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   Chapter 21 THE PIT OF DESPAIR

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 11336

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Frances Durkin looked at the jeering man before her, studiously, belligerently.

"What do you mean by saying he'll punish himself?" she demanded.

She seemed like a woman who had just awakened. Her earlier comatose expression had altogether passed away. There was life, now, in every line of her body.

"I mean that Durkin's got his quarter of a million in securities, all right, all right, but, by God, I've got you! And I mean that he's goin' to, that he's got to, make a choice between them and you. So we'll just wait and find out which he loves best, his beau or his dough!" And he laughed harshly at the feeble witticism, as he added, in his guttural undertone: "And I guess we get the worth of our money, whichever way it goes!"

Frank's impression was that he was half drunk, that he was mumbling vaguely of revenges which grew up and died in their utterance. Her look of open scorn stung him into a sudden tremor of anger.

"Oh, don't think I'm spoutin' wind! If Durkin's the man you think he is, and I hope he is, he'll be tryin' to nose his way into this place before midnight tonight!"

"And he will," cried Frank, exultantly, "and with the whole precinct police force behind him!"

"He daren't!" retorted MacNutt. "He daren't get within a hundred yards of the Central Office, and he daren't show his nose inside a precinct station-house! And that's not all, either. There's no captain on this side of New York who's goin' to buck against the whole Tammany machine an' poke into this Penfield business. If that young man with the butterfly necktie over on Centre street thinks he can keep us movin', he's got to do a heap less talkin' and a heap more convictin' before he can put our lights out! That air is good enough for politics-but it's never goin' to break this here Penfield combination! Oh, no, Jimmie Durkin knows how the land lays. He's one o' your bold and brainy kind, who likes to shut himself up in a garret for a week, and make maps of what he's goin' to do, an' how he's goin' to do it, and then trip off by his lonely and do his huntin' in the dark! And he's goin' to try to get in here, before midnight, tonight, and what's more, he's goin' to find it uncommonly easy to do!"

"You mean you'll entice him and trap him here?"

"No, I won't lay a finger on him. You'll do the enticin', and he'll do the trappin'! I won't even be round to see-till afterward!"

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean we're holdin' open house tonight," mocked MacNutt, "and that Durkin will maybe drop in!"

"And then what will it be?"

"Come this way, my beauty, and I'll show you. First thing, though, just notice this fact. We're not goin' to make it too hard and discouragin' for Durkin. This trap-door will be left unlocked. Also, that front manhole will be left kind of temptingly open, with a few chunks o' loose coal lyin' round it, so that even a Mercer street roundsman couldn't help fallin' into it! Oh, yes, he'll find it easy enough!"

Frank followed him without a word, as he made his way through the low and narrow steel-lined tunnel leading to the vault-room.

"Now, my dear, I guess this is the only way he'll be able to get at you, unless he comes in a flyin' machine, and the first place he'll nose through will be this room. So, bein' old at the business, he's sure to try a crack at our safe. At least, he'll go gropin' around for a while. Not an invitin'-lookin' piece o' furniture, I grant you, but that's neither here nor there. It's not the safe that'll be detainin' Durkin, or any other housebreaker who tries to get gay on these premises. If you look hard, maybe you'll be able to see what's a damned sight more interestin'!"

Frank looked, but she saw nothing beyond the great vault and the burnished copper guard-rail that surrounded it, like the fender about a marine engine.

"You don't notice anything strikin'?" he interrogated wickedly.

She did not.

He emitted a guttural little growl of a laugh, and stepped over to a half-hidden switchboard, high up on the wall. He threw the lever out and down, and the kiss of the meeting metals sounded in a short and malevolent spit of greenish light.

"Are you on?" taunted MacNutt.

Frank's slowly comprehending eyes were riveted on the burnished copper railing, on which, only a moment before, her careless fingers had rested. There was no sign, no alteration in the shining surface of that polished metal. But she knew that a change, terrible and malignant, had taken place. It was no longer a mild and innocent guard-rail. It was now an instrument of destruction, an unbuoyed channel of death. She stood staring at it, with fixed and horrified eyes, until it wavered before her, a glimmering and meandering rivulet of refracted light.

"Are you on?" reiterated the watching man.

The wave of pallor that swept over her face seemed to change her eyes from violet to black, although, for a moment, their gaze remained as veiled and abstracted as a sleep-walker's. Then a movement from her companion lashed and restored her to lucidity of thought. For, from where it leaned against the wall, MacNutt had caught up a heavy door-sheathing of pressed steel. It was painted a Burgundy red, to match the upholstery of the upper room where it had once done service, and on the higher of the two panels was embossed the Penfield triple crescent.

This great sheet of painted steel MacNutt held above his head, as a hesitating waiter might hold a gigantic tray. Then he stepped toward the shimmering guard-rail, and stood in front of it.

"Now, this luxurious-lookin' rear-admiral's rail-fence is at present connected with a tapped power circ

uit, or a light circuit, I don't know which. All I know is that it's carryin' about a twenty-eight-hundred alternatin' current. And just to show that it's good and ready to eat up anything that tries monkeyin' round it, watch this!"

He raised the Burgundy-red door-sheathing vertically above his head, and stepping quickly back, let it descend, so that as it fell it would strike the metal of the sunken vault-top and the copper guardrail as well.

The very sound of that blow, as it descended, was swallowed up in the sudden, blinding, lightning-like flash, in the hiss and roar of the pale-green flame, as the sheet of steel, tortured into sudden incandescence, bridged and writhed and twisted, warping and collapsing like a leaf of writing-paper on the coals of an open fire. A sickening smell of burning paint, mingling with the subtler gaseous odors of the corroding metal, filled the little dungeon.

"Don't! That's enough!" gasped the woman, groping back toward the support of the wall.

MacNutt shut off the current, and kicked the charred door-sheathing, already fading from incandescence into ashen ruin, with his foot. The smell of burning leather filled the room, and he laughed a little, turning on the woman a face crowned with a look of Belial-like triumph, with dark and sunken circles about the vindictive, deep-set eyes.

Once, in an evening paper, she had pored over the picture of an electrocution at Sing Sing, a haunting and horrible scene, with the dangling wires reaching down to the prisoner, strapped and bound in his chair, the applied sponges at the base of the spine, the buckled thongs about the helpless ankles, the grim and waiting gaol officials, the boyish-looking reporters, with watches in their hands, the bald and ugly chamber, and in the background the dim figure of Retributive Justice, with uplifted arm, where an implacable finger was about to touch the fatal button. Time and time again that vision had brought terror to her midnight dreams, and had left her weak and panting, catching at her startled husband with feverish and passionate hands and holding him and drawing him close to her, as though that momentary guardianship could protect him from some far and undefined danger.

"Oh, Mack," she burst out hysterically, over-wrought by the scene before her, "for the love of God, don't make him die this way! Give him a fighting chance! Give him a show! Do what you like with me, but don't blot him out, like a dog, without a word of warning!"

"It's not my doin'!" broke in her tormentor.

"It's inhuman-it's fiendish!" she went on. "I can't stand the thought of it!"

MacNutt laughed his mirthless laugh once more.

"Oh, I guess you'll stand it!"

"But I can't!" she moaned.

"Oh, yes; you'll stand it, and you'll see it, too! You'll be right here, where you can take the whole show in, this time! It won't be a case o' foolin' the old man, like it was last time!"

"I will be here?" she gasped.

"You'll be right on the spot-and you'll see the whole performance!"

She drew her hands down, shudderingly, over her averted face, as though to shut something even from her imagination.

"And do you know what'll be the end of it all?" MacNutt went on, in his frenzied mockery. "It'll all end in a little paragraph or two in the Morning Journal, to the effect that some unknown safecracksman or other accidentally came in contact with a live wire, and was shocked to death in the very act of breaking into a pious and unoffendin' cigar-store vault! And you'll be the only one who'll know anything different, and I guess you won't do much squealin' about it!"

She wheeled, as though about to spring on him.

"I will! I will, although I wither between gaol walls for it-although I die for it! I'm no weak and foolish woman! I've known life bald to the bone; I've fought and schemed and plotted and twisted all my days almost, and I can die doing it! And if you kill this man, if you murder him-for it is murder!-if you bring this dog's death on him, I will make you pay for it, in one way or another-I'll make you mourn it, David MacNutt, as you've made me mourn the first day I ever saw your face!"

She was in a blind and unreasoning passion of vituperative malevolence by this time, her face drawn and withered with fear, her eyes luminous, in the dungeon-like half-lights, with the inner fire of her hate.

"Keep cool, my dear, keep cool!" mocked MacNutt, without a trace of trepidation at all her vague threats. "Durkin's not dead yet!"

She caught madly at the slender thread of hope which swung from his mockery.

"No! No, he's not dead yet, and he'll die hard! He's no fool-you've found that out in the past! He will give you a fight before he goes, in some way, for he's fought you and beaten you from the first-and he'll beat you again-I know he'll beat you again!"

Her voice broke and merged into a paroxysm of sobbing, and MacNutt looked at her bent and shaken figure with meditative coldness.

"He may have beaten me, once, long ago-but he'll never do it again. He won't even go out fightin'! He'll go with his head hangin' and his nose down, like a sneak! And you'll see him go, for you'll be tied there, with a gag in your pretty red mouth, and you'll neither move nor speak. And there'll be no light, unless he gets so reckless as to strike a match. But when the light does come, my dear, it'll be a flash o' blue flame, with a smell o' something burnin'!"

The woman covered her face with her hands, and swayed back and forth where she stood.

Then MacNutt held back his guttural laugh, suddenly, for she had fallen forward on her face, in a dead faint.

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