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The Devil's Heirloom/Chapter XI

XIEdit

Inspector Harris was inclined to scoff at first when Lacey’s message reached headquarters. The sight of the dead Chinaman sobered him, however, and when Cube insisted that Irene Jeffries, Sherrod Guest, and Kohler Andrews doubtless all were in the hands of the tong he had little to say. After viewing the parrot, however, he let slip one surprising item of information.

      “Those Chinks are apt to discover that they’ve got hold of a pair of Tartars!” he commented grimly. “That is, if your friend Guest is as much of a detective as Irene.”

      “A— a what?”

      “Sure, didn’t you know she was an operative? Well, she is. With Pinkertons. Old Lacey employed her right along, getting her to stay here at the house and pretend she was a ward of his. But let’s get busy. Maybe that Chink has something in his clothes which will give us a steer.”

      Search of the corpse revealed nothing of the sort, but from an inside pocket Harris drew forth a small rubber bellows. He was in the act of squeezing this when Krahn caught his hands.

      “Don’t,” cried the chemist sharply. “Here, drop that thing a minute. It’s deadly! Take a look at it, McKenzie. Don’t you think—?”

      The botanist nodded slowly, staring down at the bellows in fascination. “Probably so!” he agreed. “Mr. Lacey, did your uncle snore?”

      Cube looked blank. “Heavens, I don’t know,” he answered.

      “Sa-ay!” broke in Harris, frowning in exasperation. “What are you three trying to do; kid me? This is a blamed serious matter.”

      “Quite true,” agreed Krahn acidly. “It would have been still more serious if you had blown the stuff which is in that bellows around this room where we could breathe it. Tell him, Macs!”

      The latter was nothing loath. He launched into a technical description of the lower forms of plant life— bacteria and fungi. Harris, still suspicious, listened impatiently. “What all this has got to do with murder I don’t see,” he interrupted.

      “Well, in so many words,” answered McKenzie, “our tests of blood from Mr. Noah Lacey reveal the fact that his circulatory system was crammed with fungi! These had been feeding parasitically on his red blood corpuscles. Though he actually died from the blow on his forehead, these fungi caused the fainting spell. They’d have killed him in another day or two, anyway. The fungi, I believe, are a species new to scientists here. That green slime over there in the tank is almost a pure culture of the organisms. The dampness keeps them from being much of a menace, however. The murderer of Mr. Lacey took a quantity of the fungi, dried it out, and then blew some of the spores from this bellows— probably over Lacey’s bed while the victim lay asleep. The reason why I asked concerning the snoring was that, if these had been drawn through the nostrils, many of them never would have reached the lungs and the blood stream. Of course only a few spores actually had to be inhaled.”

      “Good night!” exclaimed Harris. “And this was the bird that turned the trick, then!”

      “Yes, he confessed it. Until I saw the bellows, though, I had been trying to imagine the means employed to get the spores into the air. They’d be mighty dangerous to handle in the dry state.”

      Harris shivered. “If it’s all right with you,” he said, “I’d like to wrap up that thing and let you carry it. I don’t fancy getting a load of green slime in my blood.”

      Harris employed ordinary police methods. The inspector was not brilliant, but he went forward in ordinary routine, bulldog manner, and had at his back all the necessary resources of his department. He began by questioning everyone, by calling in Chinese residents of different portions of the city in the attempt to identify the dead man— a possibility which did not materialize immediately in admitted recognition, though behind masks of disinterest worn by two merchants of Chinatown, Cube fancied he detected curious flickers of alarm. Harris was confident enough that sooner or later he would succeed in naming the suicide, for it was plain the man had been a member of the ranking classes, educated and well-to-do.

      Harris began an examination of all Noah Lacey’s papers, emptying two bank lock-boxes. In all this mass of material, however, was not one word dealing directly with tong, or indeed, with any part of the past which seemed to have bearing upon the fact of his murder. An old will was uncovered, by the provisions of which all his wealth was bestowed upon an organized charity which had gone out of existence six years before. His lawyers, Barnes & Tegardine, came forward with a recent codicil, however, by which bequests of five thousand dollars each were named for Kohler and Mrs. Andrews, twenty-five thousand dollars for Irene Jeffries, and three or four other small amounts given to various organizations in which Noah Lacey had been interested. The residue of the estate— estimated conservatively at something over four million dollars— was willed to “my contrary-minded, but admirable nephew, Kuban Lacey!”

      The young man, however, was in no mood to realize or rejoice in his good fortune. The great fact that Irene Jeffries and Sherrod Guest were in the hands of the tong drove him frantic. He divorced himself as quickly as possible from Harris’s humdrum procedure, and wracked his brain to imagine a shortcut. Krahn stayed with him, deserting his laboratory for a day; the scientist set himself the job of supplementing Cube’s experimental logic. He seemed to believe that in the mysterious manuals spoken of by the dead Chinaman would lie a direct clue.

      “From what you’ve told me,” he said to Cube, glancing questioningly about the tiled walls of the laboratory, “I think your esteemed uncle must have had some sort of a repository here in this house. Certainly nothing like manuals of any description have been uncovered in his safety deposit boxes. Don’t you suppose really that those manuals had something to do with the art of ceramics?”

      Cube flashed a look of interest. “That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking,” he agreed. “Irene told me that he had learned how to reproduce ancient pieces of pottery and porcelain.”

      “Worth a great deal of money?”

      “Ye-es— although he never sold the reproductions.”

      Krahn waved this aside as unimportant. “Then,” he deduced with a hint of triumph, “if this tong’s name means the fictile arts; if they have committed murder and abduction to regain certain manuals stolen by your uncle; if after his visit to China he suddenly learned how to manufacture art objects which previously had lain beyond his skill, it appears to me that the stolen manuals must have made the difference— and that they must have been concealed down here in the laboratory where he could get at them constantly!”

      Cube nodded slowly, hope firing his eyes for the first time in hours. “I know a little about the way vases are made,” he said. “Do just what I say for a second, Krahn. You’re almost exactly my uncle’s height.”

      Obediently the chemist stood before the “kick wheel”— that device for “throwing” pottery shapes by centrifugal force— raised his right arm toward the wall and watched while Cube marked out a circle of normal reach. Inside the circle, all the tile, brick and mosaic were too small to house a single receptacle, and anchored firmly by mortar. Cube, however, was not dismayed in the least. He had not expected to find anything here really, as manuals suggested a table or bench upon which they might be spread for consultation.

      Next in order came the bench upon which were placed the plaster slabs for mixing and working the pastes and clay. After marking out as before the entire space circled by the radius of Krahn’s reach, Cube went over it quickly with a small hammer, sounding each tile. Midway in the length of wall he stopped, uttering an excited exclamation. A large tile before him sounded more than ordinarily hollow, and shook in its socket of mosaics under impact! Quickly, fiercely, Cube battered at it, not waiting to attempt discovery of possible secret button.

      The tile cracked. A fragment came away. Ten seconds more and Cube thrust a hand through the aperture.

      “It’s here!” he cried exultantly, bringing forth two encased rolls, the covers of which seemed to be of waterproofed, silken fiber. Beside these— one of which Krahn immediately slit open— a single envelope lay back in the tile repository.

      “These are all in Chinese!” exclaimed Krahn in a disappointed tone, unwinding part of a beautiful fabric of watered silk upon which six columns of “running writing” were done in black and lavender. “Still, they’re the manuals, I’ll wager. Couldn’t really expect them to be translated for us. But what is that you have?”

      For a second Cube did not answer. He had broken open the letter, and was reading. “This is what we were looking for!” he said huskily. “Listen!” He read the terse paragraphs, which were addressed to himself. The date on the latter was recent— the identical day upon which Noah Lacey had met his death:

My dear pig-headed nephew—

      Because of that old quarrel with your father, I never bothered you until today— when I realized that death was standing at my elbow. I am weak, and growing steadily weaker. Even whisky isn’t worth much. My precautions have been useless. the tong has done me in— how, I can’t say. That’s up to you. I had intended to tell you all I knew, and keep you with me till the last, but you were too all-fired independent. Frankly enough, you made me angry for a few moments, but a dying man can’t afford to cherish animosity long. I’ve followed your attempts at making a living, and while I don’t care much for your election of profession, still I presume you have as much right to choice as I had.

      If you’re any good at all you’ll realize the fact that I have been murdered— if not at first, at least when the tong gets after you. Run them down, if you can. If you can’t, you won’t live long to enjoy the wealth I am leaving to you. Any time you see a Chinaman or a parrot, dodge— and watch your step thereafter! The tong has a method of imparting unpleasant information by a wise old parrot. I imagine he must have been one of the pets of Confucius.

      The trouble all has arisen because of the two manuals you find herewith. They are written by Cho Keng Lu and Chingte Chien T’ao Lu— the latter the founder of the T’ao tong. The manuals reveal secrets regarding the making of fine pottery and porcelain— secrets which have been unknown both to white men and to all save certain art guilds in China, for centuries. In a word, the secret of fine luster and glaze has lain in the use of certain fungi, mixed with cultural media and left to work in the glaze before it is applied. You will find a tank full of the fungi down here. The guilds, always selling fine vases and other “genuine” relics of past ages, were very jealous of the secrets. I suppose they are worth millions, really. Anyway, the tong let me give them the slip, and I can’t imagine how they ever got track of me again, as I never sold any vases— and gave only one away.

      My intention was to translate the two, and then return the originals to the owners when my books were published. In fact I really did finish one translation, but it was stolen. Luckily they did not find the originals.

      What you wish to do with the manuals is strictly up to you. The tong is after them, and will keep after them until either the manuals are secured, they are published in translation and therefore worthless except as relics, or all the tong members are dead. I believe in all there are only some two hundred members, most of whom probably will keep after you while you have the manuals.

      That’s all. In case you go ahead and have them translated and published, you may consider my legacy a fee for a lifetime— probably mighty short— of excitement and trouble.

NOAH LACEY.

P. S. When you reach an age of discretion you night do much worse than marry Miss Jeffries. She’s a corker. If I’d been ten years younger I’d have proposed to her, myself.

      N.L.

      Krahn exhaled sharply. “If I were in your place, Lacey,” he advised, “I’d get rid of those confounded things just as fast as I could!”

      Cube nodded. “Yes, they’re stolen goods,” he said. “We have no right to them. The first feature is to find Irene and Sherrod, however, and I believe a glimmering of an idea of how to accomplish it is creeping into my head!”

      “How?” demanded Krahn.

      “Ask the parrot!” responded Cube, smiling grimly, and immediately hastening up to Harris to demand a loan of the loquacious bird.