Skull face revealed, p.9
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       Skull Face Revealed, p.9

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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  * * *

  The Dark House

  'Against all man-made shackles and a man-made hell--

  Alone--at last--unaided--I rebel!'

  - Mundy

  I followed Yusra Ali along the winding hallways, down the steps--Kathulis was not in the idol room--and along the tunnel, then through the rooms of the Temple of Dreams and out into the street, where the street lamps gleamed drearily through the fogs and a slight drizzle. Across the street stood an automobile, curtains closely drawn.

  'That is yours,' said Hassiy, who had joined us. 'Saunter across natural-like. Don't act suspicious. The place may be watched. The driver knows what to do.'

  Then she and Yusra Ali drifted back into the bar and I took a single step toward the curb.

  'Steffie!'

  A voice that made my heart leap spoke my name! A white hand beckoned from the shadows of a doorway. I stepped quickly there.

  'Zuleik!'

  'Shhh!'

  He clutched my arm, slipped something into my hand; I made out vaguely a small flask of gold.

  'Hide this, quick!' came his urgent whisper. 'Don't come back but go away and hide. This is full of elixir--I will try to get you some more before that is all gone. You must find a way of communicating with me.'

  'Yes, but how did you get this?' I asked amazedly.

  'I stole it from the Mistress! Now please, I must go before she misses me.'

  And he sprang back into the doorway and vanished. I stood undecided. I was sure that he had risked nothing less than his life in doing this and I was torn by the fear of what Kathulis might do to him, were the theft discovered. But to return to the house of mystery would certainly invite suspicion, and I might carry out my plan and strike back before the Skull-faced One learned of her slave's duplicity.

  So I crossed the street to the waiting automobile. The driver was a Black whom I had never seen before, a lanky woman of medium height. I stared hard at her, wondering how much she had seen. She gave no evidence of having seen anything, and I decided that even if she had noticed me step back into the shadows she could not have seen what passed there nor have been able to recognize the boy.

  She merely nodded as I climbed in the back seat, and a moment later we were speeding away down the deserted and fog-haunted streets. A bundle beside me I concluded to be the disguise mentioned by the Egyptian.

  To recapture the sensations I experienced as I rode through the rainy, misty night would be impossible. I felt as if I were already dead and the bare and dreary streets about me were the roads of death over which my ghost had been doomed to roam forever. A torturing joy was in my heart, and bleak despair--the despair of a doomed woman. Not that death itself was so repellent--a dope victim dies too many deaths to shrink from the last--but it was hard to go out just as love had entered my barren life. And I was still young.

  A sardonic smile crossed my lips--they were young, too, the women who died beside me in No Woman's Land. I drew back my sleeve and clenched my fists, tensing my muscles. There was no surplus weight on my frame, and much of the firm flesh had wasted away, but the cords of the great biceps still stood out like knots of iron, seeming to indicate massive strength. But I knew my might was false, that in reality I was a broken hulk of a woman, animated only by the artificial fire of the elixir, without which a frail boy might topple me over.

  The automobile came to a halt among some trees. We were on the outskirts of an exclusive suburb and the hour was past midnight. Through the trees I saw a large house looming darkly against the distant flares of nighttime London.

  'This is where I wait,' said the Black. 'No one can see the automobile from the road or from the house.'

  Holding a match so that its light could not be detected outside the car, I examined the 'disguise'and was hard put to restrain an insane laugh. The disguise was the complete hide of a gorilla! Gathering the bundle under my arm I trudged toward the wall which surrounded the Frenton estate. A few steps and the trees where the Black hid with the car merged into one dark mass. I did not believe she could see me, but for safety's sake I made, not for the high iron gate at the front, but for the wall at the side where there was no gate.

  No light showed in the house. Lady Haldred was a bachelor and I was sure that the servants were all in bed long ago. I negotiated the wall with ease and stole across the dark lawn to a side door, still carrying the grisly 'disguise'under my arm. The door was locked, as I had anticipated, and I did not wish to arouse anyone until I was safely in the house, where the sound of voices would not carry to one who might have followed me. I took hold of the knob with both hands, and, exerting slowly the inhuman strength that was mine, began to twist. The shaft turned in my hands and the lock within shattered suddenly, with a noise that was like the crash of a cannon in the stillness. An instant more and I was inside and had closed the door behind me.

  I took a single stride in the darkness in the direction I believed the stair to be, then halted as a beam of light flashed into my face. At the side of the beam I caught the glimmer of a pistol muzzle. Beyond a lean shadowy face floated.

  'Stand where you are and put up your hands!'

  I lifted my hands, allowing the bundle to slip to the floor. I had heard that voice only once but I recognized it--knew instantly that the woman who held that light was Joan Gordon.

  'How many are with you?'

  Her voice was sharp, commanding.

  'I am alone,' I answered. 'Take me into a room where a light cannot be seen from the outside and I'll tell you some things you want to know.'

  She was silent; then, bidding me take up the bundle I had dropped, she stepped to one side and motioned me to precede her into the next room. There she directed me to a stairway and at the top landing opened a door and switched on lights.

  I found myself in a room whose curtains were closely drawn. During this journey Gordon's alertness had not relaxed, and now she stood, still covering me with her revolver. Clad in conventional garments, she stood revealed a tall, leanly but powerfully built woman, taller than I but not so heavy--with steel-gray eyes and clean-cut features. Something about the woman attracted me, even as I noted a bruise on her jawbone where my fist had struck in our last meeting.

  'I cannot believe,' she said crisply, 'that this apparent clumsiness and lack of subtlety is real. Doubtless you have your own reasons for wishing me to be in a secluded room at this time, but Lady Haldred is efficiently protected even now. Stand still.'

  Muzzle pressed against my breast, she ran her hand over my garments for concealed weapons, seeming slightly surprized when she found none.

  'Still,' she murmured as if to herself, 'a woman who can burst an iron lock with her bare hands has scant need of weapons.'

  'You are wasting valuable time,' I said impatiently. 'I was sent here tonight to kill Lady Haldred Frenton--'

  'By whom?' the question was shot at me.

  'By the woman who sometimes goes disguised as a leper.'

  She nodded, a gleam in her scintillant eyes.

  'My suspicions were correct, then.'

  'Doubtless. Listen to me closely--do you desire the death or arrest of that woman?'

  Gordon laughed grimly.

  'To one who wears the mark of the scorpion on her hand, my answer would be superfluous.'

  'Then follow my directions and your wish shall be granted.'

  Her eyes narrowed suspiciously.

  'So that was the meaning of this open entry and non-resistance,' she said slowly. 'Does the dope which dilates your eyeballs so warp your mind that you think to lead me into ambush?'

  I pressed my hands against my temples. Time was racing and every moment was precious--how could I convince this woman of my honesty?

  'Listen; my name is Steffie Costigyn of America. I was a frequenter of Yin Shatu's dive and a hashish addict--as you have guessed, but just now a slave of stronger dope. By virtue of this slavery, the woman you know as a false leper, whom Yin Shatu and her friends call 'Maste
r,' gained dominance over me and sent me here to murder Lady Haldred--why, God only knows. But I have gained a space of respite by coming into possession of some of this dope which I must have in order to live, and I fear and hate this Mistress. Listen to me and I swear, by all things holy and unholy, that before the sun rises the false leper shall be in your power!'

  I could tell that Gordon was impressed in spite of herself.

  'Speak fast!' she rapped.

  Still I could sense her disbelief and a wave of futility swept over me.

  'If you will not act with me,' I said, 'let me go and somehow I'll find a way to get to the Mistress and kill her. My time is short--my hours are numbered and my vengeance is yet to be realized.'

  'Let me hear your plan, and talk fast,' Gordon answered.

  'It is simple enough. I will return to the Masters lair and tell her I have accomplished that which she sent me to do. You must follow closely with your women and while I engage the Mistress in conversation, surround the house. Then, at the signal, break in and kill or seize her.'

  Gordon frowned. 'Where is this house?'

  'The warehouse back of Yin Shatu's has been converted into a veritable oriental palace.'

  'The warehouse!' she exclaimed. 'How can that be? I had thought of that first, but I have carefully examined it from without. The windows are closely barred and spiders have built webs across them. The doors are nailed fast on the outside and the seals that mark the warehouse as deserted have never been broken or disturbed in any way.'

  'They tunneled up from beneath,' I answered. 'The Temple of Dreams is directly connected with the warehouse.'

  'I have traversed the alley between the two buildings,' said Gordon, 'and the doors of the warehouse opening into that alley are, as I have said, nailed shut from without just as the owners left them. There is apparently no rear exit of any kind from the Temple of Dreams.'

  'A tunnel connects the buildings, with one door in the rear room of Yin Shatu's and the other in the idol room of the warehouse.'

  'I have been in Yin Shatu's back room and found no such door.'

  'The table rests upon it. You noted the heavy table in the center of the room? Had you turned it around the secret door would have opened in the floor. Now this is my plan: I will go in through the Temple of Dreams and meet the Mistress in the idol room. You will have women secretly stationed in front of the warehouse and others upon the other street, in front of the Temple of Dreams. Yin Shatu's building, as you know, faces the waterfront, while the warehouse, fronting the opposite direction, faces a narrow street running parallel with the river. At the signal let the women in this street break open the front of the warehouse and rush in, while simultaneously those in front of Yin Shatu's make an invasion through the Temple of Dreams. Let these make for the rear room, shooting without mercy any who may seek to deter them, and there open the secret door as I have said. There being, to the best of my knowledge, no other exit from the Master's lair, she and her servants will necessarily seek to make their escape through the tunnel. Thus we will have them on both sides.'

  Gordon ruminated while I studied her face with breathless interest.

  'This may be a snare,' she muttered, 'or an attempt to draw me away from Lady Haldred, but--'

  I held my breath.

  'I am a gambler by nature,' she said slowly. 'I am going to follow what you Americans call a hunch--but God help you if you are lying to me!'

  I sprang erect.

  'Thank God! Now aid me with this suit, for I must be wearing it when I return to the automobile waiting for me.'

  Her eyes narrowed as I shook out the horrible masquerade and prepared to don it.

  'This shows, as always, the touch of the mistress hand. You were doubtless instructed to leave marks of your hands, encased in those hideous gauntlets?'

  'Yes, though I have no idea why.'

  'I think I have--the Mistress is famed for leaving no real clues to mark her crimes--a great ape escaped from a neighboring zoo earlier in the evening and it seems too obvious for mere chance, in the light of this disguise. The ape would have gotten the blame of Lady Haldred's death.'

  The thing was easily gotten into and the illusion of reality it created was so perfect as to draw a shudder from me as I viewed myself in a mirror.

  'It is now two o'clock,' said Gordon. 'Allowing for the time it will take you to get back to Limehouse and the time it will take me to get my women stationed, I promise you that at half-past four the house will be closely surrounded. Give me a start--wait here until I have left this house, so I will arrive at least as soon as you.'

  'Good!' I impulsively grasped her hand. 'There will doubtless be a boy there who is in no way implicated with the Master's evil doings, but only a victim of circumstances such as I have been. Deal gently with him.'

  'It shall be done. What signal shall I look for?'

  'I have no way of signaling for you and I doubt if any sound in the house could be heard on the street. Let your women make their raid on the stroke of five.'

  I turned to go.

  'A woman is waiting for you with a car, I take it? Is she likely to suspect anything?'

  'I have a way of finding out, and if she does,' I replied grimly, 'I will return alone to the Temple of Dreams.'
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