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Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 12153

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Any passion so neutral and negative as jealousy soon burned itself out in an actively positive brain like Durkin's. And it left, as so often had happened with him, manifold gray ash-heaps of regret for past misdeeds. It also brought with it the customary revulsion of feeling, and a prowling hunger for some amendatory activity. Yet with that hunger came a new and disturbing sense of fear. He was realizing, almost too late, the predicament into which he and Frank had stumbled, the danger into which he had passively permitted his wife to drift.

It was not until after two hours of fierce and troubled thought, however, that Durkin left the Bartholdi, and taking a hansom, drove down that man-crowded crevasse where lower Broadway flaunted its Semitic signboards to the world, directly to the Criminal Courts building in Centre street.

Once there, he made his way to the office of the district-attorney. As he thoughtfully waited for admission into that democratized court of last appeal there passed through his mind the dangers and the chances that lay before him. The situation had its menaces, both obvious and unforeseen, but the more he thought it over the more he realized that the emergency called for action, at once decisive and immediate. He had already bungled and hesitated and misjudged. Blind feeling had warped his judgment. Until then he had blocked out his path of action only crudely; there had been little time for the weighing of consequences and the anticipation of contingencies. He had acted quickly and blindly. He had both succeeded and been defeated.

Still again the actual peril hanging over his wife came home to him. In the dust and tumult of battle, and in the black depths of the jealous vapors that had so blinded and sickened him, he had for the moment forgotten just what she meant to him, just how handicapped and helpless he stood without her.

If the thought of their separation touched him, because of more emotional reasons, it was already too early in his mood of reaction to admit it to his own shamefaced inner self. Yet he felt, now, that through it all she was true gold. It was only when the tie stood most strained and tortured that the sense of its actual strength came home to him.

As these thoughts and feelings swept disjointedly through his busy head word was sent out to him that he might see the district-attorney.

The office he stepped into was curtain-draped and carpeted, and hung with framed portraits, and strewn with heavy and comfortable-looking leather arm-chairs. Durkin had expected it to look like an iron-grilled precinct police-station, and he was a little startled by the sense of luxury and well-being pervading the place.

Tilted momentarily back in a leather chair, behind a high-backed hardwood desk, the visitor caught a glimpse of one of those nervously alert, youngish-old figures which always seemed to him so typically American.

The man behind the high-backed desk paused in his task of checking a list of typewritten names, and motioned Durkin to a seat. The visitor could see that he was with an official who would countenance no profligate waste of time. So he plunged straight into the heart of his subject.

"This office is at present carrying on a campaign against Richard Penfield, the poolroom operator and gambler."

The district-attorney put down his paper.

"This office is carrying on a campaign against every lawbreaker brought to its attention," he corrected, succinctly. Then he caught up another type-written sheet. "How much have you lost?" he asked over his shoulder.

"I'm not a gambler," retorted Durkin as crisply. His earlier timidity had faded away, and more and more he felt the relish of this adventure with the powers that were opposing him.

"I suppose not-but how much were your losses?"

"I've lost nothing!" Durkin was growing impatient of this curtly condescending tone. It was the ponderosity of officialdom, he felt, grown playful, in the face of a passing triviality.

The district-attorney turned over the card which had been brought in to him, with a deprecating uplift of the eyebrows.

"Most of the people who come here to talk about Penfield and his friends come to tell me how much they've lost." He leaned back, and sent a little cloud of cigarette smoke ceilingward. "And, of course, it's part of this office's duty to keep a fool and his money together-as long as possible. What is it I can do for you?"

"I want your help to get a woman out of Penfield's new downtown house!"

"What woman?"

"She is-well, she is a very near friend of mine! She's being held a prisoner there!"

"By the police?"

"No, by certain of Penfield's men."

"What men?"

"MacNutt, the wire tapper, is one of them!"

"And you would like us to get after MacNutt?"

"Yes, I would!"

"On the charge of wire tapping?"

"That should be one of them!"

"Then I can only refer you to the decision of the Court of Appeals in the McCord case, and the Appellate Division's reversal of the 'green-goods' conviction of 1900! In other words, sir, there is no law under which a wire tapper can be prosecuted."

"But it's not a conviction I want, as much as the woman. I want to save her."

"Is she a respectable woman?"

Durkin felt that his look was answer enough.

"Is she a frequenter of poolrooms?"

Durkin hesitated, this time, and weighed his answer.

"I don't think so."

"She's not a frequenter?"


"Some rather nice women are, you know, at times!"

"She may have been, once, I suppose, but I know not recently."

"Ah! I see! And what do you want us to do?"

"I want your help to get her out of there, today, before any harm comes to her."

"What sort of harm?"

Durkin found it hard to put his fears and feelings into satisfactory words. He was on dangerous seas, but he made his way doggedly on, between the Charybdis of reticence and the Scylla of plain-spoken suggestion.

"I see-in other words, you want the police to raid Penfield's downtown gambling establishment before two o'cloc

k this afternoon, and release from that establishment a young lady who drove there, and probably not for the first time, in an open cab in the open daylight, because certain ties which you do not care to explain bind you to the young lady in question?"

The brief and brusque finality of tone in the other man warned Durkin that he had made no headway, and he caught up the other's half-mocking and tacit challenge.

"For which, I think, this office will be adequately repaid, by being brought into touch with information which will help out its previous action against Penfield!"

"Who will give us this?"

Durkin looked at his cross-examiner, nettled and impatient.

"I could!"

"But will you?"

"Yes, on the condition I have implied!"

"In other words, you stand ready to bribe us into a doubtful and hazardous movement against the strongest gambler in all New York, on the expectation of an adequate bribe! This office, sir, accepts no bribes!"

"I would not call it bribery!"

"Then how would you describe it?"

"Oh, I might be tempted to call it-well, co?peration!"

Some tinge of scorn in his words nettled the officer of the law.

"It all amounts to the same thing, I presume. Now, let me tell you something. Even though you came to me today with a drayful of crooked faro layouts and doctored-up roulette wheels from Penfield's house, it would be practically impossible, at this peculiar juncture of municipal administration, to take in my men and carry out a raid over Captain Kuttrell's head!"

"Ah, I see! You regard Penfield as immune!"

"Penfield is not immune!" said the public prosecutor. The oldish-young face was very flushed and angry by this time. "Don't misunderstand me. As a recognized and respected citizen, you always have the right to call on the officers of the law, to secure protection and punishment of crime. But this must be sought through the natural and legitimate channels."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean go to the police."

"But to lay a charge with the police would be impracticable, in this case."

"Why would it?"

"Simply because it wouldn't get at Penfield, and it would only lead to-to embarrassing publicity!"

"Exactly so! And you may be sure, young man, that Penfield is quite aware of that fact. To be candid, it is just such things as this that allow him to be operating today. If you start the wheels, you must stand the racket!"

"Then you allow a notorious gambler to break every law of the land and say you can give me no help whatever in balking what amounts to a criminal abduction?"

The swivel-chair creaked peremptorily, as the public prosecutor turned sharply back to his desk.

"You'd better try the police!" he bit out impatiently.

Durkin strode to the door. He was halfway through it, when he was called sharply back.

"Don't carry away the impression, young man, that we're not fighting this man Penfield as hard as we can!"

"It looks like it!" mocked the man in the doorway.

"One moment-we have been after this man Penfield, and his kind, and we're still after them. But we don't pretend to accomplish miracles. This city is made up of mere human beings, and human beings still have the failing of breaking out, morally, now in one place, now in another. We can compress and segregate those infectious blots, but until you can show us the open sore we can't put on the salve. If you are convinced you are the object of some criminal activity, and are willing to hold nothing back, I can detail two plain-clothes men from my own office to go with you and help you out."

Durkin laughed, a little recklessly, a little scoffingly. Two plain-clothes men to capture a steel-bound fortress!

"Don't trouble them. They might make Penfield mad-they might get themselves talked about-and there's no use, you know, making a mess of one's mayoralty chances!"

And he was through the door indignantly, and as indignantly out, before the district-attorney could so much as flick the ash off his cigarette-end.

But after doing so, he touched an electric button, and it was at once answered by an athletic-looking clerk with all the earmarks of the collegian about him.

"Tell Barney to follow that man who just went out. Tell him to keep him under his eye, closely, and report to me tonight! Hurry these papers back to the Fire Commissioner. Then get that window up, and let the Mott Street Merchants' Protective Association in!"

Durkin, in the meantime, hurried uptown in his hansom, consumed with a feeling of resentment, torn by a fury of blind revolt against all organized society, against all law and authority and order. Still once more it seemed that some dark coalition of forces silently confronted and combated him at every turn. The consciousness that he must now fight, not only alone, but in the face of this unjust coalition brought with it a desperate and almost intoxicating sense of audacity. If the law itself was against him, he would take fate into his own hands, and go to his own ends, in his own way. If the machinery of justice ground so loosely and so blindly, there remained no reason why he himself, however recklessly he went his way, should not in the end disregard its engines and evade its ever-impending cogs.

He would show them! He would teach them that red-tape and officialism could only blunder blindly on at the heels of his elusive and lightfooted wariness. If they were bound to hold him down and delegitimatize him and keep him a pariah and a revolter against order, he would show them what he, alone, could do in his own behalf.

And as he drove hurriedly through the crowded city streets, still lashing himself into a fury of resentment against organized society; he formulated his plan of action, and mentally took up, point by point, each new move and what it might mean. As he pictured, in his mind, each anticipated phase of the struggle he felt come over him, for the second time, a sort of blind and irrational fury, the fury of a rat in a corner, fighting for its life and the life of its mate.

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