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   Chapter 26 THE CROWN OF IRON

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 9182

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Durkin's first feeling, as he scrambled to his feet and half-stumbled, half-groped his way along the narrow, tunnel-like passage, was an untimely and impotent and almost delirious passion to get out into the open and fight-fight to the last, if need be, for all that narrowing life still held for him. This feeling was followed by a quick sense of frustration as he realized his momentary helplessness and how comprehensive and relentless seemed the machinery of intrigue opposing him.

Yet, he told himself with that lightning-like rapidity of thought which came to him at such moments of peril, however intricate and vast the machinery, however carefully planned the line of impending campaign, the human element would be an essential part of it. And his last forlorn hope, his final fighting chance, lay in the fact that wherever the human element entered there also entered weakness and passion and the possibility of accident.

What now remained to him, he warned himself as he hurriedly locked and barred the two steel doors which shut off the first and second passageway, was to think quickly and act decisively. Somewhere, at some unforeseen moment, his chance might still come to him.

As for himself, he felt that he was safe enough, for the time being. The officer who had detected him in the manhole would be sure to follow up a case so temptingly suspicious. The police, in turn, could take open advantage of an intrusion so obviously unauthorized and ominous as his own, and find in it ample excuse for investigating a quarter which for many months must have been under suspicion. But, under any circumstances, well guarded as that poolroom fortress stood, its resistance could be only a matter of time, and of strictly limited time, once the reserves were on the scene.

Durkin's first thought, accordingly, was of the roof, for, so far as he knew, all escape from the ground floor was even then cut off. Yet the first door leading from the vault chamber he found to be steel-bound and securely locked. He surmised, with a gasp of consternation, that the doors above him would be equally well secured. He remembered that Penfield never did things by halves, and he felt that his only escape lay in that upward flight.

So he saw that it was to be a grim race in demolition; that while he was to gnaw and eat his way upward through steel and brick, like a starving rat boring its passage up through the chambers of a huge granary, his pursuers would be pounding and battering at the lower doors in just as frenzied pursuit.

He no longer hesitated, but moved with that clear-thoughted rapidity of action which often came to him in his moments of half-delirium. Turning to his tool-bag and scooping out his bar of soap, he kneaded together enough of the nitroglycerine from one of the stout rubber bags to make a mixture of the consistency of liquid honey. This he quickly but carefully worked into the crack of the obstructing door. Then he attached his detonator, and shortened and lighted his fuse, scuttling back to the momentary shelter of the outer passage, making sure to be beyond the deadly "feathered radius" of the nitro.

There he waited behind the steel-bound door for the coming detonation. The sound of it smote him like a blow on the chest, followed by a rush of air and a sudden feeling of nausea.

But he did not wait. He groped his way in, relocked the passage door and crawled on all fours through the smoke and heavy, malodorous gases.

The remnants of the blasted door hung, like a tattered pennon, on one twisted hinge, and his way now lay clear to the ladder of grilled ironwork leading to the floor above. But here the steel trapdoor again barred his progress. One sharp twist and wrench with his steel lever, however, tore the bolt-head from its setting, and in another half-minute he was standing on the closed door above, shutting out the noxious smoke from the basement.

Between him and the stairway stood still another fortified door, heavier than the others. He did not stop to knead his paste, for already he could hear the crash of glass and the sound of sledges on the door at the rear of the cigar-shop. Catching up a strand of what he knew to be the most explosive of all guncottons-it was cellulose-hexanitrate-he worked it gently into the open keyhole and again scuttled back to safety as the fuse burnt down.

He could feel the building shake with the tremor of the detonation, shake and quiver like a ship pounded by strong head seas. A remote window splintered and crashed to the floor, sucked in by the atmospheri

c inrush following the explosion-vacuum. He noticed, too, as he mounted the narrow stairs before him, that he was bleeding at the nose. But this, he told himself, was no time for resting. For at the head of the second stairway still another sheet of armored steel blocked his passage, and still again the hurried, hollow detonation shook the building. The ache in his head, behind and above the eyes, became almost unbearable; his stomach revolted at the poisonous gases through which he was groping. But he did not stop.

As he twisted and pried with his steel lever at the lock of the trapdoor that stood between him and the open air of the housetop, he could already hear the telltale splintering of wood and sharp orders and muffled cries and the approaching, quick tramping of feet. He fought at the lock like a madman, for by this time the trampling feet were mounting the upper stairs, and doors were being battered and wrenched from their hinges. He had at least made their work easy for them; he had torn open the heart of Penfield's stronghold; he had blazed a path for those officers of the law who had bowed before the inaccessibility of the building he had disrupted single-handed!

"Good!" he cried, in his frenzied delight. "Give it to them good! Wreck 'em, once for all; put 'em out of business!"

Then he gave a sudden relieving "Ah!"-for the sullen wood had surrendered its bolts, and the door swung open to his upward push. The night wind, cold and damp and clean, swept his hot and grimy face as he pulled himself up through the opening.

Even as he did so he heard the gathering sounds below him growing clearer and clearer. He squatted low in the darkness, and with a furtive eye ever on the dismantled trapdoor, groped his way, gorilla-like, closer and closer to the wall against which he knew the janitor's ladder to be still leaning.

Then he dropped flat on his face, and wormed his way toward the nearest chimney, not twelve feet from him, for a wet helmet had emerged from the trap opening. A moment later a lantern was flashing and playing about the rainy roof.

"We've got 'em! Quick, Lanigan; we've got 'em!" cried the helmeted head exultantly, from the trapdoor, to someone below.

The next moment Durkin, prone on his face, heard the crack of a revolver and the impact of the ball as it ricochetted from the roof-tin, not a yard from his feet.

He no longer tried to conceal himself, but, rolling and tumbling toward the eave-cornice, let himself over, and hung and clung there by his hands, while a second ball whistled over him.

He felt desperately along the flat brick surface, with his kicking feet, wondering if he had misjudged his direction, sick with a fear that he might be dangling over an open abyss. He shifted the weight of his body along the cornice ledge, still pawing and feeling, feverishly and ridiculously, with his gyrating limbs. Then a joy of relief swept through him. The ladder was there, and his feet were already on its second step.

As he ran, cat-like, across the lower apartment-house roof, he knew that he stood in full range of his pursuers above, and he knew that by this time they were already crowding out to the cornice-ledge. There was no time for thought. He did not pause to look back at them, to weigh either the problem or the possible consequences in his mind; he only remembered that that afternoon he had noticed five crowded lines of washing swinging in multi-colored disarray at the back of that many-familied hive of life. He hesitated only once, at the sheer edge of the roof, to make sure, in the uncertain half-light, that he was above those crowded lines.

"Let him have it-there he goes!" cried a voice above, and at that too warning note his hesitation took wing.

Durkin leaped out into space, straddling the first line of sodden clothes as he fell. Even in that brief flight the thought came to his mind that it would have been infinitely better for him if the falling rain had not weighted and flattened those sagging lines of washing. Then he remembered, more gratefully, that it was probably only because of the rain that they still swung there.

As his weight came on the first line it snapped under the blow, as did the second, which he clutched with his hands, and the third, which he doubled over, limply, and the fourth, which cut up under his arm-pit. But as he went downward he carried that ever-growing avalanche of cotton and woolen and linen with him, so that when his sprawling figure smote the stone court it fell muffled and hidden in a web of tangled garments.

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