"Gee, Drill, if you only would!" he breathed. Think of it! Me, dumb-bell Rabbit Meekers, in with Drill Morgan on a job! Gosh, I'd never forget it. I'd learn more in that one night than I ever knew in all my life before. And, at that, Drill, haven't I got a little something coming to me?" Rabbit went on after a pause. "I'm gettin' the gas gun outfit for yuh, don't forget. And I showed you the lay in the paper, didn't I?"
Drill Morgan did not say anything for a moment. A crafty look narrowed his flat green eyes.
It had been on the tip of his tongue to tell Meekers where he got off. But suddenly he realized that the very fact that the little pickpocket was a blundering nitwit dazzled out of what few senses he had by his awe of a big-time crook really made him all the more valuable. Priceless, in fact.
Swiftly the details of the plan clicked into place in Drill's brain. The second robbery of the McCracken emeralds, coming the very day of his release from stir, would send the dicks hotfoot on his trail. The first needful thing was a water-tight alibi. Drill knew a dozen places in the city where a ten-minute call before he went to work would line up a dozen witnesses who would swear he had been in the place all night.
The Rabbit would cinch the rest of it. The Rabbit's fingerprints on the gas gun left at McCracken's, and on the safe. Of his own, not a sign to be found.... Then with the Rabbit to Rosy, the fence's squalid hole. Not only the twenty grand he had collected from McCracken, but every last dollar he had in the place, Drill would wring out of the shivering little Jew at the point of his gun. When he had cleaned him, a bullet through the heart. And then another bullet for Meekers' brain.
But it would be the gun in Rosy's hand whose barrel-scratches would match the bullet that had killed Rabbit, when the cops found him. And the steel messenger in the fence's heart would-be out of the rod they would find clamped in Meekers' slender white fingers. In his pocket, the Rabbit would still have some of Rosy's cash--enough to look plausible.
A picture that needed no title, the silent pair would tell. At the worst, he, Drill, with time to park his junk in a safe place, would get off with a pinch on suspicion and a sweating at headquarters. But they couldn't hold him. They wouldn't have a thing on him--not a thing.
Drill turned to the Rabbit with a grin. He held out his hand.
"I was all wet, what I said about your being empty above the ears, Rabbit," he said. "You've got it, kid. We go and pull those two jobs tonight, just like you said. And you don't go just to learn how, either. We split fifty-fifty on the clean-up."
Tears of joy stood in the Rabbit's eyes as he gripped Drill Morgan's hand.
"Gee, Drill, that's sure swell of you!" he cried. "Me on a job with Drill Morgan! And a fifty-fifty split, too! Gosh. I can't believe it!"
Could the little pickpocket have read behind the stony mask of the big man's enigmatic smile, he would have shuddered with chill terror.
DUSK was thickening around the shoulders of the skyscrapers as Drill and Rabbit Meekers stepped out onto Forty-Second Street. At the corner of Fifth Avenue, Rabbit flagged a taxi. The two men got in. Meekers gave an address several miles down town.
Leaving the car a quarter of an hour later, the Rabbit plunged into the maze of curving, crisscrossing streets to the south and west of Washington Square. After some ten minutes of dodging and twisting back and forth, he turned into a narrow, half-lighted alley. He felt his way down this for some hundred yards or so, and then stopped in front of a wooden door leading into a fenced-in back yard.
"Here's where Tim used to be," he muttered to Drill. "If some double-crossing stool pigeon hasn't turned him up, he's here now. Tim will do anything for me."
Drill fell back a couple of steps behind Rabbit as they scuffed across the yard to the rear door of the frowsy-looking tenement house. Meekers knocked.
After a few seconds, the door opened a crack and a section of face appeared. There was a moment of silence as the person inside scrutinized the Rabbit through the slit.
Then the door flew open and a big, slatternly woman with eagle-keen eyes under a mop of gray-streaked hair seized Meekers' hand.
"Well, if it ain't the little old Rabbit, himself, back home again!" she exclaimed, pumping the little man's hand up and down. "Say, it's been years. How are yuh, kid? When d'yuh hit town?" "Hello, Annie--just came down from my country estate this afternoon," the Rabbit grinned. "Meet my friend--Mr. Drill Morgan, Annie Hope. Annie is Tim's wife." he explained to Drill, as Morgan stepped forward out of the shadow. "She'll do anything for me."
"You bet I will," the red-haired woman exclaimed as she held out her hand to Drill "And that goes for you too, Mr. Morgan. Any friend of Eddie's is a friend of mine. Haven't I heard of you somewheres before, big boy? A big job up on the Avenoo?"
"Drill pulled the McCracken job a year ago," Meekers said importantly. "You know--his pal, Morrison, is the one they're putting away tonight. Drill just got out. I and him are going to turn over a little one tonight. We want a room for a few hours, an' something to eat. And I wanta see Tim about a couple of gats and--something else--before we start."
"Sure--come right upstairs," Annie Hope exclaimed. "Tim's away till tomorrow, but I'll fix yuh up for everything."
Drill Morgan followed the other two into the house. He had never seen nor heard of Annie Hope before, but he knew her type. Those shifty, yet gimlet-keen, knowing eyes, the hall marks of hard-boiled astuteness stamped on her heavy, deeply lined face were enough to prove what she was--a woman of the underworld and the keeper of a crook's lodging house.
In the small, comfortable room where she took the two men, they had supper. After the meal. Rabbit excused himself for a few minutes.
"I got to see Annie 'bout our--supplies--for tonight," he grinned to Drill. "She's got the rods right here, but it may take her a couple of hours to get hold of the gas gun. I'll be right back."
Drill glanced up from the hand of solitaire he was playing and nodded without speaking. Rabbit returned in about ten minutes. "Everything's jake," he said as he shut the door behind him. "She'll have the stuff here at ten-thirty."
Drill tossed his hand of cards on the bed and got up. He reached for his hat.
"Okay, cull." he grunted. "We pull outa here about eleven. You be down there at that back door at a quarter of, sharp, and let me back in again, see?"
"Why, w-where you goin', Drill?" Rabbit exclaimed.
"Just to call on a couple of old friends," Drill said, offhandedly. "Nothing to do with our job. Don't go to sleep and forget to let me back in again, that's all"
Rabbit did not say anything. He stood looking worriedly out of his funny wrinkled face and roving red eyes while Drill slammed his hat on his head and went out.
Drill's business took him on a round of certain restaurants and speak-easies, ending with the last hour spent at a night club whose festivities were just beginning to get under way as he arrived.
There, Drill circulated among the waiters, shaking hands and chatting jovially. He finished off his call with a ten-minute interview in private with the owner of the place. Upon leaving, Drill knew that wherever he might actually be during the next three hours, he could prove by overwhelming testimony in any court in the land that he had spent them talking and dancing with the alluring hostesses at the Lotus Club.
Rabbit was at the back door to let him in on the dot of ten forty-five. He led the way back to the room without asking any questions as to where Drill had been.
He stepped over to the bed and tossed back a blanket covering a humped shape. He picked up one of the two automatics lying on the spread and handed it to Drill.
Without a word. Drill pushed back the catch of his gun, shelled the six grease-nosed, ugly-looking cartridges out into his palm, grunted, reloaded the gun, and dropped it into his pocket.
"How's yours?" he asked.
Rabbit nodded. "The same as yours. Loaded, all O.K."
A black suitcase lay on the bed. Rabbit stooped and opened it. Inside were a pair of polished metal cylinders, with a blowpipe nozzle at the end of connecting rubber tubes.
"The works," Rabbit grinned. "That baby there is so hot she'll cut a hole through chrome steel with her little finger. Light, too. And neat-looking. We can shove that under a bull's nose and he'll only think we're rushing out an armful of dirty shirts."
JOHN HENRY McCRACKEN'S mansion stood back some fifty yards from the Drive, on the summit of a knoll overlooking the Hudson. Keeping in the shadow of the clumps of high shrubbery, Drill and the Rabbit made a complete circuit of the house, pausing to listen and peer in through the windows.
Not a light showed from top to bottom of the great brick and cement edifice. Not a window in any of the sleeping rooms above the ground floor was unlocked.
"All clear. Nobody there," Drill muttered. "Let's go on in."
"Here's an iron I got off of Annie," Rabbit whispered. "Let's see how you do it, Drill."
Drill took the ten-inch chisel-like jimmy that Meekers handed him, tucked the thin edge into the crack of the back door and threw his weight sidewise. There was a sharp snapping sound, and the door swung inward.
Drill stepped over the threshold and halted, holding his breath to listen. Rabbit crowded close to his elbow.
It was utterly still. So still that Rabbit couldhearthebloodpoundinginhisears. "S-suppose we're in wrong, Drill? Suppose there's somebody here, after all?" he chattered. "I'm--I'm afraid--" "Shut up!" Drill Morgan's voice growled exasperation. "What the hell is there to be afraid of, you sap? There's nobody here."
"All right, Drill. I'll keep still," whispered Meekers. "Was this the way you come in the--the other time, Drill?"
Drill Morgan muttered an oath.
"I thought you was goin' to can the chatter?" he snarled. "No, it wasn't this way. We made it through a side window that time. Anything else you wanta know, punk?"
"All right, Drill. Don't get sore," twittered the Rabbit. "Where do we go next? Where's the room with the safe?"
Drill Morgan took a step ahead in the dark.
"Down this way--through the kitchen, I guess," he muttered.
Drill in the lead, the two men cat-footed down a short passage, through a door into the kitchen, and out of that into another passage.
"Over there is the dining room," Drill pointed out. "That door there goes into the conservatory."
A few feet farther along, Drill came to still another door. He turned the knob noiselessly, pushed open the door and stood peering and listening without making a sound for a long half-minute. Then, inch by inch, he glided in over the threshold, with the Rabbit hugging his elbow.
They were at one end of a big, high-ceilinged room. Massive pieces of oak furniture stood about, dimly visible in the greenish light of the moon that shone in through a tall, narrow window. Shelf after shelf of books alternated with gold-framed paintings hung against panelings of dark, hand-carved wood that covered the walls. Priceless rugs of Persia and China covered the floor.
Rabbit Meekers muttered an oath and caught his breath. It was like a chamber in some great cathedral--the utter silence, the solemn dignity of furniture and pictures, the haughty, disdainful faces of the ladies and gentlemen that gazed down at them out of the rows of gilded frames.
Meekers glanced up at Drill Morgan. He was standing motionless, his eyes sweeping the room from end to end. A queer expression was on his face.
If anyone had told Drill that shivers of dread would run down his spine when he went back into that room to open McCracken's safe for the second time, he would have told the man he was crazy.
And yet it was true. He was afraid. What of, he did not know. Not of Meekers, not of being caught again, not of the chair.
Maybe it was the picture of McCracken's father, the old wolf of Wall Street, glowering down at him with his blazing blue eyes out of the massive gold frame over the fireplace. Maybe it was the memory of the old butler. Right under the picture was where he had dropped and lain motionless on his back, blood gushing out of the hole between his eyes and flooding down over his white, hair-- Drill Morgan gasped out an oath and jumped backward. Tingles of icy terror congealed his skin in goose pimples.
A loud, jangling uproar had crashed in on his tense nerves--the booming of the grandfather clock out in the hall. Stroke after stroke, till it had counted a dozen, the heavy, measured beats thundered on Morgan's ears and rolled away in throbbing echoes through the house.
AS the last of the peals faded out into silence, Drill growled a curse and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Midnight. Twelve o'clock and the chair for Morrison. Right now, they would be leading Jim out of his cell in the death house. What was he afraid of? It was all over. They couldn't burn him now.
He swung around to the Rabbit.
"Let's get to work. The keister is over behind that picture of McCracken. Go unhook it and swing it out--"
Rabbit Meekers stared up at Morgan. His birdlike little brown eyes glittered with excitement.
"Oh, gee--you're goin' to let me do something, Drill?" he exclaimed.
"I'm goin' to let you do everything," Drill grunted back curtly. "This is your lay--you can spring it. Go ahead and get busy."
Rabbit Meekers tiptoed awesomely across the room to the painting of the father of the master of the house. He reached up, felt for the hook that held it in place, pushed it up, and slowly pulled the big painting around on the hinges, like a door. Behind it, the door of a large wall safe gleamed dully in the moonlight.
Rabbit turned back to Drill.
"I can't hardly believe it!" he chattered. "Here I am, workin' with Drill Morgan on a job! How many times I've dreamed of doin' that--an' now it's comin' true. Gee, I'm so nervous I'm all shaky. Do you ever get the nerves, Drill? Were you nervous that--that other night when you smoked the butler?"
Drill Morgan jarred out a gritting laugh.
"Cripes, how you talk! You're worse than a woman to chew the rag!" he flung back at the little man. "Me, nerves? No--I ain't got any nerves. Shut up and get ready to open that box."
"I will. Drill, I will," Meekers gulped. "In just a minute." Awed eagerness gripped the little man's face as he swept his eyes around the room. "We've got lots of time. Tell me about that first time, Drill. Gee, I can't believe it--it was right here. You was cold as ice all through, I bet. If it had been me, I'd have flopped cold. Where was the butler when you popped him--here or out in the hall?"
Drill Morgan muttered another oath. With hands that trembled, he fumbled out a cigarette and lighted it. A minute back, he had boasted to the Rabbit that he had no nerves. But it was a lie. There was no use fighting against it.
Here, in this high-ceilinged, tomb-like old chamber, with the pale green light of the moon making everything look drab and spectral, the terror was gripping his soul again. Terror of nothing definite. Nothing he could name. Terror of ghosts....
Down under the edge of the desk, Drill could see the white-haired old butler with the blood trickling out between his eyes. The great oak armchair over under McCracken's picture was the other chair--from which they were now dragging Morrison's body and carrying it away-- A sudden, irresistible longing surged over Drill Morgan. If he could only talk--if he could just tell it all once, the way it happened, and get it off of his conscience--out of his brain and thoughts--he could forget it. Forget the chair. Forget Morrison. The fear that gripped his heart would be gone.
Drill burst out laughing. Harsh, gritting laughter that brought frowns of troubled bewilderment to Rabbit's face. If he had to talk, the Rabbit was the best one in the world to spill it to. A man may talk in his sleep. But a dead man is always safe....
Drill dropped the gun back into his pocket and took a step toward Meekers.
"So you got a yen to find out what happened here that night, have you, cull?" he said. "Okay, then. I'm goin' to spill you the works. But not till after we burn out the keister. Then we won't have anything to do but get out. Now open up that bag and get out the stuff."
Rabbit stooped, slipped the catch on the black box and lifted out the contrivance of metal cylinders and rubber tubes. He stood dangling them from his fingers and looking at Morgan.
"My fingerprints, Drill--all over this. I oughta wore gloves," he exclaimed.
"Never mind that now. We'll wipe 'em off afterwards," Drill replied carelessly. "Turn on the gas. The one with A on it first."
Rabbit turned a button. Drill struck a match and held it to the snout of the blowpipe. A threadlike yellow flame flickered into the dark. Rabbit twisted the other lever. The orange pencil spat into a hard blue, almost colorless drill of hissing, sizzling heat.
Drill pulled a chair up under the safe and motioned to Rabbit.
"There you are. Go ahead and open her up," he said. "Cut a circle around the lock. After we get that out, the rest won't be nothing."
HOLDING the blowpipe nozzle in both hands, Rabbit climbed up into the chair. He turned the flame on the safe door and started drawing it in a slow circle around the combination lock.
Time dragged away. For twenty, thirty minutes, neither man spoke. The snarling buzz of the vicious little flame sang in the silence. The flickering yellow glow of the blobs of molten metal spattering out from under the tip threw the two faces into grotesque gargoylelike masks of light and shadow--the Rabbit's tense, flushed with excitement; Drill Morgan's cold, cynical, gripped in a leer of gloating mockery.
"All right. That's good enough for now." Drill's voice broke the silence at last. "Now get out of the way while I open her up."
Rabbit stepped down from the chair and Drill took his place. Drill had a glittering steel tool in his hand, Rabbit saw. Also he wore black cotton gloves.
For a minute or so, Drill worked with the chisel at the face of the safe. He pulled away the melted-out lock and tossed it down into a cushioned chair. He stuck his hand into the opening and pulled it out again. As he did so, the remains of the safe door swung ajar on its hinges.
Drill jumped down onto the floor.
"There you are. Go get 'em," he said briefly.
His eyes glittering, Rabbit scrambled back into the chair. With a cry of awed excitement, he pushed his hand into the safe and pulled out box after box. His arms full, he jumped down and ran to a table. He dumped down the boxes and a flood of glittering radiance poured out.
Rabbit looked up at Morgan. His breath came fast, his little brown eyes were ablaze.
"Well, there it is. Drill--and I did it!" he exclaimed. "Gee, it's easy when you know how. Now do we divvy up? What's my split for tipping you the lay?"
Drill waved his hand magnanimously.
"Well take it back to the room and split it there," he said. "You carry it all till then."
Meekers hesitated, looked surprised, then swept the heap of blazing stones off the table into his hand, and dropped them into his pocket.