusions. He was fully conscious that there was no bluff in the other’s words, that he was actually sitting there and facing death in the most literal sense of the term. The Rat’s reputation was quite enough in itself to make it certain that the man would not hesitate in putting his threat into execution. And then, besides, there were strange stirrings in his mind now that were not comforting things. The Rat, cognizant of it all the time, had deliberately let him, Billy Kane, play the role—and the drama was to end with the Rat’s death. It seemed horribly logical. It would let the Rat out of her clutches to-night, for instance, and leave only a dead Rat as prey for the police. He started involuntarily. Was that it? His fingers stopped their movements. Suppose he warned the Rat that the police were coming now? No! That would only cause the Rat to hurry—and to shoot the sooner. Well then, suppose the police found two Rats here? It would not save Billy Kane, but it would end the career of one of the most infamous scoundrels in the United States—and it would pay his debt to her! If he could only stave the man off a little, fence for time!

He could have laughed out wildly at the mocking irony of it. He was praying now for the police to come! She would lead them, or some of them, through that secret door, wouldn’t she?—though they would guard both doors, take no chances, even while they would hardly expect to find anyone here. The Rat was standing with his back to the secret door, and Billy Kane’s eyes swept past the other now in a well-simulated vacant, wavering way—and fell again upon the Rat.

The man was leaning a little farther over the table now, his lips parted in a vicious smile. It was as though, innate in the other, was an unholy joy to be derived from a victim’s plight, a joy that he sought to augment by making his victim writhe the more if he could.

“And so you played the Rat, did you?” The Rat was sneering again. “Well, you found out a lot more than was good for you, didn’t you? There was a woman, wasn’t there? Maybe she didn’t introduce herself because she thought you knew her well enough; but maybe you’re entitled to know something about her, because she’s one of the reasons why you’re going to snuff out in a few minutes.” His voice rose suddenly in a furious burst of blasphemy. “Blast her!” he snarled. “She went too far! She thought she could make me dance every time she cracked her little whip, did she? She’ll wish now, if there’s any wishing where she’s gone, that she’d stayed up on the Avenue with the rest of the swells where she belongs, and left her infernal, nosey charities on the East Side alone. Margaret Blaine—the banker’s daughter! Ha, ha! She had it in for me because a girl she was interested in down here went and jumped in the river. See? She swore she’d put me through one way or another for that. And then she stumbled on a pal of mine the night he croaked off, and found some papers on him that put me to the bad for fair. And that wised her up to a lot more. And then, curse her, she tumbled to the game here, and—well, I guess you know the hand she played.” He laughed raucously. “I guess you’d ought to! But you needn’t worry about it any more! She’s gone out—Billy Kane—understand? She went out—for keeps—at ten o’clock to-night.”

Billy Kane’s eyes stole to the secret door again. He remembered the fascination with which he had watched it slowly open on the night he had lain there on the bed, and Karlin, in the hands of the police now, had sat at the bedside, and Red Vallon had been here at the table. And it seemed now as though the door moved again as it had moved that night. But he could not be sure. Perhaps it was his imagination that was father to the wish—and he dared not look steadily, or too long in that direction.

He brushed his hand across his eyes. He understood well enough now why the Rat had been indifferent to what Shaky Liz, or the Cherub, or any of them, might hold over him—there would be no Rat, if he, Billy Kane, in the Rat’s stead, were murdered. And the Rat believed, of course, that she—her name was Margaret—Margaret Blaine—that she was dead. But he, Billy Kane, was playing for time, wasn’t he? And the Rat, in his hideous propensity for a cat-and-mouse game, seemed quite willing to talk.

“You killed her!” Billy Kane’s ejaculation was one of stunned incredulity. “But—but she threatened me, when she thought I was you, by saying that if anything happened to her the evidence against you would be produced just the same.”

“Sure, she did!” leered the Rat. “In twenty-four hours after her disappearance. And it’ll be twenty-four hours all right before they have any proof of that. It wasn’t pulled off where a howl would go up ten minutes after she snuffed out! Sure, in twenty-four hours! Well, I’m in no hurry, am I? In twenty-four minutes the Rat—that’s you—won’t need to care what busts loose! It’ll save me a lot of trouble if they find the Rat sprawled out on the floor with a bullet through him, won’t it?”

The door! Had it moved inward a bare fraction of an inch, as it had that other night? There would have been time by now, just time, for her and the police to have got here. Was that a widening crack along that panel there—or only a shadow flung with taunting malice by the murky light? No—it moved now! He was sure of it. It moved!

He forced himself to laugh in a short, nervous way.

“I don’t see how that lets you out,” he mumbled. “What’s to become of you if the Rat’s found dead?”

The Rat was moving back from the table to the side wall of the den.

“I’ll show you,” said the Rat, with an ugly grin. “And don’t move—you understand? I’m a dead shot, and I’m not risking anything by being a few feet farther away. You’d only go out a little sooner, and miss something that’ll maybe sweeten your last moments—see?” His revolver still covering Billy Kane, he raised his left hand and pressed against the wall. A small panel door swung outward. “There’s nothing in there!” mocked the Rat. “That’s the secret she was forever talking about having discovered, and that’s the place she looted all right, and where she got the dope about a lot of our plans, and kept me from wising up the crowd about it in order to save my own skin. But there’s a thing or two she didn’t know.” His hand crept farther along the wall, and pressed suddenly against it again, and now a full board-length of the panelling slid away. Something metallic fell with a thud to the floor—and then Billy Kane was on his feet, clinging with a fierce, unconscious grip to the table.

He had forgotten the police and that secret door at the far end of the room, forgotten the peril in which he stood, forgotten that ugly black muzzle of a revolver in the other’s hand. His mind and brain seemed to be reeling. Some inhuman devil’s trick was being played upon him. That was one of those iron crutch shafts, painted to resemble grained wood, that the Rat was picking up—yes, and fitting it now with deft, accustomed fingers to the armpiece! The Rat—the Man with the Crutch—the murderer of David Ellsworth—the man whose very rôle he had taken upon himself and played!

“You!” he cried, and swayed at the table. And then passion seized him. “You hound of hell!” he shouted hoarsely. “The Man with the Crutch—it was you who killed David Ellsworth!”

“Sit down!” The Rat’s lips were thinned, merciless; the revolver edged forward. “Well, what about it! Why don’t you say Peters, too? You stuck your nose pretty deep into that!”

Billy Kane mechanically sank back in his chair.

“So you’ve got it, have you?” jeered the Rat. “Sure, the Man with the Crutch was me! And you, you fool, through your cursed interference with Red Vallon, put the police on my trail for Peters’ murder. Well, I’m going to let you be the Man with the Crutch too—as well as the Rat. That’ll let me out on both counts!” He stood the crutch up against the wall, and from the opening drew forth some clothes and flung them down beside the crutch. “Get the idea? This is the costume that goes with the crutch—sort of reserve stock. Understand? It wasn’t always convenient to come here as the Rat, or leave here as the Man with the Crutch—or the other way around, if you like. I’ll leave the stuff there where it’ll show up, and the police can put two and two together the same as you have. And that answers your question as to what is to become of me. I am a gentleman of several parts, and I can spare two of them. What’s left is none of your business, and anyway I’m getting tired of this, and I’m pretty near ready to go. But there’s one thing more—there were some rubies you were looking for, weren’t there, besides the ones you’ve been taking charge of and so kindly placed in that bag there a few minutes ago without giving me the trouble of making you hand them over?” Again his left hand, thrust back of him, sought the interior of the opening, and came out with a number of small plush trays piled one on top of another, the topmost flashing and scintillating now with its score of fiery, blood-red stones. “You were looking for these, weren’t you?” prodded the Rat, with a chuckle. “Well, you had ’em here with you all the time!”

Billy Kane was fighting desperately for self-control. Could they hear outside there? The man was condemning himself out of his own mouth! God, could they hear out there—did they understand that this man had murdered David Ellsworth, and that Billy Kane was clear! He met the Rat’s eyes with deliberate defiance now. More! Everything! The man must be led into telling everything—he had not told enough yet to make it sure—and perhaps they had not heard it all.

“And Peters,” he rasped out. “You killed Peters, too—Peters, who helped you kill David Ellsworth! Weren’t you satisfied with your share, that you had to steal his?”

The Rat had advanced to the table, and, setting down the trays, always with his revolver covering Billy Kane, had begun to pour the contents of one tray at a time into the open hand bag. He stopped now, and stared at Billy Kane in a sort of contemptuous surprise.

“So that’s the way you doped it out, is it?” he said, and laughed raucously. “And you’re kind to Peters, aren’t you? Peters, who wouldn’t harm a fly! I killed Peters because his evidence at the inquest finished Billy Kane for fair, and I didn’t want that evidence changed. It was me Peters saw coming down the back stairs and entering the library that night—only he thought it was you. Do you take me for a fool? I knew you’d see the report in the papers, and that, knowing there was something wrong about Peters’ story, you’d hunt Peters out and have a show-down, and that between you there was a chance of you getting at more of the truth than I wanted, and that Peters would then retract his evidence. Get me?

“I wasn’t for letting you out. I’d been banking on you to do a lot for me. The only guy that was in with me on that deal was Jackson—and he’s dead—just as the Rat is going to be. I spotted you long ago when you used to nose around here for that old fool who pitched his money away. I watched you quite a while before I was dead sure I could pass for you—and then I warmed up to Jackson. The rest was easy. We croaked old Ellsworth, and planted you. That gave me the coin I wanted to do what I was getting ready for—to pull out of this Rat’s game forever. It was getting too fierce with that cursed woman on my heels. So before I pulled the Ellsworth trick, I set things going to get her too, and passed the word around that I was going away for a while, so’s there’d be no chance of her tumbling to anything—and I stood pat as the Man with the Crutch. And then you acted like a Christmas tree shaking itself in my lap. There were a lot of things coming along with certain friends of mine, and with you playing the Rat and getting away with it, and with you there to stand for it if anything broke wrong, it looked like a cinch to nose them out at the tape on the little deals I’d started for them, and that would let me get away with the whole wad myself. See?”

The Rat was pouring the rubies from the trays into the hand bag again, his eyes glinting with a curious rapacious craftiness; and then, coming to one of the trays whose corner had been cut off, he laughed outright in a sort of self-complacent mirth.

“Do you remember this?” he taunted. “The night I croaked old Ellsworth I beat it for here on the quiet the minute I left the house, and I put the trays and half of the stones into that hiding place there, and then I changed my clothes and wore my crutch over to where I lived when I wasn’t at home here, and hid the rest of the stuff there. You know that, all right! Blast you, you got it, and you nearly queered me! The Rat was supposed to be away then—see? Well, that night when I was limping around with my crutch, I was told the Rat was back—and it didn’t take me long to find out your game. It looked like a piece of luck that was too good to be true! It suited me—I was for it hard. The only thing I was afraid of was that you might quit, so I left that ruby and the piece of tray for you on the table. I thought I knew you. It would give you a start, all right—but it would look as though this was where you were going to get the clue you needed, and you’d stick for fair.”

The Rat attempted to close the bag, and snarled at the bent catches. He finally fastened one of them partially, tossed the bag on the floor behind him, and, his face suddenly working again, flung his revolver arm out toward Billy Kane.

“If you’ve got anything to say before you go out—say it!” He was biting off his words. “Don’t think that because I’ve been talking a lot to you that I’m bluffing. I wouldn’t have opened up if I’d been bluffing, would I? And, besides, there’s another count on which you’re due to snuff out. The game’s up all around. I stalled on ringing down the curtain on the girl and on you as long as I thought there was a chance of my getting something out of those schemes that you kept butting in on. But you queered that, too, away back on the night you put Karlin in bad, and the police got him. Karlin’s begun to weaken and talk a little. That’s the finish of the gang, and any more pickings for me. Sooner or later Karlin’ll spill everything he knows, and he knows a lot, to save himself; and then they’ll be looking for the Rat on several other counts. So I passed the word to put the game with the girl through for to-night—while I took care of you.”

Billy Kane felt his face whiten. He knew that round, black muzzle would spit its tongue-flame in a moment. With the Rat’s hand around it, it seemed curiously like the head of a snake that was coiled to strike. Had they heard out there? Here was the bag that contained everything, all that had been taken from David Ellsworth’s vault, and here was the murderer, self-confessed. Had they heard? Had she heard? Would they remember, would she remember that Billy Kane’s name was cleared? And if they were out there, why didn’t they come in? Were they going to stand there and see him shot down—see another murder committed? No! He understood. The slightest sound from the direction of that secret door would be but the signal for the Rat to fire. It was up to him—somehow—some way—to give them a chance to act. It was up to him in some way to beat the Rat to that first shot, that would not be delayed many seconds now.

He eyed the Rat for a moment steadily; appraised again the cold-blooded, callous implacability in the other’s face—and then Billy Kane squared his shoulders, and his hands on the table slid back a little until the thumbs extended over the edge, and he laughed coolly.

“It’s the limit, is it, Bundy?” he said quietly. “Well, then, I’ll take it standing up, you cur, if you don’t mind.”

The Rat nodded indifferently.

It seemed as though Billy Kane, for all his apparent coolness and composure, was not equal to his self-appointed task. He half rose to his feet, and sank back heavily in his chair again, and his hands, as though to steady himself, clutched with seemingly desperate energy farther over the table’s edge—and then, in a flash, the table was in mid-air between the two men, and, as it hurtled forward, Billy Kane, crouched low, leaped for the other, as the Rat, with an oath, sprang to one side to avoid the table.

A red flame blinded Billy Kane’s eyes, an acrid smell filled his nostrils, and seemed to stifle him, and make his head swim dizzily, and his left side seemed curiously numb and dead, but his hands had reached their mark, and had closed like steel vises around the Rat’s throat. And he hung there, hung there because a fury and a seething passion gave him superhuman strength—hung there as cries resounded through the room, and there came the rush of feet—hung there as he crashed downward to the floor dragging the Rat with him—hung there as an utter blackness came and settled upon him.

――――

It was strange and very curious. He opened his eyes. He was in bed, and someone was sitting there very quietly, with head bent over and resting on the back of his outstretched hand. He tried to remember. He should have been on the floor in the den, shouldn’t he? And where was the Rat? Had they got the Rat? His eyes opened a little wider. That dark head there seemed strangely familiar. His side hurt him brutally. He remembered that shot now. A sort of grim humor came upon him. He was back where he had started from on that first night in the underworld—in bed with a pistol-shot wound. The Rat must have got him after all. But the Rat—the Rat! He started up in bed involuntarily.

There came a little cry. The dark head was raised. It was the Woman in Black. No, that wasn’t her name. It was Margaret—Margaret Blaine. He wanted to call her that. He tried to speak. He was very weak.

“You mustn’t try to move,” she said softly. “You have been very badly hurt, though, thank God, not dangerously so. And it’s all right—I know you want to know that. They’ve got the Rat—for the murder of David Ellsworth. We heard it all last night, and did not dare to move while he kept that revolver on you, and I was mad with fear.”

“Yes,” said Billy Kane weakly. “It’s morning now, isn’t it?”

Cool fingers closed his lips.

“Yes, but don’t talk,” she said, with a sudden attempt at severity—and, as suddenly, her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, I did not know last night—I did not understand—and you risked your life to save mine.”

Her life! He was not so weak but that he could understand that. His hand groped out for hers. It seemed as though he had always loved her—only those strange doors of the night had stood between. But now—now there was something in her eyes, behind that film of tears and those wet lashes, that made him dare.

“Your life! Would you trust me with it again—for always?” he whispered.

Again the cool fingers closed his lips.

“Billy, you are to be absolutely quiet,” she said. “Those are the very strictest orders.”

But her head was nestling on the pillow against his cheek, and there was a great gladness in his heart.
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