Weird Tales/Volume 37/Issue 1/Death in a Gray Mist
Death in a Gray Mist
By Frank Owen
Heading by A. R. Tilburne
Seven men had gone to the Black Inn to kill Chung Kuo. They chose a night when fog hung low over the land so that their actions might not be observed. They were all strangers to each other, and also to the man whom they had come to kill. Each pictured him in an entirely different manner.
One believed that Chung Kuo was a monk in a gray robe; a second, that he was tall and austere, no longer young, a graduate of Han-lin College; a third, that he was fat and blustery, a military man who swaggered more than any mandarin of old; a fourth, that he was a business man, shrewd, penetrating, a good trader, cold, dangerous; a fifth, that he was a shopkeeper, a seller of ivory and jade, who liked to spend his evenings playing fan-tan at the inn; but the sixth, merely believed that he was a general, an important leader in China's fight to be free.
Unfortunately, Chung Kuo knew every one of them and if he had any part in the fictions that had been so deviously planted in craven minds, he was shrewd enough to divulge the matter to no one. However, he had excellent lieutenants who had proved good reporters. Chung Kuo considered it droll that seven men had come on so slight a mission, a mission that the lowliest poisonous insect might so easily accomplish. To him it seemed an abundant waste of manpower. It did not speak well for the ability of Colonel Nagai, a Japanese officer, who wished to have Chung Kuo obliterated.
The inn went by the euphonious name of Five Elm Lodge because of the stately trees that guarded it like sentinels. But locally it was called the Black Inn, because in Chinese parlance, a Black Inn is a den of thieves. Certainly on the present occasion it was living up to its reputation.
They had come to Hangchow by circuitous routes even though they had been granted safe passage by Japanese officials. But not even a renegade trusts a Jap; he will fatten on his money, but steer clear of his treachery. The seven preferred to work carefully and in their own manner. At the inn they were shown to a large room with seven beds, to use the term rather carelessly, for the sleeping accommodations consisted of only thin mattresses spread upon the cold hard floor. But the air was good for there were plenty of windows with oiled paper panes that were thrown open upon a slumbering garden.
In the dead vast middle of the night, long after the others had retired to rest, San Tak decided that he would stroll in the garden. He was irritable and upset. He had hoped that he might slay Chung Kuo and be away before morning rice, but now it appeared as if his quarry had gone from the inn and he would have to await his return. Time means nothing to the Chinese as a general thing but it meant everything to San Tak who had set out to kill. Colonel Nagai had promised him even a more lucrative assignment if he was able to complete this one with speed and efficiency. Colonel Nagai believed in war by assassination.
An enemy shot in the back was a good enemy. His entire code was built upon treachery. The Japanese war lords had praised his record many times. It was the code of the gangster but also their code. The colonel was a brilliant warrior but he had a craven's heart. He flinched when facing an enemy, but when planning nefarious schemes he was valiant. No officer had a more arrogant manner.
San Tak met with no opposition as he climbed through the window into the garden. Perhaps all his companions were sleeping. He hoped they were, for he was annoyed by their proximity.
The fog still haunted the garden. The air was damp and chill. Nevertheless he walked somberly along, his thoughts blending with the gloom of the night. Momentarily he regretted that he had heeded the honeyed words of Colonel Nagai. To be tracking down an unknown foe was as futile as wrestling with a wraith.
He strode along, unaware that there was hidden danger in the fog. A dry well yawned hungrily in front of him and he plunged head-first to the bottom. The bones of his neck snapped as if they were as brittle as porcelain. Thereafter he was not concerned with human affairs. In the blackness, a figure climbed down into the well and drew a good-luck piece from San Tak's sleeve.
San Tak returned not to the Inn. However seven men occupied the beds for the remainder of the night.
Not long after dawn, they rose, dressed and went to the tea-room to have morning rice. Curiously, for the first time, they studied one another. It was at that moment that knowledge came to them that they were all at the inn for the same purpose—to kill Chung Kuo. But they did not suspect that they had all been hired by the same official, Colonel Nagai. Certainly the colonel did not underestimate the resourcefulness of his enemy. Chung Kuo might easily have overcome and exterminated one opponent. He might even be able to trick two or three. But seven was an impossible number for any man to face, especially since every one of the seven was an experienced killer, who had no compunction whatever about shooting a man from ambush.
The old man who brought them rice and tea was benignant and smiling. He was also very efficient.
Finally To-jun voiced the wishes of all, when he said, "Where is your master, Chung Kuo?"
"I have no master," said the old man gently. "I am free. The sky is mine and my eyes roam at will among the stars. 'When the bells and drums sound in harmony, and the sounding-stones and flutes blend their notes, abundant blessings are sent down'."
"How can you quote from 'The Book of Poetry' when our land is overrun by Japanese?"
"The crickets too have come and gone; so endeth every blight. And now the sky is filled, with abundant music, perhaps this new plague that has come upon us will have a difficult future."
"Interesting, but still you have not answered my question. Where is Chung Kuo?"
"Chung Kuo is everywhere, like the breeze that brushes your shoulder."
"But when will he return to the inn?"
"In good time, perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow. It does not seem long since I have talked with him."
"You are very loyal to Chung Kuo."
"I am loyal to any traveler who pauses for rest and tea."
One of the other renegades, Fan Su lost his temper. Never did he have much patience. "Maybe a horse-whip might give him better memory."
"Very doubtful," replied the old man, "but of one thing be assured, if I am molested you will be deprived of rice. We do not feed our enemies for long. Would I be presuming to point out that 'Five Elm Lodge' is not called 'The Black Inn' without reason. Threats are wearisome, they sour the tea."
Fan Su sprang to his feet. "I'll not stand for this!" he cried, but his arrogance was short-lived, he tripped and fell and blood flowed from his nose."
"Quite frequently," mused the old servant, "the tyrant ends up by being ridiculous."
To-jun who had started the conversation was angered that Fan Su had taken the initiative away from him. He decided that at the first opportunity he would avenge the slight. If Fan Su saw another sunrise it would be a surprise to him. To-jun had had a Japanese mother, and his father had been worthless. In a land where every man worked he had devoted his entire time to samshu. Later he became a brigand though with indifferent success. However his son followed willingly in his footsteps, with one difference, he lacked the least semblance of culture. He would kill a man or a pig with equal facility provided he was paid for it. He had long, strong fingers and a short temper. Patience was unknown to him.
Meanwhile the old servant, with complete indifference to their presence, procured a broom from a storeroom and started sweeping. The Chinese believe there is some magic efficacy attached to brooms and demons have great fear of them.
"'Old man," cried Fan Su, "are we evil spirits that you would sweep away?"
"You are more qualified to answer that question than I."
"Evil, perhaps," chuckled Fan Su, after a moment, deciding that it was better to treat the matter as a bit of humor rather than appearing a fool before his companions, "but I assure you I am not a spirit."
"So I decided when you fell on your face. But now I must finish my sweeping so that I may sit in the garden and rest. Little vacancies from toil are sweet."
Lin Kia who spoke little was formulating a plan. Some time later as he strolled through the garden he encountered the old servant as though by accident.
"If you will tell me where I may find Chung Kuo, I will reward you well," he said softly.
"How well?" asked the old man.
Lin Kia slipped a gold piece into his hand. "This coin answers for me," he said.
The old servant examined the coin curiously. So long was it before he spoke, Lin Kia feared that his gift was to be rejected. He felt easier when it vanished into the ancient one's sleeve.
"Chung Kuo likes to walk by moonlight in a bamboo grove, and tonight the moon will be a disc of white jade. The most appropriate time to encounter him is during the hour of the Rat. (From 11 P.M. to 1 A.M.)"
"I, too, like to wander among the tall bamboo," murmured Lin Kia.
For the renegades the rest of that day passed lazily. They ate, sipped tea and dozed, though with one eye open. A few travelers stopped at the inn. However, not nearly as many as in the days before the Japanese blight. Now business was a mere trickle; the great trading that had gone on before had all but vanished. In the past, caravans had stopped at the inn and there was an enormous yard to accommodate the horses. Brigands, too, came in little groups. But they did most of their tradings on the highway. For a trinket of gold, or a bit of jade a man might go on living. The five elms before the lodge were known near and far. It was a place to be avoided but it was, even so, never without patrons. The evil words that were told about it were a sort of advertising. No questions were asked of the chance passerby who might loiter for a moment before continuing his journey. The tea was excellent.
Night came at last. The renegades retired, all save Lin Kia who remained sipping tea at a table. It was but natural for a man to linger over his tea, for in clear tea one finds the sages.
Some time before the hour of the Rat, a slim figure moved about in the darkness of the room until he came to the mattress on which Fan Su was sleeping. A quick swing of an arm in the darkness, and Fan Su joined his ancestors. It would be morning before they discovered the dagger of To-jun imbedded neatly in the heart of Fan Su.
Meanwhile, Lin Kia walked with light step into the bamboo grove that grew a few li from the inn. His felt-soled footsteps made no sound. He was adept at stalking his prey. In his sleeve was a gun that frequently spoke but never got any answer. His only fear was that he might encounter a bamboo viper. He was inordinately afraid of insects. Deeper into the grove he walked. There was poetry in the night, with the full-blossomed moon glowing in the sky like a white chrysanthemum. It surprised him how very light it was, then with a start he realized that it was far too light. He gazed in fear over his shoulder and beheld roaring flames dogging his footsteps. The bamboo grove had caught fire. He had been tricked. He vowed vengeance on the old servant who had placed him in so perilous a position. The flames were gaining on him and he was forced to run. But the bamboo shoots seemed intent on blocking his path. It was all he could do to push them aside. What might have happened isn't pleasant to think, had it not been for a sudden ending of the scene. Far above almost out of sight in the sky, a lone plane was flying. The flaming grove was an easy target. The bomb curved down gracefully. As it struck, the grove was not on fire anymore and Lin Kia had ceased running.
The rest of the night was peaceful, still. Then morning came.
At Five Elm Lodge, the renegades awakened, all but Fan Su whose glazed eyes had not closed throughout the flight of the moon. The others rose to their feet and gazed at the cadaver. To-jun leaned down and retrieved his knife. Not by the flickering of an eyelid did he betray his astonishment that this knife had caused the destruction of a man on whom he had vowed vengeance. Had the knife heard his vow and proceeded to carry it out without his motivation? To-jun was superstitious. He believed that the air was filled with disembodied spirits all evil. He looked up to find himself peering into the barrel of a revolver.
"I am Fan Lee," said one of the renegades. "Fan Su was my brother. No Chinese lives and sleeps in the same house as the murderer of his brother. That is the root of our philosophy. You have caused me to break the string that binds me to my brother. So you must die, I am sorry, but there is no other way out."
The gun spoke twice. They buried both bodies a short distance from the inn, without benefit of coffin, or services of any kind. There were no mourners. The six souls of the dead men could proceed whithersoever they wished. It was no concern of the renegades who had a duty to perform.
They returned to the inn, the four of them that remained alive. That day they ate morning rice at the same table. Some impending horror seemed to bind them together by a spell.
"If this continues," said P'ang Hao, "not one of us will survive to complete the task that brought us all to the inn. I have a growing suspicion that we are all in the same work." As he spoke he placed a bit of jade on the table before him. His three companions produced similar jade fragments.
"Those jade amulets bind us all together," mused Hu Liang. "It makes brothers of us all, the fact that we are bound together as representatives of Colonel Nagai."
"Mention the name in hushed tones," advised P'ang Hao. "It appears that this section of Hangchow is not healthy for those who are in the employ of the Japanese."
"Especially if they stop for a night or two at 'Five Elm Lodge'," added Fan Lee. "Woe unto the day that brought my brother and I to this house. Now he has hung up his hat and I will converse with him no more."
"Truly it seems that we are being decimated because we are emissaries of Colonel Nagai," said Hu Liang slowly. "Might it not be possible that the very earth is at war with the Japanese, fighting the cause of China? I had a friend who was rendered useless by a tree that fell upon him. The mist and the mountains are in league with China because for untold centuries the Chinese have lived close to the soil. For years I have carried on my work and never did I fail to complete a commission. Even bandits shuddered at my approach and look at me now, how pitifully has the mighty fallen. My sleep is disturbed by dreams and in my dreams I am always fleeing from an unknown terror. Yes, Colonel Nagai has squandered our ability. He must have known how fraught with danger was this undertaking else he would not have sent seven of us to blot out one enemy named Chung Kuo. Alas, it was a fateful undertaking. Three of our men are dead and Chung Kuo still evades us. Is he the wind that blows through the willows, is he the cloud that effaces the moon, or the dew that bathes the flowers at dawn?"
"At 'Five Elm Lodge'," said Tsan Yen slowly, "we were told that we would discover Chung Kuo, but alas our reward was death in a gray mist. Death dwells in this inn, he is the master of the hostelry. Perhaps yon old servant is Chung Kuo. Perhaps he serves us and all the time he is laughing in his sleeve. Old man, are you the mighty Chung Kuo?"
"Would that I were," was the reply. "I am but a servant whose greatest achievement is the cooking of lentils. My work is well done and I can enjoy the quiet of the garden. But Chung Kuo is kind, he never acts like a barbarian, or as though I am beneath him. It would be a great honor if I could be the mighty Chung Kuo who so easily eludes seven assassins, but the gods have ordained it otherwise. I am not a mighty figure in New China but an old servant who joys to doze in the sun and dream of past splendors. Once I possessed a canary who sang so beautifully that I named him Tu Fu.
"A mighty mandarin wished to buy the little singer, but I refused to sell, and so although I was poor, I was richer than the mandarin for I possessed Tu Fu whom he aspired to possess. How pleasant is life when even a servant might enjoy sweet songs."
"I still believe that you are Chung Kuo," muttered P'ang Hao.
"I resent being called an assassin," said Hu Liang angrily.
"Let us not quarrel with the old man who serves us rice," said Fan Lee.
"You are right," agreed P'ang Hao willingly. "It is Colonel Nagai who has betrayed us. He must have known how perilous was our mission or he would not have sent seven to perform it. He cares no more for our lives than if we were enemies."
"After all we are Chinese," Hu Liang said, "and the colonel considers all Chinese are his enemies."
"Well spoken," agreed Fan Lee. "Perhaps Chung Kuo does not exist. Perhaps we were sent here on an errand that was little more than a practical joke. Even now I can see Colonel Nagai laughing. He is laughing up our sleeves."
"Your words are seasoned with wisdom," agreed Hu Liang. "Undoubtedly our comrades have been done away with by vicious Japs at the instigation of Nagai himself. As we sit here now we are all in grave danger. Any moment death may strike us down."
"If it must come, what matter," mused Fan Lee, "but it is not pleasant to think of joining our ancestors with the laughter of the colonel resounding in our ears."
"Let us destroy Nagai to stop his laughter!" burst out P'ang Hao angrily. "We are wasting time here challenging an old servant whose greatest achievement is cooking lentils."
"Or wielding a sharp knife," said Fan Lee, but no one paid the slightest attention to his Observations, so intent were they on their own schemes and plans. Each had decided that he would kill Colonel Nagai and later join the Chinese forces. The business of being a renegade was becoming slightly frayed at the edges. There was no one to work for the Japanese, for to trust a Jap was more foolhardy than to sleep in a bed with a cobra.
Hu Liang voiced the thoughts of all when he said, "It is more expedient to save our necks and live as patriots, than to continue our pursuit of Chung Kuo and die as traitors from a cause as unknown as the back of the moon."
Later that day, they left the inn and took separate paths, but they were all but one of one purpose. The one was Fan Lee who took a circuitous route and returned to the inn.
The old servant was waiting for him. He had cooked turnips and roast young pig for a celebration.
"Welcome home, General Chung Kuo," he said, bowing low.
"It is good to return quietly to rest," replied Fan Lee. "I haven't been sleeping well lately. But with Colonel Nagai neatly disposed of without any effort on my part, there will be less reason for unease. As to Pang Hao, Tsan Yen? and Hu Liang, they are unwittingly doing me a favor. Yet my future would be at an end if they ever discovered I was really Chung Kuo. Nevertheless, I shall find a place for them, swinging from a pear tree, suspended by a red cord bound about their throats. They always prided themselves that they walked with catlike quietness, nor will they make any sound on their last creep."