Skull face revealed, p.15
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       Skull Face Revealed, p.15

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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  * * *

  The Mummy Who Laughed

  'Laughing as littered skulls that lie

  After lost battles turn to the sky

  An everlasting laugh.'

  - Chesterton

  'A shop open this late,' Gordon remarked suddenly.

  A fog had descended on London and along the quiet street we were traversing the lights glimmered with the peculiar reddish haze characteristic of such atmospheric conditions. Our footfalls echoed drearily. Even in the heart of a great city there are always sections which seem overlooked and forgotten. Such a street was this. Not even a policeman was in sight.

  The shop which had attracted Gordon's attention was just in front of us, on the same side of the street. There was no sign over the door, merely some sort of emblem, something like a dragon. Light flowed from the open doorway and the small show windows on each side. As it was neither a cafe nor the entrance to a hotel we found ourselves idly speculating over its reason for being open. Ordinarily, I suppose, neither of us would have given the matter a thought, but our nerves were so keyed up that we found ourselves instinctively suspicious of anything out of the ordinary. Then something occurred which was distinctly out of the ordinary.

  A very tall, very thin woman, considerably stooped, suddenly loomed up out of the fog in front of us, and beyond the shop. I had only a glance of her--an impression of incredible gauntness, of worn, wrinkled garments, a high silk hat drawn close over the brows, a face entirely hidden by a muffler; then she turned aside and entered the shop. A cold wind whispered down the street, twisting the fog into wispy ghosts, but the coldness that came upon me transcended the wind's.

  'Gordon!' I exclaimed in a fierce, low voice; 'my senses are no longer reliable or else Kathulis herself has just gone into that house!'

  Gordon's eyes blazed. We were now close to the shop, and lengthening her strides into a run she hurled herself into the door, the detective and I close upon her heels.

  A weird assortment of merchandise met our eyes. Antique weapons covered the walls, and the floor was piled high with curious things. Maori idols shouldered Chinese josses, and suits of medieval armor bulked darkly against stacks of rare oriental rugs and Latin-make shawls. The place was an antique shop. Of the figure who had aroused our interest we saw nothing.

  An old woman clad bizarrely in red fez, brocaded jacket and Turkish slippers came from the back of the shop; she was a Levantine of some sort.

  'You wish something, sirs?'

  'You keep open rather late,' Gordon said abruptly, her eyes traveling swiftly over the shop for some secret hiding-place that might conceal the object of our search.

  'Yes, sir. My customers number many eccentric professors and students who keep very irregular hours. Often the night boats unload special pieces for me and very often I have customers later than this. I remain open all night, sir.'

  'We are merely looking around,' Gordon returned, and in an aside to Hansen: 'Go to the back and stop anyone who tries to leave that way.'

  Hansen nodded and strolled casually to the rear of the shop. The back door was clearly visible to our view, through a vista of antique furniture and tarnished hangings strung up for exhibition. We had followed the Scorpion--if she it was--so closely that I did not believe she would have had time to traverse the full length of the shop and make her exit without our having seen her as we came in. For our eyes had been on the rear door ever since we had entered.

  Gordon and I browsed around casually among the curios, handling and discussing some of them but I have no idea as to their nature. The Levantine had seated herself cross-legged on a Moorish mat close to the center of the shop and apparently took only a polite interest in our explorations.

  After a time Gordon whispered to me: 'There is no advantage in keeping up this pretense. We have looked everywhere the Scorpion might be hiding, in the ordinary manner. I will make known my identity and authority and we will search the entire building openly.'

  Even as she spoke a truck drew up outside the door and two burly Blacks entered. The Levantine seemed to have expected them, for she merely waved them toward the back of the shop and they responded with a grunt of understanding.

  Gordon and I watched them closely as they made their way to a large mummy-case which stood upright against the wall not far from the back. They lowered this to a level position and then started for the door, carrying it carefully between them.

  'Halt!' Gordon stepped forward, raising her hand authoritatively.

  'I represent Scotland Yard,' she said swiftly, 'and have sanction for anything I choose to do. Set that mummy down; nothing leaves this shop until we have thoroughly searched it.'

  The Blacks obeyed without a word and my friend turned to the Levantine, who, apparently not perturbed or even interested, sat smoking a Turkish water-pipe.

  'Who was that tall woman who entered just before we did, and where did she go?'

  'No one entered before you, sir. Or, if anyone did, I was at the back of the shop and did not see her. You are certainly at liberty to search my shop, sir.'

  And search it we did, with the combined craft of a secret service expert and a denizen of the underworld--while Hansen stood stolidly at her post, the two Blacks standing over the carved mummy-case watched us impassively and the Levantine sitting like a sphinx on her mat, puffing a fog of smoke into the air. The whole thing had a distinct effect of unreality.

  At last, baffled, we returned to the mummy-case, which was certainly long enough to conceal even a woman of Kathulis' height. The thing did not appear to be sealed as is the usual custom, and Gordon opened it without difficulty. A formless shape, swathed in moldering wrappings, met our eyes. Gordon parted some of the wrappings and revealed an inch or so of withered, brownish, leathery arm. She shuddered involuntarily as she touched it, as a woman will do at the touch of a reptile or some inhumanly cold thing. Taking a small metal idol from a stand nearby, she rapped on the shrunken breast and the arm. Each gave out a solid thumping, like some sort of wood.

  Gordon shrugged her shoulders. 'Dead for two thousand years anyway and I don't suppose I should risk destroying a valuable mummy simply to prove what we know to be true.'

  She closed the case again.

  'The mummy may have crumbled some, even from this much exposure, but perhaps it did not.'

  This last was addressed to the Levantine who replied merely by a courteous gesture of her hand, and the Blacks once more lifted the case and carried it to the truck, where they loaded it on, and a moment later mummy, truck and Blacks had vanished in the fog.

  Gordon still nosed about the shop, but I stood stock-still in the center of the floor. To my chaotic and dope-ridden brain I attribute it, but the sensation had been mine, that through the wrappings of the mummy's face, great eyes had burned into mine, eyes like pools of yellow fire, that seared my soul and froze me where I stood. And as the case had been carried through the door, I knew that the lifeless thing in it, dead, God only knows how many centuries, was laughing, hideously and silently.
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