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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Net - Chapter 14. The Net Tightens
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The Net - Chapter 14. The Net Tightens Post by :01ronco Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :3065

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The Net - Chapter 14. The Net Tightens

CHAPTER XIV. THE NET TIGHTENS

Number 93 1/2 St. Phillip Street proved to be a hovel, in the front portion of which an old woman sold charcoal and kindling. Leaving Bernie on guard, Blake penetrated swiftly to the rooms behind, paying no heed to the crone's protestations. In one corner a slender, dark-eyed boy was cowering, whom he recognized at once as the lad he had seen on the night of Donnelly's death.

"You are Gino Cressi," he said, quietly.

The boy shook his head.

"Oh, yes, you are, and you must come with me, Gino."

The little fellow recoiled. "You have come to kill me," he quavered.

"No, no, my little man. Why should I wish to do that?"

"I am a Sicilian; you hate me."

"That is not true. We hate only bad Sicilians, and you are a good boy."

"I did not kill the Chief."

"True. You did not even know that those other men intended to kill him. You were merely told to wait at the corner until you saw him come home. Am I right?"

"I do not know anything about the Chief," Gino mumbled.

But it was plain that some of his fear was vanishing under this unexpected kindness. Blake had a voice which won dumb animals, and a smile which made friends of children. At last the young Sicilian came forward and put his hand into the stranger's.

"They told me to hide or the Americans would kill me. Madonna mia! I am no Mafioso! I--I wish to see my father."

"I will take you to him now."

"You will not harm me?"

"No. You are perfectly safe."

But the boy still hung back, stammering:

"I--am afraid, Si'or. After all, you see, I know nothing. Perhaps I had better wait here."

"But you will come, to please me, will you not? Then when you find that the policemen will not hurt you, you will tell us all about it, eh, carino?"

He led his shrinking captive out through the front of the house, whence the crone had fled to spread the alarm, and lifted him into the waiting cab. But Bernie Dreux was loath to acknowledge such a tame conclusion to an adventure upon which he had built high hopes.

"L-let's stick round," he shivered. "It's just getting g-g-good."

"Come on, you idiot." Blake fairly dragged him in and commanded the driver to whip up. "That old woman will rouse the neighborhood, and we'll have a mob heaving bricks at us in another minute."

"That'll be fine!" Dreux declared, his pride revolting at what he considered a cowardly retreat. He had come along in the hope of doing deeds that would add luster to his name, and he did not intend to be disappointed. It required a vigorous muscular effort to keep him from clambering out of the carriage.

"I don't understand you at all," said Norvin, with one hand firmly gripping his coat collar, "but I understand the value of discretion at this moment, and I don't intend to take any chances on losing our little friend Gino before he has turned State's evidence."

Dreux sank back, gloomily enough, continuing for the rest of the journey to declaim against the fate that had condemned him to a life of insipid peace; but it was not until they had turned out of the narrow streets of the foreign quarter into the wide, clean stretch of Canal Street that Blake felt secure.

Little Gino Cressi was badly frightened. His wan, pinched face was ashen and he shivered wretchedly. Yet he strove to play the man, and his pitiful attempt at self-control roused something tender and protective in his captor. Laying a reassuring hand upon his shoulder, Blake said, gently:

"Coraggio! No harm shall befall you."

"I--do not wish to die, Excellency."

"You will not die. Speak the truth, figlio mio, and the police will be very kind to you. I promise."

"I know nothing," quavered the child. "My father is a good man. They told me the Chief was dead, but I did not kill him. I only hid."

"Who told you the Chief was dead?"

"I--do not remember."

"Who told you to hide?"

"I do not remember, Si'or." Gino's eyes were like those of a hunted deer, and he trembled as if dreadfully cold.

It was a wretched, stricken child whom Blake led into O'Neil's office, and for a long time young Cressi's lips were glued; but eventually he yielded to the kind-faced men who were so patient with him and his lies, and told them all he knew.

On the following morning the papers announced three new arrests in the Donnelly case, resulting from a confession by Gino Cressi. On the afternoon of the same day the friendly and influential Caesar Maruffi called upon Blake with a protest.

"Signore, my friend," he began, "you and your Committee are doing a great injustice to the Italians of this city."

"How so?"

"Already everybody hates us. We cannot walk upon your streets without insult. Men curse us, children spit at us. We are not Jews; we are Italians. There are bad people among my countrymen, of course, but, Signore, look upon me. Do you think such men as I--"

"Oh, you stand for all that is best in your community. Mr. Maruffi. I only wish you'd help us clean house."

The Sicilian shrugged. "Help? How can I help?"

"Tell what you know of the Mafia so that we can destroy it. At every turn we are thwarted by the secrecy of your people."

"They know what is good for them. As for me, my flesh will not turn the point of a knife, Signore. Life is an enjoyable affair, and if I die I can never marry. What would you have me tell?"

"The name of the Capo-Mafia, for instance."

"You think there is a Capo-Mafia?"

"I know it. What's more, I know who he is."

"Belisario Cardi? Bah! Few people believe there is such a man."

"You and I believe it."

"Perhaps. But what if I could lay hands upon him? Think you that I, or any Sicilian, would dare? All the police of this city could never take Belisario Cardi. It is to make laugh! Our friend Donnelly was unwise, he was too zealous. Now--he is but a memory. He took a life, his life was taken in return. This affair will mean more deaths. Leave things as they are, my friend, before you too are mourned."

Norvin eyed his caller curiously.

"That sounds almost as much like a threat as a warning."

"God forbid! I simply state the truth for your own good and for the good of all of us. Wherever Sicilians are found there your laws will be ignored. For my own part, naturally, I do not approve--I am an American now--but the truth is what I tell you."

"In other words, you think we ought to leave your countrymen alone?"

"Ah, I do not go so far. The laws should be enforced, that is certain. But in trying to do what is impossible you stir up race hatred and make it hard for us reputable Sicilians, who would help you so far as lies in our power. You cannot stamp out the Mafia in a day, in a week; it is Sicilian character. Already you have done enough to vindicate the law. If you go on in a mad attempt to catch this Cardi--whose existence, even, is doubtful--the consequences may be in every way bad."

"We have five of the murderers now, and we'll have the other man soon-- the fellow with the rubber coat. The grand jury will indict them. But we won't stop there. We're on a trail that leads higher up, to the man, or men, who directed Larubio and the others to do their work."

Maruffi shook his head mournfully. "And the Cressi boy--it was you who found him?"

"It was."

"How did you do it?"

Norvin laughed. "If you'd only enlist in the cause I'd tell you all my secrets gladly."

"Eh! Then he was betrayed!"

For the life of him Norvin could not tell whether the man was pleased or chagrined at his secrecy, but something told him that the Sicilian was feeling him out for a purpose. He smiled without answering.

"Betrayed!" said Maruffi. "Ah, well, I should not like to be in the shoes of the betrayer." He seemed to lose himself in thought for a moment. "Believe me, I would help you if I could, but I know nothing, and besides it is dangerous. I am a good citizen, but I am not a detective. You American-born," he smiled, "assume that all we Sicilians are deep in the secrets of the Mafia. So the people in the street insult us, and you in authority think that if we would only tell--bah! Tell what? We know no more than you, and it is less safe for us to aid." He rose and extended his hand. "Of course, if I learn anything I will inform you; but there are times when it is best to let sleeping dogs lie."

Norvin closed the door behind him with a feeling of relief, for he was puzzled as to the object of this visit and wanted time to think it out undisturbed. The upshot of his reflection was that Donnelly had been right and that Caesar was indeed the author of the warning letters. As to his want of knowledge, the Sicilian protested rather like a man who plays a part openly. On the other hand, his fears for his own safety seemed genuine enough. What more natural, then, than that he should "wish to test Donnelly's successor with the utmost care before proceeding with his disclosures?" Blake was glad that he had been secretive, for if Maruffi were the unknown friend he would find such caution reassuring.

As if to confirm this view of the case, there came, a day or two later, another communication, stating that the assassin who was still at large (he, in fact, who had worn the rubber coat) was a laborer in the parish of St. John the Baptist, named Frank Normando. The letter went on to say that in escaping from the scene of the crime the man had fallen on the slippery pavement, and the traces of his injury might still be found upon his body.

Norvin lost no time in consulting O'Neil.

"Jove! You're the best detective we have," said the Acting Chief, admiringly. "I'd do well to turn this affair over to you entirely."

"Have you learned anything more from your prisoners?"

"Nothing. They refuse to talk. We're giving them the third degree; but it's no use. There was another murder on St. Phillip Street last night. The old woman who guarded the Cressi boy was found dead."

"Then they think she betrayed the lad?" Norvin recalled Maruffi's hint that it would go hard with the traitor.

"Yes; we might have expected it. How many men will you need to take this Normando?"

"I? You--think I'd better do the trick?" Blake had not intended to take any active part in the capture. He was already known as the head of the movement to avenge Donnelly; he had apprehended Larubio and the Cressi boy with his own hand. Inner voices warned him wildly to run no further risks.

"I thought you'd prefer to lead the raid," O'Neil said.

"So I would. Give me two or three men and we'll bring in Normando, dead or alive."

Six hours later the last of Donnelly's actual assassins was in the parish prison and the police were in possession of evidence showing his movements from early morning on the day of the murder up to the hour of the crime. His identification was even more complete than that of his accomplices, and the public press thanked Norvin Blake in the name of the city for his efficient service.

The anonymous letters continued to come to him regularly, and each one contained some important clue, which, followed up, invariably led to evidence of value. Slowly, surely, out of nothing as it were, the chain was forged. Now came the names of persons who had seen or had talked with some of the accused upon the fatal day, now a hint which turned light upon some dark spot in their records. Again the letters aided in the discovery of important witnesses, who, under pressure, confessed to facts which they had feared to make public--until at last the history of the six assassins lay exposed like an open sheet before the prosecuting attorney.

The certainty and directness with which the "One Who Knows" worked was a matter of ever-increasing amazement to Blake. He himself was little more than an instrument in these unseen hands. Who or what could the writer be? By what means could he remain in such intimate touch with the workings of the Mafia, and what reason impelled him to betray its members? Hour after hour the young man speculated, racking his head until it ached. He considered every possibility, he began to look with curiosity at every face. At length he came to feel an even greater interest in the identity of this hidden friend than in the result of the struggle itself. But investigations--no matter how cautious-- invariably resulted in a prompt and imperative warning to desist upon pain of ruining everything.

Gradually in his mind the conviction assumed certainty that the omniscient informer could be none other than Caesar Maruffi. He frequented the Red Wing Club as Donnelly had done, and the more he saw of the fellow the more firm became his belief. He had recognized at their first meeting that Caesar was unusual--there was something unfathomable about him--but precisely what this peculiarity was he could never quite determine.

As for Maruffi, he met Norvin's advances half-way; but although he was apparently more than once upon the verge of some disclosure, the terror of the brotherhood seemed always to intervene. Feeling that he could not openly voice his suspicions until the other was ready to show his hand, Blake kept a close mouth, and thus the two played at cross-purposes. Maruffi--if he were indeed the author of those letters--had not shrunk from betraying the unthinking instruments of the Mafia. Would he ever bring himself to implicate the man, or men, higher up? Blake doubted it. A certain instinctive distrust of the Sicilian was beginning to master him when a letter came which put a wholly different face upon the matter.

"The men who really killed Chief Donnelly," it read, "are Salvatore di Marco, Frank Garcia, Giordano Bolla, and Lorenzo Cardoni." Blake gasped; these were men of standing and repute in the foreign community. "Larubio and his companions were but parts of the machine; these are the hands which set them in motion. These four men dined together on the evening of October 15th, at Fabacher's, then attended a theater where they made themselves conspicuous. From there they proceeded to the lower section of the city and were purposely arrested for disturbing the peace about the time of Donnelly's murder, in order to establish incontestable alibis. Nevertheless, it was they who laid the trap, and they are equally guilty with the wretches who obeyed their orders. It was they who paid over the blood money, and with their arrest you will have all the accessories to the crime, save one. Of him I can tell you nothing. I fear I can never find him, for he walks in shadow and no man dares identify him."

The importance of this information was tremendous, for arrests up to date had been made only among the lower element. An accusation against Di Marco, Garcia, Bolla, and Cardoni would set the city ablaze. O'Neil was aghast at the charge. The Mayor was incredulous, the Committee of Fifty showed signs of hesitation. But Blake, staking his reputation on the genuineness of the letter, and urging the reliability of the writer as shown on each occasion in the past, won his point, and the arrests were made.

The Italian press raised a frightful clamor, the prisoners themselves were righteously indignant, and Norvin found that he had begun to lose that confidence which the public had been so quick to place in him. Nevertheless, he pursued his work systematically, and soon the mysterious agent proceeded to weave a new web around the four suspected men, while he looked on fascinated, doing as he was bid, keeping his own counsel as he had been advised, and turning over the results of his inquiries to the police as they were completed.

Then came what he had long been dreading--a warning like those which had foreshadowed Donnelly's death--and he began to spend sleepless nights. His daylight hours were passed in a strained expectancy; he fought constantly to hold his fears in check; he began sitting with his face to doors; he turned wide corners and avoided side streets. He became furtive and watchful; his eyes were forever flitting here and there; he chose the outer edges of the sidewalks, and he went nowhere after nightfall unattended. The time was past when he could doubt the constancy of his purpose; but he did fear a nervous breakdown, and even shuddered at the thought of possible insanity. Being in fact as sane a man as ever lived, his irrational nerves alarmed him all the more. He could not conceive that an event was immediately before him which, without making his position safer, would rouse him from all thought of self.

Our lives are swayed by trifles; a feather's weight may alter the course of our destinies. A man's daily existence is made up of an infinite series of choices, every one of which is of the utmost importance, did he but know it. We follow paths of a million forkings, none of which converge. A momentary whim, a passing fancy, a broken promise, turns our feet into trails that wind into realms undreamed of.

It so happened that Myra Nell Warren yielded to an utterly reasonless impulse to go calling at the utterly absurd hour of 10 A.M. Miss Warren followed no set rules in her conduct, her mind reacted according to no given formula, and, therefore, when it suddenly occurred to her to visit a little old creole lady in the French quarter, she went without thoughtful consideration or delay.

Madame la Branche was a distant cousin on Bernie's side--so distant, in fact, that no one except herself had ever troubled to trace the precise relationship; but she employed a cook whose skill was celebrated. Now Myra Nell's appetite was a most ungovernable affair, and when she realized that her complete happiness depended upon a certain bouillabaisse, in the preparation of which Madame la Branche's Julia had become famous, she whisked her hair into a knot, jammed her best and largest hat over its unruly confusion, and went bouncing away in the direction of Esplanade Street.

It was in the early afternoon that Norvin Blake received a note from a coal-black urchin, who, after many attempts, had finally succeeded in penetrating to his inner office.

Recognizing the writing, Norvin tore open the envelope eagerly, ready to be entertained by some fresh example of the girl's infinite variety. He read with startled eyes:


"I send this by a trusted messenger, hoping that it will reach you in time. I am a prisoner. I am in danger. I fear my beauty is destroyed. If you love me, come.

"Your wretched

"MYRA NELL."


The address was that of a house on Esplanade Street.

"How did you get this?" he demanded, harshly, of the pickaninny.

"A lady drap it from a window."

"Where? Where was she?"

"In a gre't big house on Esplanade Street. She seemed mighty put out about something. Then a man run me away with a club."

A moment later Blake was on the street and had hailed a carriage. The driver, reading urgency in the set face of his fare, whipped the horses into a gallop and the vehicle tore across town, leaping and rocking violently. The thought that Myra Nell was in danger filled Blake with a physical sickness. Her beauty gone! Could it be that the Mafia had taken this means of attacking him, knowing of his affection for the girl? Of a sudden she became very dear, and he was smothered with fury that any one should cause her suffering.

His heart was pounding madly as the carriage slowed into Esplanade Street, threatening to upset, and he saw ahead of him the house he sought. With a sharp twinge of apprehension he sighted another man approaching the place at a run, and leaping from his conveyance, he raced on with frantic speed.

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