Few could find their way into the most infamous opium den in all New York, where not only the poppy ruled as master, but where crime was hatched, ay, and carried to its ghastly consummation, sometimes, as well; and of those few, not one but was of the underworld itself. And it was that fact which held his muscles strained and rigid now under the miserable rags that covered them, and it was that which kept the keen, quick brain alert and active, every faculty keyed up and tense. If it were the police, he had little to fear, for they could not force their way in without warning; but if it were the underworld, he was in imminent peril, and had done little better than run himself into a trap from which there was no escape.
“Death to the gray seal!”—he had heard that whispered more than once in this very place. Who knew at what moment the role of Larry the Bat would be uncovered, and the underworld, where now he held so high a place, would be at his throat like a pack of snarling wolves! Who had been shadowing him during the last hour?
Whisperings! Nothing tangible! He could catch no words. Only the never-ending whisperings of gathered groups here and there—and sometimes the clink of coin where some game was in progress.
The curtain before his bunk was drawn suddenly aside—and Larry the Bat’s fingers, where his hand was carelessly hidden by his body tightened upon his automatic.
“Smokee some more?”
The fingers relaxed. It was only Sam Wah, one of the attendants.
“Nix!” said Larry the Bat, in a slightly muddled tone. “Got enough.”
The curtain fell into place again. Larry the Bat’s lips set in a thin smile. Ultimately it made little difference whether it was the police or the underworld! The smile grew thinner. It was the flip of a coin, that was all! With one there was the death house at Sing Sing for the Gray Seal; with the other—well, there were many ways, from a shot or a knife thrust in the open street, to his murder in some hidden dive like this of Chang Foo’s, for instance, where he now was—the Gray Seal was responsible for the occupancy of too many penitentiary cells by those of the underworld to look for any other fate!
He raised himself up sharply on his elbow. A shrill, high note, like the scream of a parrakeet, rang out a second time. He tore the curtain aside, and jumped to his feet. All around him, in the twinkling of an eye, Chinamen in fluttering blouses, chattering like magpies, mingled with snarling, cursing whites, were running madly. A voice, prefaced with an oath, bawled out behind him, as he sprang forward and joined the rush:
“Beat it! De cops! Beat it!”