The Devil's Heirloom/Chapter XII
Cube’s plan, which came to him while reading the letter, like an inspiration of Providence, was regarded by Harris with much more tolerance than the man would have exhibited a day earlier. Harris, be it known, though he was sufficient of a sport in his own estimation to admit himself wrong and Lacey right at the start, gnawed his lip in rage when the best work he could put upon the case yielded no tangible result. In his way he admired Irene Jeffries, both as a member of his own profession and as a very pretty woman, and the thought of her in the hands of members of the tong nearly drove him into black fury. He suspected that she and Guest both had been killed, yet he held his tongue and acquiesced with good grace in Cube’s plan for instant action.
Obedient to his hurried orders, six of the best operatives in the city were summoned and disguised in the garb and complexion of Orientals as well as men owning the names of McManus, Casey, Goelitz, Marge, Liebacher, and Krych could be disguised. Behind the car in which they rode came two loads of bluecoats— their machine just keeping in sight of the car ahead. Two blocks ahead of them limped a clumsily disguised Chinaman carrying a wooden cage in which squalled the ill-tempered Sun Yat. Cube Lacey had been careful to see that while costume and facial coloration might pass muster with Americans, the dullest observer among the Chinese would guess his probable nationality in a second. On this lay the greater part of his hope.
All cars were left some blocks from the intersection of Twenty-Second Street and Archer Avenue. Loitering along singly, the six “Chinese” followed Cube at a respectful distance. The police, whose job was to scatter through the district back in the alleys— always keeping the next member in sight and one at least, watching the pseudo-Orientals— did not appear on either of the two main streets. Cube was far from certain that this was the district in which the tong held forth, yet he relied upon the light of fear he thought he had surprised in the eyes of the two wholesale merchants questioned by Harris. The shops of these two fronted upon Archer.
Cube stopped to gaze in one of the drab, unornamented windows. At that moment a squatting beggar near at hand, who had watched the queer visitor for several minutes through close-slitted, curious eyes, rose energetically and shuffled away. It was noticeable that soon afterward the watchful Sam Lee Moy appeared, strolling casually along this street of his domain. He appeared to examine the parrot with interest.
Came a mellifluous question in the Shensi dialect of China, which Cube, of course, could not understand. He shrugged, motioned to his ears and then to his tongue, as if pretending to be deaf and dumb. Sam Lee Moy grinned satirically to himself, and began muttering something in English about liking the looks of the parrot, and would his countryman sell?
Cube, pretending not to understand— merely to follow his original idea— employed signs, indicating that he could be persuaded to part with the bird for ten dollars. Sam Lee Moy appeared to hesitate. Then after a swift glance up and down the street he beckoned to the owner of this famous parrot, and led him to a doorway. As he entered, Cube contrived to spill to the sidewalk a lump of ordinary anthracite coal, but to this lump was attached a length of black silk thread, the spool of which lay in Cube’s pocket. Until one door closed upon the thread the detective was careful to pay it out generously, for fear of causing inexplicable gyrations of the innocent lump of coal.
For some reason, when his own quarters were reached, Moy appeared to grudge the payment of ten dollars for the bird. He remonstrated, speaking sometimes in English and sometimes in Chinese. The burden of his remarks was that he had hoped to buy Sun Yat at a cheap price, because a certain parrot fancier lived nearby. Moy would have liked to sell the bird to this other unnamed individual, himself, but since the stranger was so high-priced and obdurate, he could complete the sale himself. Moy would show him the way, if he cared to go?
Cube Lacey cared. He had taken his hint from Moy’s words and manner, and realized that even if he had made the price of the bird ten cents instead of the really ridiculous price of ten dollars, Moy still would have found excuse to consult this collector of parrots. That way lay death, perhaps, yet Cube was in no mood to measure personal risk. On the slender thread which led backward to the street lay his hopes of escape, and of rescue of the others— if this proved indeed to be the place to which Irene and his comrade had been taken— but he fell in with Moy’s suggestion as if greedy to meet the man who would pay ten dollars for his parrot.
The automatic in his pocket, at least, would account for some of the conspirators if worst came to worst. His only fear came from the actions of Sun Yat himself. The parrot refused to be silent. He either squawked out Chinese oaths, or repeated parts of the monologues which he had overheard. He recognized the smells and darkness of the corridor, and knew he was approaching home. If Cube only had guessed the fact, the parrot’s noise was the detective’s real salvation: it made Moy hurry on and down, not stopping to notice that his supposed victim was paying out length after length of the black silk thread. Some of the Chinese living in the cave-like rooms opening off this corridor were law-abiding, and not in sympathy with the T’ao tong. Moy was succeeding too well to be panic-stricken, yet he threw back over his shoulder several sharp commands in Chinese to the parrot— commands which Sun Yat contemptuously ignored. He cared nothing for Sam Lee Moy, or the foolish white man who carried his cage. When he got out he would nip both of them till they squealed! He, the honored member of a household which had furnished China with a dynasty of emperors!
At the end of the last corridor— the one which Sherrod Guest had traversed three days earlier— Sam Lee Moy began to chatter loudly. The reason was plain to Cube’s ears. Behind the doorway ahead came mingled groans and execrations, tones which even the staccato shrilling of Moy could not drown. Cube’s only comfort lay in the fact that he could not distinguish a woman’s voice— yet Irene might be dead by now. One day and two nights she had been in the hands of the tong. Cube gripped his automatic, but his lips smiled.
Moy shifted something between his hands as he came to the last doorway. Cube, from the tail of his eye, saw that it was a loop of silk cord. Moy, bowing, stood aside as if to usher in his guest. As Cube reached Moy’s side he brought up the silk loop. It never reached its mark. Dropping the parrot cage, Cube shot through his jacket pocket. Moy dropped with a grunt. The detective charged into the tong chamber.
A half-dozen Chinese ran to meet him. Cube got only a flash of Sherrod Guest, spread-eagled on the earthen floor beyond, and then he was shooting.
Two heavy-set Chinese went down before his bullets. A third staggered away screaming, as a bullet tore away part of his lower jaw. Then weight of numbers overcame Cube, who fell backward to the floor, albeit fighting with tooth and nail.
His automatic exploded once more before it was torn from his fingers, but the bullet impinged harmlessly upon the wall. His fingers, clawing, clutching, found the throat of another antagonist, and clung there, through the latter— as a last resort— went after a knife in his belt. When the conflict was quieted, only two unwounded Chinese remained, and one whose jaw wound threatened to kill him. Four husky coolies ran in, however, and were directed by one of the remaining tong members, who had helped to overcome the detective.
“This is one more, and the last one,” observed the Chinaman calmly. “I know him. He is named Lacey, and he is the one to whom the manuals probably were given.”
This was in English, for Cube’s benefit. Followed sharp commands in Chinese, and Cube was shackled to the wall in the identical position once occupied by his comrade, Guest. Cube, overcome by loss of blood from a knife wound in his shoulder and upper arm, stared goggle-eyed across the chamber to a sinister armchair, in which he saw the pale, horrified face of Irene Jeffries. The girl was bound and helpless, yet Lacey breathed in momentary relief at the mere fact that she still was alive.
The fat, imperturbable Chinaman who had guessed his identity, held a small cup to Lacey’s lips. The latter, on the borderland of unconsciousness, obeyed without question. If they wished to kill him they could accomplish the deed without troubling to employ poison. He found the drink to be fiery, distilled liquor— probably saki. In the space of two minutes it brought back life to his brain and body. He was able to remember that close on his footsteps would come the detectives and police. He grinned weakly at his captor.
“You’ve got us,” he said, sparring for time, “but it cost you a fair price, the way I see it.”
“Price in lives or money is no object,” returned the Chinaman in perfect English, and without betraying the slightest animosity. “For many years we have searched for our stolen property. Now we will have it. Mr. Noah Lacey gave it to you, of course?”
Cube essayed a laugh. “What would you say if I told you that your whole bunch has been barking up the wrong tree?” he asked. “If none of us ever had seen the manuals of which you speak?”
“I should say that you were lying.”
“Well, think so if you want to. I don’t know what I can do about that. As a matter of fact my uncle did not give the manuals to any one of us. Just today we found a clue. Oh yes, we had heard about them, well enough, but never had we seen them. I think perhaps I know where they are. Will you exchange the lives of us whom you hold captive for possession of the manuals?”
The Oriental was silent half a minute. “There is no need,” he answered then, deliberately. “We cannot afford to release you. We can obtain the manuals, since you acknowledge that you know where they are. Then we shall kill you all— mercifully. You may choose your own deaths. Perhaps opium, gold leaf for the throat, or the strangler’s cord? Otherwise, torture awaits all four of you. The three others have had some taste of our abilities already. Suppose you speak with them?”
“Well, perhaps that would be a good idea,” responded Cube, on edge for the first sign of the detectives, who seemed to be taking an incomprehensibly long time. Had the silk thread been discovered? Or broken?
“If we can’t win freedom I’d prefer, of course, a nice, clean sort of death rather than the torture I suppose you employ. Let me free an instant and I’ll talk with Miss Jeffries and Mr. Guest.”
The Oriental did not grant his wish. Smiling ironically, he bade two of the coolies release Cube from his bonds. A slip noose was placed over his neck, however, and his arms still remained shackled. A coolie walked behind, holding the other end of the noose, which could be tightened in the split part of a second, and which actually was sufficient of a bond to cut off part of his breath, even as adjusted.
He approached Irene. “This may be the end,” he said, breathing with difficulty. “Before they do me in I want to tell you one thing. I love you!” He stopped. The answering light of wonderment and questioning in her eyes was his sufficient reward. She did not speak.
“This is the old choice,” he continued, speaking louder for the benefit of the Chinese. “I know where the manuals are located. I found them today. In exchange for my knowledge they offer the three of us— I reckon Kohler Andrews must be here somewhere— a chance to die by a knife, bullet, opium, or in any other way we name. it’s not life, but it really is better than the alternative, I suppose. They probably could torture us.”
“Oh Cube!” she cried. “If it has to be, then let us tell them what they wish to know! I— I did not know. They have already—”
She got no further. In that second the door burst inward, and two husky Irishmen sprawled forward on the floor. Behind them came a multitude of others, however, men who shot first and waited until afterward to ask questions. The two first-comers rose, and added their streams of bullets. In eight seconds after the door went down not a Chinaman remained standing. Beside the two who still wriggled a detective sat with ready revolver.
The policemen, coming too late to enter the conflict, were dispatched to sentinel posts in the corridors. Krahn, his right hand covered with blood, found keys and unlocked the shackles of all four victims, cutting such bonds as he could not unlock.
“Poor Andrews is about done in,” he said while freeing Cube. “I don’t think he can live.”
Cube scarcely paid attention. He was at the side first of Sherrod Guest. In the light this individual exhibited a terribly altered appearance, His sparse hair was dead white, and deep lines on his cherubic countenance testified to the suffering he had undergone.
“I’ve heard all about those damned manuals,” Guest said huskily. “You want to get rid of them, of course. Weil, I’m through with detective work. Give me those manuals and I’ll see that they are translated and published! The tong did not own them. They have been stolen many times. Give me that much revenge, will you Cube? I’m a broken man, I tell you!”
The detective regarded him solemnly. “As God is my judge I cannot fathom the rights of this,” he said then. “I think I’m going to bank on you, however, Sherrod. I’ll give you the manuals— providing only that you notify the T’ao tong of your intentions. And I’ll give you money enough to carry through your purpose! It seems to me that this knowledge ought to be given to the world.”