Transcriber’s Notes can be found at the end of this eBook.
OTHER BOOKS BY MR. STRINGER
The Door of Dread
The Man Who Couldn’t Sleep
The House of Intrigue
The Prairie Wife
The Prairie Mother
The Prairie Child
Quite motionless, waiting over the sounder, bent the woman
THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY
Copyright, 1906, 1922
By The Bobbs-Merrill Company
Printed in the United States of America
BRAUNWORTH & CO
BROOKLYN, N. Y.
THE WIRE TAPPERS
The discharged prisoner hung back, blinking out at the strong sunlight with preoccupied and unhappy eyes. When the way at last seemed clear he thrust his hands deep in his pockets, and with an assumption of bravado that seemed incongruous to the stern and thoughtful face, sauntered toward Sixth Avenue.
At the corner, a crowd of idlers watched two workmen on a scaffolding, cleaning the stone of Jefferson Market with a sand-blast. It was not until he had forced his way in on one side of this crowd, and edged circuitously out on the other, that he felt at ease with the world. It was like dipping into a stream: it seemed to wash away something scarlet and flaming. A more resolute touch of self-respect came back to him. The square shoulders took on some old-time line of natural dignity. He was of the world again.
He crossed Sixth Avenue with quicker steps, and then, smitten with the pangs of sudden hunger, pushed his way into an oyster-bar on the next street corner. With his reawakening to actualities came the question as to what the next turn of the grim wheels of destiny would bring to him. For, at heart, he was still sick and shaken and weak. It was his first offense; and he felt the need of some obliterating stimulation. So, even though the heavy odors of that transformed bar-room were as nauseating as the mouldy gaol-smell he had left behind him, he calmly called for coffee and a dozen raw. He ate the oysters as they were opened, between gulps of the hot but rancid coffee. He next directed his attention to a bowl of crackers, moistening them with catchup as he adroitly made away with them.
It was not until then that he noticed the stranger beside him, looking at him pointedly. This stranger was corpulent, and friendly enough of face, but for the blocked squareness of the flaccid jaw and the indefinite pale green glint of the deep-set, predatory eyes that shifted from side to side under the fringe of grayish eyebrow, as though the great neck were too vast a thing to be lightly troubled. He was floridly dressed, the younger man noticed, with a heavy, chased-gold band on one fat finger, and a claw-mounted diamond in the stud on his shirt-front. There was, too, something beefily animal-like in the confident, massive neck that refused readily to move, and in the square upthrust of the great shoulder.
The discharged prisoner returned the other’s half-quizzical gaze of inspection. He did so with a look that was unmistakably belligerent. For, although they stood side by side, they were of two worlds, and the prisoner was no longer a prisoner.
The stranger, unabashed, merely smiled, and leaned amiably against the stool-lined counter.
“What’ll you have, Durkin?” he asked, easily.
The other man still glared at him, in silence. Thereupon the stranger with the diamond stud thrust his hands deep down in his pockets, and rocking on his heels, laughed confidently.
“Climb down, my boy, climb down!”
Durkin buttoned up his coat: the gesture was as significant as the slamming of a door.
“Oh, smoke up, and have something with me!”
“Who are you, anyway?” demanded Durkin, wheeling on him, jealous of his momentary isolation.
“Me?—Oh, I was just keepin’ an eye on you, over yonder!” The stout man jerked a thumb vaguely toward Jefferson Market, then turned to the attendant.
“Slip us a nip o’ that London Dry o’ yours, Terry, with a plate o’ hot beans and sandwiches. Yes, I was kind o’ lookin’ on, over there. You’re up against it, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean by that?” asked the other, hungrily watching a leg of boiled ham, from which the attendant was shaving dolefully thin slices.
“Here, brace up on a swig o’ Terry’s watered bootleg; then we can talk easier. Hold on, though—it won’t cost us any more to get comfortable, I guess!”
He ordered the luncheon over to a little round table in a corner of the room. Durkin could already feel the illicit London Dry singing through his veins; he was asking himself, wolfishly, if he could not snatch that proffered meal before taking to flight.
“Now, this isn’t monkey-work with me, it’s business,” announced the newcomer.
“Indeed?” said Durkin, hesitating, and then taking up a fork.
“Now, first thing, I want to tell you something. That song and dance you threw up to the Old Boy over on the bench, about your bein’ an electric inventor in hard luck, caught my eye, first thing. Look here,—straight off the bat, d’ you want to get a cinch on a good job?”
“I do!” declared Durkin, through a mouthful of beans. “But doing what?”
“Same old thing!” answered the other, offhandedly.
Durkin put down his fork, indignantly.
“What same old thing?” he demanded.
“Operatin’, of course!”
Durkin, in a sudden tremor of alarm, felt that the break would come before even that steaming plate of beans was eaten. So he fought back his affronted dignity, and giving no sign of either surprise or wonder, parried for time.
“I’m tired of operating,” he said, washing a mouthful of his lunch down with a second glass of Terry’s London Dry. “My arm has been giving