Read CHAPTER XI - NORA DISAPPEARS IN AN EMPTY HOUSE of The Gray Mask, free online book, by Wadsworth Camp, on ReadCentral.com.

For the first time Garth entered the inspector’s office with the discomfort of a culprit. Yet he could not accuse himself justly of blundering. Nevertheless the brief telephone conversation with the doorman had informed him that the inspector attached an uncommon importance to the chance capture of the Chinaman. Because of it he would place the blame for the suicide where it fell most conveniently.

When he opened the door he appreciated that there was more than that out of the way at headquarters this morning. A woman bent, ancient, poor, sat in a chair to the right of the inspector’s desk. He could hazard no more concerning her, because of an intricately-patterned shawl which was draped over her head and nearly covered her face. Her presence was less astonishing than her bearing in this room, terrible alike to wrong-doers and to the reluctant witnesses of crime. Her attitude, indeed, was expectant. Her lack of distrust impressed him as aggressive. Moreover, its customary rumble had left the inspector’s voice which had flowed, Garth had remarked, with a conciliatory blandness.

It paused shortly as Garth entered. The huge man turned slowly in his chair. His eyes, somnolent as a rule, fixed Garth with a lively reproach.

“Shut the door,” he grumbled.

Garth obeyed.

“Here’s a pretty mess! Why did you bring him in at all?”

“The chink?” Garth asked mildly.

“No,” the inspector roared. “Queen Lilliokulani! Who do you suppose I mean? How many mugs have you brought in since I saw you last? Maybe you thought the big Chinese population was unhealthy.”

“I never dreamed he’d do that,” Garth protected himself.

“Why didn’t you warn the boys to keep an eye on him?” the inspector demanded.

Garth threw up his hands.

“How could I tell? I only brought him in on a chance. I knew you were after the funny medicine crowd. He was up to some queer business last night, and I thought he looked the type.”

“Yes,” the inspector agreed drily, “he certainly looked the type, so much so that I’d gamble that wizzened brain of his held all I want to know.”

He seized a paper weight and commenced to toss it ponderously from fist to fist.

“That’s what you’ve let get away from you. Maybe you’ll be accommodating enough to tell me how you happened to pick him up.”

Garth glanced questioningly at the woman.

“Don’t fret,” the inspector said scornfully. “She won’t give you away even if you have made an ass of yourself.”

Garth reddened. Impulsively he turned on his heel. Later he would be ashamed, since he understood the inspector thoroughly. But for the moment he surrendered himself to pride. The sound of the chair shoved back by the inspector was not unexpected, nor did he fail to catch the note of apology, the appeal for terms in the gruff voice.

“Come back here. Where are you going?”

But it was another voice that swung him sharply.

“Jim! Don’t lose your temper.”

The inspector’s fist scattered the papers on his desk top.

“Who’s running this office?”

Garth scarcely heard. He strode to the woman. He snatched the intricately-patterned shawl from her head. The face beneath was old, stained, and wrinkled; but there was no disguising the dark, young eyes which smiled up at him.

“So that’s why?” he gasped. “You’ve done it well, Nora. Now maybe I can know something about it.”

She laughed.

“Not if you resign. So much dignity!”

He laughed back.

“Nor if I’m fired.”

The inspector grinned.

“I’m glad you let me in this on some basis.”

The disclosure of the girl’s personality had scattered Garth’s revolt, and her eyes, now that they were no longer concealed, seemed to have rebuked the inspector to a milder humour.

“Understand,” he said, “Nora doesn’t tell me any too much how she’s working, and she’s been at this off and on for a long time. It’s only the last two weeks that it’s gotten serious. She had to see me to-day. That’s why I’m on my ear about the Chinaman. He might have saved her a good deal. You see, she’s working on that case.”

Garth’s heart sank.

“Dope!” he cried. “It isn’t safe. I tell you she’s fighting desperate people, inspector. Look at that Chinaman, whether he’s mixed up with the traffic or not, if a brute like him suspected her!”

The inspector returned to his chair. He waved his hands helplessly.

“Talk to Nora. I’ve told her all that. Once or twice I’ve wanted her to use her brain in cases where there wasn’t any risk. Nothing doing. When this rotten business came up she would go into it on her own hook. I guess that’s because she knows Manford and his high-brow, meddling society have got the district attorney behind them, and they’ve put it up to me hard.”

Nora shook her head, smiling a trifle wistfully.

“No, father, I did it to save souls and bodies. You see, Jim, they can handle the little fellows under the new laws, but everybody knows there’s this one place up-town, marvelously hidden and guarded-a distributing center, the heart of the whole surviving drug traffic. When I found out from father that everybody else had failed I just had to try. My conscience kept at me. Success would turn so much misery into happiness, so much sickness into health, so much crime into usefulness. And to-night, I believe, if we’re lucky-Jim! I want you to be there.”

“She thinks she’s spotted the house,” the inspector said softly. “That’s what she had to see me about. She wants a raid arranged for to-night.”

Garth’s voice was anxious.

“How are you working, Nora? I don’t like it. I wish you were out of it.”

But Nora would tell him nothing, and he realized instinctively that in her crusade she had taken desperate chances and would face more, probably the worst, to-night.

“You must tell us,” she said, “how you found the Chinaman. I’ve no doubt he was one of them. In itself his death was a confession-a pitifully silent one.”

Garth told his story of the man in the limousine, of the trailing Oriental, of what he had learned at the Bureau of Licenses. Nora offered no interpretation, but she smiled sympathetically at the inspector’s rage. He saw in the affair more than Garth. To him it meant an underhanded attempt on the part of the society to trap a material witness.

“They put it up to me,” he grumbled, “then they want to put it over me. Manford gets a line of his own and keeps it to himself. Out for a little glory and advertising! What happens every time I work with these silk-stockinged, fur-coated societies that think they know more about vice than the police. And to think, Garth, you snitched him away from them, then let him croak!”

Nora arose.

“No use crying over spilt milk, father.”

She prepared to leave. Garth followed her to the hallway. He urged her to let him share her plans, to give him a more pronounced part in the risks. She shook her head.

“It’s best to let me work this alone until the last minute, Jim.”

His one grain of comfort was her insistence that he should be in the van of the raiding party. So he watched her leave, her grace and beauty transformed by an inspired ingenuity into the bent lines and the haggard distortion of a crone.

The day lingered interminably. Whatever Nora had told her father he guarded with an unqualified stubbornness. Aside from the fact that he was to join the inspector in an up-town precinct house at ten o’clock, Garth walked into the affair wholly ignorant of plans or probabilities.

When finally the hour struck and he kept the appointment, he found Manford, in evening clothes, leaning against the desk while he tested the inspector’s temper with a smiling face and an insinuating conversation.

Garth had never before seen this amateur in social justice. His first glance furnished him a share in the inspector’s resentment, for clearly Manford’s illusions as to his importance were all of a happy character. His moustache, arranged with a studied precision, his ruddy complexion, his eyes, noticeably sarcastic, testified to measureless pride in a success which, Garth knew, had arisen almost of its own power from his inheritance. It was not to be doubted that his selection as its head had given the society in his eyes a majestic and peculiar value.

The fact that the inspector failed to counter impressed Garth. Probably it would be a sufficient revenge for him to accomplish the raid and smash the gang with Manford as a witness, yet without his active assistance.

A number of detectives and some men in uniform were grouped about the two. The inspector’s commands were brief and delivered with an excited anticipation which he could not conceal. At last he announced the number of the house. It was in the centre of the block east of that in which Garth had captured the Chinaman. Some of the men were to reach the back yard. Others were to guard the roof. The remainder would form the attacking party at the front.

“When these people find they can’t get through,” the inspector warned, “it’s a good bet they’ll show fight. So look out for yourselves, and impress on them that your guns aren’t watch charms.”

Garth, Manford, and the inspector led the way. Garth’s misgivings were far more profound than if the chief risk had been his own. Where was Nora now? What would such conscienceless men do to her if they found at the last moment she was responsible for their hopeless predicament?

They walked slowly to give the others time to reach their posts. At last the inspector glanced at his watch, snapped it shut, and quickened his pace.

“Come on, boys,” he muttered. “The season’s open.”

The house presented an uncommunicative front. They climbed the steps. No lights showed in the hall. The windows appeared to be shuttered. The inspector pulled the old-fashioned bell handle. After an undisturbed wait he tried again.

“Guess we haven’t got the combination, Chief,” Garth whispered.

“No time for experiments,” the inspector said. He put his shoulder to the door.

“Give a hand here, boys. Bring that ax.”

The lock snapped under their assault. They stumbled through into the vestibule. Garth choked. He was aware of fine particles of dust in his nose and his throat. The inspector had been similarly affected.

“Filthy lot!” he sneered. “One more door.”

They attacked the inner door. They burst through into a black hallway. The dust rose in clouds. The inspector snapped his flashlight and fell back with an exclamation, disappointed and surprised.

The light shone on bare floors and walls. Its power was radically diminished by the long accumulated dust their entrance had disturbed. As far as the first floor was concerned they stood in an empty house.

Manford sneered.

“A fine plan of yours, inspector!”

The inspector glared his dislike.

“I’m beginning to think you were jealous a minute ago, young man.”

“Then you’ve quite disarmed my unworthy emotion,” Manford laughed.

Garth had read more than dislike in the inspector’s manner. It had veiled, he was sure, a positive, an increasing fear; and the scorn of his voice had not thoroughly cloaked its uncertainty.

“Get up stairs,” he snarled to his men. “Scour every inch of this place.”

He turned back to Manford.

“I’ll swear they were here this afternoon. This house was used as a dive no later than this afternoon.”

Manford chuckled, indicating the dust which still whirled in the rays of the flash light.

The plain-clothes men returned almost at once. There was not a person in the house-not a piece of furniture. The grime on the walls, the thick dust testified to its long disuse.

Manford’s superior wisdom appeared justified. The intolerance of a position and a success, both inherited, shone in his eyes, expressed itself in his voice. He drew his coat closer about him. He touched his hat. It assumed a jauntier air.

“Good night, inspector,” he drawled. “I cut the opera to take in this example of police efficiency. I hope my society, on its own initiative, will be able to make more progress with the case. Maybe I’ll find some amusement chatting with the lieutenant at the station house. At least I can learn from the police what sins to omit.”

The inspector strangely, did not answer. Manford lighted a cigarette, grinning, and strolled down the steps.

Garth marvelled at the inspector’s lack of belligerency. He looked at him more closely. The big man’s jaw had fallen. He stared without purpose at the blank walls. The picture made Garth afraid. He grasped the inspector’s arm. He drew him to one side.

“How were you so sure?” he asked under his breath. “Because Nora gave you this number?”

The inspector shook his head. His great shoulders trembled.

“No. She had no number to give me. But this afternoon I saw her enter this house. I watched the door close behind her, and, Garth-she has never come out.”

Garth with frantic haste explored the place himself from roof to cellar. There was no question. It had remained uninhabited for many months, perhaps years. Yet Nora had told her father that, while its location had been kept from her, she had arranged a certain entry to the evil house that afternoon. She had told him to follow her. He had seen the door close behind her.

Garth scarcely dared open his mind to full comprehension. If Nora had been directed to this deserted building and admitted, it was clear that her connection with the police had been discovered. It was logically certain that she had walked into an elaborately plotted ambush.

He hurried to the sidewalk where he found the inspector braced heavily against the rail.

“What can I do, Garth?” the big man asked hoarsely.

What to do, indeed! Garth thrust his hands in his pockets. He stared helplessly up the street. His glance rested on the corner house of the next block where last night the man in the fur coat had left the first coin. Suddenly his breath sharpened. His mind, planning blindly, paused, drew back, dared again to face the single chance that had risen from the shadows of the corner house.

He wet his lips. He touched the inspector’s shoulder. He understood that on a bare possibility he would place his entire career in the scales. Since, however, it balanced Nora’s rescue from such unspeakable hands, he did not hesitate.

“Chief,” he whispered, “take your men back to the station house and keep them ready. I’ll telephone you there in a few minutes, fifteen or twenty at the outside.”

“What are you going to do, Garth?”

“Take one chance to get Nora back,” he answered quickly, “probably say good-bye to New York. It was something I thought of last night. It seemed common sense to forget it this morning. Now I’m going to make sure. No time to talk.”