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The Devil's Heirloom/Chapter IX

IXEdit

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-jutsu, 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.”