The Devil's Heirloom/Chapter I
“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.