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   Chapter 6 A SHOT IN THE DARK.

With Links of Steel, Or, The Peril of the Unknown By Nicholas Carter Characters: 11760

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


It was nearly eleven o'clock when Rufus Venner and Cervera, the latter enveloped in a voluminous black cloak, emerged from the stage door of the theater.

As they made their way through the paved area leading out to the side street, where a carriage was awaiting them, a sturdy, roughly clad fellow in a red wig and croppy beard suddenly slouched out of a gloomy corner near the stage stairway and followed them, with movements as stealthy and silent as those of a cat.

As the carriage containing Venner and the dancer rapidly whirled away, this rough fellow darted swiftly across the street, and approached a waiting cab, the door of which stood open.

"After them, Patsy!" he softly cried, as he sprang in and closed the door.

The driver of the cab was one of Nick Carter's youthful yet exceedingly clever assistants, and the rough fellow was Nick himself.

He had left the theater the moment Cervera concluded her performance, and since had completed a perfect disguise in the cab, which he had had in waiting, with all the properties for effecting the change mentioned.

That Patsy would constantly keep their quarry in view, and without being suspected, Nick had not a doubt. Nor was he mistaken. At the end of twenty minutes the clever young driver slowed down upon approaching an uptown corner, and signaled Nick to get out.

The detective alighted from the door on the side from which he had received the signal, yet the cab did not stop. Nick trotted along beside the vehicle for a rod or two, keeping it between him and the side street into which Patsy quickly signed that the hack had turned.

"Fourth house on the right," he softly cried. "I saw them pull up at it just as I reached the corner, so I kept right on up the avenue. They've not gone in yet."

"Good enough," replied Nick, approvingly. "Take home the traps I have left in the cab."

"Sure thing. You don't want any help to-night against this push, do you?"

"No, indeed. There'll be but little doing to-night, I imagine. Remember the house, however, in case I fail to show up."

"You may gamble on that, sir. I have it down pat."

They had now passed the upper corner of the side street, and Nick felt sure that he had not been seen leaving the cab. He darted quickly back of the vehicle and gained the sidewalk, then stole back and peered around the corner.

Cervera and her companion were just mounting the steps of an imposing stone residence, entirely separate from its neighbors, and their carriage was driving rapidly away.

Nick waited until the couple had entered the house, then he crossed to the gloom of a doorway on the opposite side and had a look at the dwelling.

From basement to roof there was no sign of a light. Even the hall appeared to be in darkness, and Nick waited and watched for several minutes, expecting to see at least one of the rooms lighted.

Not a glimmer or gleam, however, appeared from any quarter.

"H'm!" he presently muttered, a little perplexed. "Either they are remaining in darkness, or else they have all of those windows heavily curtained. If the latter is the case, I must discover for what reason.

"Possibly they are entirely alone in there, and have gone to some room at the rear of the house. Or maybe they have suspected an espionage, and are now watching from the gloom of one of those front windows. I'll fool them if that is so, and will also have a look at the rear of the house. There is something out of the ordinary here, that's certain."

Keeping well in the gloom of the block of dwellings near by, Nick retraced his steps to the corner, then crossed the street and presently approached a paved driveway leading to a small stable at the rear of the suspected house.

The high gate, composed of sharp iron pickets, was securely closed and locked; so Nick returned to an alley which he had just passed, and which ran back of a block of dwellings fronting on the avenue where he had left the cab.

Stealing into the alley, Nick quickly scaled the high, wooden fence, crossed two adjoining back yards, and thus reached a wall near the stable mentioned.

To mount the wall and drop back of the stable was equally feasible, and Nick then had the rear of Cervera's dwelling plainly in view.

Then his searching gaze was rewarded. One of the rear rooms was brightly lighted, with only the lace draperies at the two windows preventing observation from outside.

"Evidently a rear sitting room, or library," thought Nick, calculating the arrangement of the house. "I will at least learn who is in there."

He listened briefly for any sound in or about the stable, then stole quickly across the gloomy, paved yard and approached the house.

The windows of the lighted room were two feet or more above his head; but having reached a position just below one of them, he sprang up and seized the stone coping outside, and drew himself up to peer into the room.

Then, just as his head rose into the glow of light from within, clearly revealing his location, Nick heard a sound the deadly nature of which he instantly recognized.

Ping!

It was the short, sharp, peculiar song of a flying bullet-once heard, always remembered.

Then came the dull thud when the leaden ball beat itself shapeless against the stone wall beside him.

The bullet had passed within an inch of Nick's ribs, and he knew at once that he was now a mark for hidden foes.

Yet there had been no revolver report to suggest their location, and Nick instantly surmised that the ball must have been discharged with an air gun.

He knew that it must have come from some quarter behind him, however. And he knew, too, how to bring his murderous assailants from their secret cover.

As quick as a flash, the instant the ball smote the wall beside him, Nick let go his hold upon the stone coping and dropped into the darkness

below the window, falling prostrate upon his back.

As he lay there his hand touched something hot, and he drew it nearer to examine it.

It was the battered chunk of lead which had come within an inch of ending his life.

"They meant business, for sure," he said to himself, while waiting for his quick-witted ruse to operate. "I'm blessed if this affair is not taking on a new and lively interest. I reckon there'll be more doing to-night than I gave Patsy to believe.

"Ha, ha! The scoundrels are already breaking cover!"

His alert ears had detected a sound from the direction of the stable, and now he silently drew his revolver and held it gripped by his side.

Presently the stable door was cautiously opened. Then a momentary beam of light, evidently from a bull's-eye lantern, shot across the paved area, and lingered for an instant upon Nick's prostrate figure.

Nick remained as motionless as a corpse.

Then two men, both large and powerful fellows, and both heavily bearded, came quickly from the stable and hastened toward him.

"Done for with a single shot," remarked one, as they approached.

"Looks like it, Dave," was the reply. "When I piped his head in the light from the window, I felt sure I could drop him."

"Well done. 'Twas a good shot. Shove your hand inside his vest, and see if his heart is beating. Then we shall know for sure whether he's down and out. If not, we must-"

"Throw up your hands, instead, both of you!" Nick sternly interrupted, half rising with weapon leveled. "At the first move by either, I will shoot to kill!"

Nick had foreseen that his foxy strategy must be very quickly detected, and he had resolved to take the bull by the horns, and attempt to arrest both of his cowardly assailants.

That he was up against uncommon men, however, men of extraordinary nerve and reckless daring, appeared in what instantly followed, even under the very muzzle of the detective's revolver.

As quick as a flash, before Nick's threatening command was fairly out of his mouth, the man called Dave made a kick at the detective's uplifted arm, so swift and accurate and forceful that Nick felt the bones of his wrist fairly crack under the blow, and the fingers of his hand gripping the weapon turned numb and tingling as if from an electric shock.

"At him!" snarled the ruffian, even while he kicked. "At him, I say! Quick-the pear!"

It was plain that these men were not doing such desperate work together for the first time. Both fell upon Nick like wolves upon a stricken elk, yet they found the detective waiting for them.

Nick hurled one aside, unable to use his revolver, and grappled with the second, both falling heavily to the pavement.

Then number one was at him again, and got him by the throat, with a grip from which Nick thrice wrenched himself free, at the same time fiercely banging the head of the other upon the stones upon which the terrific combat was being waged.

An oath of vicious rage broke from the latter, and then he fiercely cried again:

"The pear! D-- you, be quick! The pear!-the pear!"

As if in response to this, Nick, who was panting under his violent efforts to overcome both powerful men, suddenly felt something thrust forcibly into his mouth.

Still manfully battling with his opponents, Nick tried to eject the object, opening his jaws wider in the effort.

The object, which was shaped like a solid pear, instantly expanded, and Nick could not close his jaws.

Again he tried, opening them still wider, and again the pear-shaped object expanded and held them rigid.

Then Nick guessed the truth.

While struggling with might and main to beat these ruffians, he had been made the victim of an infernal instrument but seldom seen in these days, and one of the most agonizing and diabolical devices of man's perverted ingenuity.

The object in Nick's mouth was a "choke pear!"

This vicious instrument of torture dates back to the time of Palioly, the notorious French robber and renegade, when it was very worthily called "the pear of anguish."

It consists of a solid gag, so to speak, yet it is so constructed, with interior springs, that, once thrust into a person's mouth, it expands as fast as the mouth is opened, and rigidly distends the victim's jaws.

The more widely the victim gapes to eject the "choke pear," or to cry out for aid, the larger the hideous object becomes, until torture, suffocation and death speedily ensue.

Had this infernal device been generally available to modern criminals, Nick would have been warned by the significant words he had heard, and would have guarded himself against it.

As it was, however, he had been caught; and in the mouth of any ordinary man the "choke pear" would have been irresistible.

But the muscles of Nick Carter's jaws were like fibers of steel, and the instant he realized his situation he opened his mouth no wider. Instead, while hands and arms were still engaged in the furious conflict with his assailants, he brought his jaws together as if with superhuman power, and with a force that crushed the infernal device between them, much as if it had been little more than an eggshell.

One of the ruffians heard the snapping crunch, and uttered a cry of amazement.

The cry was echoed by hurried footsteps in the house.

Then a rear door was suddenly thrown open by Rufus Venner, and a flood of light revealed the struggling men, still battling furiously on the pavement.

Nick now had both opponents down, and within another minute he would have had them at his mercy, a fact which Venner instantly perceived.

He sprang nearer, drew his revolver, and dealt the detective a single swinging blow upon the head.

Nick dropped like an ox struck down in the shambles.

The darkness of night was as nothing to the darkness that instantly fell upon him.

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