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Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 8680

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"May I speak to you a moment?" asked Keenan, taking a step nearer to her as he spoke. She seemed able, even under his quiet composure, to detect some note of alarm.

"Will you come in?" she asked, holding the door wide for him.

"If you don't mind the intrusion."

She had closed the door, and stood facing him, interrogatively.

"What I am going to ask you, Miss Allen, is something unusual. But this past week has shown me that you are an unusual woman." He hesitated, in doubt as to how to proceed.

"In America," she said, laughing a little, to widen his avenue of approach, "you would call me emancipated, wouldn't you?"

He bowed and laughed a little in return.

"But let me explain," he went on. "I am in what you might call a dilemma. For some reason or other certain persons here are watching and following me, night and day. In America-which, thank God, is a land of law and order-this sort of thing wouldn't disturb me. But here"-he gave a little shrug-"well, you know what they say about Italy!"

"Then I wasn't mistaken!" she cried, with a well-rung note of alarm.

He looked at her, narrowly.

"Ah, I suspected you'd have an inkling! But what I have here makes the case exceptional-and, perhaps, a little dangerous!"

He drew from his pocket a yellow-tinted manila envelope, of "legal" size. Frank's quick glance told her that it was by no means empty.

"It may sound theatrical, and you may laugh at me, but will you take possession of these papers for me, for a few days? No, let me explain first. They are important, I confess, for, although valueless commercially, they contain personal and private letters that are worth a good deal to me!"

"But this means a great responsibility," demurred Frank.

"Yes; but no danger-at least to you, since you are in no way under suspicion. You said that in five days you would probably be in Naples. Supposing that I arrange to meet you at, say, the H?tel de Londres there, and then repay you for your trouble."

"But it's so unusual; so almost absurd," still demurred the acting woman. The eavesdropper from the closet felt that it was an instance of diamond cutting diamond. How hard and polished and finished, he thought, actor and actress confronted each other.

"Will you take the risk?" the man was asking.

She looked from him to the packet and then back to him again.

"Yes, if you insist-if it is really helping you out!" she replied, with still simulated bewilderment.

He thanked her with something more than his professional, placid crispness, and put the packet in her outstretched hand.

"Is that all?"

"Yes, everything."

"In Naples, in five days?"

"Yes; the H?tel de Londres. And now I must leave you."

He startled her by taking her hand and wringing it. She was still looking down at the packet as he withdrew, and the door closed behind him.

She listened for a moment, and then turned the key in the lock. Durkin, stepping from his place of concealment, confronted her. They stood gazing at each other in blank astonishment.

Frank's first impulse was to tear open the envelope. But on second thoughts she flew to her alcohol tea-lamp and lighted the flame. It was only a minute or two before a jet of steam came from the tiny kettle spout. Over this she shifted and held the gummed envelope-flap, until the mucilage softened and dissolved. Then, holding her breath, she peeled back the flap, and from the envelope drew three soiled but carefully folded copies of the London Daily Chronicle. The envelope held nothing more.

A little cry of disappointment escaped Durkin, while Frank turned the papers over in her fingers, in speechless amazement. The very audacity of the man swept her off her feet.

It was both a warning and a challenge, grim with its suggestiveness, eloquent with careless defiance. That was her first thought.

"The fool-he's making fun of you!" said Durkin, with a second passionate oath.

Frank was slowly refolding the papers, and replacing them in the envelope.

"I don't believe that's it," she said, meditatively. "I believe he is trying me-making this a test!"

She carefully moistened the gum and resealed the envelope, so that it bore no trace of having revealed its contents. She stood gazing at her husband with studious and unseeing eyes.

"If he comes back I'l

l know that I am right," she cried, with sudden conviction. "If he finds that I am still here, and that his packet is still intact and safe, he'll do what he wants to do. And that is, he'll trust me with the whole of his securities!"

She quenched the alcohol flame and replaced the lamp in its case.

"If he comes back," mocked Durkin. "Do you know what you and I ought to be doing, at this moment? We ought to be following that man every step he takes."

"But where?" She shook her head, slowly, in dissent.

"That's for us to find out. But can't you feel that he's left us in the lurch, that we're shut up here, while he's giving us the laugh and getting away?"

"Jim, listen to me. During this past week I've seen more of Keenan than you have."

"Yes, a vast sight more!" he interjected, heatedly.

"And I feel sure," she went on evenly, "that he is more frightened and worried than he pretends to be. He is, after all, only a tricky and ferrety Irish lawyer, who is afraid of every power outside his own little circuit of experience. He's afraid of Italy. I suppose he has nightmares about brigantaggio, even! He's afraid of foreigners-afraid of this sort of conspiracy of silence that seems surrounding him. He's even afraid to take his precious documents and put them in a safe-deposit vault in any one of the regularly established institutions here in Genoa. There are plenty of them, but he isn't big and bold enough to do his business that way. He's been a fugitive so long his only way of warfare now is flight. And besides, he can never forget that his work is underground and illicit. That is why he carries his documents about with him, on him, in his pockets, like a sneak thief with a pocketful of stolen goods. I don't mean to say that he isn't smooth and crafty, and that he won't fight like a rat when he's cornered! But I do believe that if he and Penfield could get in touch today, here in Genoa, he would hand over every dollar of those securities, and give up the job, and get back to his familiar old lairs among the New York poolrooms and wardheelers and petty criminals where he knows his enemies and his friends!"

Durkin strode toward the door impatiently. He hesitated for a moment, but had already stretched out his hand to turn the key when he drew back, silently, step by step.

For a second time, on the panel, without, the low knock was sounding.

Frank watched the closet door draw to and close on Durkin; then she called out, with assumed and cheery unconcern, "Come in."

She did not look up for a moment, for she was still busy with her hair.

The door opened and closed.

"I trust I do not intrude?"

Frank's brush fell from her hand, before she even slowly wheeled and looked, for it was the suave and well-modulated baritone of Pobloff.

"What does this mean?" she demanded vacantly, retreating before his steady and scornful gaze.

"Simply, madam, that you and I seem seldom able to anticipate each other's calls!"

She made a pretense of going to the electric signal.

"It is quite useless," explained the Russian quietly. "The wires are disconnected."

He took out his watch and glanced at it. "Indeed, as a demonstration that others enjoy privileges which you sometimes exert, in two minutes every light in this room will be cut off!"

The woman was panting a little by this time, for her thoughts were of Durkin and his danger, as much as of herself. She struggled desperately to regain her self-possession, for there was no mistaking the quiet but grim determination written on the Russian's pallid face. And she knew he was not alone in whatever plot he had laid.

She would have spoken, only the sudden flood of blackness that submerged her startled her into silence. The lights had gone out.

She demanded of herself quickly, what should be her first move.

While she stood in momentary suspense, a knock sounded still once more on her door.

"Come in," she called out quickly, loudly, now alert and alive to every movement.

It was Keenan who stepped in from the half-lighted hall. He would have paused, in involuntary amazement, at the utter darkness that greeted him, only footsteps approaching and passing compelled him to act quickly.

He stepped inside and closed and locked the door.

She had not been mistaken. He had come back.

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