THE DAY OF THE DRAGON
by Anon. (adapted by Mark Hodder)
The Curiosity Shop
"Hallo! That's rum!"
It was Tinker who made that remark.
Tinker was the youthful and cheery-faced assistant of Sexton Blake, the famous detective of Baker Street, London. He had halted suddenly in an odd little crooked street not far from London Bridge, gazing into the dust-windows of a shop that was as odd as the street.
He stared in, eyes fixed on an object in one corner of the window. Then his eyes rose, and he read the name set in grimy lettering above the window. "Jangles" — an odd name, too, to go with the odd little shop.
It was a curiosity-shop. The window was bowed and divided into small panes, grimy with dust and cobwebs so that some were scarcely transparent.
Behind the bow window a weird assortment of objects was to be seen. Copper pots, pieces of chipped old crockery, a few dusty oil-paintings, rings and brooches, books, an old oil-lamp or two, quaint ivory carvings, a Chinese tapestry with a green dragon woven across it — a hundred and one things, some possibly worth something, others obviously worth nothing, all heaped together in a delightful jumble.
The object that had attracted Tinker's notice was a tall brass candlestick.
"That's rum!" he repeated.
To the ordinary observer there was nothing particularly noticeable about that candlestick. The reason it interested Tinker was that it happened to be an exact replica of one that Sexton Blake possessed, which stood upon the detective's desk. Blake was a connoisseur of antiques, including old brasses such as this.
"Dare say the guv'nor would like to buy that to go with the other one," thought Tinker, staring in at the candlestick. It was a handsome-looking object, gracefully twisted, though the dust of ages had settled upon it and tarnished it out of all semblance of brass.
Tinker turned to the narrow little door, opened it, and went in.
It was very dark inside the shop. But as his eyes grew used to the light he saw the figure of an elderly man standing behind the counter — a man with a high arched nose, and a billowing white beard, and thin white hands that rested on the counter before him.
"Good afternoon!" said Tinker. "I'd like to know how much that candlestick in the window is — that tall brass one there."
He turned and pointed. As he did so he noticed that someone else had halted outside the window now, was staring in at the objects displayed. A short, stocky figure — Tinker could not make out the shadowed face.
"That's real antique," answered the unsteady, cracked voice of the old antique dealer. "That candlestick is — hum — " He paused a moment, as if wondering how much Tinker could afford to pay. "Fifteen shillings," he finished abruptly.
"Thanks!" said Tinker. "I just wondered."
He turned and left the shop. As he did so a man, entering, stood aside to let him pass. It was the man whom Tinker had seen staring in at the window, and he saw now — rather to his surprise — that it was a well-dressed, obviously educated Chinese gentleman.
"Thanks!" murmured Tinker, and the Chinese smiled politely. His face was fat and smooth and yellow, very bland. Tinker glanced round at him as he vanished into the gloom of the little shop, closing the door. Then Tinker went off up the crooked street, whistling.
"You are sure it was just the same as this one?"
"Dead sure, guv'nor! I couldn't mistake it!"
Sexton Blake leaned back in his chair, drawing at his briar pipe. He smiled.
"Then, young 'un, that old curiosity-shop man did not know much about brass, for that candlestick is worth a good deal more than fifteen shillings. I smell a bargain, old son! Stick your hat on, and we'll hunt it down!"
Five minutes later Tinker and Blake were speeding eastwards in a taxi cab from Baker Street.
Five o'clock was striking as they approached — on foot — the little shop.
Outside the pair halted, peering in through the dusty little panes of the bow window at the candlestick. Blake nodded delightedly.
"You're right enough! That's the fellow!" he declared. "I must get that!"
Tinker grinned, pleased at Blake's satisfaction. Then he noticed, as his eyes wandered over the other objects behind the glass, that something was missing that had been there before.
His training at Blake's hands had made Tinker extraordinarily observant. Very few people would have noticed, after three-quarters of an hour's absence, that the window display was not precisely as it had been before. But Tinker was sure of it, and instinctively he began to wrack his brains to know what was different.
He realised two moments later. The Chinese tapestry with the green dragon woven upon it had gone. His thoughts went at once to the wealthy-looking Chinaman.
"Well, let's go in," murmured Blake, and turned to the door.
As he did so the handle rattled, and the next moment the Chinese gentleman of Tinker's thoughts stepped out blandly on to the pavement. His eyes met Tinker's for a moment, black and slanting and inscrutable. Then he moved off down the street and vanished round a corner.
"My hat, he's been in there a long time! Three-quarters of an hour, guv'nor!"
"How do you know, Tinker?"
The youngster explained.
"There was a Chinese tapestry in the window then," he added. "I noticed it had gone, and fancied that chap must have bought it. But he wasn't carrying anything, was he?"
"No," answered Blake, and opened the door of the shop. He entered, with Tinker at his heels.
In the dim light the two stood glancing round. No one was there. Jangles, as seemed to be the name of the man with the white beard who had been standing behind the counter at Tinker's recent visit, was not standing there now.
They waited. No one came. Tinker began to whistle a tune, then to tramp his feet in moving round the shop, expecting soon to bring Jangles out of the dark doorway at the back of the shop. But it was no use.
"We could help ourselves and clear off, apparently, without anyone being the wiser," smiled Blake. He noticed a bell upon the counter, and struck it. The tinkle rang out sharply in the hush and died away. They listened. Dead silence. No sound of movement.
"This is rum, guv'nor," grunted Tinker. "Is he having his tea, or what?"
Blake frowned. He did not like being kept waiting. He was a man to whom time was important.
He strode to the far end of the shop, glancing into the open doorway in the corner. An empty passage, ending in a flight of linoleum-covered stairs that wound up into the dark, was all that was to be seen there.
Blake turned. A sudden sharp exclamation escaped him.
"What's up, guv'nor?"
Tinker's tone was a little startled. Something in the detective's face puzzled him.
Without answering, Blake strode swiftly behind the counter. From where he had been standing by the back wall, what lay behind the counter had been visible to him, though before, from the centre of the shop, they could not have seen it.
The detective stooped swiftly over something, and Tinker darted to the counter and leaned over. He gave a quick cry, and his face went suddenly white.
For Jangles was stretched in the shadows behind the counter with a long sword thrust into his heart.
At the House in Bloomsbury
"Light!" rapped Blake. "Give me a light, Tinker!"
With fingers that quivered, Tinker lit a carved oil-lamp that stood at one corner of the dusty counter. The yellow light streamed down upon the figure of the dead man.
There was a clatter as Blake laid the sword upon the counter. He straightened himself.
"Yes, dead, Tinker. That sword was obviously taken from the suit of armour in the corner there. No signs of a struggle — it was done suddenly, unexpectedly, before this poor old chap had time to do a thing."
"The Chink!" gasped Tinker hoarsely. "He's the man! I told you, guv'nor, he was coming in when I was here before — he's been here ever since! He must have done it!"
Blake snatched up his hat, ran round from behind the counter, and made for the door, Tinker at his heels.
The crooked little street was empty. They raced off round the corner, following the route taken by the well-dressed Chinaman whom they had seen leave the shop. They found that the narrow turning led up into Cannon Street, one of the most crowded thoroughfares of the City.
"Oh, rats!" grunted Tinker, eyes on the streaming traffic that could be seen passing at the end of the narrow alley. "He's safe enough in that crowd!"
There was a police-constable on point duty at the end of the little street, and Blake hurried up to him. He meant to question the man. But the constable shook his head.
"Chinese? No, didn't see him."
He stared at Blake curiously. But the detective had no time to waste on explanations. He thanked the constable briefly and turned away. There was a stout Italian standing in the doorway of a little eating-house by the end of the street, and it was to him that Blake put the same query.
The eating-house proprietor twirled his long, greasy black moustache, wiped a hand on his white apron, and nodded.
"Yes," he said. "Yes, signor, I spotta da Chink. He take da taxi — drive off uppa da road."
He jerked a thumb up Cannon Street, in the direction of St. Paul's.
"Didn't notice the number of the taxi, of course?"
The Italian smiled good-humouredly.
"Yes," he said, nodding. "By chance I spotta da number, signor. Yes! All fives, that is why I spotta da number. All fives — five, five, five, five!"
"And the letters?" asked Blake eagerly.
The Italian shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and grimaced expressively.
"Now you aska me too much! I no spotta da letters," he confessed.
"That's a pity," muttered Blake. "Thanks very much indeed."
Together with Tinker he hurried back to the little curiosity shop.
"Wonderful bit of luck, that chap noticing the number of the taxi," he exclaimed, as they turned the corner. "Not one chap in a thousand would — most people walk round the world without seeing a thing. Pity he didn't remember the letters, too, but it doesn't matter. We ought to be able to trace that taxi."
In the shop, while Tinker went in search of the policeman on the beat, Blake got to work with his investigations. But it was soon obvious that there were no clues to be found there. By the time Tinker returned with a stolid-looking City of London policeman and the inspector from the near-by police station, Blake had lit a pipe and was standing in the centre of the shop, waiting impatiently.
Both the constable and the inspector saluted, for they knew from Tinker whom this tall, athletic-looking, keen-faced man was.
"I'm afraid there's no clue to be found here," said Blake. "I've searched the shop and the two rooms upstairs. There's nothing. Still, you'd better look round, for you'll have to make your report. Here's my card. If you want to know anything, get into touch with me at Baker Street. In the meantime, inspector, I want your help in tracing the taxi that a certain man took — a man whom we saw leaving this shop as we entered."
The inspector's face lit up.
"That's the chap who did it, obviously," he exclaimed. "And you know the number of his taxi, sir? That's quick work!"
"Good luck, you mean," smiled Blake grimly. "Four fives — that's the number. Don't know the letters. Think it'll take long to get that taxi?"
"I'll circulate the number at once to all the stations, sir. If you'll come to the station, we ought to hear soon."
But it was over an hour before a report came through, and that proved a false clue. The numbers were right, but the letters were wrong, apparently, as Blake soon discovered when he got into touch with the taxi-driver in question over the telephone. The man, he learnt, had been nowhere near Cannon Street that afternoon.
But almost immediately there was another report, from the Paddington Station district. And this time, over the telephone, Blake learnt that he had found the man he wanted.
Yes, the man remembered driving the Chinaman. He had taken him to an address in Bloomsbury. It was to this same address that Blake and Tinker were soon being driven in another taxi.
It was not a very well-to-do looking house. But the interior of it was luxuriant, to say the least. A small Chinese with a cold smile and beady, glittering eyes opened the door at Blake's knock, and took a visiting-card in to his master. On the visiting-card was the name of Mr John Carter.
"Allee samee comee this way!"
It was the purring voice of the Chinese servant. He was bowing by the door of a room across the thickly-carpeted hall, and as Blake and Tinker crossed towards it their feet made no sound in the soft and heavy rugs. They passed in through the wide doorway, to be faced with the stocky, bland-faced Celestial whom they had seen leave the curiosity shop by London Bridge.
The soft voice bore not the slightest trace of a foreign accent. It was perfectly cultured. Two dark, oblique eyes glanced from Blake to Tinker. Without doubt he must have recognised them as the two whom he had seen outside Jangles' little shop. But no trace of expression, other than smiling suavity, crossed that impassive, mask-like face.
The door was closed softly behind them by the servant. The Chinese indicated two silk-cushioned chairs of carved ebony — obviously very expensive articles, like everything else in the room, from the bright blue-and-gold curtains to the huge Chinese antique jar that stood in one corner of the room, filled with rose-petals, the scent of which made the air heavy with sweetness.
They sat down. Blake was about to speak, but the Chinese held up a hand.
"Forgive me, Mr Carter, but I think I know the reason for your visit. You have come to ask me what I know of the unfortunate, terrible death of Mr Jangles!"
It was startling to Tinker to hear those words spoken with such calmness. But Blake nodded coolly.
"That is the purpose of my visit," he said in level tones. "I will tell you, too, that my name is not Carter, but Blake. I am a detective. I must apologise for sending in a card that masked my true identity, but I feared you might try to avoid me if you knew my true name."
"No apology is needed, my dear and honourable sir," murmured the Chinese. He was no longer smiling. His yellow, inscrutable face was grave. "You think that I killed the unhappy Mr Jangles?"
"All the circumstantial evidence points to that," admitted Blake. "But I have learnt," he added swiftly, as the other seemed about to speak, "that merely circumstantial evidence is sometimes very misleading."
The Chinese nodded gravely. He had seated himself opposite them, on a high red lacquered stool.
"I did not kill the unhappy gentleman," he murmured earnestly. For the first time, his tones were not quite even and expressionless.
"Can you tell me who did?" rapped out Blake.
Again the grave inclination of the sleek head.
"Enemies of mine, Mr Blake. Members of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle."
Tinker let out a gasp on hearing those words. He and Sexton Blake had fought with the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle on countless occasions. It was one of China's most powerful secret societies, with a vast membership spreading all over the world. The Brotherhood was immensely rich, entirely unscrupulous, and often waged bitter feuds and vendettas against rival tongs, though its main stated purpose was to destabilise the West in order to establish, one day, a vast Chinese empire across the entire world. Blake and Tinker had more than once escaped death at the hands of its leader, the merciless Prince Wu Ling.
Sexton Blake was leaning forward in his chair.
"Why do you accuse the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle of being responsible for the death of this man Jangles?" he demanded. "Why should they wish to kill him?"
The nameless Chinaman spread out his yellow hands and smiled. But there was no smile in his eyes.
"Because — " he began softly.
But he did not finish. There was a faint rustle of the blue-and-gold curtains at his back. Tinker glimpsed a yellow hand for a moment — then something streaked through the air. The youngster sprang to his feet with a cry of warning — too late!
A knife had come flashing from behind the rustling curtains. Clean between the shoulder-blades of the Chinaman it buried itself. He sagged forward on the stool and collapsed into a heap at the foot of Sexton Blake.
Yellow Beetle versus Si Fan
In a moment Blake was across the room, had dragged back the blue-and-gold curtains. No one there! But there was a door, and he snatched it open.
At the end of the red-carpeted corridor beyond he caught a glimpse of a flutter of black cloth. The Chinese servant, who had admitted them to the house, had been wearing black garments.
Down the corridor Blake raced, leaving Tinker stooping over the knifed Chinese. Round a corner — to find himself faced with another closed door. He turned the handle. It was locked.
Blake put his shoulder against it, but he soon realised that it was a useless effort. It was a stout door of mahogany, which no amount of battering would break down quickly enough to be any use. Turning, the detective raced back to the room where Tinker was seeing to the Chinese.
"No, he's not dead, guv'nor," said the youngster, in answer to Blake's swift query. "It's a nasty wound, though. But luckily the chap who threw that knife was a few inches out in his aim. It's not fatal."
Blake was standing by the window, which overlooked the street. Glancing out, he saw the blue uniform of a police-constable passing below. He flung up the sash, shouted to the man, and then ran from the room to admit him.
Briefly he explained what had happened, and leaving Tinker to look after the injured man, Blake and the constable began a thorough search of the house. Each of the many rooms in the house they searched; each was decorated in the same rich Eastern fashion. Even the kitchens had a suggestion of the Orient about them. But of the other Chinese, the servant, there was no sign. He had got away altogether, probably escaping over the wall at the end of the yard behind the house into a deserted alley that ran down to the back of the British museum.
"There's one thing I would stake my head on," Blake muttered. "That little yellow brute is a spy. He posed as a servant, and he tried to murder his master rather than let him tell us why the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle killed poor old Jangles."
It was a couple of hours before the injured man recovered consciousness. The doctor whom Tinker had brought to the house while Blake and the constable searched the building was well pleased.
"Another couple of inches, and the wound would have been fatal," he told them. "As it is, he will live. In fact, he's not so badly hurt, considering. A few weeks and he'll be all right. Oh yes, give him half an hour, then he'll be right enough to answer one or two questions, Mr Blake. But don't overtire him or excite him in any way."
"Excite him!" sniffed Tinker, though to himself. "Excite a Chinaman! Can't be done!"
They had put the Chinese to bed in an upper room. The doctor, who lived nearby, had told them that his name was Qiang Lu. But apart from the name, he knew nothing at all about his neighbour, except that he was vaguely supposed in the neighbourhood to be a wealthy merchant who shipped Chinese objects of art to England.
Qiang Lu seemed as eager to answer questions as they were to put them.
"Listen, and I will tell you everything," he murmured in his soft, purring voice, which seemed in no way weakened by his injuries. "That pig, Go Kan, I see now, is a spy — a member of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle." His eyes glittered, and his yellow talon-like hands clenched upon the crimson counterpane.
"I begin at the beginning of my story," he went on. "I am a member of the Si Fan — a very powerful tong directly descended from the Manchu dynasty. All over the world it spreads. Its western headquarters are currently in San Francisco. The Yellow Beetles hate the Si Fan. There is warfare always. All the time! The Yellow Beetles kill Si Fan, the Si Fan kill the Yellow Beetles. You understand?
"In one of the temples of the Si Fan was a miankse — a banner, a tapestry, with a green dragon woven upon it. A thing of great symbolic significance!"
Tinker caught his breath.
"The Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle stole the banner in a great fight, and carried it away, for it is one of the many relics through which rightful descendency from the Manchus can be claimed. The Beetle tong is determined to prevent such a claim, for they represent the Ming Dynasty and are sorely jealous of the Manchus. The people of China, you understand, hold in great esteem relics such as this, for the spirits of our ancestors live on in them and bless us, bringing power and good fortune. The Si Fan vowed to get the miankse back. But they could not find it.
"Who knows how it came there, to that strange little street? But today, by chance, I saw — in the window of the shop belonging to the unhappy Mr Jangles — that very banner, with the green dragon, for which my tong has searched many years. I went in to buy it. The gentleman, Mr Jangles, knowing nothing of the truth of it, wished for that banner more money than I had upon my person. You understand? I returned swiftly to my home, then I went back with the necessary money — and found the banner gone and the unhappy gentleman dead!"
Qiang Lu smiled a faint, sad smile. His eyes glittered.
"It is clear to Qiang Lu what happened in that little dark shop. By chance, a member of the Yellow Beetle saw the banner, knew its story as I do, and went in to buy. The honourable Mr Jangles said no, that he had promised to keep the banner for another purchaser. You understand? The Yellow Beetle does not argue. He kills Mr Jangles and steals the green dragon. It was all over when I came back."
"But why did you leave the shop as you did, without raising the alarm?" asked Blake.
The Chinese did not speak. He simply made an expressive movement with his hands.
It was sufficient reply! Clearly, to the mind of the Oriental it had been an incident merely in the long feud of the rival tongs. To bring in the English police was no part of their programme!
"So to find the murderer of Jangles, we've got to find that dragon banner," muttered Blake. Qiang Lu nodded.
"It will be difficult," he said. "You will have to penetrate the lair of the Brotherhood. But if you succeed, and you can not only find the man who killed that unhappy gentleman, but can restore to the Si Fan that which is rightly theirs, the banner with the green dragon upon it — why, then will I, on behalf of the tong, pay you one thousand pounds."
"I don't know about that," answered Blake shortly. "That banner was in the possession of Mr Jangles. I should consider it my duty to return it to his relatives, having no proof that it belongs elsewhere. You had better pay the thousand pounds to them, whoever they are. Not that I disbelieve your story," he added quickly.
He rose to his feet from the bedside and called the doctor again into the room. It was in the medical man's charge that they finally left Qiang Lu and returned to Baker Street.
But they did not stay long at the house. After snatching a hurried meal, cooked by the long-suffering Mrs Bardell, they drove off in the Grey Panther to the East End of London. Blake had disguised himself as a rather ferocious-looking seaman, with a blue sweater and pilot-cap. Leaving Tinker with the car in a main thoroughfare, he plunged into the dark alleys and byways of Limehouse, heading for a certain Chinese cook-shop that he knew well, down by the river.
Teng Zao Ping, the proprietor of this cook-shop, was a Chinese of the best sort, thoroughly honest and trustworthy, with a word better than many men's bond. He knew Blake, who paid him a regular remittance for any information he might happen to want regarding London's Chinatown. But though Teng Zao Ping was honest, many of the yellow men who patronised his "rat-pie and dog-sausage shop" — as Tinker always called it — were not! It was for fear of the curiosity and suspicion that he would have aroused had he gone there in ordinary clothes that Blake had adopted his disguise for his interview with Teng Zao Ping.
Teng Zao Ping knew pretty well everything about Chinatown. He did not fail Blake now.
"Well, guv'nor?" queried Tinker eagerly, when at last Blake returned to the waiting car. "Any luck?"
"Heaps of luck," answered Blake.
Many people glanced curiously at the car as it drove off, surprised to see a rough-looking sailorman enter the long grey Rolls-Royce. But it was not long before they were back at Baker Street. On the journey Blake had told Tinker but little. Now he got into touch with Scotland Yard, had a brief conversation, rang off, and turned to the eager youngster.
The detective smiled and seated himself in his deep leather saddlebag chair, lighting his pipe. As he threw the match into the fireplace, midnight chimed over the glittering lights of London.
"We've got a high old time in front of us, young 'un, before dawn arrives," advised Blake. He drew thoughtfully at his pipe. "Yes. Teng Zao Ping has proved invaluable again. He was able to tell me of the chief spot currently infested by the men of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle. It's a house down by the river, not far from his place, nominally a boarding-house for Chinese sailors. But Wu Ling's cronies go there mostly; if a member of the Si Fan tried to get a bed for the night in that place, I'm afraid he wouldn't live to wake up again ! Knifee-knifee quickee-quickee — that's what would happen to him!"
"And we're going to this place tonight?" chuckled Tinker delightedly.
Blake glanced at him and smiled dryly.
"That's the ticket. But don't grin so much about it! You'll find it won't be all honey, I dare say. I've just rung up Coutts at the Yard, and he's coming round straightaway. He's been wanting to round up a few more Yellow Beetles for quite some time, it seems! He's been getting it in the neck from his superiors, apparently. They aren't happy with the state of things in Limehouse."
"Poor old Coutts!" grinned Tinker. "But, guv'nor, how do you hope to spot the chap who killed the old man at the curiosity shop?"
Blake shrugged his shoulders.
"Relying on a betrayal among the lower ranks," he said, smiling dryly. "These cut-throat Chinks are always too mighty keen to save their own skins to worry much about their pals! If I get hold of one of 'em by the throat and tell him he's the chap who stole the green dragon banner and killed Jangles, he'll jolly soon say he's not, and tell me who really did it into the bargain, just to make sure of himself!"
There was an almighty knocking on the front door downstairs, accompanied by a frenzied ringing of the doorbell. This was the signature arrival of Detective-Inspector Coutts of Scotland Yard. Mrs Bardell had gone to bed long ago, so Tinker ran downstairs and opened the door. Coutts stepped quickly in. His hat was pushed down at an alarming angle over his bristly short hair.
"You've not wasted much time," grinned Tinker.
"I should say not!" answered the Yard man grimly. When Blake calls up the hounds for a hunt, it's a fool who would waste time! I've got the men he asked for — a dozen plain-clothes chaps, with three cars. They're waiting outside now."
"Good-oh," said Tinker. "That's the stuff to give 'em!"
"And each of that dozen," went on Coutts, as he stamped up the stairs at Tinker's heels, "is a chap who's got a punch like the kick of a mad mule and can shoot well enough to knock the tail-feathers off a mosquito! A tough crowd, young 'un!"
And it was with this "tough crowd" that Blake, Coutts and Tinker were soon speeding off in closed cars en route for No. 2 Clayton's Yard, Limehouse.
Prince Wu Ling!
No. 2 Clayton's Yard was a tall, tumble-down building that backed on to the river — a rabbit warren of a place, infested with both rats and disreputable Chinese. It was partly a lodging-house and partly an opium-den — as the police had of late begun to suspect.
A quarter of a mile from their destination they halted by the blue lamp of a police-station, and there picked up four other men who were waiting ready to join the little expedition.
These were four plain-clothes men who knew the neighbourhood inside-out, and were to act as guides. They also knew most of the yellow scoundrels in Chinatown, by sight at least, and so would be useful for identifying captures. Though to Tinker it was a sheer mystery how any man could tell one Chinese from another.
The narrow streets were deserted save for a few slinking figures as they turned swiftly into the maze of alleys around Clayton's Yard. They drove fast, for the success of the expedition depended largely upon the element of surprise.
Into Clayton's Yard they swung, and with a grinding of brakes drew up outside No. 2. Instantly two or three furtive figures vanished into the various doorways that gave entrance to the rabbit-warren.
"They're raising the alarm." growled Coutts, as he jumped out of the leading car, with Tinker on his tail.
On to the pavement poured the plain-clothes men. Coutts gave one or two crisp commands, and they divided up swiftly into groups, each group diving for one of the narrow doorways.
Tinker found himself stumbling down a flight of five or six stairs, and almost landed on his hands and knees. One of the C.I.D. men was in front, an electric torch in one hand and a Browning pistol in the other. After that hurrying beam of light Tinker stumbled, along a narrow, ill-smelling passage.
Dim figures could be seen racing away ahead of them. Suddenly the youngster tripped down another set of stairs, and found himself in a dimly lit, musty room with a long, low ceiling, near which flickered the reeking oil-lamps, the whole air thick and choking with opium fumes.
A revolver barked somewhere ahead, waking the echoes. The C.I.D. man in front of Tinker fired in answer, and there was a shriek out of the shadows. Then another shot whined through the fume-laden air, and this time the C.I.D. man dropped like a sack of coal.
The torch went out.
Tinker heard rushing feet on either side of him. There had been a stampede for the passage on the part of a number of Chinese. He could see them dimly in the light from the lanterns. But there were more C.I.D. men in the passage, and the yellow men were beaten back. There was a brisk volley of shots, and Tinker heard lead spattering the walls. The Chinese were firing blindly in sheer panic.
Someone collided with Tinker, grasped him, and the next moment he was reeling around with a pigtailed figure. He got his hands on the Chink's throat, even as he felt a long-nailed hand dig into the flesh of his own neck.
They fell together, rolling and squirming through the trampling, surging feet. Then they tumbled into one of the alcoves, where a fat yellow man lay stupefied with opium fumes, his pipe in his hand. By the red light of a hanging lantern, Tinker glimpsed the face of the man with whom he was struggling. He cried out chokingly, the sound made inarticulate by the hand that clutched his throat.
For his enemy was none other than Go Kan, the man who had knifed Qiang Lu in the house at Bloomsbury.
A hissing, whistling breath sounded between Go Kan's clenched teeth. He was half choked, for Tinker had got a terrible grip upon his throat.
But the little Chinese was wiry as an eel. With pigtail flying and garments fluttering, he twisted uppermost, got his knee into Tinker's stomach, and fought free. Out of the alcove he darted. But Tinker flung himself forward and caught the flying figure by the ankle.
Go Kan pitched forward into the seething melee beyond, where knives were out, glittering and sinister in the dim light, as the Chinese, like rats in a trap, fought madly with the "tough dozen" that Coutt's had brought along.
Coutts himself was nowhere to be seen. But Tinker, scrambling up, with dizzy head, glimpsed the tall figure of Blake.
"Good old guv'nor!" he gasped, For Blake had been in the act of lifting a skinny yellow man clean into the air with a powerful straight left.
A reeling figure staggered backwards into the alcove, tearing down a ragged curtain as he came. It was one of the C.I.D. men, an ugly knife wound in his shoulder.
Tinker caught him as he fell.
Out of the gloom glided a silent, slant-eyed figure, a surprisingly calm-looking Chinaman with a palpable aura of power about him, though he wasn't any bigger than Tinker physically, dressed in a loose-sleeved jacket of braided blue, with felt-slippers, and a long knife clutched in one hand. He slipped into the alcove, saw Tinker, struck at the youngster, then tripped over the now unconscious C.I.D. man.
Tinker gasped in astonishment, for this was none other than Prince Wu Ling himself, the head of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle.
Why was he here in London? Tinker couldn't even guess. But without a second thought he flung himself at his old enemy. He was met with a slashing blow of the knife that grazed his temple. He dropped, his senses swimming, and Wu Ling darted to the back of the alcove.
Tinker lay where he had fallen, striving to regain his scattered senses. He could feel the warm blood streaming over his brow.
Through half-closed eyes he watched dazedly the man who had tried to kill him and Sexton Blake on many previous occasions.
The prince, with a quick glance round, seemed to have assured himself that he was unobserved. He had not looked again at Tinker, evidently believing the boy to be dead or unconscious.
With a swift scramble over the drugged Chinese on the cushions at the back of the alcove, Wu Ling ran a perfectly manicured hand over the wall and pressed on the panelling. A dark opening appeared. The next moment his snake-like figure had vanished, and the opening had vanished, too. The wall seemed solid once more.
Tinker sat up and rubbed his eyes. That vision of the opening panel and the disappearing Wu Ling had been like a vague dream. But swiftly his senses were coming back now, and uppermost in the youngster's mind was the grim determination to follow the man who controlled the insidious forces of the Yellow Beetle and, if possible, capture him.
He staggered to his feet, groped his way to the wall, and pressed the point that the prince had pressed. He felt the woodwork move beneath his hand, and the panel swung back noiselessly, mysteriously, revealing the black opening beyond.
Tinker glanced back once and gave an exclamation. Clutched in one of the hands of the unconscious C.I.D. man was an electric torch. Tinker had it in a moment, and then slipped through the open panel into the well of darkness on the farther side.
The light of the torch darted ahead vividly, raking the blackness. At the far end of the long, low passage he caught a glimpse of a running figure.
Prince Wu Ling turned and, as the torchlight fell upon him, his normally placid countenance momentarily cracked as he showed his teeth in an ugly snarl. Then he vanished into a dark, arched opening, downwards, as if steps lay beyond. Tinker was after him in a moment.
They were wooden stairs, he found, and they led him out on to a staging of rotten woodwork that ran under a jutting portion of this weird old house overlooking the river. The dark waters of the Thames streamed by, inky and noiseless, within a few yards of him. At the far end of the staging, in the deep shadows, he saw his quarry.
Wu Ling was in the act of stepping into a dirty, battered boat that was moored to the staging. Another Chinese was cutting the painter by which the boat was moored, and a third was hastily unshipping the oars. With a shout, Tinker darted towards them. As he did so a flung knife streaked past his head, to stick into a post, quivering there like a tongue of silver in the ray of moonlight that slanted down through a crack in the boards above.
The boat was being pushed off now. And suddenly Tinker saw that the man at the oars was Go Kan.
Tinker forgot all sense of caution then. Two of these three fugitives were men whom he was determined should not escape. With a desperate spurt, he dashed forward and clutched at the stern of the boat as it swung out on the inky waters.
His fingers closed on the boat. But the next moment his wrist was seized and he was jerked forward. He fell, struggling, into the moving boat, and a moment later one of the three Chinese was kneeling above him in the bottom of the boat, hands at his throat.
Tinker tried to fight free, but could not. The choking grip was strangling him. His senses reeled, and it was as if very far away that he seemed to hear a voice cry:
"Hands up! Quick!"
There was a load splash, a gun shot, another, and then suddenly the grip upon his throat relaxed, and he realised that the man who had been strangling him was crouching, with his hands raised above his head, whimpering and whining. Go Kan had also raised his arms, but as Tinker rolled his head to the side to look down the length of the boat, he saw that there were but two Chinamen in the boat; the third, Prince Wu Ling, had gone.
The next moment there was a heavy thud as the boat struck broadside against the posts at one end of the staging and stayed there, held by the rush of the river.
Tinker raised himself weakly.
He saw a dark figure at the edge of the staging, an automatic levelled at the occupants of the boat. Another man stood near at hand, and Tinker recognised Detective-Inspector Coutts of Scotland Yard.
And then he realised that the first man, the man whose voice had rung out in that sharp command, was Sexton Blake.
"Guv'nor!" coughed Tinker, "where is he?"
"The third Chink?" said Blake. "He dived overboard. If my bullets didn't get him, I rather expect the river did."
"It was Wu Ling!" gasped Tinker. Then he fell back in the boat in a dead faint.
When Tinker recovered consciousness it was to find himself in the police station near Clayton's Yard, with the police-surgeon bending over him.
"You're all right," the medical man told him cheerily. "You've been a long time coming round. Don't wonder, with a cut on the head that size! But now you are round you'll stay round."
Blake was standing near at hand, watching Tinker with an anxious face. But now he smiled.
"Guv'nor," muttered Tinker, smiling faintly, "did you get him?"
"Whom?" murmured Blake. "Prince Wu Ling or the chap who killed Jangles? Well, my lad, Wu Ling slipped through our fingers again, I'm afraid, though whether he survived the Thames or not, I cannot say. As for Go Kan, we got him. And we cleaned out that nest of Beetles as well. A good night's work, I'd say!"
"Oh, fine!" grinned Tinker. "And that Chinese dragon — banner thing?"
"Why, didn't you know?" laughed Blake. "That was rolled up in the bottom of the boat that they nearly killed you in. Yes, we've got that all right, too. Now it'll be duly returned to Qiang Lu's tong, and I shall see that the Si Fan pays up for it to Jangles' family. It can afford to — Teng Zao Ping, at the "rat-pie and dog-sausage shop" told me that Qiang Lu's tong, the Si Fan crowd, are one of the richest Chinese tongs in the world. But he was peculiarly tight-lipped on this occasion — I get the impression that there's rather more to the Si Fan than we've learned tonight. Apparently I have to track down a man named Nayland Smith to find out more. I think I shall do just that. My curiosity is piqued!"
"Well, as long as they don't have a fiend like Wu Ling at their head," murmured Tinker.
He felt terribly tired, and suddenly he fell fast asleep, breathing deeply and regularly.
The doctor nodded.
"Best thing for him, Mr Blake."
And Tinker stayed fast asleep when they motored him back through the grey dawn to Baker Street.