THE OFFER AND THE THREAT

“Good evening, Mr. Bolton,” said the intruder mockingly.

“Good evening,” Bill replied politely. “I don’t suppose it’s of any use
to inquire how you got in?”

The man’s manner rather flabbergasted Bill. If there had been any
suspicion of menace in Sanders’ attitude, Bill would have gone for him
straightway with his fists.

“Not the slightest, Mr. Bolton!” And then with a nod and a smile,
“Excuse me!”

As Bill was still holding the curtain aside, Sanders stepped past him
into the lounge. On the table beside the lamp and book he laid a little
automatic.

“No need for that, I hope,” he remarked pleasantly, and dropped into an
armchair quite within reach of the revolver. He gave Bill that curious,
quick, confidential nod, then took out a gold case and lighted a
cigarette. He blew a thin spiral of smoke into the air with obvious
enjoyment. For cool nerve, the man’s manner took Bill’s breath away.

“Without going into details,” he said offhandedly, “I’ve as much right
here as you, so you’ll pardon me if I make myself at home, won’t you?
Sit down—sit down, Bolton.” He pointed to a small seat at the side of
the hearth.

“Thanks, I’ll stand.”

“But I said, sit down!” Mr. Sanders’ voice was not raised in the least,
but his words came at Bill like an order. A trifle dazed, he sank into
the chair.

There was no reason why he shouldn’t have hurled the lamp in Sanders’
face, and in the darkness, pitched the table on top of him. But instead,
for no reason he could give, Bill obeyed him, and sat waiting for him to
speak. Naturally curious to fathom the reason for this visit, Bill was
astounded by his attitude, considering what had happened in the
motorboat.

“Thought I’d find you here, Bolton, so I’ve dropped in for a chat.”

Bill leaned back, looking at him, but said nothing.

Mr. Sanders raised his eyebrows, but the tone of his voice did not
alter. “I take it that you’re a straightforward sort of fellow, Bolton.
You know where you stand with them. I bear no malice for this
afternoon’s performance—in fact I admire you. At the present moment,
you’re hating me like poison, and the only justification you have is
that I didn’t knock before I entered!”

“You’re so remarkably polite tonight,” murmured Bill, “you might have
carried your politeness a little further.”

Again Sanders gave his quick nod and smiled. “It isn’t always wise to
knock, Bolton. For instance, you might have mistaken my politeness.
Since it’s an informal hour to call, you might not have invited me
in—and I hate talking on doorsteps. I want a serious talk with you,
Bolton.”

Bill made no comment.

“You know, Bolton,” he went on, knocking the ash from his cigarette,
“you’re on a fool’s errand. Quite bluntly, you’re taking part in a
losing game. I’m being plain with you. Your side hasn’t the foggiest
hope of success—for, frankly, I hold all the cards.”

“Well—and so what?”

“Look here!” He punctuated his words with a long forefinger. “Haven’t
you brains enough to see you’re being made a catspaw. You’re the one
that’s to do the dirty work—you are the lad that’s to run the risks and
take all the hard knocks. How do you like the job?”

“I’m not kicking,” said Bill.

Sanders smiled again. “Well, how much are you getting out of it? That’s
the point…. Oh, yes, it’s not my business. I know your
type—stupid—loyal. I admire stupidity and loyalty because they are
generally exerted in a good cause. But when they are wasted
qualities—wasted on one of the worst scoundrels in America, it pains me.
I’m a student of these things, Bolton—it’s part of a lawyer’s job to
weigh motives.”

“A lawyer’s?” Bill looked surprised.

“Certainly,” he returned affably. “It’s an honorable enough profession,
eh? I started to read for the English bar and chucked it. I’m a Londoner
by birth, you see. But I had a knack for the law. In America I’ve
practised ten years as an attorney. However, my energies at present are
devoted to tracking down a scoundrel named Evans. Do you follow me?”

“Go on.”

Mr. Sanders nodded again. “Thank you. I’ll come to the point at once,
but I wanted you to understand the situation. I intend to get this Mr.
Evans, and get him I shall. Soon—very soon. Much sooner than he expects.
There is no way out of it for him. I will get him in the end, and the
end is not far off.” The pleasant look had gone from his eyes, and his
mouth was hard.

“Why do you want him?” Bill blurted out, and a moment later would have
done anything to withdraw his words.

“Ah!” Sanders cried, “I thought so! He has been clever enough to conceal
that. Exactly. So that is part of his game! Well, my young friend, it’s
part of mine, too. It is nobody’s business at present but Mr. Evans’ and
my own. And I tell you, there is no sacrifice I wouldn’t make to meet
that man face to face, alone, for ten minutes. Look here, Bolton, to
come to brass tacks, how much do you want in hard cash to tell me where
Evans is at this moment?”

Sanders leaned forward, his glowering eyes fixed upon Bill’s face.

Bill stared back at him and an angry devil rose within the lad.
Bribery—so that was the object of his visit! And the man certainly
played his cards well. He insinuated that Mr. Evans was a scoundrel,
that Bill himself was being made a tool. That was bad enough, and the
astuteness of his argument was apparent, but the bribery business stung
young Bolton’s pride. He sprang to his feet, determined to lash out at
the white, grinning face.

Sanders held up his hand, reading his purpose. “Bolton, I’m delighted. I
can see you’re a good fellow. You refuse to give away your man. If you
had fallen for that, I wouldn’t have had much respect for you, would I?”

“What the blazes are you getting at now?” demanded Bill.

“Do sit down, my dear chap.” Again came that quick nod. “I’ve no respect
for a fellow who sells his boss—cheaply. I’m not asking you to do that,
Bolton.”

“Then what—?”

“Just this. Why not come over to my side? Why not leave a sinking ship
and come aboard a sound one? Whatever you’re getting out of this game in
hard cash, I’ll double. Row in with me, Bolton. You won’t regret it.”

“Nothing doing.” Bill spoke slowly and emphatically.

“You won’t—change your mind?”

“Not for a million.”

“Oh, I was going to do better than that. In fact, my suggestion is that
you come in partnership with me. I know that your father is a wealthy
man—very wealthy—but millions of dollars are not to be despised by
anyone. There are very big things at stake, Bolton, very big indeed.”

He leaned forward, his eyes fixed on Bill’s, the smoke from his
cigarette curling up between them like a banner. “Well? Don’t
misunderstand me, Bolton. I don’t mean that you’re to leave Mr. Evans.
Oh, not at all. No need for you to have a row with him or anything of
the sort. No, no, you can go on exactly as you are doing. Carry out
whatever he has sent you here to do. Only there will be a little
understanding between us two, Bolton, and no one except ourselves will
know anything about it. To prove I am in earnest, I will give you money
now if you want it. Won’t you shake on it, young man?” He held out his
hand with as friendly a smile as Bill had ever seen. “Well?”

“Well, just this—” Bill said evenly, “I’m not posing as a saint, but I
tell you to your face I think you’re one of the lowest sorts of cads
I’ve ever met. You’re not clever enough to get Mr. Evans yourself, so
you come sneaking along and try to bribe one of his friends. But you’ve
struck the wrong guy. You can keep your filthy money. You can offer a
share of your rotten business, whatever it is, to anybody who is rotten
enough to go in with you. Is that plain English, or do you want me to
make it plainer?”

As if Bill had touched a button, Sanders’ face changed. Gone was his
cordial air, his friendly smile. In its place, an evil look of anger and
wounded pride. He had failed in his mission and he knew he had failed;
but Bill could see that he wasn’t the man to take failure lying down.
With an impatient gesture, Mr. Sanders flung his cigarette into the
fireplace and got to his feet. White spots showed on his nostrils.

“Bolton,” he said in low, suppressed tones, “neither men nor boys trifle
with me—you’ll learn that before you’re much older. I’ve given you your
chance and you’ve refused to take it. Now I shall give you my orders.”

“Orders?” Bill laughed at him.

“I will give you till tomorrow night to obey my orders or the
consequences for young Charlie Evans and some other people will be
sudden and—er—not pleasant. By nine o’clock tomorrow evening as a
deadline you will be in Gring’s Hotel, in Stamford, Connecticut. You
will ask for Mr. Harold Johnson, and you will tell him exactly where Mr.
Evans is to be found. When you meet Johnson, you will nod, as I have a
habit of doing, and you will say ‘Zenas,’ which happens to be my first
name. You will also pass Johnson your word of honor that you will quit
this game for good.”

“Stamford is a long way from here,” temporized Bill.

“But you have an excellent plane at Parker’s, in Clayton.” Sanders
laughed shortly. “This is not a lone hand I’m playing, Bolton. I have an
organization behind me, and it is a thoroughly efficient one. What I
don’t know about you, and particularly your doings since that youngster
Charlie brought you his father’s message, would not be worth writing
home about.”

“And if I refuse?” Bill crossed his legs and looked at him with as much
insolence as he could command.

“If you refuse, Mister Midshipman Bolton, your friend Charlie, who my
men caught up this morning, and the girl, Deborah, will have to take the
consequences of your bullheadedness.”

Slowly Bill got to his feet. “So that’s your filthy threat, is it?” he
cried. “You hold that over my head. Well, Mr. Zenas Sanders, two can
play at your game!” Bill took a step forward, prepared to spring on him.

The man did not move. A smile had come back to his face, and again he
gave a quick little nod.

“Look out, Bolton! Don’t do anything foolish!”

Bill followed the direction of his eyes. In the corner of the alcove,
appearing between the folds of the curtain, was the long, blue-black
barrel of a rifle, and it was pointed at Bill’s breast.

“You see!” sneered Sanders. “It would have paid you to become my friend.
You haven’t the option now. Nine o’clock tomorrow night by the latest,
at Gring’s Hotel, Bolton—or—you know the rest.”

Sanders slipped behind the curtain out of sight. At the same moment the
barrel of the gun disappeared. With a cry, Bill snatched up the
automatic from the table where Sanders had overlooked it, and darted
into the hall.

But the hall was empty. No sound came from any part of the house.