The Devil's Heirloom/Chapter IV

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Cube regained consciousness almost as violently as he had departed that state. Sherrod Guest, bursting in with the epochal news of a seventy-five-dollar fee from a client he had expected to charge only one-third that sum, did not notice for some moments the chaotic disarray of the office. Cube, crouched forward on the desk, looked as if he had fallen asleep. Guest shook him with unrestrained exuberance. Lacey’s eyes opened dully and he gazed about at a room which seemed to be swaying like a steamboat cabin in choppy sea.

      “Come to! Wake, thou dreamer!” adjured Guest. “A porterhouse steak with plenty of mushrooms looms on the horizon before our hungry eyes! Hey! What’s the matter with you? Doped?” At that instant his hand encountered a trickle of dampness on his comrade’s scalp. One glance showed him it was blood. From that instant his bombastic manner vanished, and he devoted himself solicitously to bringing back Lacey from his groggy condition.

      Thereupon Cube briefly sketched the startling news which had come to him over the wire, and told of his attack by someone who had been concealed in the inner office. Both halves of the place had been wrecked systematically, the files torn open and contents dumped upon the floor, books thrown helter-skelter from their shelves, and the locked drawers of Sherrod’s desk pried open with some heavy weapon. Lacey’s, because they had been unlocked at the time, escaped with merely having their contents strewn about. For some time Sherrod scarcely mentioned the fact of Noah Lacey’s demise. The attack upon Cube and the interior of the office interested him far more.

      “What on earth do you suppose they were after? Was it those darn Chinks? There have been half a dozen near me every place I went today!” he exclaimed explosively, ready to launch himself for vengeance in any suggested direction.

      Lacey was thoughtful but had no explanation to offer. The wound on his head had transformed itself into a right-angled lump, and it seemed as though the entire roof of his brain had been bruised. Nevertheless he shook himself together and announced an intention of returning immediately to Brick Knob.

      “I don’t know how you see it Sherrod,” he observed, “but it looks to me as though we ought to establish a causal connection between the two ends of this coincidence. Let me sketch it. All in one day, twenty-four hours, we find ourselves beset by Chinese. One followed me all the way up to Brick Knob. Guess I didn’t mention that before. These attentions from yellow men are subsequent to a phone call from Noah Lacey. I go out to his house to find it crammed with objects of Oriental art. He hints to me— though at the moment I confess I thought it nothing but rather clumsy subterfuge to get me out there to live with him— of certain detective work he proposes to me to do. He even admits that his life is in danger, but I only half believe him. I dope him out to be a rank coward, even if he is my uncle. A few hours after I leave, however, he is murdered. Doesn’t that appeal to your logical mind as the beginning of a sorites?”

      Guest shrugged. “As usual you’re several steps ahead of me,” he admitted. “Sounds wild, but at the same time reasonable, in a way. What do you want me to do?”

      “Stay right here for the time being. I’m not so sure that they won’t try to involve me in that mess out at Brick Knob. I’m the only surviving relative. At the present moment I am being cut out for a chance at Noah’s fortune by a rank outsider. A girl. Pretty, too, I think. Still, vengeance or some other sordid motive might be ascribed to me. It might have come about that I was the last person to see my uncle alive, though that scarcely appears probable. If you went out with me, they might decide to hold you also as a possible accomplice— or as witness. I’d rather have you on the outside, at least until tomorrow. Then our guesses are apt to hit close to the mark. Get on the trail of these Chinese. If any of them bother you smash after them hammer and tongs!”

Irene Jeffries herself admitted Cube. A uniformed policeman was stationed at the entrance, but Cube noticed that he lacked the officious seriousness usual in striking murder cases. Irene whispered a quick explanation. “Don’t mention to anyone just yet that I told you he was murdered,” she requested. “They think it was an accident, and I believe it would be best to leave it that way for a time.”

      Cube stared at her. She had taken off the atrocious spectacles, and he saw that she had been crying. Gone was the aspect of studiousness, the old-maidish primness suggested by the shell-encircled glasses. She was pretty! Yes, more than that, for in spite of signs of sincere grief a sweet, almost wistful feminine trust shone in her eyes. Though the procedure she suggested was far from regular, in Cube’s estimation, he could not question her motive at that moment. He nodded gravely, and took her arm as they descended the steps.

      “I— I simply told them that he was dead,” she continued rapidly. “They sent down several different officers and Inspector Harris. Dr. Mitchell was here when they arrived. They didn’t stay long, because it seemed apparent to them that your uncle died from a fall. He hit his forehead.”

      “May I see him? You don’t need to come, Miss Jeffries,” he suggested kindly. “Won’t you lie down for a time? When I’ve made my examination I’d like to have a talk with you.”

      “No, I’d rather stay with you,” she shivered. “This house— well, I know too much about it, and the reasons for its being such a fort. Though you may not believe it, Mr. Lacey had reasons!”

      “I am prepared to believe anything,” Cube answered, passing back along the corridor to the door by which he had entered previously. This now was propped open. “What time did it— it happen?”

      “No one knows exactly. Mr. Lacey ate dinner with me. Then he went down to his workshop in the basement for a few minutes. I tried to keep him upstairs, because I think he was—” she hesitated.

      “Drunk?” suggested Cube.

      “Well, a little, yes. He insisted on going down, but returned to this floor almost immediately and retired. He was reading, for an open copy of Montaigne lay beside him on the floor. Apparently some time in the night— Dr. Mitchell estimates it at about ten or eleven o’clock— he rose, and started to walk, perhaps for another drink. One of the spells overcame him, and he toppled forward. His forehead struck heavily against the sharp corner of a chair.”

      “But I thought you said he was murdered?”

      A peculiar expression flitted across her countenance. She started clutching Cube’s arm. “It’s I, Kohler!” she exclaimed sharply. Cube saw that this was occasioned by the appearance of the servant in the doorway leading to Noah Lacey’s private living-room. Andrews held a leveled automatic! He looked as if he had been stopped in the very act of firing, and his pistol had been aimed directly at Cube.

      “You may go now, Kohler,” Irene continued, a trifle unsteadily. “I’ll call you when I leave.” The man obeyed, thrusting the automatic somewhere below the left lapel of jacket. He had not spoken, yet as he passed Cube black, beady eyes were fastened suspiciously upon the detective.

      “Andrews, hell!” was Cube’s silent comment. “He never owned that name honestly. A gunman, too. I’ll keep an eye on him!”

      Noah Lacey’s body was stretched upon a leather couch in the chamber where Cube had seen him on the previous day. Because the coroner had not yet arrived, nothing had been done save the draping of a silk handkerchief over his face. Cube lifted the cloth gingerly. Above Noah’s right eye was a broken indentation telling plainly of skull fracture which undoubtedly had caused instant death. The wound immediately attracted Cube’s interest for one particular reason. Though the skin was broken open to an extent of more than an inch, little blood was in evidence.

      On the handkerchief which had rested against Noah’s face appeared only a faint grayish-brown stain. “Who cleaned the wound?” demanded Cube, straightening abruptly.

      “No one,” she responded. “Dr. Mitchell said that Mr. Lacey must have suffered from a form of pernicious anemia. He had practically no blood. That is strange, too, for until just a few days ago Mr. Lacey possessed a rather florid complexion. He drank a good deal, you know, although the only time I saw him intoxicated in the slightest perceptible degree was after this weakness had come to him.”

      “When did you first notice the difference in his complexion and strength?”

      “Last Wednesday, a week ago tomorrow. Until that morning he had been vigorous for a man of his age. All in one night he seemed to wilt. The color left his face and he began drinking constantly to keep himself up. I tried to get him to consult a physician but he absolutely refused, telling me that no American doctor could help him. But you are more interested now in other things. Here is the chair against which he fell.”

      She indicated one of three slim mahogany chairs standing before the long telephone table. On the sharp corner of a seat a grayish-brown stain showed above the polished surface. Cube pursed his lips thoughtfully. He could not dispute the girl’s statements, for a single glance showed him that the angle of wood fitted exactly the wound which had caused Lacey’s death. Oddly enough, however, the stain no more resembled blood than did the clotted moisture gathered upon Lacey’s temple. Cube studied it a moment with his hand lens, then taking a pen-knife and sheet of white paper from his pocket he scraped away with extreme care a tiny portion of the stain, placed it on the paper and folded the latter into compact shape.

      At this moment the coroner arrived, accompanied by Dr. Mitchell and Inspector Harris. Cube was forced to suspend his own activities while the others retraced his steps. At first, when he made known his identity as nephew of the dead man, the coroner stared suspiciously at him— evidently filing away a mental note to question Cube exhaustively at some later time. After full consideration of apparent factors, though, he expressed himself satisfied that Noah’s death had been a regrettable accident. “I’ll have to hold an inquest this afternoon,” he said at last, “but it will be nothing much more than a matter of form. Dr. Mitchell states that Mr. Lacey was known to have had fainting spells. Undoubtedly one of these overtook him.”

      Five minutes after the others had left, Cube turned directly to Irene Jeffries. “Now I am ready to have you tell me why you believe my uncle was murdered,” he said.

      Without comment she walked to the telephone table, lifted one of the instruments, and handed him a folded sheet of paper which had been concealed there. He opened it and read the following curious statement:

      “I am convinced that I have but a few days to live. I am being murdered by members of the T’ao tong. Noah Lacey.”

      “There have been Chinese about this place ever since I came!” Irene whispered, glancing involuntarily over her shoulder as she spoke.

      “Chinese!” echoed Cube, his mind reverting instantly to the tentative theory which he had mentioned to Guest.

      “Yes!” she affirmed. “Twice I— I saw them inside this house! Kohler Andrews shot at one but did not hit him. Each time the man escaped, and none of us could discover how he had gained entrance. Mr. Lacey feared them. Somehow he had incurred their enmity. From hints he dropped at one time or another I believe they were trying to get something which he possessed, something he valued more highly even than his life. He never told me anything concerning its nature, but did show me at one time a pink scrap of paper which had been glued against the surface of the hidden door to his suite of rooms. Mr. Lacey took the paper, and I did not get a very good look at the single character upon it. It was a Chinese ideograph, however, one which resembled a turkey track to which were appended several rings and scrolls. I think it must have had something to do with this tong he mentions, for at the time it seemed to disturb him tremendously. He made all of us take revolvers, and come with him while he scoured every nook and corner of the house. We found no signs of intruders. For days thereafter, though, Mr. Lacey seemed to be waiting, waiting for something to happen. He strapped a pistol holster about his waist, and wore it even when he went to bed.”

      Cube’s eyes were enigmatic as he turned toward the telephone table. “Which of these instruments will give me an outside wire?” he asked.

      “The one furthest to the left.”

      Lifting the receiver then Cube Lacey called his own office and spoke long and earnestly to Sherrod Guest. Though he little imagined any such horrible contingency connected with the errand, he was sending his comrade and associate to almost certain doom.

      One minute after he replaced the receiver the back basement door of an apartment just outside the wall of Brick Knob opened, and a Chinaman appeared, to glance hurriedly about and then hasten to a point two blocks distant. There at the curb a low-slung roadster awaited.