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The Devil's Heirloom/Chapter III

IIIEdit

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.