E-text prepared by Roger Frank, Juliet Sutherland, and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team (https://www.pgdp.net)
THE GRAY PHANTOM'S RETURN
Author of "The Gray Phantom"
A. L. Burt CompanyPublishers New York
Published by arrangement with W. J. Watt & CompanyPrinted in U. S. A.
Copyright, 1922, byW. J. Watt & Company
Printed in the United States of America
THE GRAY PHANTOM'S RETURN
CHAPTER I--FROM DYING LIPS
Patrolman Joshua Pinto, walking his beat at two o'clock in the morning,hummed a joyless tune as he turned off the Bowery and swung into EastHouston Street. It was a wet night, with a raw wind sweeping around thestreet corners, and Pinto walked along with an air of doggedpersistence, as if trying to make the best of a disagreeable duty. Hisheavy and somewhat florid features were expressionless. For all that hisface indicated, he might have been thinking that it was a fine night fora murder, or wishing that he was in plain clothes instead of uniform, orpicturing himself in his cozy home playing with his baby, whose lusty"da-da's" and "goo-goo's" he was pleased to interpret as wonderfullinguistic achievements.
Perhaps it was nothing but instinct that caused him to slow down hispace as he passed a squatty and rather dilapidated building in themiddle of the block. So far as appearances went, it did not differgreatly from its drab and unprepossessing neighbors, yet Pinto cast asharp glance at the ground-floor window, which bore a lettered signproclaiming that the premises were occupied by Sylvanus Gage, dealer inpipes, tobacco, and cigars. As if the building had cast a spell of gloomupon him, the patrolman ceased his humming, and his lips were set in atight line as he proceeded down the block.
Being an ambitious and hard-working officer, Pinto made it a practice tocultivate the acquaintance of as many as possible of the people livingalong his beat. He knew Sylvanus Gage, a thin, stoop-shouldered man witha flowing beard, a black cap adorning his bald skull, and mild blue eyesthat had a habit of gazing lugubriously at the world through thicklenses rimmed with tarnished gold. Despite his patriarchal appearance,he was reputed to be using his tobacco business as a cloak for aflourishing traffic in stolen goods. So deftly did the old man managehis illicit enterprises that the police, though morally certain of theirfacts, had never been able to produce any evidence against him. Littlewas known of his housekeeper, a sour and sharp-tongued slattern ofuncertain age, but there were those who suspected that she was notentirely innocent of complicity in her employer's clandestineactivities.
It may have been of this Pinto was thinking as he plodded along with themeasured gait of the seasoned patrolman. The soggy sidewalks glistenedin the light from the street-corner lamps, and here and there along thepavement water was forming in little pools. Most of the windows weredark and, save for an occasional shifty-eyed and furtively slinkingpedestrian, the streets were deserted. Pinto halted for a moment to lookat his watch, then quickened his steps, "pulled" the buff-colored box onthe corner, and trudged on again.
Once more he was humming a tune. Each of the scattered prowlers he metwas subjected to a critical scrutiny out of the corner of his eye. Nowand then he dodged into a dark doorway and tried a lock. From time totime he glanced through the window of a store or shop. It was all amatter of habit with Joshua Pinto. For seven years he had pursued thesame dull routine, varied only by an occasional transfer to another partof the city, or by a change from night to day duty, or vice versa. Hehad broken up a few nocturnal street brawls, now and then he had foiledthe designs of a second-story artisan, and on two or three occasions hehad caught a safe-blower red-handed, but nothing very exciting had everhappened to him.
On this particular night, however, an acute observer might have noticedan air of disquietude about Officer Pinto. There was the merest hint ofuneasiness in the way he twirled his nightstick as he walked along, inthe intensified alertness with which he inspected the occasionalpassers-by, in the quick and somewhat nervous glances he cast up anddown the shabby streets. Likely as not the rain and the wind, togetherwith the gloom pervading the district, were responsible for his state ofmind, and possibly his physical discomfort was aggravated by apremonition--though Pinto himself would have called it a "hunch"--that atragic event was soon to enliven the tedium of his existence.
Again his footsteps dragged as once more he strolled past theestablishment of Sylvanus Gage. The building was dark and still, likemost of the others in the block, yet something prompted Pinto to cast asuspicious glance at the door and windows, as if he sensed an omen inthe shadows clinging to the wall.
He stopped abruptly as a door slammed and a shrill feminine voice calledhis name. A woman, scantily dressed and with loosened hair fluttering inthe wind, was hurrying toward him with excited gestures.
"Officer!" She clutched his sleeve and pointed toward the tobacco shop."There--hurry!"
The patrolman's eyes followed her pointing finger. A second-story windowopened above their heads and a frowsy person, disturbed by the woman'sharsh voice, looked down into the street. Pinto regarded the speakerwith apparent unconcern, recognizing the housekeeper of Sylvanus Gage.Another window opened across the street, and a second face looked downon them.
Officer Pinto, schooled by previous experiences with overexcitedfemales, casually inquired what might be the matter.
"Matter!" retorted the woman. "Murder--that's what's the matter. Whydon't you get a move on?"
Pinto permitted himself to be led along. The driver of a milk wagonhalted his nag to watch the commotion. The woman, jabbering andshivering, opened the door of the tobacco store, pushed the officerinside and switched on the light above the counter.
"There!" She pointed at a door in the rear of the dingy shop. "He--Mr.Gage--sleeps back there."
"Well, what of it?" An impatient look cloaked Pinto's real feelings."He's got to sleep some place, ain't he?"
The woman's eyes blazed. "You stand there handing out sass while he--hemay be dying back there." Trying to steady herself, she gathered up thefolds of the tattered robe she wore. "My room's right above his," sheexplained. "A few moments ago I jumped out of bed, thinking I'd heard asound."
"A sound, eh? This town is chockfull of them things." Pinto leveled anuneasy glance at the door in the rear. "What kind of sound was it youthought you heard?"
"What kind of sound! You ain't paid for asking fool questions, OfficerPinto. All day long I felt in my bones that something awful was going tohappen, and when that noise woke me up I was scared stiff. I grabbed afew clothes and ran down here, but the door to Mr. Gage's room wasbolted on the inside. He always shoots the bolt before he goes to bed. Iknocked, but not a sound came from the inside. Then I shouted loudenough to raise the dead, but----"
"Your boss is hard of hearing, ain't he?"
"A little. Say, why don't you do something?"
Pinto walked to the outer door, shooed away a knot of curiousspectators, then sauntered back to where the woman stood. There was asupercilious grin on his lips, but deep in his eyes lurked an uneasygleam.
"So you've been feeling in your bones that something awful was going tohappen," he gibingly observed. "Then you hear a noise, and right awayyou yell murder. You've got _some_ imagination, you have. I ain't goingto break in on a sleeping man just because your bones feel funny. Minedo, too, once in a while, but I don't make any fuss about it. No,sir-ee! You might as well trot back to bed."
The woman pulled at the folds of her robe. "I haven't told you all yet."She spoke fast and low, gazing fixedly at the door in the rear."Yesterday afternoon Mr. Gage got a letter from--from a party he's gotgood reason to be scared of. He hadn't heard fr
om him in years, and he'dbeen hoping he was rid of him for good. Well, I was watching him whilehe read the letter, and I saw him turn white as a sheet. Later, while hewas out to lunch, I went to his desk and read the letter. I was justthat curious. It told Mr. Gage that the writer would call on him insideforty-eight hours."
"Was that all?"
"All but the name at the bottom--and the name was the main thing."
"It was the name of the man Mr. Gage has been afraid of all these years.When I saw that name at the bottom of the note I felt a chill all over.Say," raising her voice, "why don't you break in that door?"
Pinto stroked his chin, as if strongly impressed by what the woman hadtold him. Another group of spectators had gathered at the entrance, andhe gruffly ordered them to disperse. Then he faced the inner door,turned the knob, pushed. The door did not yield, and he looked back overhis shoulder.
"Whose name was signed to the note?" he demanded.
A look of awe crossed the housekeeper's face. She raised a bony arm andsteadied herself against the counter. A grayish pallor had suffused hershriveled features.
"I--I can't tell you," she whispered. "I mustn't. Hurry--for Heaven'ssake!"
Something of her excitement seemed to have been communicated to Pinto,but even now he appeared loath to attack the door.
"If your boss was so all-fired scared of the guy that sent him the note,why didn't he call up the police?" he queried suspiciously. Then a lookof comprehension dawned in his face. "I guess, though, that he wasn'tvery anxious to have the department butt into his affairs, and maybe hethought the other fellow's bite was worse'n his bark. Well, here goes."
He stepped back a few paces, squared his shoulders for action, thenhurled his massive figure against the door. The woman stood rigid,straining forward a little, yet holding her hands before her face as ifdreading the sight that might meet her eyes. Again and again Pinto flunghis body against the door, and finally, with a crash and a longsplintering sound, it flew open, precipitating him headlong into theinner room.
A queer sound rose in the woman's throat and she lowered her hands. Shemade as if to follow the policeman, but something held her back. Fromwhere she stood, staring through the doorway, she could see that theinner room was dark, and she heard the policeman's grunts and mutteringsas he struggled to regain his feet. Then came an interval of silence,broken only by groping footfalls, and presently a light appeared in therear. Pinto had found the electric switch.
Finally, Pinto came out. His face was a little white and his lips wereset in a tight line.
"He's dead," he declared.
The woman shrank back against the counter. "Murdered?"
The officer bawled a command to the neck-craning group at the entranceto stand back. Without answering the housekeeper's question, he lookedquickly about the store till he spied a telephone on a shelf behind thecounter. The woman listened abstractedly as he called a number and spokea few words into the transmitter. Then he stepped out from behind thecounter and faced her.
"Your boss is lying on the floor in there," he announced, jerking hishuge head toward the inner room, "with a knife wound in his chest. Hewas breathing his last just as I got to him."
The housekeeper jerked herself up, a look of sullen passion in herblanched face. "Breathing his last, was he?" Her voice was loud andshrill. "Then he wasn't dead yet! If you'd hurried, as I told you to, wemight have saved his life. I'll report you for this, Officer Pinto."
"Cut that stuff! Nothing could have saved him. He was too far gone.Say," and Pinto bored his sharp eyes into her twitching face, "what namewas signed to that letter?"
Twice she opened her lips to speak, but no words came.
"Out with it! You've got to tell me now."
The woman swallowed. "Why do you want to know?" she asked faintly.
"I've got a reason. Just as Gage was drawing his last breath, I got downbeside him and asked him if he could tell me who stabbed him. I guess heread my lips; anyhow, he was able to whisper a name. I want to know ifit jibes with the name signed to the letter Gage got yesterday."
"Well, then"--she pressed her hands against her breast--"the name on theletter was the Gray Phantom's."
Pinto ejaculated hoarsely.
"It jibes, all right!" he declared.