The were sinister ... sadistic ... yet somehow alluring!
|"And what is your news of today?"
The voice was a harsh, flat monotone, rattling from behind the grinning mask the speaker wore. It was a costly thing—that mask—layered in gold and studded with glittering rubies and sapphires. But none of the jewels blazed so hotly as the emerald-colored eyes that glared at us through the eyeholes.
"If it please the great Chen Tuo," bleated the man on my left, and he bowed low before the throne of the silk-swaddled chieftain of the San Francisco tong. "We have placed an agent in the household of Addison Grant, the railroad tycoon. On the gardening staff. He—"
"Of what use to the Tong of the Silver Serpent is a mere gardener?" demanded Chen Tuo. "Kill the chauffeur! Put our man in his place! Pu-Yi!" Now the man on my right bowed. "It is five days since you brought news from our agents in the harbor!"
"I crave mercy, O Great One, but—!"
"Once you craved my favor," hissed the masked figure. "Now you have forfeited it! Remove thy dishonorable self to the Chamber of Whipping!" With a whimper Pu-Yi bowed again, and crept from the receiving hall.
"Anderson!" The eyes, which had been wandering inside those golden sockets, now locked on me. They were like green fire. "What news from the district attorney's office?"
"I have convinced Dickerson that the kidnapped girl has been smuggled out of the country," I reported. "You may now move her freely to a new location in the city without fear of interception."
"Excellent!" The speaker's tongue wrapped sibilantly about the word. A drawer in the throne's massive arm-rest slid silently open. Inside was a bag. "Take thy well-earned reward, detective!"
I tried to hide the loathing I felt as I lifted the bag of heroin. But I made a point of hesitating as I bent over the drawer. "You wish to speak?" Chen Tuo asked.
No, it was a closer look at the most dangerous criminal on the west coast that I wanted. His was a face none had ever seen, and there was an unnatural stillness to his pose. Not a muscle twitched beneath his all-enveloping robe, nor did his hands lift or his feet shift. Even his head was locked in that forward stare.
And his eyes. They had not been green the first time I was allowed to approach his throne.
"The girl," I said. "If I knew where you intend to move her, I could better misdirect the police."
Chen Tuo cackled. "Yes, I thought you might suggest as much! You confirm my surmise! I did not attain my current eminence by putting my trust in police spies!"
From within the still-open drawer I heard the hiss of escaping gas, and smelled a sickly-sweet odor. The scarlet and gold of Chen-Tuo's robe melted and ran—! The room spun—!
I knew no more.
I woke in darkness, so groggy I momentarily believed I was sprawling on the ceiling, and when I rose to one knee, I felt I might fall upward into the floor. When my head stopped spinning, I saw I was still in the receiving room. All the lights were dead, save for a single golden ray that speared the tong chieftain, seated on his throne.
Cradled loosely in my hand, I found, was an automatic.
"And now for a game of reflexes, Detective Anderson!" Chen Tuo's sneer seemed to come from all sides in the darkness. "Let us see who is faster. You, with a pistol? Or I, with the trigger that will drop the Thorndyke girl into a nest of pit vipers! Prepare! On one!"
A bolt of pain shot through my head as I staggered to my feet. I lifted the pistol and waved it in the general direction of the tong chieftain.
Chen Tuo sat rigid on his throne, his hands muffled in his sleeves.
"Why do you hesitate, Detective Anderson?"
My vision wavered, then cleared. The golden mask leered at me. Under the hard spotlight, the jewels flashed and shimmered, and above them—whites flaring—there gleamed feverishly the eyes of a sadistic madman.
I squeezed the trigger four times, in quick succession. The automatic barked, and the curtains on either side of the throne billowed, torn by my shots. There was a scream, and a microphone stand fell from behind one curtain, while a man tumbled from behind the other. He sprawled on the floor.
When I looked, I found he wasn't even Chinese.
I stumbled forward and tore the mask and gown from the seated figure. The face of Madeline Thorndyke, daughter of the mayor, gazed back at me from behind a gag. Her eyes—
Her staring, blue eyes.
—teared up as I tore the ropes from around her arms and feet.
"There was no Chen Tuo, and there never was," I explained to the boys when I was back at headquarters, and the girl was safe at home. "It wasn't even a proper tong, just a blind the other gangs put together to draw the D.A.'s fire. Even the costume wasn't real, it was just for my benefit. One of the gang would put his face behind the mask while their vocalist piped in the words from behind a curtain."
"And they wanted you to shoot the girl because—?" the D.A. asked.
"To discredit this office and your task force. My gun, my bullets, my fingerprints, and a dead girl."
"Who tipped them to you, d'you think?"
Before I could admit I didn't know, McIntyre came in with the morning paper. "Your News of Today," he said as he dropped the special edition on the chief's desk.
I rose and clipped him across the jaw.
"The same monkey they had behind the microphone," I growled. "So that's how he slipped through the ring you threw around the place!"
Co-winner of The Writer's Cramp: 3-4-21
Prompt: Begin with the question "And what is your news of today?"