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"CUBE" LACEY found Sherrod Guest, his partner and associate in the Searchlight Agency, profoundly excited. Guest, a chunky little man with the cheeks and complexion of a cherub, was pacing back and forth the width of the single, partitioned office, brushing away moisture of anxiety from his high forehead—a forehead which did not find its border of tired little blond hairs till it reached the exact center of its owner's crown.
"Thank heavens, you've come!" exploded Guest, wheeling to confront Lacey as the latter strode into the room.
"Landlord been around?" demanded Lacey, grinning wryly as he pried out a thin roll of twenties from his trousers pocket. Along with the bills came an empty sack of tobacco and two pennies, one of which fell to the floor. "A hundred was the best I could charge Lehmann, though it was worth at least an additional fifty. Otherwise he'd have held me up a week or two. This'll give us a ten-spot on which to eat, beside paying the rent. Any clients come in since I left?"
Guest's mouth had opened soundlessly half a dozen times in the attempt to speak. Now he gestured aside the money both of them so sorely needed, granting it only a tolerant nod, and pushed Lacey down into a squeaky swivel.
"Listen to your bright little sunbeam!" he adjured. "Our big client's sent for us, for you, I mean! I didn't know whether you'd get back today or next week, so I tried to sell him myself, but no, that wouldn't do. Kuban Lacey was the only detective he'd have anything to do with. So you beat it down to the sidearm, fill up on beans and excelsior, and hop a cab for—hm, let me see—3217—"
"A cab?" interjected Cube incredulously. "Not this starved sleuth! You and I can't afford flourishes of that kind—yet. No, I'll save the extra three simoleons for ham-ends while we're waiting for somebody to kill or kidnap somebody else in a mysterious manner, and demand our services." He opened the tobacco sack, whisked a paper out of its cover, and poured a dusty pinch of yellow flakes, evening it with practised forefinger. "But who is this personage for whom you'd brave the lean and hungry wolf?"
"It's that cranky North Shore millionaire, that hermit chap. If's he's got any kind of a case for us—" stuttered Guest, convincingly. He often had difficulty starting a sentence when sincerely excited, though little else than an epochal event could bring him to this state.
"His name?" interrupted Lacey, an odd, almost belligerent expression appearing in the set of clean, square jaw and narrowing of eyes.
"I didn't say. Name's Noah Lacey—same as yours. He's the old codger who owns that estate up north with all the grounds landscaped in brick. Made his fortune out of manufacturing brick; or, at least, inherited the business and the first instalment of the money from his father. The Laceys have been doing that since about the time Chicago was a frontier post, I guess. Sure he isn't any relative of yours?"
The last was asked in jesting manner, for no one knew better than Sherrod Guest how poverty-stricken both his partner and himself had been since deserting the comfortable reportorial jobs they had held. Oddly, the question brought a wry grimace to Lacey's lips, however.
"I'm afraid you're due for a disappointment here, old man," he answered, watching sympathetically as the glow of buoyancy faded from Guest's expression. "Noah happens to be my uncle—the only other surviving Lacey of our branch in the world. I never have met him. He and my father had a terrific quarrel years and years ago. Think it concerned repairs on a small building they owned jointly, or some such trivial matter. Dad had been disowned, anyway, and perhaps was a little touchy concerning relations with Noah, who was grandfather's favorite. Anyway, Noah and dad never spoke again to each other. Personally I have no hard feelings toward my uncle, but I have not gone near him since coming to Chicago simply because in the past twenty-five years he has become disgustingly rich. He'd be certain that I simply was trying to ingratiate myself. As a matter of fact I don't want his money."
Guest's pacing had slowed. Now he sank dejectedly to the edge of a desk. "Fifty or a hundred bucks of it wouldn't hit us badly just now," he suggested with a feeble attempt at a smile for this statement which was nothing but the sad truth. After making a considerable name for themselves in crime investigation as reporters—but no money, save their salaries, and one moderate-sized reward which had gone to set them up in business— they had secured only small, unlucrative scraps of work. The first year had been a constant struggle to meet overhead expense and still eat.
"True enough!" agreed Lacey with an exhalation of breath. "I doubt like the mischief that old Noah has any use for a detective or that if he had he would employ us. Still, beggars can't be choosers. I'll call him up and see what he wants." His hand reached for the telephone.
"Not much you won't!" ejaculated Guest, bouncing into action and wrestling the instrument from Lacey's hands. "We may not have the ghost of a chance at any of your esteemed uncle's business, but just the same right now you haven't a thing in the world to do. I have to go to court tomorrow, and I believe Myers has another one of his flea-bite cases for me. Said he'd drop around to talk it over at three o'clock. If you telephoned Uncle Midas you'd be just as apt to tell him to trot around here and hand you his business on a gold plate. Nope! You hustle out, grab a motor bus if you won't take a taxi, and don't waste a minute! Somehow I feel the squirmings of a life-sized poker hunch deep down inside me. I know I'm not much good at five-card whist, but—" He ended his sentence with a comical gesture, half shrug and half peremptory nod.
"Oh, all right," acceded Cube Lacey. He stood up, buttoning overcoat and drawing on his gloves again. He stepped to the door, which had been left one inch ajar. "Hello!" he exclaimed in surprise. The opening door had revealed a person stooping forward, right on the threshold. Lacey saw instantly that the man was a fat, stocky Chinaman, though clad in conventional business garments.
Lacey recoiled involuntarily half a step, while the Oriental glanced up swiftly through slitted eyes, wheeled about and made off with rapid, cat-like tread toward the elevators. Quick conviction came to Lacey that the man had been eavesdropping, though for what imaginable reason only the yellow man himself could say. Lacey, however, had won success in the past by reason of his faculty for grasping and retaining for future use all scraps and odd ends of happenings incapable of instant explanation. Flinging a word of warning over his shoulder to Guest, he made off after the Chinaman. The latter, attempting to crowd his way into an overfilled elevator, was pushed back angrily by the guard. Lacey reached the Chinaman at that moment, and closed insistent fingers upon the stranger's huge but flabby forearm.
"What did you want back there, snooping around my office?"
The yellow stranger's eyelids dropped, but almost instantly he looked up again straight into Lacey's eyes, his glance as innocent and wondering as that of a child. "Me? Oh yes. I lose a dollah. It drop. I t'ink mebbe it loll into office. I see door open—"
"Quite so, and I scared you so badly that you ran away, forgetting all about the dollar, eh?" mused Lacey. The Chinese nodded, wreathing wide mouth in an oily, placating grin. Lacey paid little attention, for he saw the black eyes did not smile. "Better come back and let me help you look for it," he suggested, as Guest joined them, looking wonderingly from one to the other.
The search proved futile, as Lacey had expected. And even the best efforts of the two detectives failed to pry anything from the man. They had to let him go, for try as they might—and did—it was impossible to fathom any sinister reason which would make a Chinaman of intelligence above the average of his coolie kind listen to the purposeless planning of two destitute detectives.
"Now what do you suppose he wanted?" demanded Guest, when Lacey again was taking his departure.
"Oh, just a mistake I suppose," answered Lacey carelessly. "He probably mistook your handsome face for that of Sherlock Holmes, and thought you were after him for opium smuggling, or something." Nevertheless, Lacey himself was more puzzled by the queer occurrence than his manner indicated. His wonder was in no way abated by the fact that in the corridor below he noticed another Chinaman buying a paper at the newsstand—the identical Chinaman who, five minutes later, sat directly behind Lacey in the motor bus bound northward.
IN the past Cube Lacey had heard of Brick Knob—the unalluring name by which the home of his queer relative was known to newspaper men and the public. Built on a small rise of ground— the highest semblance of a hill within pistol shot of the lake for miles along the shore—it had now, because of high-rise construction, become completely hidden on three sides by a surrounding ring of tall apartment buildings. Only from the front was there access to the small estate, and here a seven-foot wall of brick, surmounted by broken bottles set in the mortar, barred the view of pedestrians.
Cube located a gate in center of this forbidding wall and tried to open it. It was locked. He found a bell at one side, however, and pressed the button. While he waited, he noted the curious fact that this door seemed to be of solid, wrought bronze, as massive as cathedral doors of the Old World. It could have withstood an assault by anything less potent than nitroglycerine.
Five minutes passed. Then a sharp click drew his attention. At the center of the door a panel had been slid aside; in the oblong aperture was framed the stern forbidding face of a man of middle age, lean, clean-shaven, and with grayish skin drawn tightly across protuberant cheek bones. Unmistakable print of a Slavic ancestry lay in both features and expression. Lacey knew instantly that this could not be his father's brother.
"What do you want?" The voice was cold, uncompromising. Lacey guessed irrelevantly that Brick Knob was no favorite resort for hoboes now. Briefly, he explained his errand and tendered business card. One lean claw reached upward to the aperture and seized the pasteboard. A noncommittal grunt was followed by the terse adjuration to wait. Lacey obeyed. As the panel had been left open he took the liberty of watching the figure of this guardian of the gate as he returned toward the house.
Lacey saw a tall, thin man clad in black; a man who stooped slightly as he walked, yet whose figure suggested wiry strength and a resilience of sinew not yet corroded by age. The man probably would prove to be a house servant, though he seemed almost too serious and earnest for such a place. The yard across which he passed was drifted with half an inch of light snow, yet Lacey discerned that the newspapers had told the truth. It was paved entirely with brick. Not a shrub, tree, bench or pergola broke the bare, slanting expanse, which rose like the head of a mushroom to a low summit on which was placed the squat bungalow of brick—that type of architecture which conceals from any casual observer the actual immensity of any building.
The black-clad man moved straight for a flight of stairs giving upward to a broad veranda. Nearing the house Lacey saw him act in a peculiar manner. Suddenly breaking into a run he hastened awkwardly for six or seven steps, and then launched himself in a gigantic stride which covered at least two yards of the brick paving, and which landed him at the foot of the steps. Carried forward by his own impetus he took the latter three at a time, opened a pair of doors, and disappeared, carefully slamming these behind him.
Lacey whistled. Playful skittishness in a stern man of middle age is too unusual a trait not to excite wonder. Also, the rate of speed at which the servant had started to bear his message back to the house had not been suggestive in any manner of haste. The mad caper, and, indeed, the whole layout of house and grounds, were incomprehensible to Lacey, but he foresaw with distinctness that this wealthy relative of his was going to prove to be a curious character indeed.
A matter of what seemed more immediate personal interest drove milder speculation from his mind for the moment, however. Happening to glance across the narrow, motor thoroughfare, he noticed a well-dressed Chinaman sauntering slowly down the sidewalk. Though he could not be certain from that distance, Lacey thought that this was the same man who had followed him from his office building, and on the motor bus. At any rate he was certain that never before had he noticed so many Chinese in Occidental dress upon the streets of Chicago. He followed the casual stroller with his eyes until the latter reached and became lost in a crowd at the corner. Then Lacey swung about in time to see the black-clad man returning. The man now seemed to have lost all his madcap spirit of frolic and hurry. He descended the steps slowly and stalked straight across the intervening space.
"Just a moment, sir," he said, a new hint of deference in his tone. Lacey heard the clank of a chain and the metallic ring of the ponderous lock. Then the massive door swung open three feet—to be closed, locked and chained immediately after Cube had entered. "Mr. Lacey will see you directly, sir."
The two crossed the yard together. Lacey watched for the space where the other's original footprints were spaced by his leap. He noted another curious fact. Three sets of tracks led across the snow, of course. Only one of these showed prints spaced normally. Coming first to answer his ring, and then while returning with the card, the man had leaped across this space! Lacey could be certain because the scuffed spots the man had made in slipping as he landed, were at opposite sides. Twice? Why had the man leaped across the identical spot a second time? It could not be coincidence. Lacey stepped gingerly, falling half a pace behind his guide, who strode across without paying any attention. As Lacey's shoes pressed upon this two-yard interval his hands clenched suddenly in astonishment. Though the sensation was almost imperceptible—something which could not have been noticed unless under close, direct observation—it seemed that the solid brick gave ever so slightly beneath his weight! He was allowed no time for investigation or surmise, though. His guide ushered him into a broad hallway, turning as before to lock the doors with meticulous care.
This hallway appeared to be more of a lounge or den from the luxurious manner in which it was furnished. Sumptuous furniture was placed negligently about, and thick rugs the names of which Lacey could not even guess—realizing only that they were costly importations from the Orient—made footsteps soundless. On a taboret, below open crowded book shelves lining one side of the wall, in a double row, squatted a small bronze Buddha, his mask-like features illumined faintly by a Tiffany- shaded lamp which stood nearby.
On a stand of its own, in a small alcove opposite, reposed a single magnificent vase over two feet in height. In shape it appeared to be designed to hold long-stemmed lilies, though no flowers were in it at that time. Because indirect lights in the walls shed their glow upon it, Lacey saw that it was mottled brown in color, but holding in its glazed surface a curious pearly iridescence reminiscent of the finest work from the Sung period of Chinese art.
In his early days on the paper, Cube had been forced to cram on the subject of pottery and porcelain for the purpose of reporting various exhibits, so he realized that if this vase were genuine—and none of the other furnishings of the hall were of cheap or gaudy nature—it must be of greater value even than the long-napped rugs. One eight-panelled jar of somewhat similar surface, only somewhat larger than a tobacco humidor, Lacey had seen on sale for five thousand dollars. He stepped a pace nearer to indulge pardonable curiosity....
"A remarkable piece of work, don't you think?" asked a quiet voice at his elbow, a woman's voice!
"Yes—eh, I mean, I beg your pardon, miss! I didn't hear you. Certainly a piece of art. Chinese, isn't it?"
Lacey had whirled, for an instant off his guard, but quickly regained composure. He saw that he would need it in this strange house, for not only had this girl appeared in the moment he had spent glancing at the vase, but the servant had vanished! He had heard no doors open or close.
His glance rested upon a slim figure, a woman lacking only a hand's breadth of his own five feet eleven inches of height. A woman in her early twenties, he decided, and one who knew well how to dress to accentuate a most alluring patrician grace. Her face fascinated him, not because of great beauty, hut because all of the features were intended for place in a visage of superlative feminine charm—save only her eyes. These he could not distinguish, as over them lay a distinctly ugly pair of tortoise-shell spectacles, colored spectacles! These lent an odd twist of studiousness to her expression—a quality which a soft curve of chin and lips seemed to laugh at, and which impressed Lacey with a sudden, curious desire to analyze.
She was speaking. Vaguely he realized that she had disclaimed technical knowledge of the vase. Then her next sentence came home to him sharply. "You must pardon uncle if he seems a little grouchy. He has been rather seriously ill the past two or three days. I didn't think him able to see visitors, but he says he called you on the phone and wants very much to see you. You are his nephew, are you not?"
"Yes, Kuban Lacey," he affirmed. Uncle! She had called Noah that. Did it mean that she was his own cousin? He asked.
She shook her head. Lips below those enormous glasses curved upward slightly. "No, not my real uncle," she replied, and he felt rather uncomfortably that the hidden eyes were taking his measure with exactness. "My name is Irene Jeffries. I'm his ward, and he insists upon me calling him Uncle Noah while I'm here. His suite is straight back, at the right as you enter. Go ahead. I'll open the door. Unless it seems necessary, don't stay with him long, please. He seems weak."
He obeyed, draping his overcoat over his arm. She did not accompany him, but stood still, looking after him in an attitude of expectancy. He wondered, with a surge of sardonic humor, if she thought he had come to fawn upon his wealthy relative, perhaps to win a substantial place in the manufacturer's will. But no. This was not that sort of a girl. If only she would grant him a glance at her eyes she might do her worst with Noah Lacey and his millions. Cube had no expectation of being remembered in anyone's will, and had no intention of toadying to secure such recognition.
To his surprise he saw a door opening before him. He glanced back, to see the girl nod at him to enter. The second he did so the tall panel—a door without knob or hinges that he could discern—fell silently and swiftly back into place. An exclamation rose to his lips. No one in sight in the great chamber beyond. No one, seemingly, had opened or closed the door.
"Mr. Lacey?" he questioned, suddenly experiencing a queer chill along his spine. His voice rang emptily in the silence. The chamber, evidently one of a three-room suite, was empty, though the high-posted bed at one side showed evidences of recent occupancy. Framed tapestries on the walls, shelves of priceless porcelain, and a collection of jades on a long table accentuated the Oriental atmosphere, which had been apparent in the entrance corridor. Archaic Sung and T'ang figurines were grouped with three draped, terra-cotta, female figures, the last the only Occidental note in all the chamber. Lacey was not certain, but guessed them to be Tanagras, brought into juxtaposition with the Chinese art objects, perhaps for purposes of comparison.
Lacey, in doubt whether or not to proceed further, was urged onward by premonition that all was not well with the invalid—if Noah now deserved that appellation. Tapestry portières at the doorway to one of the adjoining chambers had been slid aside. Half in trepidation Lacey advanced; finding himself rising to tiptoe, even though rugs would have muffled his footsteps. In the doorway he stopped, momentarily petrified by the sight which met his eyes. At the opposite side of the adjoining room sat Noah Lacey, arms hanging limply over the sides of a deep leather chair, head fallen backward, and sightless eyes—staring wide open from chalky mask of countenance—fastened upon a point on the ceiling at one side.
IN a second, professional instinct rose uppermost in Lacey. No longer was he the poor relative, precariously balancing a chip on his shoulder, prepared to resent condescension and accept no favors. He was the skilled crime investigator in pursuit of working data. As he sprang to the side of the unconscious man little doubt was in his mind concerning what he should find. Yet his guess was wrong. Noah Lacey was not dead, though only the faintest flicker of a heart beat testified to continued existence. Beside him stood a small table with a decanter and a few glasses. Cube smelled the liquor hastily and found it to be French brandy. Pouring a tablespoonful into a glass he pressed it to the sick man's mouth. The latter scarcely could swallow, yet a few drops went down. In a moment Noah Lacey's eyes fluttered, he coughed feebly and a quiver ran through his relaxed frame. Cube set to chafing arms and legs. Then a few moments later, he gave the man a little more of the potent liquor.
Noah's revival was quick and complete. Five minutes after the second draft, which he swallowed in its entirety, he straightened and looked at Cube, bewilderment quickly replaced by dawning recognition.
"Reckon—reckon I must have fallen asleep. You are Kuban Lacey?" he asked, voice mounting from initial hoarseness to ordinary quality.
"Yes. Take it easy for a while," advised Cube. "You had a fainting spell. Thought for a moment you were out for good. Shall I send for a doctor?" The question was prompted by the fact that despite the elder man's death-like pallor he seemed to have recovered full command of himself; otherwise Cube would have acted without asking.
"No, it is nothing. I remember now. I just sent word by Kohler Andrews that you were to be admitted. Then I got up to make myself a little more presentable." He waved a hand deprecatingly at his brocaded bathrobe and silk pajamas. "Of a sudden I felt giddy and had to sit down. Wanted to reach for a swig of that brandy but couldn't do it. Always keep it handy because the last two or three days I've had several such spells."
"Then I should think a doctor—" persisted Cube.
"Don't want one!" interjected Noah with unmistakable emphasis. "Don't trust them." He reached for the decanter, poured himself a drink equal in volume to the two Cube had administered, swallowed this, wiped his lips and hunched forward, seemingly ready to take up the business which he had with Cube. The latter shrugged. From harsh lines of arrogance on his uncle's face he guessed that the old man would tolerate no interference with his wishes. Cube decided privately that he would cut short the interview, and on the way out apprise Miss Irene Jeffries that the services of a physician were strongly to be advised. She probably could influence his uncle to a course of greater wisdom. He accepted the chair to which Noah motioned him.
"I want you to give up that tom-fool business you and that other young man are attempting to run at present!" The old man began abruptly. "There's no money either in working for a newspaper or playing Nick Carter. Where did you get the idea, anyway?"
Cube smiled tolerantly. He did not believe the other could get under his skin. Good-naturedly he told of choosing his career because of the two best talents he could boast. His tastes had run to English and higher mathematics. The first had taken him into a newspaper office.
Recognized capability for sustained thinking had encouraged him to desert a sixty-dollar job for the profession of detective. Cube told, with a humor which redeemed his statements of fact that might have sounded immodest, of an uninterrupted string of small successes. Also he was frank concerning the fact that he and Guest had been chronically hard up—and expected a continuance of that unhappy state for weeks or months to come.
"I wasn't going to come out here," he concluded frankly, "but Sherrod seemed to think there was a chance that you might need the services of a pair of investigators. That hunch is absurd, of course?"
A grim smile twitched at Noah's lips. "Let's not tackle that just yet," he cut in. "I'm only fifty-nine years old, but five years of that time would stack up well against two decades of any ordinary life time. I don't go down to office or factory any more. Do most of my necessary work by private wires." He motioned toward a battery of telephones on a table in the corner. "Romantic business, this making of brick. Didn't ever look at it that way, eh? Well, it has its artistic side as well as its humdrum routine. The artistic side is dangerous, too. It takes you all the way from sand-clay-wall brick to—to Ming porcelains. And it gives you plenty chance to fear for your life. But I can explain that better later. What I want to know now is if you'll drop this business of yours and come out here with me. I'll try out that brain of yours and see if there is anything but empty wrinkles in it. Give you something solid to think about—bricks, perhaps. Give Mr. Guest the whole business and office equipment. You'll never miss them—or him."
Cube smiled, but shook his head decidedly. "Sorry, Uncle," he answered, "but I can't do it. I have a sort of superstition about a man who changes his mind too often in regard to what he wants to do in the world. I've changed mine once. Now if I can only make something of a living, I know the future will take care of itself; and I'm satisfied."
Noah Lacey was obviously nettled; he had not expected opposition to this scheme. Like a good business man, however, he did not lose his temper and thereby precipitate an open break. Instead, he helped himself to more brandy, drew out a cigarette case of hammered copper, and lit a fragrant Egyptian after tendering the case to Cube. "Let's look at the matter in another light then," he continued blandly. "As you probably know, I'm called a rich man. Someone constantly is attempting to defraud or kill me. Note the way in which I've had to protect myself in this house. No one can get in without ringing half a dozen bells. All the inside doors are concealed, and operated by a complicated arrangement of push buttons. No one can enter any room in the house that is occupied without warning the occupant and receiving permission. Provisions and all household deliveries are made through an ingenious arrangement in the wall at the rear. When Irene; Kohler Andrews; or his wife, who is housekeeper, leaves the place she or he must be let out by someone else, or must utilize a secret passage so far known only to Irene and myself.
"Perhaps you can guess now that I could find for you enough work out here to satisfy your detective instinct. Also, in my day I have been an active man. I'd like to have the company in the hands of a youngster who still is able to do things. I might make that youngster a proposition—say of salary as a detective, plus excellent prospects of a substantial legacy later. What do you think of it now?"
Noah Lacey's words lacked any hint of objectionable quality. It was rather the sophisticated half sneer which lingered always on the elder man's countenance, which antagonized Cube. He saw, or thought he saw, that Noah for some reason had set himself a task of winning Cube Lacey from his chosen life work and ambition. The mention of detective work, of course was mere subterfuge, notwithstanding Noah's evident concern for his own personal safety. Cube felt a queer mingling of pity, contempt and admiration for his scheming relative, yet the whole plan as stated repelled him. If it became a starvation matter between himself and Sherrod Guest, the two could find jobs somewhere out on a paper for a short time. Cube preferred this alternative to the easy way of shiftlessness suggested by Noah. He expressed himself courteously but decisively, arose, and made his way out. His last glance at Noah Lacey showed the old man, after pressing a button controlling the door, helping himself to another glass of brandy.
Miss Jeffries was not in evidence when he emerged. Kohler Andrews, however, whisked into sight from somewhere and conducted him out into the street. Cube ventured to advise medical attention for Noah. "The old duffer has a heart lesion of some sort, I'm afraid," he said. "And that booze is not doing him much good, I'd wager."
No answer was returned to this friendly suggestion. Kohler Andrews maintained the same mask of stern indifference on his accipitrine features with which he had greeted Cube. The young man reached the street outside with something of a feeling of relief. In his mind was absolute certainty that he never would call at Brick Knob again—unless, by chance, at some time he happened to meet Miss Irene Jeffries without her smoked glasses.
But he was wrong. Next morning at eleven o'clock as he sat idly in his office the phone rang. Irene Jeffries was speaking, and unmistakable agitation was apparent in her voice. She dispensed with preliminaries. "Your Uncle, Noah Lacey was murdered last night!" she stated. "Come right out just as quickly as you can!"
To the best of Cube's antecedent knowledge he had been alone in the office. Guest was in court; the flimsy partition door to his half of the office stood open at Cube's left hand. So startled was he by the news he received from Irene Jeffries that out of the tail of his eye he saw only a dark blur as of something descending swiftly. That something landed heavily upon the crown of his head, driving nose forward against the telephone mouthpiece. Cube did not know that minor feature of his injury until later. For him the world had dissolved in a starry swirl of oblivion.
CUBE regained consciousness almost as violently as he had departed that state. Sherrod Guest, bursting in with the epochal news of a seventy-five-dollar fee from a client he had expected to charge only one-third that sum, did not notice for some moments the chaotic disarray of the office. Cube, crouched forward on the desk, looked as if he had fallen asleep. Guest shook him with unrestrained exuberance. Lacey's eyes opened dully and he gazed about at a room which seemed to be swaying like a steamboat cabin in choppy sea.
"Come to! Wake, thou dreamer!" adjured Guest. "A porterhouse steak with plenty of mushrooms looms on the horizon before our hungry eyes! Hey! What's the matter with you? Doped?" At that instant his hand encountered a trickle of dampness on his comrade's scalp. One glance showed him it was blood. From that instant his bombastic manner vanished, and he devoted himself solicitously to bringing back Lacey from his groggy condition.
Thereupon Cube briefly sketched the startling news which had come to him over the wire, and told of his attack by someone who had been concealed in the inner office. Both halves of the place had been wrecked systematically, the files torn open and contents dumped upon the floor, books thrown helter-skelter from their shelves, and the locked drawers of Sherrod's desk pried open with some heavy weapon. Lacey's, because they had been unlocked at the time, escaped with merely having their contents strewn about. For some time Sherrod scarcely mentioned the fact of Noah Lacey's demise. The attack upon Cube and the interior of the office interested him far more.
"What on earth do you suppose they were after? Was it those darn Chinks? There have been half a dozen near me every place I went today!" he exclaimed explosively, ready to launch himself for vengeance in any suggested direction.
Lacey was thoughtful but had no explanation to offer. The wound on his head had transformed itself into a right-angled lump, and it seemed as though the entire roof of his brain had been bruised. Nevertheless he shook himself together and announced an intention of returning immediately to Brick Knob.
"I don't know how you see it Sherrod," he observed, "but it looks to me as though we ought to establish a causal connection between the two ends of this coincidence. Let me sketch it. All in one day, twenty-four hours, we find ourselves beset by Chinese. One followed me all the way up to Brick Knob. Guess I didn't mention that before. These attentions from yellow men are subsequent to a phone call from Noah Lacey. I go out to his house to find it crammed with objects of Oriental art. He hints to me— though at the moment I confess I thought it nothing but rather clumsy subterfuge to get me out there to live with him—of certain detective work he proposes to me to do. He even admits that his life is in danger, but I only half believe him. I dope him out to be a rank coward, even if he is my uncle. A few hours after I leave, however, he is murdered. Doesn't that appeal to your logical mind as the beginning of a sorites?"
Guest shrugged. "As usual you're several steps ahead of me," he admitted. "Sounds wild, but at the same time reasonable, in a way. What do you want me to do?"
"Stay right here for the time being. I'm not so sure that they won't try to involve me in that mess out at Brick Knob. I'm the only surviving relative. At the present moment I am being cut out for a chance at Noah's fortune by a rank outsider. A girl. Pretty, too, I think. Still, vengeance or some other sordid motive might be ascribed to me. It might have come about that I was the last person to see my uncle alive, though that scarcely appears probable. If you went out with me, they might decide to hold you also as a possible accomplice—or as witness. I'd rather have you on the outside, at least until tomorrow. Then our guesses are apt to hit close to the mark. Get on the trail of these Chinese. If any of them bother you smash after them hammer and tongs!"
Irene Jeffries herself admitted Cube. A uniformed policeman was stationed at the entrance, but Cube noticed that he lacked the officious seriousness usual in striking murder cases. Irene whispered a quick explanation. "Don't mention to anyone just yet that I told you he was murdered," she requested. "They think it was an accident, and I believe it would be best to leave it that way for a time."
Cube stared at her. She had taken off the atrocious spectacles, and he saw that she had been crying. Gone was the aspect of studiousness, the old-maidish primness suggested by the shell-encircled glasses. She was pretty! Yes, more than that, for in spite of signs of sincere grief a sweet, almost wistful feminine trust shone in her eyes. Though the procedure she suggested was far from regular, in Cube's estimation, he could not question her motive at that moment. He nodded gravely, and took her arm as they descended the steps.
"I—I simply told them that he was dead," she continued rapidly. "They sent down several different officers and Inspector Harris. Dr. Mitchell was here when they arrived. They didn't stay long, because it seemed apparent to them that your uncle died from a fall. He hit his forehead."
"May I see him? You don't need to come, Miss Jeffries," he suggested kindly. "Won't you lie down for a time? When I've made my examination I'd like to have a talk with you."
"No, I'd rather stay with you," she shivered. "This house— well, I know too much about it, and the reasons for its being such a fort. Though you may not believe it, Mr. Lacey had reasons!"
"I am prepared to believe anything," Cube answered, passing back along the corridor to the door by which he had entered previously. This now was propped open. "What time did it—it happen?"
"No one knows exactly. Mr. Lacey ate dinner with me. Then he went down to his workshop in the basement for a few minutes. I tried to keep him upstairs, because I think he was—" she hesitated.
"Drunk?" suggested Cube.
"Well, a little, yes. He insisted on going down, but returned to this floor almost immediately and retired. He was reading, for an open copy of Montaigne lay beside him on the floor. Apparently some time in the night—Dr. Mitchell estimates it at about ten or eleven o'clock—he rose, and started to walk, perhaps for another drink. One of the spells overcame him, and he toppled forward. His forehead struck heavily against the sharp corner of a chair."
"But I thought you said he was murdered?"
A peculiar expression flitted across her countenance. She started clutching Cube's arm. "It's I, Kohler!" she exclaimed sharply. Cube saw that this was occasioned by the appearance of the servant in the doorway leading to Noah Lacey's private living-room. Andrews held a leveled automatic! He looked as if he had been stopped in the very act of firing, and his pistol had been aimed directly at Cube.
"You may go now, Kohler," Irene continued, a trifle unsteadily. "I'll call you when I leave." The man obeyed, thrusting the automatic somewhere below the left lapel of jacket. He had not spoken, yet as he passed Cube black, beady eyes were fastened suspiciously upon the detective.
"Andrews, hell!" was Cube's silent comment. "He never owned that name honestly. A gunman, too. I'll keep an eye on him!"
Noah Lacey's body was stretched upon a leather couch in the chamber where Cube had seen him on the previous day. Because the coroner had not yet arrived, nothing had been done save the draping of a silk handkerchief over his face. Cube lifted the cloth gingerly. Above Noah's right eye was a broken indentation telling plainly of skull fracture which undoubtedly had caused instant death. The wound immediately attracted Cube's interest for one particular reason. Though the skin was broken open to an extent of more than an inch, little blood was in evidence.
On the handkerchief which had rested against Noah's face appeared only a faint grayish-brown stain. "Who cleaned the wound?" demanded Cube, straightening abruptly.
"No one," she responded. "Dr. Mitchell said that Mr. Lacey must have suffered from a form of pernicious anemia. He had practically no blood. That is strange, too, for until just a few days ago Mr. Lacey possessed a rather florid complexion. He drank a good deal, you know, although the only time I saw him intoxicated in the slightest perceptible degree was after this weakness had come to him."
"When did you first notice the difference in his complexion and strength?"
"Last Wednesday, a week ago tomorrow. Until that morning he had been vigorous for a man of his age. All in one night he seemed to wilt. The color left his face and he began drinking constantly to keep himself up. I tried to get him to consult a physician but he absolutely refused, telling me that no American doctor could help him. But you are more interested now in other things. Here is the chair against which he fell."
She indicated one of three slim mahogany chairs standing before the long telephone table. On the sharp corner of a seat a grayish-brown stain showed above the polished surface. Cube pursed his lips thoughtfully. He could not dispute the girl's statements, for a single glance showed him that the angle of wood fitted exactly the wound which had caused Lacey's death. Oddly enough, however, the stain no more resembled blood than did the clotted moisture gathered upon Lacey's temple. Cube studied it a moment with his hand lens, then taking a pen-knife and sheet of white paper from his pocket he scraped away with extreme care a tiny portion of the stain, placed it on the paper and folded the latter into compact shape.
At this moment the coroner arrived, accompanied by Dr. Mitchell and Inspector Harris. Cube was forced to suspend his own activities while the others retraced his steps. At first, when he made known his identity as nephew of the dead man, the coroner stared suspiciously at him—evidently filing away a mental note to question Cube exhaustively at some later time. After full consideration of apparent factors, though, he expressed himself satisfied that Noah's death had been a regrettable accident. "I'll have to hold an inquest this afternoon," he said at last, "but it will be nothing much more than a matter of form. Dr. Mitchell states that Mr. Lacey was known to have had fainting spells. Undoubtedly one of these overtook him."
Five minutes after the others had left, Cube turned directly to Irene Jeffries. "Now I am ready to have you tell me why you believe my uncle was murdered," he said.
Without comment she walked to the telephone table, lifted one of the instruments, and handed him a folded sheet of paper which had been concealed there. He opened it and read the following curious statement:
"I am convinced that I have but a few days to live. I am being murdered by members of the T'ao tong. Noah Lacey."
"There have been Chinese about this place ever since I came!" Irene whispered, glancing involuntarily over her shoulder as she spoke.
"Chinese!" echoed Cube, his mind reverting instantly to the tentative theory which he had mentioned to Guest.
"Yes!" she affirmed. "Twice I—I saw them inside this house! Kohler Andrews shot at one but did not hit him. Each time the man escaped, and none of us could discover how he had gained entrance. Mr. Lacey feared them. Somehow he had incurred their enmity. From hints he dropped at one time or another I believe they were trying to get something which he possessed, something he valued more highly even than his life. He never told me anything concerning its nature, but did show me at one time a pink scrap of paper which had been glued against the surface of the hidden door to his suite of rooms. Mr. Lacey took the paper, and I did not get a very good look at the single character upon it. It was a Chinese ideograph, however, one which resembled a turkey track to which were appended several rings and scrolls. I think it must have had something to do with this tong he mentions, for at the time it seemed to disturb him tremendously. He made all of us take revolvers, and come with him while he scoured every nook and corner of the house. We found no signs of intruders. For days thereafter, though, Mr. Lacey seemed to be waiting, waiting for something to happen. He strapped a pistol holster about his waist, and wore it even when he went to bed."
Cube's eyes were enigmatic as he turned toward the telephone table. "Which of these instruments will give me an outside wire?" he asked.
"The one furthest to the left."
Lifting the receiver then Cube Lacey called his own office and spoke long and earnestly to Sherrod Guest. Though he little imagined any such horrible contingency connected with the errand, he was sending his comrade and associate to almost certain doom.
One minute after he replaced the receiver the back basement door of an apartment just outside the wall of Brick Knob opened, and a Chinaman appeared, to glance hurriedly about and then hasten to a point two blocks distant. There at the curb a low- slung roadster awaited.
SHERROD GUEST'S initial smile of satisfaction and intensified interest changed into seriousness as he heard the commission given him by Lacey, "Go down into Chinatown and discover all there is to be learned concerning the T'ao tong. Those are the chaps we're after, it seems."
As a reporter Guest once had invaded the queer district centering about Twenty-second and Archer Avenues, in search of material and photographs for an article on Chinese music. Unacquainted with the language and all forms of Oriental belief, he had been forced to confess failure on the assignment. Now he boarded a street car with little expectation of success. For a white man, the job of learning anything pertaining to yellow men's secrets always is made next to impossible. He knew only enough of tongs, their methods and activities, to realize that a westerner would find out just exactly what the Chinese wished him to know, and not a whit more.
He sought first the bland, educated Sam Lee Moy—known as "king of Chinatown," and an oily politician who grafted both from his own countrymen and from the furtive, white-faced individuals who came regularly to pay over their dollars for small tins of a commodity practically unobtainable elsewhere in the city. As usual he was pacing slowly back and forth before the shops and tenements of his small domain, watchful for strangers, though seeming to beam good-nature and fellow-ship toward all who passed. Guest hailed him, and with cynical recognition of Moy's proclivities, pressed a folded two-dollar bill into the yellow palm. Moy glanced at it, and smiled.
"For some it is a symbol of bad luck," he commented unctuously, "but not for me. You are the one who three years ago wished to see some of the instruments for music-making of my countrymen?"
"Yes, you remember me all right," replied Guest, nodding. "I'm not musically inclined today, though. I'd like to have a chat with you in private, Sam. I'm after a little information, and there are more of those little bad luck omens for you if you can tell me what I want to know."
Moy bowed. "I have a room up here," he answered, indicating a narrow doorway behind which greasy stairs led upward into unlighted obscurity. As Guest strode ahead, it was noticeable that Moy lingered the fraction of a second to make a curious sign with his fingers in the direction of a squatting loafer who sat smoking in front of a wholesale grocery several houses distant. The loafer immediately rose to his feet and shuffled away.
Guest ushered himself into the bare, barn-like room overhead, but refused the mat offered him by Moy. "No, it'll only take a minute," he said. "I want to know just a little about these tong societies you fellows have. What is the T'ao tong, and where can I get in touch with one of the head members in Chicago?"
Moy's eyes narrowed slightly, yet the cheerful expression of his features did not alter in perceptible degree. "Tong?" he murmured, as if at a loss for Guest's meaning.
"Yes, the secret societies, I mean. Particularly the T'ao bunch."
Moy seemed to ruminate. "There are many tongs in old China," he admitted, at last. "I know of them, of course, in a general way, for some have branches in San Francisco and elsewhere. You know, however, that I was born in Canada, and never have worn the queue. For that reason I have not become a member of any such order. As a matter of fact I don't believe many of the Chinese in this neighborhood have any affiliations with the big societies."
Guest waved his hand. "Oh, never mind the bunk, Sam," he begged. "I can get all that stuff out of books. You haven't been with these chaps all your life and failed to learn the general stuff I want to know. Just tell me something about the T'ao tong, and we won't waste time with the others. I have some business to transact with them, and I don't find them in the 'phone directory."
Moy's brows wrinkled. "It is strange," he muttered. "I know of the Wah Pu, and the Dragon, and—Really, so far as I know there is no organization by the name you give either here or in China. Gladly would I earn more of your good money, but—"
An idea seemed to occur to him. "It comes to mind," he added, measuring the palm of one hand against that of the other, "that there is one old and very wise man back here who might be able to tell you what you wish to know. Charlie Sing can be approached at any time, for his years rest upon him too heavily to allow him to walk out upon the streets. Come, I shall show you the way."
Guest acquiesced readily. He knew that among these Chinese any white man seeking information is regarded with deep suspicion. Lengths of red tape have to be unrolled before even the simplest question receives a straightforward answer. Probably Moy wished to divide responsibility, or perhaps this was his indirect method of introducing Guest to the very man whom he was seeking. The latter estimate seemed more probable. Guest took a chance upon it and rewarded Moy with another bill, which was received with profuse thanks—albeit the shadow of a more sinister expression lurked behind the urbane mask of the Oriental.
They did not retrace their steps to the street. Moy led the way backward from the staircase through a musty, unlighted corridor smelling of Chinese onions, and stale smoke of punk. The way elbowed twice, bringing them to a succession of unmarked, dingy doors. Moy opened one of these, turning immediately inside to descend wooden stairs built in a crooked spiral. For the first time a qualm of apprehension attacked Guest, but the cold touch of an automatic in jacket pocket reassured him. He went on, following the shadowy form of his guide. The dank smell of earth mingled now with odors of humanity. Guest knew that they were below street level, in some sort of basement.
At the bottom of the stairs a single candle guttered in drafts from three corridors. Moy stopped. "Follow this hallway to the end!" he directed. "Take the candle, for there are two stairs down which you might stumble. It is better that I do not go with you to Charley Sing, but those you will find in that last chamber will direct you." Presently, with a bow and final smile, in which Guest imagined he detected an odd glint of malignity, Moy was gone. With a shrug for the fears which crowded upon him, Guest took up the candle in his left hand, and grasping the pistol in his pocket with the right, stepped forward into the designated corridor.
No warning came to him, the springing of the trap was accomplished with silent swiftness. All at once a heavy, swathing cloth descended over head and shoulders, extinguishing the candle and enveloping Guest in musty-smelling, suffocating folds. He tried to yank out the pistol, but with practiced dexterity a rope was wound tightly about his arms, pinioning them to his sides. A hand reached up from somewhere and yanked away the automatic, which exploded once, fruitlessly. Another loop tightened about his ankles. Helpless, he toppled into the arms of his captors.
BOTH Irene Jeffries and Cube Lacey were present at the inquest. Kohler Andrews and his wife—the latter a dull, large woman apparently honest enough, but knowing little or nothing save what her husband told her—also were summoned and questioned perfunctorily. It developed that the two had served Noah Lacey for eighteen years, that they regarded him as a generous employer, though one given to many cranky notions. Andrews testified that his master long had left the routine portions of his business in the hands of a business manager, Nathan Hardy by name. Andrews—whose name originally had been Politsky—believed that Hardy had bought out a one- third interest. The fact was corroborated later by Hardy himself.
Noah Lacey never had cared much for the pursuit of money- making. After establishing on a firmer basis his inherited business, he devoted himself, except for eight or ten hours a week, to the artistic side of pottery and ceramics. He had studied abroad, and traveled in the Orient where he had picked up some of the beautiful specimens of fictile art which now decorated his home. He had made much pottery himself, possessing a complete and extensive laboratory in the basement of his house. According to Andrews, however, he had ordered the latter for many years to smash up almost every jar, vase, or completed specimen. "And some of them was worth lots of money, to!" concluded Andrews.
"How do you know?" flashed Cube Lacey, who had been studying the man's iron visage. It had seemed that a momentary flash of apprehension—quite as if Andrews had let slip something he had not intended to mention—had come and gone in the witness's face. Inspector Harris and all the rest turned to regard Cube coldly.
"I fail to see where that question is at all pertinent," rebuked the coroner. "You will kindly not interrupt again, Mr. Lacey."
Cube nodded resignedly. The inquest proceeded, unearthing nothing incompatible with the theory of death by accident, until Cube himself was called. He told of his relationship to the dead man, of his visit on the previous day, and then presented to the coroner the note which Lacey evidently had written only a short time before his death. Cube had considered it his duty to bring forth this piece of evidence, but it received little attention. Noah Lacey was characterized as a man given to delusions. When Cube attempted to mention the fact that Chinese intruders twice had been seen inside the house despite all precautions against their entry, the fact was waved aside.
"Before we place any particular value upon that," replied the coroner, "we must remember that Mr. Lacey continually kept art objects—vases, rugs and other valuable specimens easily transported by thieves—to the value of more than one hundred thousand dollars in the house all the time. I scarcely wonder that he had all these elaborate precautions, or that he was troubled by Chinese thieves. Undoubtedly Chinese not only would appreciate these things most fully, but they would have a ready market, right at hand."
The verdict was predestined. Noah Lacey had died through an accident resulting from a fainting spell brought on by poor health. Of all those present outside of Irene Jeffries and Cube, Inspector Harris was the only one who lingered five minutes after the verdict had been given.
He drew aside Irene and chatted with her a short time, ending by laughing and patting her upon the shoulder in fatherly fashion. Instantly, Cube conceived a dislike for the detective, whose eight years of seniority did not give him any great right to act thus toward a very pretty girl. Cube had considered it his duty to protect Irene, but—well, Harris was different!
One curious fact in respect to the inquest recurred to Cube later. They had not asked Irene Jeffries a single question! Grimly he smiled at this evidence of inefficiency. In a conscientious manner he had endeavored to put forward all the facts in his possession because he did not feel like assuming the whole burden of responsibility. Now, the law had divorced itself definitely from the case, scoffing at the possibility of crime. If Cube and Sherrod Guest could prove that a murder had been committed, and catch the guilty parties, the affair would prove indeed to be the big, spectacular case for which they had hoped!
Harris confirmed this in parting. He stopped a moment at the door. "I've just placed you, Lacey," he observed, smiling condescendingly. "You're the young chap who's running that new detective agency with Sherrod Guest, eh? Well, take a tip from an old timer. Be content with the dough the old bird leaves you. Don't waste time trying to make a mystery out of an open-and-shut case." He nodded affably, and disappeared.
Cube Lacey was under no delusion regarding a possible share in the wealth left by Noah Lacey. He had been offered such a chance and had declined it. Without doubt Irene Jeffries would inherit; at any rate Cube refused to worry over the matter.
Irene broached the matter of staying longer, as soon as they were alone. "You—won't need me any more now, will you?" she asked, rather timidly.
"Need you?" echoed Cube, mystified. "Oh no, I see what you mean. You won't want to remain in this house over night, naturally. I'll stay on. There are a few things I want to examine this evening—the workshop downstairs, and so on. If you have a place in the city to which you can go, I'll expect you in the morning."
She glanced at him peculiarly. "That wasn't exactly what I meant," she countered. "I—well, since you're here, there really isn't any use my coming back, unless you—"
A light dawned upon Cube. She imagined that he naturally would inherit the house and everything, and that her connection with Noah Lacey was ended! Of course he knew nothing of the circumstances under which she had become his ward, yet Noah Lacey undoubtedly had remembered her handsomely, as he had no other apparent beneficiaries. When his lawyers brought forward his will this would be settled. In the meantime he had no intention of assuming the slightest air of proprietorship.
"Nothing doing, Ir—hm, Miss Jeffries!" he smiled. "Really, as you ought to know, I'm just in this as a matter of business speculation. I am out to make a name for myself, if possible, and bring to justice the men responsible for my uncle's death. But you're the boss, of course."
"Thank you. That's very flattering," she told him gravely, hiding the merry light that had risen to her eyes. "In that case I shall stay on for a time, Mr. Lacey. My own room is safe enough, and I suppose you'll want the Andrews pair to stay on."
"Yes. I'm not through with Kohler Andrews just yet!" he concluded. "But wouldn't it be better if you got someone, even a personal maid, to stay with you?"
"I'm quite capable of taking care of myself, thank you!" she flashed. "Now, about dinner, Mr. Lacey?"
"Call me Cube!" he begged. "I'll be very, very formal in addressing you, Miss Jeffries. Really, I won't presume, but I've been Cube to everyone so long I scarcely know my last name, especially when it's hitched to a Mister. If you'll do that I'll— I'll promise to do my share with the biggest dinner Mrs. Andrews can cook!"
She shook her head. "I couldn't think of it!" she retorted. "How would it sound if I took a liberty you did not reciprocate— Cube?"
"Shake, Irene!" he cried joyfully, thrilling to the sudden knowledge that this girl could be more to him than any of the pretty women he had known previously. She would be a constant gratification to his senses, but beyond that she also possessed the wit and sense of humor so necessary in a real friend and pal.
After dinner, which was one of the most sumptuous meals that Cube had tasted for months, they searched the upstairs rooms for any sign of intruders, or other assurance that Lacey had met a violent end, but in vain. Irene was tired out, so she retired early. Cube tried to get in touch with Guest, but failed. Next morning after breakfast, Irene conducted him to the basement in the automatic elevator—a hidden device reached by springing back a wall panel of Circassian walnut—which gave the only known means of access to Noah's laboratory from the upstairs.
Cube found himself awed by the laboratory. High-ceiled, it formed one huge room corresponding to the entire floor plan of the house. Rows of concrete posts, extending the length of laboratory, supported the weight above. The room, in spite of its size, seemed crammed with apparatus, yet this was not what first caught Cube's attention. The walls were more striking. Formed entirely of fictile material, they were a conglomerate, apparently, of thousands of experiments with brick, tile, and porcelain. Though cemented together cleverly—pieces the size of mosaics lying side by side with building tiles a yard square on their faces—the whole effect was of highly- colored, patchwork draperies hung all about. Here was every shade of the spectrum, every glaze and finish known to ceramics, flung together in an array like the disassorted fragments of a picture puzzle!
"Mr. Lacey experimented for years and years, attempting to reproduce pottery and porcelain the equal of those from old China," Irene explained. "See, here are his earlier bits, near the bottom of the wall. He built it all by hand, as you know. This wall does not support the house. Behind it is another, of ordinary stone and mortar. If you'll notice, there is a line here," she paused to indicate an irregular demarcation approximately four feet from the cork-carpeted floor, "which separates quite distinctly his first work from that which he did during the past ten or eleven years. You can see an abrupt difference. Below, the mosaics and tiles are finished and glazed poorly. Above, they possess delicate shading, luster, iridescence, almost like some of those vases and jugs upstairs. I don't know whether you were told this, or not, but Mr. Lacey made all but five of those vases, and almost every other figure and bit of porcelain in the house! That yellow-brown vase out in the front hall he considered his finest bit. It is an exact reproduction of the Hsien-te nien chih vase by Ch'ai Yao now in the Chinese Government Museum at Peking."
Lacey gazed at her astounded. "Do you mean to say," he demanded, "that my uncle could duplicate these art objects?"
"Not only that he could duplicate them, hut he could originate vases, urns, and cremation receptacles which the greatest critics pronounced genuine relics of Sung or T'ang periods! Once I remember he was offered three thousand dollars for a tiny piece; offered it by Reynolds Nasmyth, the critic, too! Of course Mr. Lacey didn't accept, but he chuckled over that for weeks afterward. He considered the offer ample recognition of his efforts. I don't think he ever told Mr. Nasmyth, who still thinks he lacked only a few thousand dollars of consummating his happiness by actually owning an antique piece of superlative beauty. Mr. Lacey valued that particular piece simply because of the offer. He never would part with it, but he did send as a present to Mr. Nasmyth a water jug purporting to be of Ming porcelain. That jug made the poor man happier than a ten-year-old boy with a new electric engine!
"Mr. Lacey often told me that if he wanted to hoax the public, he could make more money out of his pottery wheel downstairs than the whole brick business earned. He never did that, however. He was a lover of beauty. I think he planned to make public his processes and secrets. At least he seemed to be writing all of the time he did not spend down here in experimentation."
For a time Cube said not a word. In silence he traced the line of difference between Noah's early work, and that which had formed the culmination of his life of artistic striving. The difference was remarkable.
"What caused the change, Irene?" he asked. "Do you know?"
She hesitated. "I have thought it over many times, but I cannot be sure," she replied. "Perhaps it was the length of time which Mr. Lacey spent in the Orient. It was following that period that he put all these safety devices in and about the house. You see, I have been here only a little over two years. Mr. Lacey was not a man much given to confidences, of course. I only can guess."
"Sounds rational enough," commented Cube. "I have to look it up. Do you think—?"
His sentence was interrupted by a raucous, horrible squall— an inhuman voice which seemed to come from the ceiling directly overhead.
"Cube! Cube!" it cried. "Help! They're tearing me to pieces! Help! Help!"
"My heavens!" cried Cube, yanking out his automatic and running toward the point from which the sound seemed to emanate. "It's—that's Sherrod! Where are you, old man? I'm coming!"
NO answer was returned. For several minutes Cube raced about the laboratory, searching for any sign of Guest, but in vain. Besides Irene and himself the entire basement was empty of human occupant!
Irene shivered. "It's spooky!" she said. "That voice was not human!" She also held a revolver, but Cube did not appear to notice.
Cube shook his head decidedly. "Of course it was," he objected. "He was here somewhere. We must find him, for Sherrod never squeals unless he's badly hurt." Resuming the search, and calling out time and time again, he opened the zinc-lined bins that held clay and plaster, the damp box, and the drying cupboard. He peered behind the "kick wheel," and even opened the doors of the oil kiln and muffle kiln.
Outside of these and benches holding chemical reagents and bacteriological apparatus, a large electric furnace and what seemed to be an aquarium completed the list of sizable apparatus. The supposed aquarium was glass-sided, and covered with heavy plates of the same material. Cube lifted away one of the latter, and peered down into a stagnant, fetid pool of green slime in which sticks of wood and small boulders were placed. No fish or other large organism could live in such water; the odor fairly snatched at human respiration.
"Ugh!" grimaced Cube, drawing back and allowing the heavy plate to slip into place. "He can't be there."
He hallooed again, this time putting all strength of his lungs in an attempt to reach Sherrod's ears. A cackle of raucous, fiendish laughter burst out from a point within a yard of his head! There, clutching the side of one of the concrete pillars near the ceiling, was a common green parrot!
With wings outstretched, the bird glared down, as he snapped his great, curved beak malevolently.
"Don't look down there!" he screamed in a wicked falsetto. "Dash my eyes, I'm right here! They're killing me! Awk!"
Involuntarily Cube dropped back. Irene seized his arm, and he felt the girl tremble as a glint of reflected electricity turned the bird's sinister, knowing eyes into blank circles of red fire. "Wh-where did that thing come from?" he gasped. "Did my uncle—?" Wordless negation was his only answer from Irene. She was staring at the parrot with fascination akin to that of a rabbit transfixed by the glare of a cobra.
"I'm Sherrod Guest!" came the weird, unreal pronouncement again. "Help, help!" With startling suddenness the parrot deserted its precarious perch, swooping with a beating of heavy wings to a shelf of pottery moulds, there to balance and cock his head sidewise at the two.
"We'll have to catch him!" whispered Irene, as the bird started again his strident refrain.
"Wait a minute," cautioned Cube in a low tone. "He's some kind of a messenger, I think. Yesterday, Sherrod Guest went to see what he could discover concerning the mysterious Chinese who have been haunting this household and my office. This parrot must have heard Guest talk. Otherwise he could not imitate the voice. I believe—yes, I'm sure the tong has captured Sherrod."
Slowly then Cube approached the green-plumaged bird, doing his utmost to cajole him into further revelations. His promises of crackers which did not exist, and compliments to the bird's supposed beauty obtained no result, however. Common house parrots might yield to such blandishments, but not Sun Yat, who had dwelt many decades among men whose wisdom he respected much more than that of this foolish American who tried to tempt him with baby talk and empty promises. He squawked his disapproval, and, when pursued from perch to perch by Cube, leaned forward suddenly and pecked a sizable strip of skin from the back of the young man's extended hand.
"Damn!" exploded Lacey, staring down at a spot from which the blood was beginning to stream.
So that was the game! This foolish fellow thought he knew something about swearing, did he? Sun Yat lifted one foot and scratched his head contemptuously. Forthwith from his horny beak there issued a stream of blasphemy and denunciation which would have made a Tien-Tsin desperado blush for shame.
Cube, staunching the blood with his handkerchief, was more wary about approaching the feathered demon, yet he stuck with the job pertinaciously, not suspecting that the bird could elude him. He overlooked one of the narrow, barred windows above the level of the ground, however. One pane of glass had been removed neatly from this. Sun Yat, driven from one place to another, decided finally that he did not care for the basement after all. Hopping to the window he paused to chatter back a final expletive, and then fluttered out into the chill air to spread wings in flight.
Denouncing his carelessness, Cube hastened outside, but the bird was gone. Encircling the house, Cube trod accidentally upon the two-yard strip of brick which gave under his weight. Apparently this strip completely circled the building, and was part of Noah Lacey's intricate burglar-alarm system, for while Cube remained standing on the spot jangling bells sounded within the house. When he stepped off the noise ceased.
Kohler Andrews, sawed-off shotgun in hand, came stealthily from the rear. Cube motioned to him that there was nothing to fear. "This particular bird is probably on his way to Chinatown by now," he explained cryptically.
It took only a short session with the telephone to prove that Sherrod Guest had not been near his office. The client, Myers, was angry. He had kicked his heels outside a locked door for twenty minutes after the time of his appointment; now he expressed coarsely but adequately his opinion of ham detectives who didn't have sense enough to perform a job satisfactorily when they got it.
Cube did his best to assuage the man's temper, but in truth Cube himself was too disturbed to bother about a matter like possible evidence for Myers's possible divorce. He phoned the rooming house in which Guest lived. The landlady informed him that Sherrod had not put in an appearance the previous night, and had left no word concerning present whereabouts. Sickening certainty began to descend upon Cube. Guest had gone after information and had been trapped by members of the suspected tong. Cube himself knew little of such organizations, yet in newspaper offices he had heard gruesome tales of Oriental torture and punishment. He shuddered. For the time being he would have to abandon this end of the investigation, for duty to a living friend superseded duty to a dead man. Irene agreed with him. She promised to be watchful and careful in his absence, and said that if no word from him arrived by evening she would repair to a hotel for the night.
Cogitating whether or not to place this new development in the hands of the police, Cube went downtown. He decided finally not to mention the fact until he discovered that it held a more direct bearing upon one or the other horn of the dilemma. Inspector Harris and the rest would not listen to a wild tale of clues furnished by a talkative parrot. They would scoff, and Cube realized that the problem long since had ceased to be a laughing matter.
On the way to the office Cube remembered the scraping which he had taken from the telephone chair. An analytical laboratory lay on his way, so he dropped in, searching out Lester Krahn, a young scientist who, combining extensive knowledge of physiological chemistry and bacteriology, had been depended on by newspaper writers for years. Krahn took the specimen, listened to a brief sketch of the circumstances and Cube's desire, and promised to have a report ready in the course of three hours.
Cube thereupon visited his office which, naturally, was empty. Steam heat had been left turned on, and excessive temperature inside denied that anyone had visited the place that day. Cube did not waste much time here, but started a systematic search for his associate throughout the Loop. When this proved fruitless he sought the telephone and located a professor of Oriental languages at the University of Chicago. Making an engagement with the latter, he taxied out immediately. Albert Benson, Ph.D., had little that was reassuring to offer, though.
"Your case is exceedingly interesting," he answered, after listening to a résumé of the story, "but I scarcely see wherein I can help. Now that tong of which you were speaking; few white men really know anything concerning Chinese secret societies. No white man, or even half-caste Chinaman, ever became a tong member, however. I believe that even Chinese born in the Western Hemisphere are excluded."
The good man would have gone on interminably expounding these views which did not seem to Cube to be especially pertinent. The detective, though, managed to precipitate more concrete information. He asked point-blank if the professor ever had learned anything concerning the T'ao tong.
"I never before have heard the name," was the answer. "It does not occur in the list of forty-three known societies of that kind. This does not mean that such a tong is not in existence. Practically all of the Chinese in this country come from the single province of Shensi. Natives of other provinces might have a hundred more tongs for all I know. Probably they have. The word Tao appeals to me as decidedly interesting in light of what you have told me. I suppose you know that it means pottery and ceramics—embracing all of the fictile arts, in fact."
Cube's eyes narrowed. This was information indeed! "No, I didn't know that," he answered. "Thank you, doctor, I guess that narrows the sphere of my investigation considerably!"
Another and still greater surprise awaited Cube when he returned to the laboratory, however. Lester Krahn approached him with a puzzled frown on his countenance. "See here, Lacey," he began quizzically, "are you trying to spoof me, or what? This stuff never flowed in the veins of a human being, or if it did I'd certainly like to see the person!"
Wonderingly, Cube assured him that there had been no practical joke intended, and asked the reason for Krahn's surprising statement. Silently the scientist beckoned him to a stand near the window where a microscope was focused upon a freshly prepared slide. "Take a look!" bade Krahn succinctly.
Cube glanced into the low-powered lens. After a moment of careful focusing through the depths of a murky spatter lying beneath the cover glass, he could see a picture which brought an involuntary exclamation of puzzled surprise to his lips. It seemed that he was looking upon a vast field of gigantic poppies! The flowers seemed to be growing in a profuse tangle. A time or two he had glanced at human blood under the microscope, but the picture before him now held no hint of the same character which appealed to his unpracticed eye. "Why, it looks like a flower garden!" he muttered.
"Exactly!" confirmed Krahn. "Tonight I'm going to take that slide over to McKenzie the botanist. Perhaps he'll be able to tell me something more about it. First though, was the surface of the chair from which you got the scraping moist or moulded at all?"
"No, it was highly polished mahogany. Not even dusty."
Krahn nodded grimly. "I know you're not lying," he commented, "and so I'll tell you a funny thing about that specimen—a fact which may go far to help solve the mystery of your uncle's death. In that slide appear scraps of fibrin, platelets—the substances in blood which cause it to clot, you know—a terrific number of white blood corpuscles, which are the buzzards of the circulating stream, but almost no red blood corpuscles at all! Something seems to have attacked them—that something being the mysterious 'poppy field' you see. I'm not going to say what I suspect those growths to be until I see McKenzie, but you can bet your boots I wouldn't want them rioting around in my blood!"
BY nature something of a fatalist himself, Sherrod Guest did not struggle longer against either the smothering cloth or the ropes which trussed his arms and legs. Upon loss of the automatic he realized resistance to be useless. Trusting himself to the tender mercies of Sam Lee Moy—particularly, when engaged upon a deliberate quest of the men who had wrecked his office—had been the ultimate in folly. Regrets were of no avail now, however. He felt himself borne on swiftly along a corridor which seemed ever to descend and turn to the left. Judging that he had been below street level at the moment he had been overpowered, Guest's imagination ran away within him. Though actual descent was only in the neighborhood of fifteen feet, he would have sworn that he was being taken to the very bowels of the limestone stratum underlying Chicago.
The padding of slippered feet on earthen floor came to an abrupt end. Guest was then thrown down like a sack of potatoes. Strong hands fastened upon his feet, dragged him forward until he felt himself suspended over vacancy—with only shoulders and heels touching upon solid ground. His feet were fastened to stakes in a fashion which allowed him freedom of movement only through six or eight inches. Then the rope binding his ankles was removed. His wrists were re-tied, being fastened down rigidly across his waist. Then the smothering cloth was removed.
Guest found himself blinking in the smoky radiance of seven large lamps with floating wicks. The oil being consumed possessed a strange, sickly sweet aroma; it furnished a yellowish-green glare of light most unpleasant to Occidental eyes. The chamber itself was perhaps twenty feet by twelve in size, with ceiling reinforced by rough beams, supported by thin wooden shafts of rickety, insecure appearance.
Squatting on mats in a semi-circle before him sat seven Chinese, all of them smoking long-stemmed pipes and betraying not by the flicker of a muscle the fact that they were aware of his presence.
Four more Chinese, heavy-set, unintelligent-appearing specimens of the coolie class, completed arrangements in regard to Guest. One placed a black lacquered box, of approximately a bushel capacity, on the prisoner's middle, lashing it into place by a rope attached to two handles on the sides. Another drew down a curious spout or pipe of wood, until its ends swung one foot above the box. A third Chinaman pulled on a heavy gauntlet of leather which reached up above his elbow. Then, kneeling, he plunged his arm down into the black void beneath Guest, who had been straining his muscles to keep from slumping into this hole.
The Chinaman came up with a wriggling serpent the length of his arm clutched in the gauntlet. The snake, grasped firmly just behind the head, writhed earnestly in an attempt to escape, but in vain. The Chinaman, maintaining the same grim silence, held it up before Guest, who realized with a shudder, that it was a copperhead, the deadliest snake of North America. Then the coolie tossed back the serpent into its hole in the ground. Sherrod Guest, though his joints were beginning to ache, found new incentive to keep himself from slipping head first into that pit.
He smiled grimly. "Well," he remarked, his voice echoing strangely in the inclosed chamber, "the party seems to be ready to proceed. May I inquire why I am the recipient of such elaborate attention?"
Not a word came from any of the Chinamen. They continued smoking imperturbably. The four coolies, their tasks completed, turned and left the chamber by the single entrance. At that moment Guest, squirming in discomfort from his strained position, observed something which brought a gasp of dismay to his lips. The wooden spout which had been pulled into position above the box on his waist, led upward to a large container, raised to the ceiling by means of wooden stilts. From the mouth of the spout now a whitish, powdery trickle began. It fell directly into the box, a tiny stream of sand scarcely as thick as a shoe lace, and seemingly innocent of all ability for harm. Quietly, implacably it continued, however, while the seven Chinese sat and smoked. If they saw Guest or the sinister trickle of sand at all they gave no sign.
Cold perspiration broke out on the captive's forehead. There was no need to tell him the diabolical plan. Already his body sagged merely from its own weight. Continually, as he remembered that hideous wriggling death beneath him in the pit, his muscles tensed and strained. Even without the sand it would be only the space of an hour or two at most before he would be able no longer to hold himself stiffly in this position. The weight of sand, though scarcely a matter of ounces yet, would increase steadily, surely until it crushed him down. In spite of natural bravery and fortitude a cry of horror was wrung from his lips.
As if this had been the signal awaited, one of these seven smokers arose and waddled to his side, gazing down at Guest in impassive silence. The latter decided not to give the watchers the comfort of hearing him voice his terror; but at length he knew that the Oriental would stand there immobile for hours if necessary. Guest shuddered. "Oh, what is it you want? Why have you brought me here?" he cried.
"You and your honored companion, Mr. Kuban Lacey, have received the accumulated wisdom of Cho Keng Lu and Chingte Chien T'ao Lu. This is our property and for it we have searched twelve years. Only because of greed of a white man who was treacherous to his master did we come upon any trace of it. Already it has cost the life of the guilty man, he who robbed our tong. His purpose was known. You and his kinsman, Lacey, were given charge of the treasure. Because we know that you are not sufficiently skilled to betray any of the secrets, without the manuals by which to proceed, we offer to you, to Kuban Lacey, and to the woman known as Irene Jeffries freedom and life in exchange for complete restitution of that which we seek. Otherwise—" He motioned significantly at the trickling sand.
The offer was almost as intelligible to Sherrod Guest as if it had been couched in Sanskrit. He realized that this was indeed an assemblage of the T'ao tong, and that the quiet yellow men before him were not of the type that wastes either words or actions. Even the spokesman, who used academic English with not even a trace of sing-song accent, impressed Guest as being in deadly earnest. The weight of sand, now becoming appreciable against his chest and stomach, backed up the threat with unmistakable vigor. Guest was certain that if he could not appease these men he had only a matter of minutes to live, yet the most desperate striving of imagination could not encompass the nature of treasure supposed to have been given into his keeping. Noah Lacey might have passed something to Cube, but if so the latter had not mentioned the fact.
Controlling his voice as best he could, Guest professed entire ignorance of what was desired from him. He possessed no treasure of any kind. He was no coward, however, and did not pretend bravado or bluster. In this subterranean chamber, cut off by his own folly from any chance of communication or help, he simply could disappear—after whatever tortures these silent, serious men deemed necessary. Nevertheless he pleaded to be told more concerning the mysterious treasure, explaining in brief sentences that he had sought out members of the T'ao tong for the reason of investigating the wrecking of his own offices. Had these Celestials expected to find the treasure there? The last words came from him with difficulty. Muscles of back, legs and chest ached fiercely now, and each breath was torture in itself.
The tong man who had delivered the ultimatum, however, folded his arms and stared down at the victim in impassive silence.
Apparently he considered further words a waste of time. he would wait, wait, until the desired confession burst from the prisoner's lips, or paralyzed muscles gave way beneath the mounting weight of sand.
In vain Sherrod argued and pleaded for a chance to ask his partner concerning the treasure, and denied utterly any knowledge of it. The Chinaman remained unmoved and silent, and the sand trickled down. Not a sound came from any of the other six. At last Guest understood. He was doomed. From that moment he lapsed into dogged silence. Labored breathing came in gusts between set teeth. He hung on valiantly, blindly, but without a vestige of hope. Fifteen minutes passed. Twenty. The end came suddenly. Overwrought nature surrendered. Guest fainted.
Through dim beginnings of regained consciousness he was aware mainly of a sensation of surprise that he still lived. Sand was in his eyes, nostrils and all over his body. The contents of the box had overturned upon him when he fell. What had become of the snake?
He simply had underestimated his foes. They had carried out their threat to the dénouement they had expected, but had saved him from death—for further torture. The serpent evidently had been removed from below.
He was in a different position now, held to the wall of the chamber by a shackle attached to one ankle, and another which fitted closely about his neck in the form of a brass collar. A chain, attached to the latter, looped loosely upward to disappear through an interstice in the wall.
The Chinamen had disappeared. The only other living thing in the chamber beside himself was a wise, nonchalant-appearing parrot who perched himself across on the end of the sand spout, which now was shut off. "Well, Polly," began Sherrod ruefully, "what are they doing to you?
The bird turned and eyed him sidewise. "Murder! Tear him to pieces; Awk!" remarked the parrot with grave indifference, biting off his lurid words with impassive gusto.
In spite of his predicament Guest chuckled. The mirth was short-lived, however. Of a sudden he felt himself jerked upward to his toes. The slack in the chain attached to his collar had been taken up! He was stretched to extreme height along the wall, with chin uptilted by the collar of brass.
Five seconds, ten seconds, he stood thus, wondering what would come next. Then behind him in the wall sounded a dull click, as of a pawl slipping one notch over ratchet wheel. The chain attached to the brass collar tightened the length of a single link!
How long he stood there he never knew. It seemed a nightmare of hours, but probably only minutes passed before the same Chinaman who had presided over the previous torture, appeared. The latter bowed gravely to the prisoner.
"It is a maxim of law in your country," he began suavely, halting before Guest, "that a man cannot be executed or punished twice for the same offense. There is no such custom in my country. There a man may die a hundred deaths—" he paused significantly, gesturing at the shackles.
"But I swear to you that I know nothing of what you want!" cried Guest, his voice cracking under the strain of the collar on his throat. At that moment a second click and tightening of the chain informed him that the diabolical device would continue to strain at his frame until ligaments were torn from joints, or his neck broken.
"That is our misfortune, and the misfortune of several of your people," countered the Oriental gravely. "Right now through the corridors near here your friend Mr. Lacey is searching for you. He has several policemen with him, but they will be unsuccessful in their search. The chambers are sound-proof, so you may call to him as you will." He bowed again and departed.
Until the chain had tightened two more links Sherrod Guest shut his lips against the cry of useless warning and appeal for help he craved to utter, but then it was torn from his lips. He could have guessed—if time for cold examination of the statement had been given to him—that Cube Lacey was not in this section of the city. Time had not been given for tracing the movements of Sherrod Guest, but the latter was too disturbed for careful thinking. He cried out warnings and appeals for help at the top of his lungs. The parrot, still perched upon the sand spout, squawked out his agonized cries in ghastly imitation.
CUBE LACEY was so interested in the possibilities held forth by the half-promise given him by Krahn, the scientist, that he prevailed upon the latter to phone immediately to the botanist McKenzie. "Never get him at this time of day," cried Krahn. "He's too busy."
Perhaps it was the timbre of excitement in the chemist's voice which decided McKenzie. Perhaps it was the fact that time is always of the essence where examination of a fresh specimen is concerned. At any rate the jovial, canny Scot agreed to run out to the laboratory and glance at the curious puzzle awaiting him under the microscope. An hour later he arrived, greeted Lacey and Krahn with offhanded courtesy, and demanded immediately to be shown this mysterious vegetable interloper they had found in a specimen of human blood.
Drawing up a chair he seated himself before the microscope, removed his heavy eye-glasses, and adjusted the height of the microscope cylinder to his own myopic vision. An inarticulate exclamation left his lips. The two watchers saw him hunch up closer as if in excitement. His finger fumbled in jacket pocket, coming up with a small leather covered notebook and stub of drawing pencil.
"Very—ah—unusual!" he muttered. "Strange, yes, very strange!" He focused and refocused, searching out each detail of the picture unfolded beneath his eye. Then with many hasty glances down into the microscope, he sketched a picture in the notebook of an oval cell from which sprouted a curious organism— the one which Lacey and Krahn had likened to a poppy. Where the roots of the plants burled themselves in the oval cell the wall of the latter was broken down. Part of the contents seemed to have been sucked out by the tendrils of root.
A full hour McKenzie pored over his diagram, changing details gradually until he had a completed picture. Then he snapped the notebook shut and placed it carefully in an inside pocket, as though it suddenly had become valuable.
"A new species!" he said with emphasis, getting up from the chair. "Tell me all about it, where you found it, and everything concerning its relation to this mystery of which you were speaking, Krahn."
The younger scientist, with the help of many elaborations from Cube, did as requested. Strangely enough, McKenzie's interest seemed to center upon the change of complexion in Noah Lacey immediately prior to his death, and the fetid vats of green slime which Cube had discovered in the laboratory.
"Take me right out to that place!" McKenzie demanded seriously, every trace of joviality gone from his manner. "I think that you two have made a very striking discovery, one hitherto unknown either in botany or physiology. A fungus! One that grows in the blood stream of human beings just like its relatives live in sea water!"
"All right," acceded Cube thoughtfully. "You are welcome to the discovery, Mr. McKenzie. Personally, I don't know a fungus from a cabbage. What I have to learn, however, is the relation, if any, which this has to the death of Noah Lacey. Do you think—?"
"Guessing has no place in scientific investigation!" rebuked McKenzie gruffly. "After about twenty minutes out there, provided everything is as you say, I shall be able to tell you pretty well how your relative died!"
A strange sense of emptiness assaulted Cube as soon as he and the others had entered the portals of Brick Knob. The front gate stood unlocked, which was unusual enough. No one came to meet them as they crossed the yard, ascended the steps and entered the front hallway. Cube called aloud to Irene, and then rang for Kohler Andrews. No one appeared. Vastly perturbed, Cube nevertheless led the two scientists to the basement laboratory, after pointing out to them the telephone chair against which Noah Lacey had fallen. In the basement both McKenzie and Krahn gave immediate absorption to the glass-lined vats of greenish slime. Krahn had brought with him his microscope and a set of slides. The two busied themselves in the examination of specimens taken from the vats.
Cube excused himself and went upstairs, starting a search through each of the rooms of the house from front to back. He found no one. Worried by an apprehension he could not voice, he called up the hotel to which Irene had promised to go for the night. It was scarcely dusk as yet, but she might have become frightened and left early. No one by name of Jeffries had registered!
Thoroughly aroused now, Cube hastened through another, more thorough search of the house. As he reached the front hall for a second time, a sound of voices out in the court attracted! his attention. Glancing out of the window he saw two men, carrying a stretcher upon which lay a blanketed figure, crossing the yard. Accompanying these were two stalwart policemen in uniform.
Chill apprehension gripped Lacey, and he cried aloud from dreadful certainty that the figure on the stretcher would prove to be Irene Jeffries. For an instant it seemed as though the solid floor beneath him had given way. The girl who, a moment before, had been recognized only as delightful companion and comrade now seemed inexpressibly dear to him. Throwing open the doors he advanced to meet the sombre cortege. One of the two stretcher bearers was known to him. He greeted the men and then, as the officers bustled up, took the liberty of throwing back the covering which veiled the face of the quiet figure on the stretcher. With a gasp, first of horror, and then of relief as he recognized the face, he saw feminine clothing. The woman was Mrs. Andrews.
"D'you know her?" demanded the first of the officers. "She come running out and fell right into me arms! She was shot, I guess. Anyway, Doc Stone says she's dead now. How did it happen, anyway?"
He and the other bluecoat crowded close to Lacey, exhibiting a disposition to run the latter in without further clamor. A glance at Lacey's shield was necessary before they consented to view the matter with open minds for the time being.
Lacey ushered them into the house, saw to it Mrs. Andrews was placed upon her own bed, and left the officers poking around the unfamiliar house while he descended in the elevator to apprise Krahn and McKenzie of the latest development.
He found the two scientists far from the microscope which had formed the center of attraction for them earlier. Krahn, clasping a large plaster mold, crouched beside one wall of the basement. McKenzie, holding a heavy green jug of earthenware over his shoulder, waited on the opposite side. Both seemed about to spring upon a square of empty floor!
"Sh-h!" cautioned McKenzie, pointing cryptically at the ceiling between them. "He'll be coming down now, I'm thinking."
Involuntarily Cube glanced upward. It seemed to him that the tiles above moved imperceptibly. He started back, yanking out a pistol. A section of the laboratory ceiling perhaps twelve by thirteen feet in dimension, swung down slowly by one end. Cube saw that the upper side was runged in form of a ladder, The lower end reached the laboratory floor, and almost immediately a stocky individual began to descend. He came down backward, not vouchsafing a glance to the room below. Smiling grimly, Cube replaced the automatic in his pocket and crouched for a leap. In spite of American clothes, he saw the man to be Chinese. Silently he motioned the two scientists not to interfere.
Before the newcomer could swing about Cube hit him. It was a clean football tackle, catching the Chinaman just above the knees and bearing him heavily sidewise to the floor. The weighted stairs swung slowly upward, ending in its original position flush with the ceiling.
Cube did not give his quarry a chance to struggle. Versed to some degree in the arts of wrestling and ju-jitsu, he quickly overpowered the surprised Oriental. The man was heavy, but flabby of physique, and put up a desperate though useless struggle. In twenty seconds Cube was astride his chest, and holding out the doughy arm flat to the floor. In the meantime Krahn had discovered a spool of copper wire on one of the tables. With this crude but efficient agent they bound the wrists and ankles of the captive.
"Now you have a lot to explain," commented Cube savagely, addressing his prisoner. "Where is Sherrod Guest? Where is Irene Jeffries? And Kohler Andrews? How did you kill Noah Lacey?"
The Chinaman, evidently recognizing the hopelessness of his predicament, gazed about stolidly at first. Lester Krahn pushed forward. "McKenzie can answer that last question for you, I believe," he stated. "You're probably more interested in the rest right now however. If there is any way in which we can help—"
Cube scowled menacingly. "I'll get the truth out of him!" he muttered. "Don't worry about that." His hand dropped suggestively to the butt of his automatic.
"Violence will not be necessary!" broke in the Chinese unexpectedly. "For me the end has come. I it was who killed your esteemed uncle. My associates now hold the detective whom you are seeking. There is only one way in which you ever will see him alive. Deliver to us the manuals stolen from the T'ao tong by your uncle!"
"Manuals? What do you mean?" demanded Cube blankly.
The tong agent's face wreathed in a cynical, disbelieving smile. "Explanations are unnecessary!" he snapped, and then as if suddenly invoking the spirits of his ancestors, the man broke into guttural Chinese.
While the three Americans gazed at him in perplexity, he leaned forward suddenly, gnawing at something on the breast of his blouse. Too late Cube guessed the reason. Half of a black button had been chewed away. The Oriental quickly swallowed this, a convulsive shudder almost immediately attacking his frame. In a few seconds he fell back limply, stone dead.
Krahn leaned forward, gingerly holding the chewed button to his nostrils. "Potassium cyanide!" he commented wryly. "Looks like he half expected to be caught at something. Prepared to cash in his own checks rather than take a chance with execution—or torture."
"HOW did you come upon him?" demanded Cube, somewhat ashamed and angry with himself for allowing the Oriental's suicide. The man might have been made to divulge all of the secrets now tormenting Lacey; but the method of carrying a load of poison disguised as a common button had been novel to the detective.
"He came upon us, rather," responded McKenzie. "We weren't looking for visitors at all, but a squeak like a rusty hinge sounded behind. We turned, and saw a whole piece of the wall swinging open over there." He gestured at a blank stretch upon which Cube could discern no hint of door. "Knowing it couldn't be you, Krahn and I dodged behind two of these pillars. A Chinaman came in, but only glanced about casually. Probably he didn't know we were in the house at all. He turned and did something in the wall, pressed a button or something, I suppose, and those stairs swung down. He climbed up the stairs and out of sight. Where do they lead?"
Lacey considered the ceiling. "To my uncle's rooms, I believe," he answered. "But this door of which you spoke, let's find it, and discover where it leads. Miss Jeffries knows of the passage, but she is not here at present. I'd rather not have a helpless girl along, anyway, if there proves to be trouble. We might locate a dozen more Chinese."
McKenzie grimaced, glancing down at the dead Celestial. It was plain he had little relish for active adventure of so serious a type. Cube caught the expression. It fitted in with his plans exactly. "If you'll do something, Mr. McKenzie," he added quickly, "I believe Krahn and I can handle affairs down here. Will you go up and inform the officers of what has happened. Tell them that inspector Harris ought to be notified. We're likely to need help before this is over."
The botanist obeyed with alacrity, slamming the door of the elevator hastily when he glimpsed Cube hand one of his automatics to Krahn. "Know how to use it?" asked Lacey.
"Never fired one in my life, but I'm glad to get hold of it!" replied the chemist pluckily. "This little dew-dad is the safety catch, isn't it? Do you have to pull the trigger for every shot, or does merely keeping it down make the darned thing work?"
Cube explained and demonstrated, and then the two approached the section of wall in which the door to the secret passage was located. Lacey realized that perhaps his greatest danger now would come from the weapon in his companion's hands, yet between himself and Krahn lay an unexpressed kinship of liking for unusual adventure which possesses an etiquette of silence all its own. Men will risk serious injury or even death itself for it, rather than take the obvious and common-sense course of obviating risk to which they have committed themselves.
Without fore-knowledge of the fact that a door actually existed, neither of the men could have discovered it. Even Krahn, long-trained in impressing photographic detail upon sensitive negative of brain, could not trace with any surety the irregular line. He indicated a one-foot space, however, in which he swore the door edge existed, and though Cube, after hasty examination looked at his companion doubtfully, Krahn found it himself. The aperture had been fitted so closely that only the breadth of a thin penknife could be inserted. Prying open was obviously impossible, but Cube accidentally solved the new riddle. Knocking each tile beside the length of the door, with his knuckles, he discovered a small mosaic which rattled in its place. Quick experimentation with this showed that it slid forward and back; pulling forward released a catch, allowing the door to swing open the distance of three inches. Cube caught it and flung it wide, propping it open with a heavy mould. "Might want to come back in a hurry," he explained succinctly.
One glance had shown the men that instead of the narrow passage both of them expected, the door opened upon a chamber extending at right angles to the line of house wall. Outside of faint illumination from laboratory lights it was pitch black, but Cube, after exposing himself in the doorway for a fraction of a second, boldly flashed his hand torch. He saw that the chamber stretched outward from the house wall a distance of twenty-five or thirty feet, and that on the far side a black opening indicated a continuation of the passage. This was not surprising, in view of the fact that electrical connections for the six-foot zone with burglar-alarm connections in the dooryard necessarily must have some means by which electrical contacts could be installed or repaired. The chamber lay directly below the strip.
This feature was not what caused Lacey to stop as if petrified. On the floor fifteen feet distant, and strutting about like a drum major leading dress parade, was the parrot!
"Hold up!" cried Lacey, thrusting back his eager companion. "I want to catch him!"
Krahn, not understanding, obeyed nevertheless. Lacey walked cautiously forward, groping for a notion of what the parrot likely would do in this low-ceiled room. "Pretty Polly!" he exclaimed cajolingly.
The bird lifted one leg and scratched his head. "Well, I'll be switched!" he squawked.
In that second the detective dove, crushing the green plumage in his arms just as Sun Yat decided that the vicinity of floor he had chosen had become dangerous. "Got you now!" Lacey gasped, the breath knocked from his lungs by his sudden header to the brick floor, He clasped the bird's head expertly between two fingers, seeing to it that the fiendish beak got no chance at his flesh.
"Aw hell!" remarked Sun Yat disgustedly. "We got a lady now. A lady! Haw!"
"A lady?" cried Cube, horrified that the bird might be repeating real information he had heard somewhere. Then he tried in vain to get it to repeat his message—if such it was—but nothing was forthcoming save a stream of invective. Taking the parrot back into the laboratory, Cube imprisoned him under an inverted bushel basket, wedged beneath a bench in such manner that the bird's struggles would be as ineffectual as his language. Then Cube and Krahn returned to the underground chamber.
Luckily, the corridor beyond proved to be empty. It ran straight for a distance of sixty feet, then angled to the right to end in another door of masonry. The latter was equipped with a heavy iron handle on the inside, which manipulated the lock. Turning this cautiously, Cube discovered that the door opened inward. Peering through, he saw the reason. Boxes and barrels were piled against it, making a climb necessary.
The two men listened intently, but only dull noises from some distance overhead reached their ears. They were in the basement of an apartment building, not far from the huge boiler of the steam plant, for the air was hot and sultry. Cautiously they emerged, but no one was in sight. The way lay open to the street outside via a tunnel-like passage between two wings of the building.
Here Cube, searching carefully as he proceeded, descried something white and rumpled lying on the cement. He picked it up, and a cry of dread apprehension and certainty was wrung from his lips. The bit of cloth and lace was a woman's handkerchief; daintily embroidered in one corner was the monogram I.J. The parrot had been coached in the truth!
INSPECTOR HARRIS was inclined to scoff at first when Lacey's message reached headquarters. The sight of the dead Chinaman sobered him, however, and when Cube insisted that Irene Jeffries, Sherrod Guest, and Kohler Andrews doubtless all were in the hands of the tong he had little to say. After viewing the parrot, however, he let slip one surprising item of information.
"Those Chinks are apt to discover that they've got hold of a pair of Tartars!" he commented grimly. "That is, if your friend Guest is as much of a detective as Irene."
"Sure, didn't you know she was an operative? Well, she is. With Pinkertons. Old Lacey employed her right along, getting her to stay here at the house and pretend she was a ward of his. But let's get busy. Maybe that Chink has something in his clothes which will give us a steer."
Search of the corpse revealed nothing of the sort, but from an inside pocket Harris drew forth a small rubber bellows. He was in the act of squeezing this when Krahn caught his hands.
"Don't," cried the chemist sharply. "Here, drop that thing a minute. It's deadly! Take a look at it, McKenzie. Don't you think—?"
The botanist nodded slowly, staring down at the bellows in fascination. "Probably so!" he agreed. "Mr. Lacey, did your uncle snore?"
Cube looked blank. "Heavens, I don't know," he answered.
"Sa-ay!" broke in Harris, frowning in exasperation. "What are you three trying to do; kid me? This is a blamed serious matter."
"Quite true," agreed Krahn acidly. "It would have been still more serious if you had blown the stuff which is in that bellows around this room where we could breathe it. Tell him, Macs!"
The latter was nothing loath. He launched into a technical description of the lower forms of plant life—bacteria and fungi. Harris, still suspicious, listened impatiently. "What all this has got to do with murder I don't see," he interrupted.
"Well, in so many words," answered McKenzie, "our tests of blood from Mr. Noah Lacey reveal the fact that his circulatory system was crammed with fungi! These had been feeding parasitically on his red blood corpuscles. Though he actually died from the blow on his forehead, these fungi caused the fainting spell. They'd have killed him in another day or two, anyway. The fungi, I believe, are a species new to scientists here. That green slime over there in the tank is almost a pure culture of the organisms. The dampness keeps them from being much of a menace, however. The murderer of Mr. Lacey took a quantity of the fungi, dried it out, and then blew some of the spores from this bellows—probably over Lacey's bed while the victim lay asleep. The reason why I asked concerning the snoring was that, if these had been drawn through the nostrils, many of them never would have reached the lungs and the blood stream. Of course only a few spores actually had to be inhaled."
"Good night!" exclaimed Harris. "And this was the bird that turned the trick, then!"
"Yes, he confessed it. Until I saw the bellows, though, I had been trying to imagine the means employed to get the spores into the air. They'd be mighty dangerous to handle in the dry state."
Harris shivered. "If it's all right with you," he said, "I'd like to wrap up that thing and let you carry it. I don't fancy getting a load of green slime in my blood."
Harris employed ordinary police methods. The inspector was not brilliant, but he went forward in ordinary routine, bulldog manner, and had at his back all the necessary resources of his department. He began by questioning everyone, by calling in Chinese residents of different portions of the city in the attempt to identify the dead man—a possibility which did not materialize immediately in admitted recognition, though behind masks of disinterest worn by two merchants of Chinatown, Cube fancied he detected curious flickers of alarm. Harris was confident enough that sooner or later he would succeed in naming the suicide, for it was plain the man had been a member of the ranking classes, educated and well-to-do.
Harris began an examination of all Noah Lacey's papers, emptying two bank lock-boxes. In all this mass of material, however, was not one word dealing directly with tong, or indeed, with any part of the past which seemed to have bearing upon the fact of his murder. An old will was uncovered, by the provisions of which all his wealth was bestowed upon an organized charity which had gone out of existence six years before. His lawyers, Barnes & Tegardine, came forward with a recent codicil, however, by which bequests of five thousand dollars each were named for Kohler and Mrs. Andrews, twenty-five thousand dollars for Irene Jeffries, and three or four other small amounts given to various organizations in which Noah Lacey had been interested. The residue of the estate—estimated conservatively at something over four million dollars—was willed to "my contrary-minded, but admirable nephew, Kuban Lacey!"
The young man, however, was in no mood to realize or rejoice in his good fortune. The great fact that Irene Jeffries and Sherrod Guest were in the hands of the tong drove him frantic. He divorced himself as quickly as possible from Harris's humdrum procedure, and wracked his brain to imagine a shortcut. Krahn stayed with him, deserting his laboratory for a day; the scientist set himself the job of supplementing Cube's experimental logic. He seemed to believe that in the mysterious manuals spoken of by the dead Chinaman would lie a direct clue.
"From what you've told me," he said to Cube, glancing questioningly about the tiled walls of the laboratory, "I think your esteemed uncle must have had some sort of a repository here in this house. Certainly nothing like manuals of any description have been uncovered in his safety deposit boxes. Don't you suppose really that those manuals had something to do with the art of ceramics?"
Cube flashed a look of interest. "That's exactly what I've been thinking," he agreed. "Irene told me that he had learned how to reproduce ancient pieces of pottery and porcelain."
"Worth a great deal of money?"
"Ye-es—although he never sold the reproductions."
Krahn waved this aside as unimportant. "Then," he deduced with a hint of triumph, "if this tong's name means the fictile arts; if they have committed murder and abduction to regain certain manuals stolen by your uncle; if after his visit to China he suddenly learned how to manufacture art objects which previously had lain beyond his skill, it appears to me that the stolen manuals must have made the difference—and that they must have been concealed down here in the laboratory where he could get at them constantly!"
Cube nodded slowly, hope firing his eyes for the first time in hours. "I know a little about the way vases are made," he said. "Do just what I say for a second, Krahn. You're almost exactly my uncle's height."
Obediently the chemist stood before the "kick wheel"—that device for "throwing" pottery shapes by centrifugal force—raised his right arm toward the wall and watched while Cube marked out a circle of normal reach. Inside the circle, all the tile, brick and mosaic were too small to house a single receptacle, and anchored firmly by mortar. Cube, however, was not dismayed in the least. He had not expected to find anything here really, as manuals suggested a table or bench upon which they might be spread for consultation.
Next in order came the bench upon which were placed the plaster slabs for mixing and working the pastes and clay. After marking out as before the entire space circled by the radius of Krahn's reach, Cube went over it quickly with a small hammer, sounding each tile. Midway in the length of wall he stopped, uttering an excited exclamation. A large tile before him sounded more than ordinarily hollow, and shook in its socket of mosaics under impact! Quickly, fiercely, Cube battered at it, not waiting to attempt discovery of possible secret button.
The tile cracked. A fragment came away. Ten seconds more and Cube thrust a hand through the aperture.
"It's here!" he cried exultantly, bringing forth two encased rolls, the covers of which seemed to be of waterproofed, silken fiber. Beside these—one of which Krahn immediately slit open—a single envelope lay back in the tile repository.
"These are all in Chinese!" exclaimed Krahn in a disappointed tone, unwinding part of a beautiful fabric of watered silk upon which six columns of "running writing" were done in black and lavender. "Still, they're the manuals, I'll wager. Couldn't really expect them to be translated for us. But what is that you have?"
For a second Cube did not answer. He had broken open the letter, and was reading. "This is what we were looking for!" he said huskily. "Listen!" He read the terse paragraphs, which were addressed to himself. The date on the latter was recent—the identical day upon which Noah Lacey had met his death:
My dear pig-headed nephew—
Because of that old quarrel with your father, I never bothered you until today—when I realized that death was standing at my elbow. I am weak, and growing steadily weaker. Even whisky isn't worth much. My precautions have been useless. the tong has done me in—how, I can't say. That's up to you. I had intended to tell you all I knew, and keep you with me till the last, but you were too all-fired independent. Frankly enough, you made me angry for a few moments, but a dying man can't afford to cherish animosity long. I've followed your attempts at making a living, and while I don't care much for your election of profession, still I presume you have as much right to choice as I had.
If you're any good at all you'll realize the fact that I have been murdered—if not at first, at least when the tong gets after you. Run them down, if you can. If you can't, you won't live long to enjoy the wealth I am leaving to you. Any time you see a Chinaman or a parrot, dodge—and watch your step thereafter! The tong has a method of imparting unpleasant information by a wise old parrot. I imagine he must have been one of the pets of Confucius.
The trouble all has arisen because of the two manuals you find herewith. They are written by Cho Keng Lu and Chingte Chien T'ao Lu—the latter the founder of the T'ao tong. The manuals reveal secrets regarding the making of fine pottery and porcelain—secrets which have been unknown both to white men and to all save certain art guilds in China, for centuries. In a word, the secret of fine luster and glaze has lain in the use of certain fungi, mixed with cultural media and left to work in the glaze before it is applied. You will find a tank full of the fungi down here. The guilds, always selling fine vases and other "genuine" relics of past ages, were very jealous of the secrets. I suppose they are worth millions, really. Anyway, the tong let me give them the slip, and I can't imagine how they ever got track of me again, as I never sold any vases—and gave only one away.
My intention was to translate the two, and then return the originals to the owners when my books were published. In fact I really did finish one translation, but it was stolen. Luckily they did not find the originals.
What you wish to do with the manuals is strictly up to you. The tong is after them, and will keep after them until either the manuals are secured, they are published in translation and therefore worthless except as relics, or all the tong members are dead. I believe in all there are only some two hundred members, most of whom probably will keep after you while you have the manuals.
That's all. In case you go ahead and have them translated and published, you may consider my legacy a fee for a lifetime— probably mighty short—of excitement and trouble.
P.S. When you reach an age of discretion you night do much worse than marry Miss Jeffries. She's a corker. If I'd been ten years younger I'd have proposed to her, myself.
Krahn exhaled sharply. "If I were in your place, Lacey," he advised, "I'd get rid of those confounded things just as fast as I could!"
Cube nodded. "Yes, they're stolen goods," he said. "We have no right to them. The first feature is to find Irene and Sherrod, however, and I believe a glimmering of an idea of how to accomplish it is creeping into my head!"
"How?" demanded Krahn.
"Ask the parrot!" responded Cube, smiling grimly, and immediately hastening up to Harris to demand a loan of the loquacious bird.
CUBE'S plan, which came to him while reading the letter, like an inspiration of Providence, was regarded by Harris with much more tolerance than the man would have exhibited a day earlier. Harris, be it known, though he was sufficient of a sport in his own estimation to admit himself wrong and Lacey right at the start, gnawed his lip in rage when the best work he could put upon the case yielded no tangible result. In his way he admired Irene Jeffries, both as a member of his own profession and as a very pretty woman, and the thought of her in the hands of members of the tong nearly drove him into black fury. He suspected that she and Guest both had been killed, yet he held his tongue and acquiesced with good grace in Cube's plan for instant action.
Obedient to his hurried orders, six of the best operatives in the city were summoned and disguised in the garb and complexion of Orientals as well as men owning the names of McManus, Casey, Goelitz, Marge, Liebacher, and Krych could be disguised. Behind the car in which they rode came two loads of bluecoats—their machine just keeping in sight of the car ahead. Two blocks ahead of them limped a clumsily disguised Chinaman carrying a wooden cage in which squalled the ill- tempered Sun Yat. Cube Lacey had been careful to see that while costume and facial coloration might pass muster with Americans, the dullest observer among the Chinese would guess his probable nationality in a second. On this lay the greater part of his hope.
All cars were left some blocks from the intersection of Twenty-Second Street and Archer Avenue. Loitering along singly, the six "Chinese" followed Cube at a respectful distance. The police, whose job was to scatter through the district back in the alleys—always keeping the next member in sight and one at least, watching the pseudo-Orientals—did not appear on either of the two main streets. Cube was far from certain that this was the district in which the tong held forth, yet he relied upon the light of fear he thought he had surprised in the eyes of the two wholesale merchants questioned by Harris. The shops of these two fronted upon Archer.
Cube stopped to gaze in one of the drab, unornamented windows. At that moment a squatting beggar near at hand, who had watched the queer visitor for several minutes through close-slitted, curious eyes, rose energetically and shuffled away. It was noticeable that soon afterward the watchful Sam Lee Moy appeared, strolling casually along this street of his domain. He appeared to examine the parrot with interest.
Came a mellifluous question in the Shensi dialect of China, which Cube, of course, could not understand. He shrugged, motioned to his ears and then to his tongue, as if pretending to be deaf and dumb. Sam Lee Moy grinned satirically to himself, and began muttering something in English about liking the looks of the parrot, and would his countryman sell?
Cube, pretending not to understand—merely to follow his original idea—employed signs, indicating that he could be persuaded to part with the bird for ten dollars. Sam Lee Moy appeared to hesitate. Then after a swift glance up and down the street he beckoned to the owner of this famous parrot, and led him to a doorway. As he entered, Cube contrived to spill to the sidewalk a lump of ordinary anthracite coal, but to this lump was attached a length of black silk thread, the spool of which lay in Cube's pocket. Until one door closed upon the thread the detective was careful to pay it out generously, for fear of causing inexplicable gyrations of the innocent lump of coal.
For some reason, when his own quarters were reached, Moy appeared to grudge the payment of ten dollars for the bird. He remonstrated, speaking sometimes in English and sometimes in Chinese. The burden of his remarks was that he had hoped to buy Sun Yat at a cheap price, because a certain parrot fancier lived nearby. Moy would have liked to sell the bird to this other unnamed individual, himself, but since the stranger was so high- priced and obdurate, he could complete the sale himself. Moy would show him the way, if he cared to go?
Cube Lacey cared. He had taken his hint from Moy's words and manner, and realized that even if he had made the price of the bird ten cents instead of the really ridiculous price of ten dollars, Moy still would have found excuse to consult this collector of parrots. That way lay death, perhaps, yet Cube was in no mood to measure personal risk. On the slender thread which led backward to the street lay his hopes of escape, and of rescue of the others—if this proved indeed to be the place to which Irene and his comrade had been taken—but he fell in with Moy's suggestion as if greedy to meet the man who would pay ten dollars for his parrot.
The automatic in his pocket, at least, would account for some of the conspirators if worst came to worst. His only fear came from the actions of Sun Yat himself. The parrot refused to be silent. He either squawked out Chinese oaths, or repeated parts of the monologues which he had overheard. He recognized the smells and darkness of the corridor, and knew he was approaching home. If Cube only had guessed the fact, the parrot's noise was the detective's real salvation: it made Moy hurry on and down, not stopping to notice that his supposed victim was paying out length after length of the black silk thread. Some of the Chinese living in the cave-like rooms opening off this corridor were law- abiding, and not in sympathy with the T'ao tong. Moy was succeeding too well to be panic-stricken, yet he threw back over his shoulder several sharp commands in Chinese to the parrot— commands which Sun Yat contemptuously ignored. He cared nothing for Sam Lee Moy, or the foolish white man who carried his cage. When he got out he would nip both of them till they squealed! He, the honored member of a household which had furnished China with a dynasty of emperors!
At the end of the last corridor—the one which Sherrod Guest had traversed three days earlier—Sam Lee Moy began to chatter loudly. The reason was plain to Cube's ears. Behind the doorway ahead came mingled groans and execrations, tones which even the staccato shrilling of Moy could not drown. Cube's only comfort lay in the fact that he could not distinguish a woman's voice—yet Irene might be dead by now. One day and two nights she had been in the hands of the tong. Cube gripped his automatic, but his lips smiled.
Moy shifted something between his hands as he came to the last doorway. Cube, from the tail of his eye, saw that it was a loop of silk cord. Moy, bowing, stood aside as if to usher in his guest. As Cube reached Moy's side he brought up the silk loop. It never reached its mark. Dropping the parrot cage, Cube shot through his jacket pocket. Moy dropped with a grunt. The detective charged into the tong chamber.
A half-dozen Chinese ran to meet him. Cube got only a flash of Sherrod Guest, spread-eagled on the earthen floor beyond, and then he was shooting.
Two heavy-set Chinese went down before his bullets. A third staggered away screaming, as a bullet tore away part of his lower jaw. Then weight of numbers overcame Cube, who fell backward to the floor, albeit fighting with tooth and nail.
His automatic exploded once more before it was torn from his fingers, but the bullet impinged harmlessly upon the wall. His fingers, clawing, clutching, found the throat of another antagonist, and clung there, through the latter—as a last resort—went after a knife in his belt. When the conflict was quieted, only two unwounded Chinese remained, and one whose jaw wound threatened to kill him. Four husky coolies ran in, however, and were directed by one of the remaining tong members, who had helped to overcome the detective.
"This is one more, and the last one," observed the Chinaman calmly. "I know him. He is named Lacey, and he is the one to whom the manuals probably were given."
This was in English, for Cube's benefit. Followed sharp commands in Chinese, and Cube was shackled to the wall in the identical position once occupied by his comrade, Guest. Cube, overcome by loss of blood from a knife wound in his shoulder and upper arm, stared goggle-eyed across the chamber to a sinister armchair, in which he saw the pale, horrified face of Irene Jeffries. The girl was bound and helpless, yet Lacey breathed in momentary relief at the mere fact that she still was alive.
The fat, imperturbable Chinaman who had guessed his identity, held a small cup to Lacey's lips. The latter, on the borderland of unconsciousness, obeyed without question. If they wished to kill him they could accomplish the deed without troubling to employ poison. He found the drink to be fiery, distilled liquor—probably saki. In the space of two minutes it brought back life to his brain and body. He was able to remember that close on his footsteps would come the detectives and police. He grinned weakly at his captor.
"You've got us," he said, sparring for time, "but it cost you a fair price, the way I see it."
"Price in lives or money is no object," returned the Chinaman in perfect English, and without betraying the slightest animosity. "For many years we have searched for our stolen property. Now we will have it. Mr. Noah Lacey gave it to you, of course?"
Cube essayed a laugh. "What would you say if I told you that your whole bunch has been barking up the wrong tree?" he asked. "If none of us ever had seen the manuals of which you speak?"
"I should say that you were lying."
"Well, think so if you want to. I don't know what I can do about that. As a matter of fact my uncle did not give the manuals to any one of us. Just today we found a clue. Oh yes, we had heard about them, well enough, but never had we seen them. I think perhaps I know where they are. Will you exchange the lives of us whom you hold captive for possession of the manuals?"
The Oriental was silent half a minute. "There is no need," he answered then, deliberately. "We cannot afford to release you. We can obtain the manuals, since you acknowledge that you know where they are. Then we shall kill you all—mercifully. You may choose your own deaths. Perhaps opium, gold leaf for the throat, or the strangler's cord? Otherwise, torture awaits all four of you. The three others have had some taste of our abilities already. Suppose you speak with them?"
"Well, perhaps that would be a good idea," responded Cube, on edge for the first sign of the detectives, who seemed to be taking an incomprehensibly long time. Had the silk thread been discovered? Or broken?
"If we can't win freedom I'd prefer, of course, a nice, clean sort of death rather than the torture I suppose you employ. Let me free an instant and I'll talk with Miss Jeffries and Mr. Guest."
The Oriental did not grant his wish. Smiling ironically, he bade two of the coolies release Cube from his bonds. A slip noose was placed over his neck, however, and his arms still remained shackled. A coolie walked behind, holding the other end of the noose, which could be tightened in the split part of a second, and which actually was sufficient of a bond to cut off part of his breath, even as adjusted.
He approached Irene. "This may be the end," he said, breathing with difficulty. "Before they do me in I want to tell you one thing. I love you!" He stopped. The answering light of wonderment and questioning in her eyes was his sufficient reward. She did not speak.
"This is the old choice," he continued, speaking louder for the benefit of the Chinese. "I know where the manuals are located. I found them today. In exchange for my knowledge they offer the three of us—I reckon Kohler Andrews must be here somewhere—a chance to die by a knife, bullet, opium, or in any other way we name. it's not life, but it really is better than the alternative, I suppose. They probably could torture us."
"Oh Cube!" she cried. "If it has to be, then let us tell them what they wish to know! I—I did not know. They have already—"
She got no further. In that second the door burst inward, and two husky Irishmen sprawled forward on the floor. Behind them came a multitude of others, however, men who shot first and waited until afterward to ask questions. The two first-comers rose, and added their streams of bullets. In eight seconds after the door went down not a Chinaman remained standing. Beside the two who still wriggled a detective sat with ready revolver.
The policemen, coming too late to enter the conflict, were dispatched to sentinel posts in the corridors. Krahn, his right hand covered with blood, found keys and unlocked the shackles of all four victims, cutting such bonds as he could not unlock.
"Poor Andrews is about done in," he said while freeing Cube. "I don't think he can live."
Cube scarcely paid attention. He was at the side first of Sherrod Guest. In the light this individual exhibited a terribly altered appearance, His sparse hair was dead white, and deep lines on his cherubic countenance testified to the suffering he had undergone.
"I've heard all about those damned manuals," Guest said huskily. "You want to get rid of them, of course. Well, I'm through with detective work. Give me those manuals and I'll see that they are translated and published! The tong did not own them. They have been stolen many times. Give me that much revenge, will you Cube? I'm a broken man, I tell you!"
The detective regarded him solemnly. "As God is my judge I cannot fathom the rights of this," he said then. "I think I'm going to bank on you, however, Sherrod. I'll give you the manuals—providing only that you notify the T'ao tong of your intentions. And I'll give you money enough to carry through your purpose! It seems to me that this knowledge ought to be given to the world."
SHERROD GUEST never told the story of his tortures. Such as Irene had witnessed had been carried through more for the purpose of dragging a confession out of her than because of any further hope on the part of the tong that the secret of the manuals could be pried out of the man.
Finally they had given her up, also, convinced that neither of the two was in possession of the silken rolls. From that time on the Chinese treated both well enough, but held on to them as a bait for Kuban Lacey—who must have the manuals. What might have occurred in that grisly subterranean chamber, had Cube come alone, is better unimagined. None of the prisoners believed that, given a free hand after obtaining what they sought, the Chinese would have failed to exact vengeance in full for the trouble to which they had been put by the search.
Kohler Andrews paid the price of treachery, though the actuating reason for his torture was the fact that on many occasions his armed vigilance had frustrated plans of the tong. Once, also, a bullet from his revolver seriously wounded the chief of the conspirators, who thereafter thirsted for revenge. Before he died Andrews confessed to having sold three of Noah Lacey's vases which should have been destroyed. These, the tong— watchful for a number of years for sign of someone using the secret—traced back easily enough to Noah Lacey and the latter's laboratory.
The fact that Lacey, in the meantime—well realizing how insecure his life was bound to become at some time—had ensconced himself in the fortress-like Brick Knob, did not balk the tong delegation. Taking their time to search, they located various men who had been employed in building Brick Knob, and learned every feature of the dwelling, including all electrical devices, the tunnel opening for the laboratory into the basement of an apartment building owned by Noah Lacey, and the secret stairs leading downward from the owner's rooms to his laboratory.
Then they set spies upon Lacey. Many times these men remained inside the house for hours without being discovered. Once, when Noah Lacey brought up his finished script of the first roll meaning to revise it at his leisure, they found and stole the English version. All of their cunning failed, however, to locate the tile cache.
Despairing eventually of finding the manuals before Lacey somehow managed to translate them and send them out for publication, they decided to kill him, banking on the probability that in ensuing confusion the manuals would be brought to light, and that for a time, at least, none of Lacey's heirs would imagine them valuable enough to guard with care.
Except for the accidental intrusion of Irene and Cube, the murder never could have been suspected. The method of employing Noah Lacey's own fungi as the agent of his destruction—even if guessed by American doctors—must have made the death seem an accident.
Cube wasted no time in seeing to it that the fungus tanks were emptied. Also, while a certain investigation of his own was proceeding, he spirited the manuals out to the university, and gave them into the keeping of Doctor Benson, the professor of Oriental languages who had helped him earlier. Because new spies from the T'ao tong could not reach Chicago for some time, this seemed safe.
Though the Chinatown rooms occupied by agents of the tong were only temporary accommodations—commandeered from the sleek Moy for the use to which they were put—certain records unearthed there by Harris proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the two manuals never had belonged by right to the T'ao tong, but had been stolen by them centuries ago from an historical museum. Noah Lacey simply had employed the tong's own methods.
As soon as he knew this, Cube gave qualified permission to his comrade to go ahead with the translation of the rolls, making only the stipulation that when the English volumes were completed that the ideographed rolls be returned to the Chinese Government. Guest readily consented to this, and accepted a loan of twenty thousand dollars—money which once had belonged to Noah Lacey—to enable him to pursue the task. When he visited Benson he found that professor wildly excited, and clamoring for a chance to do the actual work of translation. The danger did not frighten him in the least. Guest, glad of such an accomplished ally, made an arrangement by which the two set up a laboratory in a place known not even to Cube.
While Benson translated, Guest worked out the processes practically, learning the ceramic art from the top down, as it were. The two men have been at work part of a year, at the present time. Occasionally an enthusiastic letter—enclosed in a plain envelope and post-marked New York City, which is not the place of their endeavor—comes to Cube, telling of great progress. Each one Cube burns carefully after reading it aloud to Irene.
He takes no chances, in spite of the fact that one of the wounded Chinese sent back a message—carefully translated by Benson—to the effect that neither Cube nor Irene Jeffries ever would have the manuals again. What the tong would make of the message was problematical.
Irene spent four days in the hospital recovering from her ordeal. Three young men—two of whom stared at each other inimically, and in speculative fashion at the third—delivered roses each day.
Krahn knew he was not in the running, and laughed at himself ruefully—yet persisted until the day when both he and Harris, admitted together as visitors, found Cube seated on the edge of Irene's bed, and that young woman wearing two full-blown roses in her cheeks that certainly had been given her personally by Lacey.
Harris scowled, but his heavy shoulders came up in a shrug of resignation as Krahn, spying the solitaire on her third finger, thrust out a hand in generous congratulation of his successful rival.
"Never was born lucky!" growled Harris. "But maybe this is the break. With Irene to look after, Lacey, you'll never have time to butt into my cases any more."
"Don't be too sure about that, Mr. Harris!" countered Irene, smiling as her arm replaced itself about the shoulders of her fiance. "Don't you think we'd make a good team? Cube says we'll just take the cases that you think are open-and-shut."
The police inspector's reply was unintelligible, though vehement.
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