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After a moment, he knelt again. There was still the inner door--but that was a minor matter to Jimmie Dale compared with what had gone before.
Stillness once more--a long period of it. And then again that cough from above--a prolonged paroxysm of it this time that went racketing through the house.
Jimmie Dale, in the act of swinging back the inner door of the safe, paused to listen, and little furrows under his mask gathered on his forehead. The coughing stopped. Jimmie Dale waited a moment, still listening--then his flashlight bored into the interior of the safe.
"The cash box, probably," quoted Jimmie Dale, beneath his breath-- and picked it up from where it lay in the bottom compartment of the safe.
The lock snipped under the insistent probe of a delicate little blued-steel instrument, and Jimmie Dale lifted the cover. There was a package of papers and documents on top, held together with elastic bands. Jimmie Dale spent a moment or two examining these, then his fingers dived down underneath, and the next minute, under the flashlight, the morocco leather case open, the diamond necklace was sparkling and flashing on its white satin bed.
"A tempting little thing, isn't it?" said Jimmie Dale gently. "It was really thoughtful of you, Markel, to buy that this afternoon!"
Jimmie Dale replaced the necklace in the cash box, set the cash box on the floor, closed the inner door of the safe, and swung the outer door a little inward--but left it flauntingly ajar. Then from a pocket of the leather girdle beneath his vest he produced his small, thin, flat, metal case. From this, from between sheets of oil paper, with the aid of a pair of tweezers, he lifted out a gray, diamond-shaped seal. Jimmie Dale was apparently fastidious. He held the seal with the tweezers as he moistened the adhesive side with his tongue, laid the seal on his handkerchief, and pressed the handkerchief firmly against the safe--as usual, Jimmie Dale's insignia bore no finger prints as it lay neatly capping the knob of the dial.
He reached down, picked up the cash box--and then, for the second time that night, held suddenly tense, alert, listening, his every muscle taut. A door opened upstairs. There came a murmur of voices. Then a momentary lull.
Jimmie Dale listened. Like a statue he stood there in the black, absolutely motionless--his head a little forward and to one side. Nothing--not a sound. Then a very low, curious, swishing noise, and a faint creak. SOMEBODY WAS COMING DOWN THE STAIRS!
Jimmie Dale moved stealthily from the recess, and noiselessly to the desk. Very faintly, but distinctly now, came a pad of either slippered or bare feet on the stairway carpet. Like a cat, soundless in his movements, Jimmie Dale crept toward the door of the room. Down the stairs came that pad of feet; occasionally came that swishing sound. Nearer the door crept Jimmie Dale, and his lips were thinned now, his jaws clamped. How near were they together, he and this night prowler? At times he could not hear the other at all, and, besides, the heavy carpet made the judgment of distance an impossibility. If he could gain the hall, and, in the darkness, elude the other, the way of escape through the dining room was open. And then, within a few feet of the door, Jimmie Dale halted abruptly, as a woman's voice rose querulously from the hallway above:
"You are making a perfect fool of yourself, Theodore Markel! Come back here to bed!"
Jimmie Dale's face hardened like stone--the answer came almost from the very threshold in front of him:
"I can't sleep, I tell you"--it was Markel's voice, in a disgruntled snarl. "I was a fool to bring the confounded thing home. I'm going to take the library couch for the rest of the night."
It happened quick, then--quick as the winking of an eye. Two sharp, almost simultaneous, clicks of the electric-light buttons pressed by Markel, and the hall and library were a flood of light--and Jimmie Dale leaped forward to where, in dressing gown and pajamas, blankets and bedding over one arm, a revolver dangling in the other hand, Markel stood full before the door in the hallway without.
There was a wild yell of terror and surprise from Markel, then a deafening roar and a spit of flame from his revolver--a bitter, smothered exclamation from Jimmie Dale as the cash box crashed to the floor from his left hand, and he was upon the other like a tiger.
With the impact, both men went to the floor, grappled, and rolled over and over. Half mad with fear, shock, and surprise, Markel fought like a maniac, and his voice, in gasping shouts, rang through the house.
A minute, two passed--and the men rolled about the hall floor. Markel, over middle age and unheathily fat, against Jimmie Dale's six feet of muscle--only Jimmie Dale's left hand, dripping a red stream now, was almost useless.
From above came wild confusion--women's voices in little shrieks; men's voices shouting in excitement; doors opening, running feet. And then Jimmie Dale had snatched the revolver from the floor where Markel had dropped it in the scuffle, and was pressing it against Markel's forehead--and Markel, terror-stricken, had collapsed in a flabby, pliant heap.
Jimmie Dale, still covering Markel with the weapon, stood up. The frightened faces of women protruded over the banisters above. The two men-servants, at best none too enthusiastically on the way down, stopped as though stunned as Jimmie Dale swung the revolver upon them.
Then Jimmie Dale spoke--to Markel--pointing the weapon at Markel again.
"I don't like you, Markel," he said, with cold impudence. The only decent thing you'll ever do will be to die--and if those men of yours on the stairs move another step it will be your death warrant. Do you understand? I would suggest that you request them to stay where they are."
Cold sweat was on Markel's face as he stared into the muzzle of the revolver, and his teeth chattered.
"Go back!" he screamed hysterically at the servants. "Go back! Sit down! Don't move! Do what he tells you!"
"Thank you!" said Jimmie Dale grimly. "Now, get up yourself!"
Markel got up.
Jimmie Dale backed to the library door, picked up the cash box, tucked it under his left armpit, and faced those on the stairs.
"Mr. Markel and I are going out for a little walk," he announced coolly. "If one of you make a move or raise an alarm before your master comes back, I shall be obliged, in self-defence, to shoot-- Mr. Markel. Mr. Markel quite understands that--I am sure. Do you not, Mr. Markel?"
"Helen," screamed Markel to his wife, "don't let 'em move! For God's sake, do as he says!"
Jimmie Dale's lips, just showing beneath the edge of his mask, broadened in a pleasant little smile.
"Will you lead the way, Mr. Markel?" he requested, with ironic deference. "Through the dining room, please. Yes, that's right!
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