CHAPTER VIII

TOO LATE

At nine o'clock that night things remained about the same. The man Hunter had sent to investigate the neighborhood and the country just outside of the town, came to the house about eight, and reported "nothing discovered." Miss Letitia went to bed early, and Margery took her up-stairs.

Hunter called me by telephone from town.

"Can you take the nine-thirty up?" he asked. I looked at my watch.

"Yes, I think so. Is there anything new?"

"Not yet; there may be. Take a cab at the station and come to the corner of Mulberry Street and Park Lane. You'd better dismiss your cab there and wait for me."

I sent word up-stairs by Bella, who was sitting in the kitchen, her heavy face sodden with grief, and taking my hat and raincoat—it was raining a light spring drizzle—I hurried to the station. In twenty-four minutes I was in the city, and perhaps twelve minutes more saw me at the designated corner, with my cab driving away and the rain dropping off the rim of my hat and splashing on my shoulders.

I found a sort of refuge by standing under the wooden arch of a gate, and it occurred to me that, for all my years in the city, this particular neighborhood was altogether strange to me. Two blocks away, in any direction, I would have been in familiar territory again.

Back of me a warehouse lifted six or seven gloomy stories to the sky. The gate I stood in was evidently the entrance to its yard, and in fact, some uncomfortable movement of mine just then struck the latch, and almost precipitated me backward by its sudden opening. Beyond was a yard full of shadowy wheels and packing cases; the street lights did not penetrate there, and with an uneasy feeling that almost anything, in this none too savory neighborhood, might be waiting there, I struck a match and looked at my watch. It was twenty minutes after ten. Once a man turned the corner and came toward me, his head down, his long ulster flapping around his legs. Confident that it was Hunter, I stepped out and touched him on the arm. He wheeled instantly, and in the light which shone on his face, I saw my error.

"Excuse me," I mumbled, "I mistook my man."

He went on again without speaking, only pulling his soft hat down lower over his face. I looked after him until he turned the next corner, and I knew I had not been mistaken; it was Wardrop.

The next minute Hunter appeared, from the same direction, and we walked quickly together. I told him who the man just ahead had been, and he nodded without surprise. But before we turned the next corner he stopped.

"Did you ever hear of the White Cat?" he asked. "Little political club?"

"Never."

"I'm a member of it," he went on rapidly. "It's run by the city ring, or rather it runs itself. Be a good fellow while you're there, and keep your eyes open. It's a queer joint."

The corner we turned found us on a narrow, badly paved street. The broken windows of the warehouse still looked down on us, and across the street was an ice factory, with two deserted wagons standing along the curb. As well as I could see for the darkness, a lumber yard stretched beyond the warehouse, its piles of boards giving off in the rain the aromatic odor of fresh pine.

At a gate in the fence beyond the warehouse Hunter stopped. It was an ordinary wooden gate and it opened with a thumb latch. Beyond stretched a long, narrow, brick-paved alleyway, perhaps three feet wide, and lighted by the merest glimmer of a light ahead. Hunter went on regardless of puddles in the brick paving, and I stumbled after him. As we advanced, I could see that the light was a single electric bulb, hung over a second gate. While Hunter fumbled for a key in his pocket, I had time to see that this gate had a Yale lock, was provided, at the side, with an electric bell button, and had a letter slot cut in it.

Hunter opened the gate and preceded me through it. The gate swung to and clicked behind me. After the gloom of the passageway, the small brick-paved yard seemed brilliant with lights. Two wires were strung its length, dotted with many electric lamps. In a corner a striped tent stood out in grotesque relief; it seemed to be empty, and the weather was an easy explanation. From the two-story house beyond there came suddenly a burst of piano music and a none too steady masculine voice. Hunter turned to me, with his foot on the wooden steps.

"Above everything else," he warned, "keep your temper. Nobody gives a hang in here whether you're the mayor of the town, the champion pool-player of the first ward, or the roundsman on the beat."

The door at the top of the steps was also Yale-locked. We stepped at once into the kitchen, from which I imagined that the house faced on another street, and that for obvious reasons only its rear entrance was used. The kitchen was bright and clean; it was littered, however, with half-cut loaves of bread, glasses and empty bottles. Over the range a man in his shirt sleeves was giving his whole attention to a slice of ham, sizzling on a skillet, and at a table near-by a young fellow, with his hair cut in a barber's oval over the back of his neck, was spreading slices of bread and cheese with mustard.

"How are you, Mr. Mayor?" Hunter said, as he shed his raincoat. "This is Mr. Knox, the man who's engineering the Star-Eagle fight."

The man over the range wiped one greasy hand and held it out to me.

"The Cat is purring a welcome," he said, indicating the frying ham. "If my cooking turns out right I'll ask you to have some ham with me. I don't know why in thunder it gets black in the middle and won't cook around the edges."

I recognized the mayor. He was a big fellow, handsome in a heavy way, and "Tommy" to every one who knew him. It seemed I was about to see my city government at play.

Hunter was thoroughly at home. He took my coat and his own and hung them somewhere to dry. Then he went into a sort of pantry opening off the kitchen and came out with four bottles of beer.

"We take care of ourselves here," he explained, as the newly barbered youth washed some glasses. "If you want a sandwich, there is cooked ham in the refrigerator and cheese—if our friend at the sink has left any."

The boy looked up from his glasses. "It's rat-trap cheese, that stuff," he growled.

"The other ran out an hour ago and didn't come back," put in the mayor, grinning. "You can kill that with mustard, if it's too lively."

"Get some cigars, will you?" Hunter asked me. "They're on a shelf in the pantry. I have my hands full."

I went for the cigars, remembering to keep my eyes open. The pantry was a small room: it contained an ice-box, stocked with drinkables, ham, eggs and butter. On shelves above were cards, cigars and liquors, and there, too, I saw a box with an indorsement which showed the "honor system" of the Cat Club.

"Sign checks and drop here," it read, and I thought about the old adage of honor among thieves and politicians.

When I came out with the cigars Hunter was standing with a group of new arrivals; they included one of the city physicians, the director of public charities and a judge of a local court. The latter, McFeely, a little, thin Irishman, knew me and accosted me at once. The mayor was busy over the range, and was almost purple with heat and unwonted anxiety.

When the three new-comers went up-stairs, instead of going into the grill-room, I looked at Hunter.

"Is this where the political game is played?" I asked.

"Yes, if the political game is poker," he replied, and led the way into the room which adjoined the kitchen.

No one paid any attention to us. Bare tables, a wooden floor, and almost as many cuspidors as chairs, comprised the furniture of the long room. In one corner was a battered upright piano, and there were two fireplaces with old-fashioned mantels. Perhaps a dozen men were sitting around, talking loudly, with much scraping of chairs on the bare floor. At one table they were throwing poker dice, but the rest were drinking beer and talking in a desultory way. At the piano a man with a red mustache was mimicking the sextette from Lucia and a roar of applause met us as we entered the room. Hunter led the way to a corner and put down his bottles.

"It's fairly quiet to-night," he said. "To-morrow's the big night—Saturday."

"What time do they close up?" I asked. In answer Hunter pointed to a sign over the door. It was a card, neatly printed, and it said, "The White Cat never sleeps."

"There are only two rules here," he explained. "That is one, and the other is, 'If you get too noisy, and the patrol wagon comes, make the driver take you home.'"

The crowd was good-humored; it paid little or no attention to us, and when some one at the piano began to thump a waltz, Hunter, under cover of the noise, leaned over to me.

"We traced Fleming here, through your corner-man and the cabby," he said carefully. "I haven't seen him, but it is a moral certainty he is skulking in one of the up-stairs rooms. His precious private secretary is here, too."

I glanced around the room, but no one was paying any attention to us.

"I don't know Fleming by sight," the detective went on, "and the pictures we have of him were taken a good while ago, when he wore a mustache. When he was in local politics, before he went to the legislature, he practically owned this place, paying for favors with membership tickets. A man could hide here for a year safely. The police never come here, and a man's business is his own."

"He is up-stairs now?"

"Yes. There are four rooms up there for cards, and a bath-room. It's an old dwelling house. Would Fleming know you?"

"No, but of course Wardrop would."

As if in answer to my objection, Wardrop appeared at that moment. He ran down the painted wooden stairs and hurried through the room without looking to right or left. The piano kept on, and the men at the tables were still engrossed with their glasses and one another. Wardrop was very pale; he bolted into a man at the door, and pushed him aside without ceremony.

"You might go up now," Hunter said, rising. "I will see where the young gentleman is making for. Just open the door of the different rooms up-stairs, look around for Fleming, and if any one notices you, ask if Al Hunter is there. That will let you out."

He left me then, and after waiting perhaps a minute, I went up-stairs alone. The second floor was the ordinary upper story of a small dwelling house. The doors were closed, but loud talking, smoke, and the rattle of chips floated out through open transoms. From below the noise of the piano came up the staircase, unmelodious but rhythmical, and from the street on which the house faced an automobile was starting its engine, with a series of shot-like explosions.

The noise was confusing, disconcerting. I opened two doors, to find only the usual poker table, with the winners sitting quietly, their cards bunched in the palms of their hands, and the losers, growing more voluble as the night went on, buying chips recklessly, drinking more than they should. The atmosphere was reeking with smoke.

The third door I opened was that of a dingy bath-room, with a zinc tub and a slovenly wash-stand. The next, however, was different. The light streamed out through the transom as in the other rooms, but there was no noise from within. With my hand on the door, I hesitated—then, with Hunter's injunction ringing in my ears, I opened it and looked in.

A breath of cool night air from an open window met me. There was no noise, no smoke, no sour odor of stale beer. A table had been drawn to the center of the small room, and was littered with papers, pen and ink. At one corner was a tray, containing the remnants of a meal; a pillow and a pair of blankets on a couch at one side showed the room had been serving as a bedchamber.

But none of these things caught my eye at first. At the table, leaning forward, his head on his arms, was a man. I coughed, and receiving no answer, stepped into the room.

"I beg your pardon," I said, "but I am looking, for—"

Then the truth burst on me, overwhelmed me. A thin stream was spreading over the papers on the table, moving slowly, sluggishly, as is the way with blood when the heart pump is stopped. I hurried over and raised the heavy, wobbling, gray head. It was Allan Fleming and he had been shot through the forehead.

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