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The Devil's Heirloom/Chapter V

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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.