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The Devil's Heirloom/Chapter VII

VIIEdit

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!”