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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Owl Taxi » CHAPTER XXI UP-STAIRS AND DOWN
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Leaving all cabs at home this time, they proceeded in couples by different streets to a rendezvous at the northeast corner of Stuyvesant Square. Greg and Estuban walked up First Avenue to Seventeenth, then west to the meeting-place, thus passing the house that was their objective.

Their examination of it revealed these salient facts: there was no light in any window; the basement windows were protected by iron bars, the basement door by an iron gate, while above, before the front door, heavy oak storm-doors were closed. In short, a wholly unpromising prospect.

"We need an ax to get into this," said Estuban dejectedly.

"We'll have to try the rear," said Greg.

The question then was how to get around to the back. The whole block presented an unbroken brick front from First Avenue to the Square.

At the Square they joined the other men and Pa Simmons who was there with his cab. The latter reported that de Socotra had not left the house.

"Damn glad you come," said he. "I'm at the end of my wits, how to keep watching that house without the police force getting wise to me cab. I watches from this corner for awhile, then runs around the block and takes a stand down by First. Then I come back again. But there's a cop down there's got his eye on me already. I don' know where to go now."

"You can be our mobile scout," said Greg. "Keep moving. Drive through this block every minute. We'll signal you if we need you."

Pa Simmons drove off.

At the corner where they stood there was a modern apartment house. A space of three feet separated the back wall of this building from the side wall of the first dwelling. This crack offered the only discoverable opening into the interior of the block. As the house they were seeking to enter was the sixth from the corner, it meant that they must climb six back fences to reach it.

"Bull, how are you on climbing fences?" asked Greg.

"O.K., if somebody will hold me overcoat."

"Hand it to one of the fellows. Estuban, Bull and I will go over the fences and break in the back way. You other fellows hide yourselves up and down the block here, but choose places where you can watch that house. If anybody comes out you are to jump on him and frisk him for the little black book, see? If it isn't on him let him go. If we get in the rear all right, and want your help, one of us will come to the front door, and saw his arm up and down so, like a semaphore."

There was a flight of steps down to the rear basement-door of the apartment house. An eight-foot fence separated the narrow yard here from the yard of the first dwelling. Greg and Estuban boosted Bull up on top; Bull from the top and Greg at the bottom hoisted Estuban up; then the two already up each reached Greg a hand. Once up they found the way was easier than they had expected. There was a longitudinal fence separating the yards of all the houses on Seventeenth Street from those in Sixteenth. This fence was topped by a three-inch plank along which Greg and Estuban were able to walk upright. Bull, less sure-footed, straddled it and hunched himself along. At one of the back yards a cautious householder had set his fence with great spikes against cats or marauders. Here they had to drop down and go around. The sky was overcast and it was very dark. Few lights showed in the back windows.

They reached the sixth yard at last and silently dropped to earth. The back of the house facing them at first glance showed no gleam of light, but upon looking closer they saw that the principal room on the second floor was lighted. In two of the three windows on this floor cracks of light showed around the edges of the opaque blinds that had been pulled down. Two windows and a door gave on the yard. The windows were barred, so they could be left open in hot weather, but the door had no outer protection, and glass panes had been let in the upper panels.

"Here's where the glass-cutter comes in handy," murmured Greg. "Good old Bessie!"

They wrapped a handkerchief around the tool to deaden the sound as far as possible. Nearest to the lock of the door Greg traced a square big enough to admit his hand. There wras nothing to do but let the piece fall inside.

"If the sound of it brings them we'll already be in," said Greg grimly.

He struck the outlined square a light blow with his fist and it tinkled to the floor within. Thrusting his arm through the hole he drew the bolt and turned the key. They stole in. Greg gave his pocket light a swift flash around. They were in a kitchen, a disused kitchen; the range was gray with dust, the shelves empty.

"Wait here a minute till we see if they were alarmed by the sound," whispered Greg. "Keep on this side away from the windows."

They waited, holding their breaths to listen. Not a sound was to be heard through the dark house except the rats scurrying behind the plaster.

Satisfied at length that the broken glass had passed unnoticed, they proceeded to investigate their surroundings. Four doors faced them; two gave on cupboards, the third on a short passage ending in the front basement room, while the fourth opened on the stair hall. The other room on this floor was as empty as the kitchen. Though so far there was no sign of human usage they were struck by the warmth of the house.

"They don't stint themselves coal," whispered Greg. "Let's drop our overcoats."

A door under the stairs gave on steps leading to the cellar. A gaslight had been left burning down here. They saw the furnace that supplied the heat, but there was no person in the cellar.

Greg left Bull on guard on the basement floor. "If anybody gets past us up-stairs, don't let him get by you without frisking him for the book. If they come too fast for you, call for help."

Greg and Estuban stole up to the main floor. Two long parlors front and rear opened off the hall. They were dusty and empty like the rooms below. At the head of the next flight of stairs a crack of light showed under a door, and a murmur of voices came down to them.

Greg whispered to Estuban: "Creep up stairs and listen. It may be valuable to us. I'll call the other men in."

With infinite caution Greg unchained and unlocked the two sets of doors and stepped out on the stoop. The block was empty. But there were eyes out. For when Greg gave the prearranged signal three figures appeared from the shadows opposite and noiselessly hastened to him. He drew them inside the house and shut the doors.

Hickey was sent to help Bull because there were two ways out from the basement to be watched; Blossom was left at the front door; Greg and Ginger stole on up and joined Estuban at the turn of the stairs. Putting his lips to Greg's ear Estuban breathed:

"We're just in time. They're breaking up here. There are not more than four men with de Socotra in there. The rest have already scattered. He's giving these their final instructions now."

Greg whispered back: "Is the door locked?"

"I don't think so. There's no key in the other side. Now that you're here to back me up I'll try the handle."

"Wait a minute. Front and rear bedrooms in these houses usually communicate. Ginger, go in the front room and stand guard. Take my flash."

Estuban yielded first place to Greg. Greg tried the door. It gave. Slamming it open the two entered the room with their guns before them.

"Hands up, gentlemen," said Greg.

There were four men; three seated in various attitudes about a table near the window, and the fourth, de Socotra, arrested in the act of pacing back and forth. The table was littered with papers. Several valises stood about the floor. The three sitting men, Abanez and Alfieri were two of them, flung up their hands without a sound as if impelled by an electrical current. Not so de Socotra. His nerves were under iron control. He actually laughed. With his eyes fixed on Greg's eyes 'he coolly drew a cigarette case from his waistcoat pocket, took a cigarette, tapped it finically on the lid, and stuck it between his grinning lips. Returning the cigarette case, from another pocket he produced a match, struck it on his sole, lighted the cigarette and flicked the match away.

"Ah, our good friend Mr. Parr again," he said mockingly. "Really, Mr. Parr, you ought to be in moving pictures. Or perhaps you are. To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?"

If he expected to rattle Greg he mistook his man. Greg saw a tell-tale bulge over the man's right breast, and that was all he wanted. Matching the other's tone, he said:

"You're a remarkable man, Se?or de Socotra. I didn't want to lose touch with you. To-night I have brought an old acquaintance of yours with me."

De Socotra for the first looked at Estuban, and his eyes changed. The smile became a thought strained, but the voice was as cool as ever. "Ah, Estuban! How did you get out of jail?"

Estuban was incapable of this grim jesting. It was his first sight of the man responsible for the murder of his best friend, and his eyes burned. He answered de Socotra in Spanish. Whatever it was he said, it bit through the elder man's veneer of scorn. De Socotra snarled at him.

"Put up your hands," said Greg. "I shall not tell you again."

De Socotra obeyed. But his expression altered. He looked beyond and between Greg and Estuban and suddenly cried:

"Seize them both, Milio!"

In spite of themselves they looked behind them. Even as he turned, Greg was half sensible that it was a trick, but the subconscious impulse was irresistible. There was no one there, of course. They turned back. De Socotra was in the act of springing towards an open door in the corner. Like a flash Estuban's pistol sought him. Greg knocked his hand up, and the bullet went through the ceiling. De Socotra disappeared. The other three men, green with terror, never moved.

"Keep them covered," Greg shouted. "I'll get him."

He ran out through the hall and into the front room crying: "Hold him, Ginger!"

But he and Ginger only collided with each other in the empty room.

"He didn't come this way," gasped Ginger.

At the same moment back in the hall a door banged open. They ran out. An open closet door between the two rooms showed the way he had escaped. There was no sight nor sound of him. There were two other rooms on the floor, a bathroom presumably and a hall room, but he had not had time enough to get a door open and closed again, nor could he have gone down stairs for there was no sound from Blossom at the foot.

At the instant Greg made up his mind that he had gone up, a small bright beam of light flashed athwart the upper flight and threw a circle on the side wall. From above a voice said mockingly:

"Yes, I'm up here, Mr. Parr. Come on up. When you cross that light I'll give you something to bring with you."

The voice did not come from the spot whence the light issued. Evidently he had laid his light on the floor and retreated from it. For an instant Greg hesitated. Then it came to him what to do. Extending his body on the steps, pressing close to the rail where one on the upper landing could not see him, he snaked his way up a step at a time until he was within striking distance of the light. Taking careful aim, he fired. The light went out.

At the same moment he let his body relax and slid back down the stairs. But no answering shot came as he expected. Nor was there any sound of running feet above. De Socotra as usual was bluffing. While the light lay on the floor he had stolen away. Listening intently Greg heard some little sounds from the fourth and top story of the house. Snatching his light out of Ginger's hands he sprang up the stairs. Ginger followed at his heels.

In the hall on the top floor stood a ladder leading to a scuttle in the roof. They heard de Socotra upon it working desperately to raise the scuttle. But they were too quick for him. As they mounted the last flight he jumped down and ran into the back room. There all sounds ceased.

Greg paused at the head of the stairs. It was a ticklish job to follow an armed man into a dark room. He tried to figure out what de Socotra would expect him to do, so he could do the opposite. He had left the door open behind him; was it to tempt Greg in? Greg determined to try to take him in the rear.

Leaving Ginger crouching at the turn of the stairs, he stole along the hall and ever so carefully opened the door of the front room. In case his man were inside he flashed his light in to draw his fire, but there was no sound. He went in, holding his light off to one side of his body. The room was empty. Absolute silence pressed on the house so full of men.

There were two doors in the back wall of this room. Greg cautiously opened the first. This floor was planned differently from the second floor. He found himself in an extra middle room with a skylight through which showed the low-hanging clouds faintly rosy with the reflection of the city lights.

Returning, he tried the other door and found himself in a long closet or passage leading to the rear. He dared not flash his light here for fear of giving warning of his coming. The passage was as black as Erebus. The heaviness of the air convinced him that it was closed at the other end. He crept on all fours feeling with his hand before him, half-expecting to lay it on a human figure, half expecting momentarily to be met with a blinding flash and a bullet.

He was stopped at last by a door which must lead into the room into which de Socotra had fled. He listened with his ear to the crack but could hear no sound from the other side. If this door were locked all his trouble would go for nothing. He found a match and inserted it carefully in the keyhole. It passed freely through. The chances were it was not locked.

If the man were still in the room there was no possibility of getting this door open without giving him warning; so Greg took no care, but suddenly flung it wide. He stood back and let his light shine through. Still it drew no shot.

Yet de Socotra was in there. Greg heard him run for the hall door. Greg sprang after him, but de Socotra got the door closed before he could prevent, and Greg heard the key turn in the lock. He heard Ginger tackle the man, as he ran around through the passage to the front room.

Little Ginger was no match for this antagonist. De Socotra must have shaken him off with ease, for ere Greg could reach the front room door that, too, was slammed and locked. The middle room door was already locked and the key on the other side. Greg heard de Socotra vault over the stair rail and run on down.

Ginger shouted a warning through the house to Blossom, and waited to liberate Greg. This took him a little while, because De Socotra had tossed away the keys at random. Greg shouted to Ginger to open the middle door, but in his excitement Ginger did not get the sense of it. He struck innumerable matches until he found the key to the back room.

Meanwhile de Socotra had leaped down two flights of stairs unhindered, for Estuban dared not leave the three men he was covering. On the third flight de Socotra saw Blossom waiting for him at the foot and went over the rail. He dropped in the middle of the hall and ran into one of the parlors. Here, as Blossom chased him in and out the different doors, he began to shout for help in tones of mock fear.

These cries were too much for Bull and Hickey on the floor below. Locking the doors at which they respectively stood guard, they sprang up to the parlor floor. This was evidently what de Socotra wanted. He led them all a chase through the dark rooms. They collided with each other and wasted their strength in vain struggles, thinking they had the fugitive. When he saw the way clear de Socotra ran on down the basement stairs.

By this time Greg and Ginger reached the first floor. They heard de Socotra running wildly back and forth in the basement below. Bull and Hickey had had the foresight to pocket the keys of the two doors and he could not get out. All the windows in the basement were barred. As Greg leaped down the basement stairs with the other men tumbling after he heard the cellar door bang open. There was no way out of the cellar except by the coal-hole.

"We've got him now!" he cried.

He was well assured that if de Socotra had had a gun he would have used it before this, and he followed unhesitatingly. At the head of the next stair he heard the furnace door clang and his heart sunk like a stone. The gaslight in the cellar was still burning brightly. De Socotra stood by the furnace stroking his mustache, panting a little, but smiling still. His hands were empty.

Disregarding him for the moment Greg flung open the furnace door. On the bed of cherry red coals the little black book was already furiously blazing. A hand thrust in to rescue it would have been shriveled to the bone. There was no suitable tool handy. Greg had the inexpressible mortification of seeing it fall apart and dissolve in the flames. An involuntary groan broke from him. De Socotra laughed.

Greg flung around furiously, his gun up. "Damn you! I ought to shoot you like a dog, you murderer!" he cried.

"But you won't," said de Socotra coolly.

It was true. Greg's pistol arm was rendered impotent, but not, as de Socotra thought, because he was intimidated. He turned away gritting his teeth.

The other men were crowding into the narrow cellar, staring open-mouthed at de Socotra, and waiting for a signal from Greg how to act. After them came Estuban who had by this time succeeded in searching and disarming the three men, and had locked them in their room on the second floor.

"Where is the book?" cried Estuban.

"Burned up," said Greg heavily.

Estuban was hampered by no promise to spare their adversary. His gun went up. Springing forward, Greg flung his arms about him. They struggled, while their men looked on at a loss how to act. No one noticed that de Socotra had maneuvered his position until he now stood under the gaslight. His hand shot over his head, and they were plunged in blackness. Before he could be stopped de Socotra gained the stairs. Trying to follow him, they jammed helplessly together. He slammed the door at the top and locked it.

With their combined weight it was only a moment or two before they burst it out. But de Socotra was already half way up through the house. They reached the top floor to find the scuttle open to the sky. There was no sign of him up and down the roofs.

Greg reluctantly called off the pursuit. "We'll only rouse the neighborhood. He has some way of retreat known to himself. Let the last man through hook the scuttle so he can't come back this way."

They left the three Spanish-Americans to make their way out as best they could. If de Socotra failed to return to their aid, they could always throw up the windows and call on the neighbors. It would be up to them to explain how they came to be in such a plight.

It was a dejected little crowd that made its way back through the dark, cold streets to Bessie Bickle's. Estuban was furiously angry at being balked of his purpose.

"Why did you stop me?" he cried.

Greg was not quite frank in replying. "I couldn't help myself," he said. "Richly as he deserved it, I couldn't stand by and let you shoot down an unarmed man."

"We'll never get him now," muttered Estuban, and relapsed into a sullen silence.

Greg's own state of mind was not an enviable one. To be so nearly successful and then have his man flout him to his face, and get away laughing—it was too much! His heart burned in his breast. Promise or no promise, he knew there would be no peace in life for him until he had squared accounts with that smiling scoundrel.

As soon as they opened the kitchen door they saw from Bessie's pale face and shaken manner that something fresh had happened on this night of nights.

Thinking of Amy Greg's breast went cold. "What is it?" he demanded.

The answer relieved his worst fears. "He's gone," stammered Bessie, "the Spaniard up-stairs."

"Dead?" said Greg astonished.

"Aye, he's dead all right. I went up just now to have a look at him. He's lying there——" Bessie shuddered. "I left him till you come."

"And Amy?"

"She's all right. Asleep. She don't know."

"Send one of the boys for the doctor," said Greg. "I'll go up alone first."

The light in Greg's room was still burning. De Silva was lying on his back on the bed his eyes open and staring.... Small wonder Bessie had been frightened. One arm hung down over the edge of the bed, the hand lying palm upward and open on the floor. A little bright object had rolled from the nerveless fingers. Greg picked it up, a hypodermic needle.

On the bureau its case lay open. Beside the bed for the needle it held space for a vial of some blackish fluid; no doubt a further supply of the poison that killed with a lightning stroke. Under the little shagreen case was a folded paper addressed in pencil to "Gregory Parr." Greg opened it with fingers that trembled a little and read:

"I kept the needle. I ought to have used it first, but it takes nerve to jab yourself. It was easier to jump overboard. I can use it now. When we started for New York the old man gave me a little book to carry. Important papers were bound in it. I never read them. They were made out in duplicate. He carried one set and gave me the other. I meant to give them to de Socotra, but I didn't want to after. I didn't know what to do with it. I hid myself in a cheap little hotel the day after, the Alpha House, — West Broadway. I had room number 19. I slit the mattress and hid the book in the stuffing. I suppose it's there yet if you want it.

"De Silva."

The reaction from discouragement to hope was sudden. Greg had to read the note twice before he realized what it meant. He resisted his first impulse to shout the joyful tidings down to Estuban. Better not raise his hopes until the prize was actually in hand. Greg scarcely gave another thought to what lay on the bed. This discovery dwarfed the importance of the poor wretch's end. Five o'clock of a winter's morning though it was, he could not wait a moment before going in search of the little book. He put the needle in the case and the case in his pocket, and determined to keep his own counsel for the time being. If the doctor was willing to issue a death certificate without full information, so much the better.

To those in the kitchen he merely said: "I have to go out for an hour. If the doctor says all right, send for the undertaker. Hickey, drive me over to West Broadway, will you?"

Within the time he had set Greg was back with shining eyes. In the kitchen the disconsolate crowd sat much as he had left them. Ginger and Blossom slept with their heads on the table. Bull, Blossom and Pa Simmons were talking in whispers by the window. Bessie moved heavily around on her interminable chores. Beyond the stove sat Estuban in an attitude of utter dejection, elbows on knees and head between his hands. At the noise of Greg's entrance he lifted his lack-luster eyes. Seeing Greg's beaming smile a resentful scowl lined his brows.

"You seem well-pleased with yourself," he muttered.

Greg without saying anything held up the little black book before him. Estuban gasped and hung undecided for a moment. Then springing towards Greg he snatched it from his hands and scanned the pages with burning eyes.

"This is it!" he cried. "Thank God! we have him now!"


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