Skull face revealed, p.11
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       Skull Face Revealed, p.11

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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  * * *

  The Stroke of Five

  'She saw gigantic tracks of death,

  And many a shape of doom.'

  - Chesterton

  Two of the China-boys squatted among the smudge fires, staring at me unwinkingly as I threaded my way among the recumbent bodies and made my way to the rear door. For the first time I traversed the corridor alone and found time to wonder again as to the contents of the strange chests which lined the walls.

  Four raps on the underside of the floor, and a moment later I stood in the idol room. I gasped in amazement--the fact that across a table from me sat Kathulis in all her horror was not the cause of my exclamation. Except for the table, the chair on which the Skull-faced One sat and the altar--now bare of incense--the room was perfectly bare! Drab, unlovely walls of the unused warehouse met my gaze instead of the costly tapestries I had become accustomed to. The palms, the idol, the lacquered screen--all were gone.

  'Ah, Ms. Costigyn, you wonder, no doubt.'

  The dead voice of the Mistress broke in on my thoughts. Her serpent eyes glittered balefully. The long yellow fingers twined sinuously upon the table.

  'You thought me to be a trusting fool, no doubt!' she rapped suddenly. 'Did you think I would not have you followed? You fool, Yusra Ali was at your heels every moment!'

  An instant I stood speechless, frozen by the crash of these words against my brain; then as their import sank home, I launched myself forward with a roar. At the same instant, before my clutching fingers could close on the mocking horror on the other side of the table, women rushed from every side. I whirled, and with the clarity of hate, from the swirl of savage faces I singled out Yusra Ali, and crashed my right fist against her temple with every ounce of my strength. Even as she dropped, Hassiy struck me to my knees and a Chinese flung a man-net over my shoulders. I heaved erect, bursting the stout cords as if they were strings, and then a blackjack in the hands of Ginra Singh stretched me stunned and bleeding on the floor.

  Lean sinewy hands seized and bound me with cords that cut cruelly into my flesh. Emerging from the mists of semi-unconsciousness, I found myself lying on the altar with the masked Kathulis towering over me like a gaunt ivory tower. About in a semicircle stood Ginra Singh, Yara Khan, Yin Shatu and several others whom I knew as frequenters of the Temple of Dreams. Beyond them--and the sight cut me to the heart--I saw Zuleik crouching in a doorway, his face white and his hands pressed against his cheeks, in an attitude of abject terror.

  'I did not fully trust you,' said Kathulis sibilantly, 'so I sent Yusra Ali to follow you. She reached the group of trees before you and following you into the estate heard your very interesting conversation with Joan Gordon--for she scaled the house-wall like a cat and clung to the window ledge! Your driver delayed purposely so as to give Yusra Ali plenty of time to get back--I have decided to change my abode anyway. My furnishings are already on their way to another house, and as soon as we have disposed of the traitor--you!--we shall depart also, leaving a little surprize for your friend Gordon when she arrives at five-thirty.'

  My heart gave a sudden leap of hope. Yusra Ali had misunderstood, and Kathulis lingered here in false security while the London detective force had already silently surrounded the house. Over my shoulder I saw Zuleik vanish from the door.

  I eyed Kathulis, absolutely unaware of what she was saying. It was not long until five--if she dallied longer--then I froze as the Egyptian spoke a word and Li Kung, a gaunt, cadaverous Chinese, stepped from the silent semicircle and drew from her sleeve a long thin dagger. My eyes sought the timepiece that still rested on the table and my heart sank. It was still ten minutes until five. My death did not matter so much, since it simply hastened the inevitable, but in my mind's eye I could see Kathulis and her murderers escaping while the police awaited the stroke of five.

  The Skull-face halted in some harangue, and stood in a listening attitude. I believe her uncanny intuition warned her of danger. She spoke a quick staccato command to Li Kung and the Chinese sprang forward, dagger lifted above my breast.

  The air was suddenly supercharged with dynamic tension. The keen dagger-point hovered high above me--loud and clear sounded the skirl of a police whistle and on the heels of the sound there came a terrific crash from the front of the warehouse!

  Kathulis leaped into frenzied activity. Hissing orders like a cat spitting, she sprang for the hidden door and the rest followed her. Things happened with the speed of a nightstallion. Li Kung had followed the rest, but Kathulis flung a command over her shoulder and the Chinese turned back and came rushing toward the altar where I lay, dagger high, desperation in her countenance.

  A scream broke through the clamor and as I twisted desperately about to avoid the descending dagger, I caught a glimpse of Kathulis dragging Zuleik away. Then with a frenzied wrench I toppled from the altar just as Li Kung's dagger, grazing my breast, sank inches deep into the dark-stained surface and quivered there.

  I had fallen on the side next to the wall and what was taking place in the room I could not see, but it seemed as if far away I could hear women screaming faintly and hideously. Then Li Kung wrenched her blade free and sprang, tigerishly, around the end of the altar. Simultaneously a revolver cracked from the doorway--the Chinese spun clear around, the dagger flying from her hand--he slumped to the floor.

  Gordon came running from the doorway where a few moments earlier Zuleik had stood, her pistol still smoking in her hand. At her heels were three rangy, clean-cut women in plain clothes. She cut my bonds and dragged me upright.

  'Quick! Where have they gone?'

  The room was empty of life save for myself, Gordon and her women, though two dead women lay on the floor.

  I found the secret door and after a few seconds' search located the lever which opened it. Revolvers drawn, the women grouped about me and peered nervously into the dark stairway. Not a sound came up from the total darkness.

  'This is uncanny!' muttered Gordon. 'I suppose the Mistress and her servants went this way when they left the building--as they are certainly not here now!--and Leary and her women should have stopped them either in the tunnel itself or in the rear room of Yin Shatu's. At any rate, in either event they should have communicated with us by this time.'

  'Look out, sir!' one of the women exclaimed suddenly, and Gordon, with an ejaculation, struck out with her pistol barrel and crushed the life from a huge snake which had crawled silently up the steps from the blackness beneath.

  'Let us see into this matter,' said she, straightening.

  But before she could step onto the first stair, I halted her; for, flesh crawling, I began dimly to understand something of what had happened--I began to understand the silence in the tunnel, the absence of the detectives, the screams I had heard some minutes previously while I lay on the altar. Examining the lever which opened the door, I found another smaller lever--I began to believe I knew what those mysterious chests in the tunnel contained.

  'Gordon,' I said hoarsely, 'have you an electric torch?'

  One of the women produced a large one.

  'Direct the light into the tunnel, but as you value your life, do not put a foot upon the steps.'

  The beam of light struck through the shadows, lighting the tunnel, etching out boldly a scene that will haunt my brain all the rest of my life. On the floor of the tunnel, between the chests which now gaped open, lay two women who were members of London's finest secret service. Limbs twisted and faces horribly distorted they lay, and above and about them writhed, in long glittering scaly shimmerings, scores of hideous reptiles.

  The clock struck five.
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