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   Chapter 29 THE LAST DITCH

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 15790

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Durkin advanced into the room quickly, the revolver in his right hand. It was a short-barreled bull-dog gun of heavy caliber, ugly and menacing as it swung from his out-thrust wrist, held low, with the right elbow pressed close in to his side. In the doorway stood MacNutt. His eyes were staring, his bullock head thrown back, bewildered at the sudden change that one sweep of an arm had brought to the scene.

As Durkin edged craftily round, with his back to the side wall, so that his eye commanded the silent trio before him, Frank made a movement to draw away from Keenan, who stood grotesquely petrified, his lean jaw fallen, the melancholy Celtic face touched more with wonder than with fear.

"Don't move!" commanded her husband, as he saw the motion. "Stay where you are!"

She looked at him, as bewildered as the others.

"That man, you'll find, is armed."

"You lie-you fool!"

"That man, I say, is armed!"

Keenan laughed, scoffingly.

"Take his revolver from him!" commanded Durkin.

A momentary hesitation held her back.

"Take it, I say! And, by God, if he so much as moves a finger, I'll blow the top of his head off!"

The woman confronted Keenan once more, but he fell back a step or two.

"There's no need of that," he broke in angrily. "If you want the gun, I'll give it to you!"

And as he spoke his arm swung down and back to his hip pocket.

"Stop that!" cried Durkin sharply, as he saw the movement. "Keep those hands up, or, by heaven, I'll let you have it!"

His arm, by this time, was tense and rigidly out-stretched, and his steady pistol-barrel pointed just between the other man's ludicrously blinking eyes. In the silence that followed the woman reached back, and without further hesitation drew the revolver from the motionless man's pocket.

It was a formidable, long-barreled "Colt," which, with one sharp motion of the fingers, she promptly unlimbered, exposing the breech. In each cylinder chamber, she saw, lay a loaded cartridge. Once assured of this, she snapped shut the breech and balanced the gun in the purposeful embrace of her fingers.

"Now what?" she asked, with her eyes turned to her husband. But the triumph suddenly died out of her face.

She was only in time to hear Durkin's sharp cry of anger, and to see his quick spring through the wide door-way, as the guard-door of the elevator closed and the cage shot up into space.

"We've missed him!" he gasped, with a cry of rage, as he ran to the door through which MacNutt, in that moment of excitement, had disappeared.

Frank kept her eyes on Keenan. She, too, began to feel the sense of some vast finality in their moves and actions that night.

Keenan laughed. It was a dry and joyless laugh, but it was discouraging.

"What's on the floor above?" demanded Durkin, wheeling on him.

"The floor above," slowly responded the other, "is Richard Penfield's private offices, where his safe is, and where your friend, no doubt, is now depositing his valuables, behind a burglar-proof time-lock!"

"Oh, that's it, is it!" cried Durkin. He turned to the woman sharply.

"Frank, quick! Leave Keenan to me!"

"Yes!" she answered, with coerced attention.

"MacNutt must not get out of this house! We must stop him before he gets down this shaft. You go down by the stairs, quick, to the lowest basement. You'll find the motor operating the elevator. What you must do is to get to the switch, and shut off the power before this car can get past us! Quick!"

He still faced Keenan, but his eye followed her to the door.

"If he does come, kill him; shoot him down, I say, like a dog-or he'll kill you!"

He could hear, through those silent hallways, the muffled rustling of her skirts and the sound of her flying feet on the waxed and polished wood. Then the silence suddenly became oppressive.

It was the unseen foe that he was afraid of, the undiscerned force that he feared. His uneasy and alert mind struggled to grasp the problem of how and where MacNutt would strike, if strike he did, out of the darkness of that silent and deserted house.

Durkin decided that above all things he must render impossible the descent of the elevator cage. But for a moment he could think of no bar that might be flung across the path of that complex and almost irresistible machinery, once awakened into its full power. Then the solution of the riddle came to him.

Still menacing the silent Keenan with his revolver, he flung over, with one quick and reckless push of his foot, the heavy mahogany table that stood in the centre of the room.

Then he turned to Keenan.

"Push that table out into the elevator shaft!" he ordered. The other man did not move. And time was precious; every second was precious!

Durkin repeated his command.

"Furniture-moving is not my vocation!" answered Keenan, folding his arms.

As Durkin sprang forward, there was no mistaking his meaning.

"I'll count ten," he said, white-lipped. "Unless the table goes out, you go out!" And he began counting, silently, numeral by numeral.

"Well, if you insist!" said Keenan, with a shrug.

Even as Keenan, at the menace of his reiterated command to hurry, threw open the guard door, Durkin was wondering, in his feverish activity of mind, just how soon MacNutt's next move would come, and just how and where he would strike.

The answer to that question came more quickly than he had expected. And it came grimly, and in a manner most unlooked for.

For even as the reluctant Keenan stooped over the heavy table, not ten feet from the shaft, the elevator cage descended. It flashed by the open door without stopping on its hurried course. But as it winged past that square of open light a revolver shot rang out and re?choed through the room.

Durkin, peering across the curling smoke, saw Keenan pitch forward on his hands, struggle and thrash to his feet once more, like a wounded rabbit. Then he fell again, prone on his face, close beside the shaft door. There he lay, breathing in little gurgles.

Durkin, with little beads of sweat on his pallid face, realized what it meant. That flying shot had been intended for him. MacNutt, in that desperate and hurried and unreasoning last chance, had delivered his blow, but had been mistaken in his man!

This knowledge flashed through his mind with the rapidity of a kinetoscope plate, and a moment later was obliterated by still another hurrying impression. For, through the deserted house rang two short and terrified screams, high-pitched and piercing. They were a woman's screams, and he knew they could come from no one but Frank.

He turned and hurled himself down the stairway, without even waiting to recover the revolver that had fallen a minute before from his startled fingers. He was conscious only of flinging the weight of his sliding body on the flume-like surface of the smooth balustrade, with his feet clattering on the polished steps as he went. He turned and dashed on to the head of the next stairway, and in the same manner flung himself to the floor beneath, and then to the next, and the next, until he was in the gloom of the basement itself.

Breathless and panting, he groped his way through the darkness, to where a glimmer of light came from what he hurriedly took to be the engine-room.

There, as he darted through the narrow doorway, into the circle of dim light from the one tinted globe in the lowered elevator cage, a strange sight met his eyes. It shocked and flung him into a second or two of blank indecision, of volitionless and thoughtless inactivity. For one moment of ominous calm it smote and held him there, before the sudden blind, cyclonic rush of brain and body which the vision gave rise to.

For at the door of the open cage MacNutt and Frank fought and struggled and panted together. The man was inside, on the bottom of the cage, the woman wa

s outside it. Her huddled but still resisting body was locked and jammed halfway across the narrow door. One of her opponent's great, ape-like strangling arms was about her neck. But the fingers at the end of it were caught between her strong white carnivorous teeth; and they became stained with blood as, in her frenzy, she fought and bit and struggled, with the blind fury of some final despair. Her revolver she had been unable to use; it lay out of her reach, behind them on the floor of the cage.

MacNutt, as he strained and tore at her resisting body, was fighting and edging his way with her back into the cage, to where that waiting revolver lay. He himself was already well within the narrow opening, sprawled out red and disheveled and Titanesque on the cage floor. But she was resisting him, inch by inch, fighting desperately, like a cornered cat, for her very life, yet knowing there could be only one end to that uneven conflict.

Durkin, after one comprehending glance, followed his first animal impulse of offense, and descended on MacNutt, beating at the prone, bull-like head, with its claret-colored bald spot, across which ran one livid scratch. He pounded on the clustered fingers of the gorilla-like hand, crushing and bruising them against the gilded iron grill-work, through which was interwoven the Penfield triple crescent.

The clutching arms relaxed, but only for a moment. In that moment, however, Durkin had stooped and with the one hand that remained with him to use, struggled to tear Frank away from the deadly clutch. This he would surely have done had not MacNutt seen his chance, and with his free hand suddenly caught at the wounded wrist that hung stained and limp at his enemy's side. That sudden, savage torture of the lacerated flesh was more than the weak and exhausted body of Durkin could endure. He emitted one little involuntary cry; then every protesting nerve and sinew capitulated, a white light seemed to flash and burn at the base of his very brain, and then go out. He fell fainting on the hard maple floor.

For a moment or two, like a defeated prize-fighter, he panted and struggled, ludicrously yet pathetically, to rise to his feet, but the effort was futile.

It was as he found himself ebbing down through some soft and feathery emptiness that he seemed to hear a pitiful and imploring voice call thinly out, "Mack!" Still fainter he seemed to hear it, "Mack! Come up! I'm dying!" He remembered, lazily, that it sounded like the distant voice of Keenan-but where was Keenan?

Then he seemed to hear the purr and murmur of distant machinery, followed by a gentle puff of sound and what he hazily dreamed was the smell of powder smoke. Then he remembered no more.

* * *

Just how or at what juncture he lost consciousness he could never clearly remember. But his first tangible impression was the knowledge that his wife was once more pouring brandy down his throat and imploring him to hurry. Then the sound of muffled blows echoed from above.

"Quick, Jim, oh, quick, or it will be too late. No, not that way. We can't go by the front-that's cut off. By the back-this way-I've got everything open!"

"But what's the noise?" asked Durkin weakly.

"That's the police, with a fireman's axe, breaking in the front door. But, see, it's not too late! These steps take us up to the back court, and this iron gate opens on a lane that runs from the supply department of the hotel there, right through to the open street!"

He shambled after her, white and tottering.

"Quick, Jim, quick!" she reiterated, as she supported him through the low gate, and kept her arm in his as they passed down the dark lane, with its homely smells of early cookery and baking bread. Only one passion possessed them-the blind and persistent and unreasoning passion for escape, for freedom.

"But MacNutt-where's MacNutt?" demanded Durkin, coming to a stop.

"No-no-quick!" gasped Frank, tugging at his arm.

"I tell you I've got to have it out with that man!" protested the pitiably dazed but dogged combatant at her side.

"You can't, Jim!"

"But I've got to!"

"You can't-you can't," she moaned, "for he's dead!"

A sudden sickening fear crept through his aching bones, seeming to leave them fluid, like wax.

"You-you did it?" he asked unsteadily. The face he gazed into looked aged and worn and pallid in the dim half-light of the breaking morning. A sudden great pity for her tore at his heart.

"No," she cried fiercely. "No-not me!"

But she was still tugging insanely at his obdurate arm. "I tell you, Jim, you must hurry, or it will be too late!"

"Thank God!" he gasped, scarcely hearing her pleadings.

They were skirting three early delivery-wagons, waiting to unload at the supply door of the hotel. A boy passing in the street beyond was shrilly whistling "Tammany."

"Tell me-now!" demanded Durkin.

"When you fainted MacNutt reached back for the revolver. He would have shot you, only Keenan called for him. He cried down the shaft that he was dying. He-he must have pushed the button as he fell. MacNutt was still on the floor of the cage, leaning out to take aim at us. Then the steel of the shaft-door and the steel of the elevator cage as it went up came to-oh-I can't tell you now!"

Durkin came to a stop, swaying against her.

"You mean the cage worked automatically, that it went up, with MacNutt still leaning out?"

"Yes!" gasped the woman brokenly; and Durkin felt the shiver of the tortured body on which he leaned.

He was silent as they swung into the open street. His exhausted and unco?rdinating brain was idly busy with some vague impression of the poignant irony of that end, of how that uncomprehending yet ineluctable power with which this man had toyed and played and sinned had, at the ultimate moment, established its authority and exacted its right.

He pulled himself up with a fluttering gasp, weak, sick, overcome, and was wordlessly grateful for the sustaining arm at his side.

For, once in the open, they were walking eastward, without a sense, momentarily, of either direction or destination.

Above the valley of the mist-hung street a thin and yellow light showed where morning was coming on, tardily, thickly. The boy whistling "Tammany" passed out of hearing.

"Thank God! oh, thank God!" Frank suddenly sobbed out, tossed and exalted on a wave of blind gratitude.

"God?" moaned the defeated and unhappy man at her side, dragging painfully on with his bruised and bitter body. "What has God to do with all this-or with us?"

She could not answer. She saw only a wide and gloomy vista of tangled crime and offense, stretching back into the past, as the tumbled and huddled waves of a sea run out to its crowding skyline. But it was the sea that had delivered them.

Broken, frustrated and defeated, hunted and homeless, without consolation for her Yesterday or respect for her Today, she looked up at the slowly wakening morning with a feeling that seemed to fuse and blend into the fiercest of joy.

Then the momentary exaltation died out of her weary body. They had life-but life was not enough! A sense of something within her falling and crumbling away, a silence of dark questioning and indecision, took possession of her.

Then out of her misery she cried still again, passionately, persistently, as she clutched and clung to him, her mate for whom and with him she was once destined to be a wanderer over the face of the earth:

"There must be a God! I tell you, there must be a God. He has let us escape!"

The man looked at her, questioningly.

"Don't you understand? This is the last?"

"The last?"

"Yes-yes, the last! You said it would be never again, if once you escaped from this!"

He had forgotten. But the woman at his side, holding him up, had remembered.

"Come!" she said. And they went on again.

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