Skull face revealed, p.17
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       Skull Face Revealed, p.17

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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  * * *

  The Grip of the Scorpion

  'While from a proud tower in the town

  Death looks gigantically down.'

  - Poe

  Hansen snored on the bed as I paced the room. Another day had passed over London and again the street lamps glimmered through the fog. Their lights affected me strangely. They seemed to beat, solid waves of energy, against my brain. They twisted the fog into strange sinister shapes. Footlights of the stage that is the streets of London, how many grisly scenes had they lighted? I pressed my hands hard against my throbbing temples, striving to bring my thoughts back from the chaotic labyrinth where they wandered.

  Gordon I had not seen since dawn. Following the clue of 'Soho 48'she had gone forth to arrange a raid upon the place and she thought it best that I should remain under cover. She anticipated an attempt upon my life, and again she feared that if I went searching among the dives I formerly frequented it would arouse suspicion.

  Hansen snored on. I seated myself and began to study the Turkish shoes which clothed my feet. Zuleik had worn Turkish slippers--how he floated through my waking dreams, gilding prosaic things with his witchery! His face smiled at me from the fog; his eyes shone from the flickering lamps; his phantom footfalls re-echoed through the misty chambers of my skull.

  They beat an endless tattoo, luring and haunting till it seemed that these echoes found echoes in the hallway outside the room where I stood, soft and stealthy. A sudden rap at the door and I started.

  Hansen slept on as I crossed the room and flung the door swiftly open. A swirling wisp of fog had invaded the corridor, and through it, like a silver veil, I saw her--Zuleik stood before me with his shimmering hair and his red lips parted and his great dark eyes.

  Like a speechless fool I stood and he glanced quickly down the hallway and then stepped inside and closed the door.

  'Gordon!' he whispered in a thrilling undertone. 'Your friend! The Scorpion has her!'

  Hansen had awakened and now sat gaping stupidly at the strange scene which met her eyes.

  Zuleik did not heed her.

  'And oh, Steffie!' he cried, and tears shone in his eyes, 'I have tried so hard to secure some more elixir but I could not.'

  'Never mind that,' I finally found my speech. ''Tell me about Gordon.'

  'She went back to Kamonis' alone, and Hassiy and Ginra Singh took her captive and brought her to the Master's house. Tonight assemble a great host of the people of the Scorpion for the sacrifice.'

  'Sacrifice!' A grisly thrill of horror coursed down my spine. Was there no limit to the ghastliness of this business?

  'Quick, Zuleik, where is this house of the Master's?'

  'Soho, 48. You must summon the police and send many women to surround it, but you must not go yourself--'

  Hansen sprang up quivering for action, but I turned to her. My brain was clear now, or seemed to be, and racing unnaturally.

  'Wait!' I turned back to Zuleik. 'When is this sacrifice to take place?'

  'At the rising of the moon.'

  'That is only a few hours before dawn. Time to save her, but if we raid the house they'll kill her before we can reach them. And God only knows how many diabolical things guard all approaches.'

  'I do not know,' Zuleik whimpered. 'I must go now, or the Mistress will kill me.'

  Something gave way in my brain at that; something like a flood of wild and terrible exultation swept over me.

  'The Mistress will kill no one!' I shouted, flinging my arms on high. 'Before ever the east turns red for dawn, the Mistress dies! By all things holy and unholy I swear it!'

  Hansen stared wildly at me and Zuleik shrank back as I turned on him. To my dope-inspired brain had come a sudden burst of light, true and unerring. I knew Kathulis was a mesmerist--that she understood fully the secret of dominating another's mind and soul. And I knew that at last I had hit upon the reason of her power over the boy. Mesmerism! As a snake fascinates and draws to her a bird, so the Mistress held Zuleik to her with unseen shackles. So absolute was her rule over him that it held even when he was out of her sight, working over great distances.

  There was but one thing which would break that hold: the magnetic power of some other person whose control was stronger with his than Kathulis'. I laid my hands on his slim little shoulders and made his face me.

  'Zuleik,' I said commandingly, 'here you are safe; you shall not return to Kathulis. There is no need of it. Now you are free.'

  But I knew I had failed before I ever started. His eyes held a look of amazed, unreasoning fear and he twisted timidly in my grasp.

  'Steffie, please let me go!' he begged. 'I must--I must!'

  I drew his over to the bed and asked Hansen for her handcuffs. She handed them to me, wonderingly, and I fastened one cuff to the bedpost and the other to his slim wrist. The boy whimpered but made no resistance, his limpid eyes seeking mine in mute appeal.

  It cut me to the quick to enforce my will upon his in this apparently brutal manner but I steeled myself.

  'Zuleik,' I said tenderly, 'you are now my prisoner. The Scorpion cannot blame you for not returning to her when you are unable to do so--and before dawn you shall be free of her rule entirely.'

  I turned to Hansen and spoke in a tone which admitted of no argument.

  'Remain here, just without the door, until I return. On no account allow any strangers to enter--that is, anyone whom you do not personally know. And I charge you, on your honor as a woman, do not release this boy, no matter what he may say. If neither I nor Gordon have returned by ten o'clock tomorrow, take his to this address--that family once was friends of mine and will take care of a homeless boy. I am going to Scotland Yard.'

  'Steffie,' Zuleik wailed, 'you are going to the Master's lair! You will be killed. Send the police, do not go!'

  I bent, drew his into my arms, felt his lips against mine, then tore myself away.

  The fog plucked at me with ghostly fingers, cold as the hands of dead women, as I raced down the street. I had no plan, but one was forming in my mind, beginning to seethe in the stimulated cauldron that was my brain. I halted at the sight of a policeman pacing her beat, and beckoning her to me, scribbled a terse note on a piece of paper torn from a notebook and handed it to her.

  'Get this to Scotland Yard; it's a matter of life and death and it has to do with the business of Joan Gordon.'

  At that name, a gloved hand came up in swift assent, but her assurance of haste died out behind me as I renewed my flight. The note stated briefly that Gordon was a prisoner at Soho 48 and advised an immediate raid in force--advised, nay, in Gordon's name, commanded it.

  My reason for my actions was simple; I knew that the first noise of the raid sealed Joan Gordon's doom. Somehow I first must reach her and protect or free her before the police arrived.

  The time seemed endless, but at last the grim gaunt outlines of the house that was Soho 48 rose up before me, a giant ghost in the fog. The hour grew late; few people dared the mists and the dampness as I came to a halt in the street before this forbidding building. No lights showed from the windows, either upstairs or down. It seemed deserted. But the lair of the scorpion often seems deserted until the silent death strikes suddenly.

  Here I halted and a wild thought struck me. One way or another, the drama would be over by dawn. Tonight was the climax of my career, the ultimate top of life. Tonight I was the strongest link in the strange chain of events. Tomaorrow it would not matter whether I lived or died. I drew the flask of elixir from my pocket and gazed at it. Enough for two more days if properly eked out. Two more days of life! Or--I needed stimulation as I never needed it before; the task in front of me was one no mere human could hope to accomplish. If I drank the entire remainder of the elixir, I had no idea as to the duration of its effect, but it would last the night through. And my legs were shaky; my mind had curious periods of utter vacuity; weakness of brain and body assailed me. I raised the flask and with one draft drained it.

/>   For an instant I thought it was death. Never had I taken such an amount.

  Sky and world reeled and I felt as if I would fly into a million vibrating fragments, like the bursting of a globe of brittle steel. Like fire, like hell-fire the elixir raced along my veins and I was a giant! A monster! A superman!

  Turning, I strode to the menacing, shadowy doorway. I had no plan; I felt the need of none. As a drunken woman walks blithely into danger, I strode to the lair of the Scorpion, magnificently aware of my superiority, imperially confident of my stimulation and sure as the unchanging stars that the way would open before me.

  Oh, there never was a superman like that who knocked commandingly on the door of Soho 48 that night in the rain and the fog!

  I knocked four times, the old signal that we slaves had used to be admitted into the idol room at Yin Shatu's. An aperture opened in the center of the door and slanted eyes looked warily out. They slightly widened as the owner recognized me, then narrowed wickedly.

  'You fool!' I said angrily. 'Don't you see the mark?'

  I held my hand to the aperture.

  'Don't you recognize me? Let me in, curse you.'

  I think the very boldness of the trick made for its success. Surely by now all the Scorpion's slaves knew of Steffie Costigyn's rebellion, knew that she was marked for death. And the very fact that I came there, inviting doom, confused the doorman.

  The door opened and I entered. The woman who had admitted me was a tall, lank Chinese I had known as a servant at Kathulis. She closed the door behind me and I saw we stood in a sort of vestibule, lighted by a dim lamp whose glow could not be seen from the street for the reason that the windows were heavily curtained. The Chinese glowered at me undecided. I looked at her, tensed. Then suspicion flared in her eyes and her hand flew to her sleeve. But at the instant I was on her and her lean neck broke like a rotten bough between my hands.

  I eased her corpse to the thickly carpeted floor and listened. No sound broke the silence. Stepping as stealthily as a wolf, fingers spread like talons, I stole into the next room. This was furnished in oriental style, with couches and rugs and gold-worked drapery, but was empty of human life. I crossed it and went into the next one. Light flowed softly from the censers which were swung from the ceiling, and the Eastern rugs deadened the sound of my footfalls; I seemed to be moving through a castle of enchantment.

  Every moment I expected a rush of silent assassins from the doorways or from behind the curtains or screen with their writhing dragons. Utter silence reigned. Room after room I explored and at last halted at the foot of the stairs. The inevitable censer shed an uncertain light, but most of the stairs were veiled in shadows. What horrors awaited me above?

  But fear and the elixir are strangers and I mounted that stair of lurking terror as boldly as I had entered that house of terror. The upper rooms I found to be much like those below and with them they had this fact in common: they were empty of human life. I sought an attic but there seemed no door letting into one. Returning to the first floor, I made a search for an entrance into the basement, but again my efforts were fruitless. The amazing truth was borne in upon me: except for myself and that dead woman who lay sprawled so grotesquely in the outer vestibule, there were no women in that house, dead or living.

  I could not understand it. Had the house been bare of furniture I should have reached the natural conclusion that Kathulis had fled--but no signs of flight met my eye. This was unnatural, uncanny. I stood in the great shadowy library and pondered. No, I had made no mistake in the house. Even if the broken corpse in the vestibule were not there to furnish mute testimony, everything in the room pointed toward the presence of the Mistress. There were the artificial palms, the lacquered screens, the tapestries, even the idol, though now no incense smoke rose before it. About the walls were ranged long shelves of books, bound in strange and costly fashion--books in every language in the world, I found from a swift examination, and on every subject--outre and bizarre, most of them.

  Remembering the secret passage in the Temple of Dreams, I investigated the heavy mahogany table which stood in the center of the room. Bur nothing resulted. A sudden blaze of fury surged up in me, primitive and unreasoning. I snatched a statuette from the table and dashed it against the shelf-covered wall. The noise of its breaking would surely bring the gang from their hiding-place. But the result was much more startling than that!

  The statuette struck the edge of a shelf and instantly the whole section of shelves with their load of books swung silently outward, revealing a narrow doorway! As in the other secret door, a row of steps led downward. At another time I would have shuddered at the thought of descending, with the horrors of the other tunnel fresh in my mind, but inflamed as I was by the elixir, I strode forward without an instant's hesitancy.

  Since there was no one in the house, they must be somewhere in the tunnel or in whatever lair to which the tunnel led. I stepped through the doorway, leaving the door open; the police might find it that way and follow me, though somehow I felt as if mine would be a lone hand from start to grim finish.

  I went down a considerable distance and then the stair debouched into a level corridor some twenty feet wide--a remarkable thing. In spite of the width, the ceiling was rather low and from it hung small, curiously shaped lamps which flung a dim light. I stalked hurriedly along the corridor like old Death seeking victims, and as I went I noted the work of the thing. The floor was of great broad flags and the walls seemed to be of huge blocks of evenly set stone. This passage was clearly no work of modern days; the slaves of Kathulis never tunneled there. Some secret way of medieval times, I thought--and after all, who knows what catacombs lie below London, whose secrets are greater and darker than those of Babylon and Rome?

  On and on I went, and now I knew that I must be far below the earth. The air was dank and heavy, and cold moisture dripped from the stones of walls and ceiling. From time to time I saw smaller passages leading away in the darkness but I determined to keep to the larger main one.

  A ferocious impatience gripped me. I seemed to have been walking for hours and still only dank damp walls and bare flags and guttering lamps met my eyes. I kept a close watch for sinister-appearing chests or the like--saw no such things.

  Then as I was about to burst into savage curses, another stair loomed up in the shadows in front of me.
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