THE RETURN OF THE YELLOW BEETLE
by Mark Hodder (2006)
The Chinese Puzzle Box
"Yes Mr Blake?"
"Is that supposed to be a skirt or a belt?"
Paula Dane looked at her employer. He was sitting behind his desk without a trace of humour on his lean face.
"It's called a miniskirt. It's just come in. It's quite the thing with the Chelsea set."
"Yes. There's a new des—"
"Thank you, Paula."
Sexton Blake's beautiful blonde secretary moved out of the doorway and into his office. She placed a document folder in front of him. From the reception area behind her, the sound of a door opening was followed by a cheerful whistle.
"I've finished typing up the Benny Tatler case, sir. Do you want to go through it?"
The detective eyed the folder distastefully.
"Send it straight to Fleetway," he growled. "I suppose they'll do the usual hatchet job on it."
Paula Dane bit her bottom lip. "Um, actually ..."
He looked up.
"Well, the thing is ... Fleetway haven't published any of your cases for quite some time."
"Sales were down and ... um."
Blake picked up a pen, unscrewed the end, and shook out an empty ink cartridge.
"I hardly think it will be a loss to the literary world," he muttered.
"Oh I rather miss them!" exclaimed Paula. "I still read them when I can find them ... you know, on market stalls and in second-hand shops and ... er ..."
Sexton Blake lay down the pen and glared at her.
She stumbled on. "I was reading the one about that beauty queen incident. Do you remember? They called it ‘High Heels and Homicide'!"
"I'm seriously starting to doubt your taste," growled Blake. He opened a desk drawer and took out a box of fresh cartridges.
Edward Carter's head poked around the door frame.
"Hiya folks! What's wrong with Paula's taste, Chief?"
"She's developed a liking for high skirts and low fiction."
Carter — otherwise known as ‘Tinker' — entered.
"Get with the times, Boss!" he laughed.
Blake's face remained hard and expressionless as his assistant sat on the corner of his desk, swinging a leg carelessly.
"You need to get with the beat!"
The detective pursed his lips and jammed a fresh cartridge into the pen before reaching for a chequebook. He opened it, filled in a rather generous sum of money, signed it, and tore it from the book.
"Here," he said, offering the cheque to Carter. "This is payment in lieu. You're fired."
"What?" asked Edward Carter, taking the slip of paper with a puzzled look on his youthful face.
"Since you speak the language so fluently, I suggest you use the money to book passage to America. You could set up business as a hard-bitten private eye. Maybe you could trace a few unfaithful husbands, lost pets and absconding bank clerks."
And with that, Sexton Blake pushed his chair back, rose and stalked out of the office.
Paula Dane and Edward Carter gazed at each other in astonishment.
"He doesn't mean it of course!" exclaimed Paula.
"Of course," agreed Carter. "But I wonder what's eating him?"
Sexton Blake trudged the streets of London without thinking where he was going or how much time it was taking to get there. His tall and broad figure cut through the milling throngs of shoppers and loiterers. It was summer and uncommonly hot and he was feeling unsettled and didn't know why. It had nothing to do with Paula's fashion sense. Lord knows, all the youngsters were wearing the most extraordinary outfits these days; women and men alike — when you could tell the difference! And it wasn't Tinker's absurd Americanisms either. The United States had been an unstoppable force since the war and the English language had mutated accordingly. Blake was quite content to ‘go with the flow', as his young assistant would no doubt phrase it.
The question, thought Blake, is whether ‘the flow' could be classed as ‘progress'; whether they were sailing upon it to a better way of life. It sometimes seemed very unlikely.
He raised his eyes and, for the first time in almost an hour, took notice of his surroundings. He was on Tottenham Court Road. Empty cartons danced in the gutter as a scooter screamed past. Its owner had removed the engine's silencer and the resultant noise assaulted his eardrums like a swarm of angry wasps. Discordant music blared from a window above a shop front. Somewhere, a woman voiced something halfway between a scream and a laugh.
And all of a sudden Blake found himself wondering, for the umpteenth time, whether the Berkeley Square office had been a good idea. Paula Dane, Marion Lang and Miss Pringle were invaluable, likeable and thoroughly trustworthy — but were they somehow making everything slightly too safe and predictable?
With an unexpected ache in the pit of his stomach, Blake found himself missing the old days, when it had been just himself and Tinker receiving clients at their fireside in Baker Street. The uncomplicated days, when Mrs Bardell provided sustenance, Tinker provided companionship, and criminal master-minds provided a straight challenge.
He sighed and glanced at a large black car which had just stopped by the curb a little way ahead. Its windows were dark and it looked sinister and dangerous. He automatically tensed as he drew close to it, imagining the side window lowering and a pistol emerging. Sexton Blake had many enemies.
The pace of change seemed to run ever faster. He didn't even know what to call Tinker any more. Edward? Ed? Ted? Or, God forbid, Eddie? Were he and his youthful assistant growing apart? Was that it? Had the Berkeley Square office come between them? What if he closed it down? He clenched his jaw, wondered how many times he had asked himself that question, and watched the car from the corner of his eye as he came alongside.
The window did open — just an inch — but instead of a gun there came a voice; a dry whisper like rustling parchment:
"Get in Blake. I want to speak with you."
It was instantly recognisable. Blake reached down, pulled the door open, and slid onto the back seat where he found himself next to Eustace Craille.
Head of an organisation more secret even than MI5 or MI6, Eustace Craille was a very old man who clung onto life through sheer bloody-mindedness. His opponents hated him, so he stuck around simply to annoy them. No-one knew how old he really was. Craille himself had probably forgotten. It wasn't something that mattered to him. As long as his brain was sharp enough to pierce the shadows cast by criminal organisations and espionage networks, he would keep going, however cracked and wrinkled his skin became; however thin and brittle he might seem; however much his associates doubted his fitness to lead. In fact, the more they doubted, the better he felt. Craille specialised in wrong-footing his adversaries.
The old man leaned forward and slid back a small panel in the glass partition which divided the front of the car from the back.
"Drive," he ordered the chauffeur. "Anywhere."
He closed the panel and turned to Blake. His eyes were bright and penetrating.
"You look tired," he croaked.
Blake shrugged. "A bit. I might take a break. Somewhere remote."
"Hmmph. What will you do? Lie on a beach and look for animal shapes in the clouds?"
"If necessary. How did you know I was here?"
"I didn't. We were passing. I saw you. We stopped."
Blake looked out of the window. They had turned into Oxford Street. Blank-faced mannequins ignored him from behind plate glass. A youth kicked a telephone box for no apparent reason. An old lady walked along in the bright sunlight with her umbrella up.
"Look at this," said Craille.
Blake turned and looked at the small cube in the old man's hand.
"What is it?"
"You tell me."
He took it and examined it. Exquisitely carved, it was about three inches square; black, a hardwood inlaid with creamy white jade. There was no obvious lid.
"Chinese" he said. "A puzzle box. Where did you find it?"
Eustace Craille took a handkerchief from his trouser pocket and blew his nose. One of his ears whistled.
"It was delivered through the post to Bernard Stone four days ago. He's one of my agents."
Blake raised an eyebrow. "Bernard Stone of Thistle Wood Manor? Isn't he the man with the private museum?"
"Of Oriental antiquities. Yes. A great collector but, unfortunately, not a great secret agent. He's disappeared."
"A few hours after receiving that. Can you open it?"
"Probably. Can you?"
"No," snapped the old man. "So open it."
Blake examined the delicate patterns decorating each plane of the cube. He turned it this way and that and felt its surface with his long sensitive fingers. From the corner of his eye he caught a fleeting glimpse of the Marble Arch and someone waving his arms about at Speakers' Corner.
He pressed and manipulated, feeling the carvings move slightly beneath his touch. A faint click came from the box and a thin line appeared around it an eighth of an inch in from one side. He pressed the centre of what was now obviously the lid and felt, after an initial resistance, a spring pressing it back against his fingertip. As he withdrew his finger, the lid hinged open.
"There," he muttered and looked inside.
His hand shook. He gasped for air and clawed at Craille's arm.
"This is ..." he hissed. "This is ... impossible!"
The Mystery at Thistle Wood Manor
The reception door slammed open and Sexton Blake strode in with his eyes blazing. He crossed to his office.
"Paula, Marion, Miss Pringle, you have the rest of the week off. Miss Pringle, please take the cat with you and look after it for the weekend. Close the door behind you! Tinker, in here please!" he snapped.
The three women looked at each other and, without a word, reached for their handbags and jackets. You didn't question the chief when you heard that tone of voice.
"Something's wrong," whispered Marion as they gathered around the exit.
"Shall we come back at the normal time on Monday?" quavered Miss Pringle as she scooped up Millie, the office cat.
Edward Carter emerged from the filing room. "Yes," he said in a low voice. "Please do. Now off you go and enjoy the sun. And don't worry, I'm sure everything's fine."
Marion opened the door and she and Miss Pringle passed through. Paula hesitated.
"Scat!" hissed Carter.
She left and he closed the door, locked it, and pulled down the blind. He turned and walked over to Blake's office.
"Say, Chief," he said as he entered and closed the door behind him. "I'm not really fired am I?"
He sat in a chair facing the detective. Sexton Blake leaned forward and placed a small carved box in the middle of the desk between them.
"Hello! What's that?" queried his assistant.
"Tinker, have you heard of Bernard Stone?"
"Um. Nope, doesn't ring a bell."
"He is the son of Albert Stone, the man who made millions importing spices from China. When Albert died, so did his business. Bernard has no interest in anything other than his hobby."
"Which is?" asked Carter, wondering where this was leading.
"He has a mania for Oriental antiquities. After inheriting a fortune from his father, Bernard purchased Thistle Wood Manor on the North coast of Kent. He converted its east wing into a private museum for his collection. Now he spends his time travelling back and forth between England and the Far East, bringing home with him priceless artworks, rare antiques ... and very sensitive information."
"Meaning that he also works for Eustace Craille."
"'Ah', indeed," agreed Blake. "Our Mr Stone is a spy." He paused then asked, "Tinker, what would you say is the quality above all other qualities that one must possess in order to work for Craille?"
Carter placed his elbow on the desk, rested his chin on his hand, and eyed the little carved box. "Well," he offered, "I guess absolute and unquestioning devotion to duty."
"Absolutely spot on. And that's exactly why Eustace Craille has become increasingly concerned about Stone over the past few months. You see, Stone is more dedicated to his collecting than he is to his boss — and that makes him a security risk."
"So where does this box come into it? It is a box, isn't it?"
"I'm coming to that," rapped Blake. "And yes, it is. Now, at Thistle Wood Manor Stone has a small household staff and an assistant — a sort of curator. This man's name is Michael Wellington and, unknown to Stone, he is also one of Craille's men."
"Planted to keep an eye on Bernard Stone in case he strays?"
"Precisely. Three days ago, Wellington telephoned Craille and reported that Stone had gone missing. This is what he said happened: a small parcel arrived in the morning post. Wellington was present when Stone opened it. This box was inside. It's a Chinese puzzle box, Tinker — very hard to open unless you know the technique. Stone did, and he opened it. He looked inside and, according to Wellington, he let out a cry, went pale as a ghost and staggered to a chair into which he collapsed. His assistant approached to see what was in the box but Stone virtually screamed at him to keep away.
"Stone then asked Wellington to get him a drink. He did so. When the curator turned back to his employer he noticed that the box had been closed.
"A little later, Stone left the house and went to the village post office ... which is unusual in itself as he would normally ask a member of his staff — Mason; a sort of butlerish fellow — to run such an errand. Anyway, Wellington thought this would be a good time to study the box but couldn't find it. It turns out that Stone was at that moment posting it to Craille with a note enclosed which simply read ‘Show this to Blake'.
"For the rest of the day, Bernard Stone remained locked in his study, seeing no-one.
"The next morning, a letter arrived, postmarked Dover and addressed to Wellington. It was from Stone. In it, he claimed to have quietly left the house late the preceding night to begin another of his trips to the Orient. He wrote that he would be gone some considerable time and that the decision had been quite spontaneous, which is why he hadn't told Wellington about it previously.
"The curator was immediately suspicious and, upon checking Stone's rooms, he discovered that no luggage or clothes were missing. Furthermore, none of the house staff had heard their employer depart.
"He telephoned Craille. The ports along the South coast of England and the North coast of France were checked. No sign or record of Stone was found. The man seems to have simply vanished off the face of the Earth."
"And the box?" asked Carter with an eager gleam in his eyes.
Sexton Blake's mouth tightened. Silently he reached forward and manipulated the sides of the cube until the line marking the lid appeared. Then he leaned back.
"Place your finger in the centre of the lid," he quietly instructed, "then press until you feel a springy resistance. Then release."
Edward Carter followed Blake's instructions and the lid sprang open. He leaned forward to look inside. A cry burst from his lips and he sprang to his feet, sending his chair crashing backwards.
"No!" he gasped.
Blake picked up the box and turned it over. A small object, about an inch and a half in length, dropped onto his desk. It was a dead beetle, bright yellow in colour, with an extended horn or proboscis thrusting forward from its head.
The Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle
Michael Wellington turned his back on the study and opened the French doors. He stepped out onto the veranda; a short and stout man with a dark complexion and thinning black hair. He unbuttoned his jacket and breathed deeply. The weather was cooler than yesterday though still warm; a few scattered clouds drifted lazily overhead. A chainsaw rattled in the distance; the gardener, Zhang Wei, trimming the trees down by the fence which surrounded the property.
Twelve security checks had been carried out on the man from China. All of them had drawn a blank. He was a farmer who, as a child, had picked up a smattering of English from a volunteer schoolteacher; a Scottish woman who later died from lung cancer.
Zhang Wei had met Bernard Stone in a marketplace two years ago. Overhearing the collector asking a stallholder about a vase, he had interrupted, pulled Stone away, and led him to an incredibly ancient woman who kept, beneath the floorboards of her shack, seven vases of such exquisite workmanship that Stone had happily paid her exactly eight times more than she asked for them. He also offered Zhang Wei a job. The farmer accepted and had lived in a small cottage on the grounds of Thistle Wood Manor ever since. He never seemed to leave the estate apart from Sundays, when he would catch a bus along the coast to Herne Bay where, in a pub named The Fisherman, he played Mah Jongg with two countrymen, both around his own age; both with similarly spotless backgrounds.
The chainsaw coughed and stopped and the gardener descended from his stepladder and walked towards the gate, brushing bits of bark and splinters of wood from his tunic with one hand, carrying the tool with the other.
"Blake'," muttered Wellington as Zhang Wei swung the gate open and a large car drove through.
The curator and spy hurried down the veranda steps and crossed the lawn in front of the manor until he reached the top of the driveway. The car drew up just as he arrived and he held its door as Sexton Blake stepped out. Edward Carter emerged from the other side. Both were looking noticeably grim; their faces were white and strained. Wellington wondered what was wrong.
"You said you'd be here at eleven," he said, looking at his watch, "and it's exactly eleven. Are you always that punctual?"
"Let's go inside," snapped Blake, ignoring the question.
Wellington shrugged and shut the car door. He led them across the grass, up onto the veranda and into the study. He closed and latched the French doors.
"Is it too early for a drink?" he asked as they lowered themselves into the leather armchairs around the unlit fire. He nodded towards a decanter on a sideboard.
"For me, yes — too early," said Blake.
Carter refused the offer with a slight shake of his head.
An elderly white-haired man appeared at the door.
"It's alright, Mason," said Wellington, "We don't require anything for the moment."
Mason shuffled out and closed the door behind him.
"A butler of the old school," said Wellington, taking a seat. "So. Let's press on. What do you need to know?"
Blake lit a cigarette. He considered for a moment before speaking:
"Mr. Wellington, you are the curator of Mr. Stone's private museum, yes?"
"And unknown to your employer you also work for Eustace Craille — as, indeed, your employer does."
The detective blew a stream of smoke towards the ceiling and watched as it slowly dispersed.
"Let's focus on your role as curator. Am I right in thinking you got the job because you are knowledgeable in the matter of Oriental antiquities?"
Wellington nodded. "Yes, Mr. Blake ... and not just antiquities but Oriental culture, history and language too. It has been a passion of mine for a good many years. I studied the field at university and have since written a couple of books about the Five Dynasties; the Liang, Tang, Jin, Han and Zhou. I am reckoned to be an expert on all things Chinese."
"More of an expert than Bernard Stone?"
"Oh, absolutely! He's merely a collector; an enthusiast. He buys and I catalogue. In the normal scheme of things I should accompany him on his trips in an advisory capacity too. But he doesn't allow that. He says he prefers to travel alone. Of course, I know full well that there's a great deal more to his visits to China than just shopping. He doesn't know I know, obviously."
"But your expertise is why Craille selected you for this particular mission?"
"Yes, though I'd hardly call it a mission. I function as Mr. Stone's curator in a full-time capacity; it's my job. I was only ever going to ‘activate' — so to speak — as an agent for Craille, should something out of the ordinary occur — which it did. Mr. Stone vanished."
"We'll come back to that presently. Now, Mr. Wellington ..." Sexton Blake leaned forward and his grey eyes seemed to drill into Wellington's head. "I need to ask you something and I'm asking you not because you work for Craille and not because you work for Stone but because you are an expert in Oriental matters."
Wellington swallowed nervously. "Very well," he gulped.
"Have you ever heard of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle?"
The two men sat facing each other, their eyes locked. On the mantelpiece, a clock ticked quietly. The chainsaw growled in the distance. Edward Carter could feel his temples throbbing.
Wellington cleared his throat. "That," he whispered, "is very strange."
Blake watched and waited.
"Very strange," the curator repeated. "Mr. Stone asked me the very same question a few days after returning from his last trip."
"And what was your reply?"
"I told him what I will now tell you. Yes, I have. The Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle is a myth. It was an exercise in propaganda created by the Chinese government in the early part of this century. Supposedly, it was an organization led by a fanatical Prince named Wu Ling. Its aim was to infiltrate and destabilize the West to the point where countries would turn on one another. In the aftermath, China would be the strongest power left on the face of the Earth. It was all classic ‘yellow peril' stuff, Mr. Blake; not a real entity at all — merely a fiction created to cause paranoia."
"You seem to forget, Mr. Wellington," drawled the detective, "that Western countries did turn on one another. And not once, but twice."
"Okay, I concede the point," laughed the curator nervously, "but that doesn't mean Prince Wu Ling was behind it. He never even existed."
Sexton Blake rose to his feet and paced across the study to the windows. He looked out over the lawn to where Zhang Wei was still on his step ladder cutting back overgrown branches. He smoked and pondered and while his mind went careening into the past, Edward Carter spoke for him:
"Mr. Wellington, did you ever read a book entitled ‘The Structure and Organisation of the Secret Hung Societies of China'?"
Wellington tore his eyes away from Sexton Blake's back and looked at the youthful features of his assistant. He was starting to feel disorientated and confused. What on Earth were these two men getting at?
"Um. Yes, of course," he stuttered. "Required reading."
"And its author?"
"Sir George Halliday. The great expert of his time."
"Do you know how he died?"
"He was poisoned by one of the secret societies he'd been investigating."
Carter gave a grim smile. "Which?"
"No-one ever found out."
"That's not strictly true," said Carter.
"What? What do you mean? Listen, what's all this leading to?"
Sexton Blake's voice cracked across the study like the lash of a whip.
"It's leading to this, Mr. Wellington," and in four long strides he crossed back to the chairs and placed the Chinese puzzle box on a small table before them. His long fingers moved deftly across its surface and the lid swung open. He tipped out the contents and said, "In 1913 Sir George Halliday was killed by one of these. It was sent to him by Prince Wu Ling after Sir George overheard a meeting of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle and tried to reveal their plans to the British government."
Wellington recoiled from the ugly, deadly-looking insect.
"By God, Blake! What are you telling me?"
"I'm telling you that Wu Ling did exist. I know that for a fact because, on more than one occasion, he tried to kill me. I'm telling you that the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle was never a myth. It was a ruthless and insidious reality — and I know that because many years ago I personally smashed it into pieces. Or so I thought ... and now this !" and Blake angrily smacked his hand on the table causing the box and the beetle to jump into the air and fall to the floor.
Carter retrieved them. As he did so, he realized that somewhere beneath the tension in the room, something had changed. He wondered what it was.
Wellington used the back of his wrist to wipe beads of sweat from his forehead.
"Wait," he muttered, "wait, wait! Are you telling me that the Brotherhood is somehow responsible for Bernard Stone's disappearance?"
Blake slumped into a chair as if pressure had suddenly drained out of him. He lit another cigarette. His eyelids drooped until he appeared to be half asleep.
"This species of beetle has never been discovered by Entomological science," he muttered. "As far as I know, if it exists in the wild it must do so in a very remote enclave of inner China. The Brotherhood bred it in captivity for the venom. Either Wu Ling's organisation still exists in some form or some other organisation has adopted the beetle as its emblem and principal weapon. Either way, this has to be nipped in the bud before it gets out of control. The beetle isn't just physically dangerous — it possesses some sort of symbolic charisma which has the power to harness Oriental cunning and turn it to evil ends."
"This is too much to take in," mumbled the curator.
Carter suddenly realised what had been nagging at the back of his mind. At some point the chainsaw had ceased to rattle in the background. He stood up and wandered over to the window. Zhang Wei was near to it, at the edge of the veranda, digging weeds from its base. He looked up at Carter and smiled. His canine teeth were gold.
"How he could afford those beauties?" wondered the young detective.
"Mr. Wellington," said Blake, "I would appreciate it if my assistant and I could stay the night. Today I intend to go over this study with a fine-toothed comb and I shall also question the staff. In addition, I need complete access to all of Stone's documents. I want to know what it is he found that warranted the delivery of that—" he jerked a hand at the puzzle box, which Carter had put back on the table, "because, undoubtedly — and at best — the beetle is a warning."
"And at worst?" asked Wellington.
"At worst, it's the signature of Bernard Stone's killer."
The Theft of Three Cigars
The next morning Sexton Blake was awoken by the smell of fresh coffee and a quiet cough from Mason.
"Good morning, sir," wheezed the old man. "I took the liberty of bringing you coffee. Breakfast will be served in an hour."
"Thank you, Mason," yawned the detective. He stretched as Stone's butler shuffled out. He felt well-rested; better than he had done for a long time ... and that seemed odd. For the past few days he'd been in a foul temper and the appearance of the Yellow Beetle hadn't helped — in fact, it had shaken him to the core. So why was he now waking up in a good mood?
He sat up, sipped the steaming coffee and reviewed the previous day's work. The study had yielded nothing by way of a clue. The members of staff were similarly devoid of information: Mason was too old and too faithful to be suspicious; Susan, the maid, was too young and immature; and Bernice, the cook, was, frankly, too stupid. Blake grinned when he remembered that, in her opinion, Bernard Stone was a man of ‘desiccation and defilement' — exactly the sort of nonsense that good old Mrs Bardell would have spouted.
A nostalgic glow warmed him and suddenly he recognised the source of his content: here he was with Tinker in an old-fashioned stately home filled with treasures; with a butler, wood-panelled walls and a deep mystery; and his opponent, it would seem, was the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle. It was just like the old days!
He chuckled and announced to the room: "Eustace Craille, genie of the lamp! Thank you!"
Blake put the coffee aside, got out of bed and crossed to the bathroom. While he washed, he considered two items from last night's investigations. The first was the letter Wellington had received from Dover. The missive itself was of little interest but the envelope was another story. Blake had noticed very faint indentations on the paper. When he sprinkled graphite powder over them and blew off the excess, a second address had been revealed — the indentations had been made by someone writing on paper which had covered the envelope. Or rather, on another envelope in which the one addressed to Wellington had, for some reason, been placed. It was a Dover address and Blake had telephoned Paula Dane and asked her to find out about the man who lived there. She would call back today.
The second item of interest was Zhang Wei. To all intents and purposes he was exactly what he seemed; a fairly simple man living a fairly simple life. But there was an indefinable something about him — ‘a wolf in sheep's clothing' thought Blake, though, as yet, he had absolutely no evidence to support that intuitive distrust.
He washed and dressed and contemplated.
Meanwhile, Edward Carter was deep in the stormy throes of indignation. He had been accused of thievery and he would not have it!
Like Sexton Blake, he had been awoken by Mason. Unlike Blake, the butler brought him something to accompany his coffee; to wit, a big fat cigar.
Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Carter squinted at the unexpected gift with more than a little puzzlement.
"Mason," he mumbled, "that's very decent of you but I don't smoke cigars and if I did, I certainly wouldn't have one for breakfast!"
The butler looked down at the young detective with an unmistakable air of disdain.
"Don't smoke cigars, sir? Are you sure about that?"
"What do you mean am I sure? Sure I'm sure! What the devil has got into you?"
Carter was now fully conscious and rapidly deciding that the old man needed a kick.
"I beg your pardon, sir," enunciated the butler, "But I rather thought you were a cigar enthusiast. I had formed the impression that you found them irresistible."
Carter began to get annoyed.
"What the blazes are you babbling about?"
Mason cleared his throat and tried to look apologetic with a phenomenal lack of success.
"Mr. Sexton Blake, sir, was busy examining Mr. Stone's study yesterday evening."
This irrelevance exasperated Carter even further. He ran his fingers across his head with one hand and thumped the bed with the other.
"Are you insane, Mason? Has your grey matter succumbed to your advanced years? Are you leaping from one subject to the next because your memory wipes itself clean after every ten seconds?"
"None of those things, sir. I merely wished to point out that, while your master was engaged in the study, you were given the task of investigating other rooms in the mansion — including Mr. Stone's bed chamber."
"Yes! So? What by all that's holy has any of this got to do with cigars? And what, for that matter, have cigars got to do with me?"
"You may well ask, sir."
"I am asking!"
Mason cleared his throat once again and shifted uncomfortably on his feet.
"Well it's just this, sir," he said, observing a spot some three inches above Edward Carter's head. "Mr. Stone is in the habit of smoking a cigar each evening before he goes to bed. He keeps a supply in a china dish on his dressing table."
"Good for him!" exclaimed Carter. "We shall have to get a medal cast in solid gold and inscribed by the Queen!"
"Indeed, sir. Shall I continue?"
"Oh by all means! Please do! Pull up a chair!"
"Early this morning, sir, I spent a little time in Mr. Stone's bedroom putting things back in their place after your ... er ... investigation. ‘Straightening up' as I believe the phrase goes."
"I tell you what," interrupted Carter, "Why don't you write all this down and have it published. I could pick it up at my local bookshop and read it at my leisure."
"And the fact of the matter is, sir, I noticed that three of the cigars were missing. They were there the day before but after your ‘investigation' they were gone."
Carter stared at him, stunned.
"So," continued Mason, "I naturally came to the conclusion that you are something of a cigar enthusiast. Maybe even a connoisseur ... which is why I thought you might like one for breakfast."
For once in his life, Sexton Blake's assistant was totally lost for words. Mason turned and, with a stiff back, stalked out of the room and Carter just sat there, his mouth open and his eyes wide. He tried to make sense of what he had just heard but his ruminations always arrived back at the same point — he had been accused of stealing. And as he got up, and washed, and dressed, the annoyance he had experienced while Mason had burbled on grew from a warm smoulder to a fiery knot in the pit of his stomach. By the time he headed downstairs for breakfast, he was almost too angry to speak.
He entered the dining room and growled "Morning, Chief; morning, Mr. Wellington," to the two men who were seated at the table. He studiously ignored the butler, who was orbiting them and placing various items of crockery, cutlery and food before them.
"Good morning Tinker!" came a cheery greeting from Sexton Blake.
"Morning, Tink ... er ... Carter!" exclaimed Wellington.
"I'm expecting Paula to call within the hour," announced Blake. "Then we'll see where we are."
Carter grunted and examined the paintings on the wall to his right while Mason pottered about beside him on the left. He smelt eggs and toast.
"Tea, sir?" murmured the butler.
"No," snapped the youth, and thought "Go to blazes!" although, actually, he quite fancied a cup. He sensed Mason's withdrawal and allowed himself a small sneer.
"How long has Zhang Wei been employed here?" Blake was asking.
"Two years or thereabouts," answered Wellington.
"Any ... um ... incidents?"
"None at all. He seems perfectly content to tend the garden and live in his little cottage."
"Ah yes, a nice straightforward existence. Tinker, please don't smoke at the table."
Edward Carter started and looked at Blake.
"I'm not smoking!"
"Then why have you got an ashtray at your elbow?"
Carter looked down at his left elbow and, sure enough, there was an ashtray sitting on the tablecloth.
"Mason!" he roared.
The butler, who had at some point left the room, failed to re-enter it.
"What on Earth is the matter?" asked Wellington.
"That accursed lackey of yours," snarled Carter, "has got it into his thick head that I've been pinching cigars from Stone's room!"
Blake's eyes suddenly blazed. "What?" he snapped, "Explain!"
Carter took a deep breath and tried to calm down. He recounted his bizarre awakening then picked up the ashtray and waved it back and forth, " ... And this," he concluded, "is the absolute limit!"
Sexton Blake jumped to his feet.
"Thank you, Tinker. Now I know what's what. Eat up. As soon as Paula has ‘phoned, I'll be asking you to run an errand."
Carter raised his brows enquiringly.
"I'll need you to drive to London," explained Blake, "to fetch Pedro."
The Reappearance of Bernard Stone
Paula Dane telephoned Sexton Blake at Thistle Wood Manor halfway through the morning. He eagerly listened to her report, thanked her, and hung up.
Edward Carter, outside polishing the car, was impatiently waiting to leave. Blake lit a cigarette, stepped out of the front door and quickly walked over to him.
"Right, off you go!" he said, "Bring our faithful old friend back with you. And I think we'd better play safe, so pick up our pistols while you're at it. Oh, and one more thing ..." he looked at his cigarette, made a face, dropped it and crushed it with his heel. "Would you bring my pipe too?"
Carter grinned and saluted. He jumped into the car and roared off down the drive. Blake watched as the ever-helpful gardener opened the gate. He continued to watch as the Chinaman closed it behind the car and wandered back to the fence beside which, on the lawn, there sat a row of large cans. The smell of creosote hung in the air. "A busy man," thought Blake and returned to the house.
For the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon, the detective proved an unsociable guest, so Michael Wellington left him where he sat in the study and busied himself with his duties as museum curator.
Blake, meanwhile, turned the case back and forth in his mind's eye, examining it from every angle, searching for facts which could be slotted together or shifted sideways, searching for a pattern — treating it, in fact, like a giant Chinese puzzle box. And if he cracked it open, he wondered, would a yellow beetle lie within?
Perhaps inevitably, his thoughts occasionally strayed into the distant past and he would see the face of that criminal mastermind, Wu Ling; the cunning Oriental eyes, the cruel mouth, the proud and haughty countenance. What a man he had been; charismatic and powerful, truly a Prince.
But Blake had beaten him. The detective had torn apart the insidious society he ruled and had broken the man himself. He had sent Wu Ling packing, weak and defeated, never to return.
"Never to return," muttered Blake out loud.
What became of him? That was a mystery. He was never again seen in the West and if he ever recovered any influence in China it wasn't enough to register in history. If, by some miracle, he was still living, he would be well into his dotage by now. Strangely, Blake didn't rule out the idea that his old enemy might be alive and active. Wu Ling was a scientific prodigy as well as an ambitious and vicious schemer. There'd been plenty of evidence to suggest that he'd dedicated resources to a search for some kind of elixir of life. No-one knew better than Sexton Blake that extraordinarily long life spans weren't beyond the realms of possibility. Nevertheless, his intuition told him that Wu Ling was long gone ... and he certainly didn't mourn his passing.
But what about the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle? Had a tentacle of that octopus-like organisation escaped him all those years back? Had it lain dormant in some Far Eastern backwater, biding its time, awaiting the right moment to emerge once more? And, if so, what were its current objectives?
Blake sneezed. He had been sitting with the French windows open to let the warm summer air circulate. Now, though, the smell of creosote was too strong for comfort. He stood and stepped over to close them. As he did so, a car horn sounded from beyond the gate and Zhang Wei appeared from the side of the house and ran down to let the vehicle in.
"What was he doing up here?" muttered Blake.
The car raced up the drive and swerved to a halt. Blake stepped out onto the veranda and whistled as Carter opened the door and Pedro bounded out. The great bloodhound, looking as fit as a fiddle, tore across the grass with a delighted bay and nearly sent his master flying.
"Hey old boy!" cried Blake, "Easy now! How are you? Lord, you're strong as a grizzly bear!"
Pedro fussed like a happy puppy and Sexton Blake smiled contentedly.
"Here we are, Tinker!" he declared, as his assistant approached, "All together again!"
Edward Carter laughed, "Just like the good old days, guv'nor!"
And Blake felt his heart lift, for that was the first time Tinker had called him ‘guv'nor' rather than ‘chief', in nearly a decade.
"Your pistol," said Carter, "and your pipe."
Blake took the objects and placed them in his pockets. He patted Pedro and said, "Calm down now, old chap. There'll soon be work to do."
"So spill the beans," said Carter eagerly. "I spent the whole time in the car trying to work things out but I got nothing but a slight headache."
"Come into the study. We'll have Mason bring us some coffee and I'll explain."
A few minutes later the detective sat pumping noxious fumes into the air from his ancient briar. Carter sat opposite with Pedro at his feet. He sipped at his coffee and wrinkled his nose.
"If you brought Pedro here to do some tracking you can forget it," he said. "Between the stench of that creosote and the stink of your tobacco the poor hound couldn't sniff out a leg of lamb!"
Blake chuckled. "Actually," he said, "for once it's Pedro's ears I need, rather than his nose."
"Well they're big enough," noted his assistant, flicking the bloodhound's drooping left ear. Pedro's tail thumped happily on the hearth rug.
"Come on then, Maestro, reveal all. Amaze, astonish and render me speechless with your peerless intellect. Where's Bernard Stone?"
"He's at home, Tinker."
"At home? But he lives here!"
"Paula investigated the address we found indented on the envelope. It belongs to a man named Gregory Hart; an old school friend of Stone's. You see what that suggests?"
"Well," confessed the young detective, "no, not really."
"Simply this: Bernard Stone didn't post the letter from Dover. He was never there. He was sitting in this very study when he wrote it. He put it into an envelope which he addressed to Thistle Wood Manor, then put that envelope into another one, which he addressed to Mr. Hart in Dover. No doubt he also enclosed a note asking his friend to urgently post the enclosed — thus Wellington's receipt of the letter from Dover the following morning."
Carter scratched his head.
"So tell me again, where's Stone?"
"Right here, Tinker. He never left. He's holed up in some secret room in this grand old house. No doubt he has a supply of food and plenty of books to keep him occupied. The only thing he didn't take enough of was cigars. So last night he sneaked out and retrieved a few!"
Carter slapped his knee and exclaimed "The cunning old duffer! And I got the blame!"
"And thank goodness you did. Your run-in with Mason provided the key that unlocked the mystery."
"So what now?"
"We'll sit up all night and listen. Hopefully, he'll go on the prowl again. Or at least shift about enough to make a floorboard creak."
Carter looked at his watch. "It looks like we've got some time to kill then. I don't fancy sticking around here creosoting my lungs, so I'll take Pedro for a walk around the village. I'll be back in time for supper. What about you?"
Sexton Blake gave his pipe an appreciative look. "I'd forgotten how much this little furnace aided the cerebellum. Smoking and thinking; that'll keep me going until Bernice sets the table."
"Lord help us," muttered Carter, "I'd better leave a trail of breadcrumbs; the house will be lost in the fog by then."
Three hours passed and the summer evening eased into night, the air became heavy, sticky and thick with the overpowering fumes from the garden. Michael Wellington irritably ordered Mason to close all the windows and cursed the gardener for choosing such a breezeless day for his task. Zhang Wei had been at it since dawn and had treated well over half the length of the fence which surrounded the grounds before he retired to his cottage at sundown.
In the mansion, they prepared for the night. The young maid said goodbye, mounted her bicycle and pedaled to the village where she lived with her parents. Bernice wiped the kitchen surfaces clean and shuffled into her basement quarters where she fell asleep in front of the television after drinking a very generous measure of whisky. Mason, whose rooms were also in the basement, came off duty at 11pm and sat for half an hour with his feet in a bowl of steaming water into which he had poured a handful of Epsom salts. He read a chapter of a dirty novel, went to bed, smiled a satisfied smile over the ashtray incident at breakfast then slipped into dreamland.
Michael Wellington lingered.
"Funny thing is," he told Blake, "I'm actually starting to miss the old fool. I hope he's alright."
Blake patted him on the shoulder. "I think I can safely say that Bernard Stone is perfectly fine," he smiled.
"You can? You've discovered something?"
"Go get some sleep, Mr. Wellington. In the morning, if everything goes to plan, all will be revealed."
Wellington grimaced. "Sleep in this stink? Why that damned gardener had to choose today for the job I don't know. And he's only half finished; tomorrow will be just as bad. I hope it rains! Anyway, goodnight Mr. Blake."
Sexton Blake and Edward Carter sat in the study for another hour then quietly climbed the stairs and entered Bernard Stone's bedroom, Pedro at their heels.
"We'll take it in shifts," suggested Blake. "You take a kip and I'll wake you in a couple of hours."
Carter stretched out on the bed and quickly fell asleep.
Blake gave Pedro the ‘on guard' order that would keep the hound alert and he sat listening, watching the dog's ears for any giveaway twitches. Two hours passed. He woke Tinker and they swapped places. The detective slipped straight into a dream in which Wu Ling had thrown Tinker into a tar pit. The glutinous liquid sucked at the boy's legs, drawing him down into its inky depths.
Blake started awake.
"Look at Pedro!" whispered Carter.
"Good god," muttered Blake, "That creosote is overpowering."
Pedro was standing and looking at the door. His head was cocked on one side, his ears slightly raised, his whole body tense. He turned and looked at Blake with a plea in his eyes.
Blake stood and stretched. He rubbed his eyes, crossed to the door and opened it. Pedro pattered out into the hall and walked along it, passing Wellington's bedroom. Blake and Carter tiptoed after him. They reached the end of the passage and Pedro looked up at a door. The detective pushed it open and entered. The room was unfurnished and empty except for Bernard Stone who, in dressing gown and pajamas, stood in its middle frozen in mid-step. Blake clicked on the light. Behind Stone a panel in the wall gaped open revealing a small staircase.
"Hello Mr. Stone," said Blake, holding tightly to Pedro's collar.
Stone, a middle-aged and rather cadaverous man, remained frozen, staring at Blake with his mouth hanging open.
"My name is Sexton Blake. This is my assistant, Edward Carter, and the dog is called Pedro. We've been looking for you. So has Eustace Craille."
The mouth moved. "I ... I ... was just ..."
"Off on another cigar hunt?" suggested Carter.
Stone moved, suddenly and quickly. He turned and leaped for the stairs. Carter moved faster and blocked the way.
"It's alright, Stone," said Blake, "we're on your side. You sent for me, remember? The note to Mr. Craille? I'm here to help. I know all about the Yellow Beetle."
Stone seemed to go limp. "No," he mumbled, "you can't know."
"You'd be surprised," answered Blake. "Let's go downstairs and have a chat. You're absolutely safe, I guarantee it."
From somewhere downstairs came a piercing scream. Mason's voice yelled, "FIRE! FIRE! The house is burning!"
The End of Thistle Wood Manor
Sexton Blake turned and ran into the hall. Halfway along it, Michael Wellington emerged from his bedroom looking bedraggled and dazed. At the far end, thick black smoke rolled up the stairs and swept across the ceiling.
"Wellington!" snapped Blake, "Get out! Run for your life, man!"
The curator gave a nod and vanished into the smoke.
The detective re-entered the room and grabbed Carter and Stone by their arms. He pulled them out then pushed them towards the stairs.
Carter took the cue and started dragging Stone along the passage but his burden struggled, twisted in his grip and shouted, "No! I've got to go back in there! They mustn't be lost! It's vital!"
"I know!" rapped Blake, "Your documents. Don't worry, I'll get them!"
His assistant disappeared down the glowing stairwell. Blake caught a last glimpse of Stone's distraught face. He saw a flicker of flame and coughed. The air was growing intolerable.
"Out, Pedro! Follow Tinker!"
The great hound whined and ran down the passage.
Blake plunged into the empty room and crossed to the open panel. The atmosphere was hazy and shimmered with heat. A roar and the cracking of timbers could be heard from below. As he ran up the short staircase Blake wondered at the speed at which the fire had taken hold. Suddenly he realized that it had been started deliberately. The creosote, of course; it had probably been liberally splashed over various parts of the building.
The stairs led to a medium-sized room. It had no windows and was illuminated by a single uncovered light bulb. Its light was slowly being smothered by the rising smoke.
There was a bed, a chair, a desk and some shelves loaded with tinned food, magazines and books. A very thick leather-bound notebook lay on the bed. Blake opened it and glanced at the contents. He crossed to the desk and picked up a sheaf of typewritten pages, took them to the bed, dumped them beside the book then rolled them all in a sheet which he picked up and stuffed into his jacket, buttoning it up to hold the package securely. He raced for the stairs and descended to the room below. It was black with smoke.
He got halfway across then staggered. The heat was too much, the fumes too thick. He couldn't breath.
The crash of exploding glass and rumble of collapsing masonry sounded around him. On all fours, he pushed forward. He couldn't stop coughing. Out into the hall. Which way? His senses, disorientated, played tricks. He groped along the blistering walls. Flames flickered through the boiling clouds.
Blake made it to the top of the stairs and, curling into a ball, rolled down them. He hit the bottom with a painful thud which knocked the breath out of him. He gasped and choked and blacked out.
He swam in and out of consciousness. At one point he experienced a momentary awareness of the floor moving beneath him; of a vice-like grip on his clothing.
"Good old Pedro," he thought, sleepily. Darkness enveloped him.
He awoke to find himself lying on the lawn bathed in a fierce orange light. Edward Carter was shaking him by the shoulder.
"Stop it," he mumbled through cracked lips. He coughed and a spasm of pain tore through his chest.
"Pedro pulled you out," said Carter. "I got the others to safety."
"Who? Me or the dog? Can you sit up?"
Blake heaved himself into a sitting position. In front of him, Thistle Wood Manor blazed and crumpled.
Michael Wellington walked over. Tears had cut white lines through the soot on his face.
"We couldn't save the collection," he said, hoarsely. "All those beautiful things destroyed. Stone is beside himself."
"Look on the positive side," croaked Blake. "At least you'll live to carry on curating, or whatever you call it."
"That's true, I suppose," said Wellington. His forehead exploded, showering Carter with blood. The sound of the gunshot was lost amid the roar of the collapsing house.
Carter hit the ground and rolled, pulling out his pistol in one lightening fast, instinctive movement. Blake followed suit.
A bullet ploughed into the grass near his head.
Wellington's corpse knelt down, paused a moment, seemingly preoccupied, then toppled onto its face.
"Where's it coming from?" Blake asked.
"Over to the left," shouted Carter. "See the bushes?"
"Yes. Where's Stone?"
"With Mason and the cook, down by the gate. Pedro's there."
Blake rolled as a shot whistled past his ear.
"Guard them," he ordered.
"Okee-doke," said Carter and ran into the night.
Sexton Blake picked himself up and raced into the shadows of a beech tree. His lungs creaked and complained. His skin felt sore. He tried to whistle for the bloodhound but his lips were too cracked and his mouth too dry. He resorted to a loud croak and hoped the dog would hear.
A bullet thudded into the tree trunk.
The detective raised his pistol and fired a shot at the bushes across the garden. They were half bright orange, where they faced the raging furnace, and half pitch black, where they faced the night. The whole garden was thrown into this sharp, painful contrast which hurt his parched eyes. A bright moon would have been helpful right now, but Wellington's wish for rain looked like it might be granted — a blanket of cloud had obscured the sky during the past few hours. Not that the curator would ever see rain again.
Blake had quite liked the man. He felt angry and vengeful. He fired another shot then took a grip of himself; it was senseless to waste ammunition.
Pedro rubbed against his leg.
Something exploded in the ruin and the detective was showered with oily liquid.
"I'm going to smell of creosote for months," he muttered. "At least I'll be well preserved. Rightie ho, Pedro—" he pointed at the bushes, "Hunt!"
The giant bloodhound gave a ferocious bark and bounded across the grass. Blake fired three shots in rapid succession then followed. He smiled grimly as Pedro dived into the bushes and screams emerged. Three men scattered in all directions. One fell almost immediately, with Pedro on his back. The other veered off towards the gate.
"He's for you, Tinker," thought Blake and set off after the third. It was Zhang Wei. The Chinese man raced ahead passing close to the inferno that had once been Thistle Wood Manor. Another explosion ripped through the ruins and, once again, Blake felt himself showered with creosote, as was his quarry. A wooden beam went cart-wheeling across the grass leaving a spiral of smoke in its wake. The gardener turned and fired a shot. It hit Blake square in the chest.
"Ouch!" he said and fell onto his back. He lay there and stared at the sky, watching embers rise into it like swarming fireflies. Maybe they would usher him into heaven. It would be nice to have a sleep first though. He was exhausted and aching and terribly, terribly thirsty.
"That's funny," he suddenly thought, "being shot in the heart doesn't hurt much."
Then he realised that the bullet was lodged somewhere in the notepad wrapped in the sheet bundled under his jacket. He staggered to his feet with a groan and dragged himself on.
"I've had enough of this," he said and raised his pistol and pulled the trigger. Zhang Wei staggered. The Oriental turned and ran on, clutching his side.
"Damn," muttered Blake, "I was aiming for his leg."
He stumbled after his quarry. His ribs hurt and he struggled for breath. Why didn't the Chinaman just give up? There was nowhere for him to go; the fence was too high to scale and the gate was blocked by Tinker. Why did the fool have to run? Was he going to spend the rest of the night circling the giant bonfire?
Suddenly Pedro streaked past. The gardener saw him coming and let loose a shriek of terror.
"Quite right too," thought Blake. He remembered how, many years ago, a madman named Satira had sprayed his clothes with a chemical which sent the bloodhound into a fit of rage. Pedro had attacked him and the detective had never forgotten just how frightening it was.
Zhang Wei dodged towards the flames, skidded to a halt, turned, and pointed his pistol straight at the oncoming bloodhound. Through the shimmering night air, Blake distinctly saw the gardener's finger pull the trigger.
Zhang Wei threw down the weapon in disgust. Behind him, a wall collapsed and sent out a shower of sparks. Pedro veered away. Glowing embers rained over the gardener and his creosote-spattered clothes ignited.
Blake fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around himself. He watched in horror as the criminal writhed and screamed and burned and died.
Pedro padded back to his master and nuzzled him.
"Time to go home," said Sexton Blake.
The Past Echoes, the Future Glimmers
"A drug cartel?"
Sexton Blake and Edward Carter were sitting in Eustace Craille's office in Belgrave Square. Craille was chain-smoking his putrid Egyptian cigarettes with scant regard for Blake's scorched lungs.
"A drug cartel?" repeated Blake, "Is that all?"
"That's all," creaked the old man, "Though it's quite enough. They were preparing to flood Europe with heroin. The men the gardener chappie used to meet on Sundays were the British branch of the operation. Not exactly a big outfit. Zhang Wei himself had a different mission — to keep an eye on Bernard Stone, who the Beetles realized was collecting information about them."
"Stop calling them the Beetles," grumbled Blake, "They aren't a skiffle band."
"When they realized that Stone had documented their plans, they tried to warn him off with that little token—" Craille gestured towards the puzzle box on the desk.
"It was more likely a murder attempt," suggested Blake. "I think the beetle died en route."
Carter scratched his head. "The thing is, Mr. Craille," he said, "We were expecting the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle to be rather a lot more than that."
Craille sighed. "Surely you're not referring to all that mythical ‘yellow peril' nonsense? It was rather far-fetched even back in the war years."
"Well ... " mumbled Carter.
Blake cleared his throat. "As subtle and widespread as your organization is, Mr. Craille, you don't know everything. I assure you that our concern over the re-appearance of the Brotherhood was based on uncomfortably real personal experience."
Craille eyed his visitors speculatively. As he had done nearly every week since he first met Sexton Blake, he found himself thinking about the very strange contents of the file his organisation had compiled about the detective and his assistant. It seemed more a work of fiction than the record of a real man.
He sat in silence for a minute. Blake and Tinker waited. Then:
"Frankly, Blake," he rasped, "I'm as disappointed as young Carter here, though for different reasons. The Department has bigger fish to fry than the drugs trade. We didn't finance Stone's shopping trips for this sort of information—" he tapped the documents on the desk in front of him. "This is MI6 stuff and that's where it'll go."
"Fair enough," Blake conceded, "But I'd advise you to consider something. The beetle emblem commands an awful lot of respect — and fear — in China. There's a great deal of superstition attached to it. Whatever the Brotherhood might be now, you shouldn't discount the possibility that the power of the beetle may well, at some point, transform it into something else entirely — something you'd better be prepared for."
Craille grunted and lit another cigarette.
"What will happen to Bernard Stone, Mr. Craille?" asked Carter.
The old man made a dismissive gesture. "He'll be debriefed, given a new identity and retired. His payoff will be enough for him to live comfortably and potter around antique shops. No more trips to China though, I'll see to that."
There was another momentary silence.
Blake stood. "We'll be going," he said. "Do you mind if I keep this?" He picked up the Chinese puzzle box.
"Have it," growled Craille, "I've no use for the damned thing!"
Carter followed Blake to the door. The detective stopped and turned back to face the desk.
"One last question ..."
"Did Stone record the name of the man at the head of the Brotherhood?"
"Yes," grunted Craille. "San."
Out in the street, as they walked back to Berkeley Square, Carter said, "Not the same San, of course."
"Very unlikely," replied Blake. "Wu Ling's lieutenant was a young man back then but he'd be in his eighties or nineties by now. I suppose we shouldn't rule him out but drugs were never really his style. Maybe his son or grandson, I don't know."
"I don't mind admitting," said Carter, eyeing a mini-skirted redhead as she sauntered past, "that the whole yellow beetle business gave me the jitters. I thought Wu Ling had come back to haunt us!"
"Don't be too sure he hasn't."
They walked on. The day was cloudy but mild and the streets were buzzing with activity. Youngsters strutted in gaudily coloured clothing. Music blared from shop fronts. The traffic snarled and rumbled.
Suddenly, out of the blue, Sexton Blake said, "I'm going to make Paula junior partner."
Carter stopped in his tracks. Blake took to more steps then halted and swung round.
"You mean you weren't joking?" asked his assistant.
"When you said I was fired."
Blake smiled. "You misunderstand. I'm going to make Paula junior partner ... and I'm going to hand my share of the business over to you."
"Tinker, it's all got a bit too complicated for me: too many desks, too much paperwork and a glut of dull and routine cases. It's time I got back to doing what I do best. I'm giving up the Berkeley Square office and I'm returning to the old life, or as near as dammit."
Blake felt his throat tighten. He stepped closer to Carter.
"You need your freedom. You can run the business the way you want to; do things your way."
Carter threw his hands up in exasperation.
"Get with the beat, Chief!"
Blake frowned. "I'm still not sure what that means."
"It means that my way is your way and your way is my way! You're not going anywhere without me watching your back! To hell with the business — I don't care about all that bureaucracy any more than you do! Give the whole lot to Paula, kit and kaboodle!"
"Do you mean that?"
Carter lurched forward and clutched at Blake's arm.
"Guv'nor ... you're my — my family!"
Blake was unable to speak. He grasped Edward Carter's hand and shook it tightly.
They continued their walk.
"So," said the detective, eventually breaking their silence, "We're agreed. We'll hand over the business to Paula."
"It couldn't be in better hands."
"And we'll ask Mrs. Bardell to give the consulting room a good dusting."
"She'll enjoy that."
"And I'll reclaim the back yard and move Pedro back in."
"We can't do without the old fella!"
"And we'll be a little more selective about the cases we take on."
"Now guv'nor, you are with the beat!"
"I'm gratified to hear it. I was starting to worry. One thing though ... all this will have to wait until after we get back."
"Get back?" asked Carter. "Are we going somewhere?"
"Yes, my lad. We have business to attend to," said Sexton Blake.
"In China, young ‘un. It's time we lay a ghost to rest!"