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A Complete Dr. Zeng Mystery Novel

Blackmail Clinic

By Walt Bruce

A Nazi "truth serum" proves a boomerang when Dr. Zeng Tse-Lin invades the precincts of treachery in a daring campaign to clean up a sinister nest of murder and espionage!

CHAPTER I
DEATH TO THE FEDS

THE night was ominously dark, with just enough fog in the air to veil the stars in shroud-like semi-concealment. All around the Bay Area, spectral fingers of white glow probed weirdly into low-hanging mists, moving and stabbing and shifting. These were the antiaircraft searchlights bearing mute witness to the alertness of a nation at war.

It was strange, Steve McCune thought, how San Francisco had changed. Once upon a time its brilliance and light could have been seen for miles, but now the city's glitter was dimmed down to a mere ghost-reflection. This waterfront street, for example, with its electroliers hooded and all neon signs doused by order of the Army Interceptor Command, was like a shadowy gullet waiting to swallow the unwary traveler.

McCune shivered a little and wished for the full power of his small coupé's headlamps instead of the undersized, fender-mounted parking lights which were all the law permitted you to use after nightfall in this neighborhood. He felt worn and weary as he drove slowly home from the shipyard where he was employed; weary, and vaguely uneasy.

IT was past midnight, and Steve McCune had good reason to feel tired. In recent months he had been on the swing shift, starting work at four in the afternoon and quitting at twelve. That usually made it around one in the morning before he got home to the old house where he lived with his family.

Sleep was difficult under such conditions. True, he had remodeled the attic into a makeshift bedroom for himself in order to get as far away as possible from daytime traffic noises. But even so, it was hard to obtain the proper amount of rest when everybody else was up and stirring around.

He yawned as he drove; shivered again, although the night was not cold. His sensation of uneasiness persisted, crawling through his marrow like a slithery premonition of impending disaster. His mouth twisted wryly as he thought about his job as foreman of the big shipyard's blueprint department.

It was a good job, an important job, the sort of work which made a man feel that he was valuably contributing to his country's war effort. For the yard was constructing a new and secret type of Q- boat for the Navy, breaking all records in the speedy fabricating of these hush-hush antisubmarine weapons. McCune had thoroughly enjoyed his part in the vast program until a certain thing had happened.

He swore silently, remembering the ugly circumstances that had enmeshed him. Then he glanced at his rearview mirror and went suddenly tense as he saw the hooded lights of a car behind him. There could be no doubt about it, now. He had suspected it for the past several blocks. He was being followed.

"They're after me!" he whispered.

HE INCREASED his coupé's speed, his palms sweaty on the steering wheel and tiny beads of cold perspiration forming on his forehead. Had the showdown come at last, he wondered? He set his lips grimly as the car jounced ahead over rough paving, and the worry that had been cutting deeper and deeper into his consciousness the last few days was a living, growing cancer gnawing its way into his brain.

He twisted to the right at the next intersection, then right, and left, and left again. He knew these waterfront streets. As a kid he had played through the district. Growing older, he had run errands and then driven trucks for the wholesale markets. He was as familiar with the alleys and byways as he was with his own home.

But turn as he might, the pursuing sedan matched every maneuver. It kept pace with him like a relentless burr. It did more than keep pace? it was gaining on him, coming closer, narrowing the distance with every revolution of its humming tires.

With a sort of dread hopelessness, Steve McCune realized the futility of any attempt to escape. For days he had tried to avoid this decision, but now it had caught up with him.

He was not armed and, in some respects, that fact was a relief. Had he been carrying a gun, he might have been tempted to use it. As it was, he slackened speed and resigned himself to the inevitable.

The trailing car drew abreast, angling McCune toward the curb. A white beam of light cut through the darkness to strike him directly in the face.

"Pull over and stop!" a grim voice called. "No tricks."

He obeyed, braking to a halt and cutting his ignition. The sedan was clamped down alongside, its front door was punched open and a big man in a topcoat swung to the street, a gun glinting in his clenched fist.

"Your name McCune?" he demanded.

"Yes," was the defense worker's answer.

"Steve McCune?"

"That's right."

"Get out," the big man said quietly.

McCune complied, instinctively raising his hands as he faced his captor.

Meanwhile the sedan's driver had slid from behind his wheel. Now he loped around to run quick, expert hands over McCune's pockets from behind.

"No gun," he announced, and stepped back a pace.

McCune tried to keep his voice steady.

"What is this?" he demanded.

"You're under arrest," the big man in the topcoat answered bleakly.

He extended his free hand, palm cupped so that the shape of a small gold shield could be made out.

"Department of Justice?the F.B.I.," the big man said, and there was no expression in his tone as he spoke.

McCune's shoulders twitched and his mouth felt dry, his throat tight. It had come! This thing he had been dreading had finally overtaken him. In a way, he was almost glad. At least it ended all the troubled uncertainty which had held him in its grasp.

He was seized with a sudden hysterical impulse to shout, to explain that he had been trying for days to make up his mind to go down to the Federal Building and make a clean breast of the whole rotten business. Which was true enough. He had wanted to confess to the authorities, but fear had restrained him.

Now he could talk. Now he could tell what he knew. He would be protected.

He opened his mouth to speak. The words were never uttered, though.

NOISELESSLY and without lights, a third automobile had drawn abreast of the spot, a black limousine which had coasted to a standstill with a dead motor. A blasting blurt of gunfire pulsed abruptly from this hearse-like vehicle, a yammering thunder of explosions, sharp and staccato as the crack of doom.

Steve McCune's movement was a reflex action. His knees went slack and he dropped to the pavement like a cut rope and rolled under the sheltering bulk of his own coupé. Bullets sang and whined and ricocheted around him, pinging off the sidewalk and the wall of a warehouse beyond. But for the moment, McCune was safe.

The Federal agents were not so lucky. In that first withering rain of slugs the big man in the topcoat had gone down, riddled through the chest.

His companion lurched under the impact of hot lead, but managed to stay on his feet and pull an automatic. He snapped six quick shots at his attackers. Then, like a jackhammer riveting steel, a submachine-gun opened up from the limousine. Steady tongues of flame stuttered out of its muzzle and the second F.B.I. operative doubled over as if he had been chopped in half. He fell sprawling, motionless.

And still the tommy-gun kept up its stammering clatter, pouring a hail of metal into the bodies of the fallen Feds. The two corpses danced a macabre rigadoon as the bullets smashed them.

Then, abruptly, silence settled as the weapon clicked empty. The limousine's motor roared alive and its gears clashed it into forward motion. Like a thunderbolt projectile it surged ahead and vanished around the next corner on tires that screeched soprano protest.

Steve McCune dragged himself from under his coupé and staggered upright. In the chaos of his mind there was no thought of his own troubles, now. He was too stunned, too dazed by the hideous scene he had just witnessed to think of himself. He bent over the two F.B.I. agents where they lay like dark, unmoving blotches in the gutter.

No use calling for medical aid, he realized. Both men were dead.

McCune stood by the riddled bodies, a great riptide of anger smashing through his heart and distorting his judgment. His first impulse was to leap into his coupé and pursue the murder limousine. But even as he whirled and raised one foot to the running board he realized the hopelessness of such pursuit. By now, that death car was long gone. It would be impossible even to guess which way it had headed after disappearing around the first turn.

A new thought blossomed suddenly in McCune's brain, one that made him almost ill. These men, these slain Federal operatives, had been sent to arrest him. Now they were dead? murdered! Maybe he would be accused of the double killing. Maybe a homicide charge would be added to the other thing he had been fearing.

Shakily he got into the coupé, started its motor. His hands trembled as he shifted gears, and his foot was jerky on the clutch pedal. It was torture to be caught between two fires, as he was. On one side loomed the law; on the other side were those enemies who were responsible for McCune's present predicament?enemies who would stop at nothing to gain their evil ends. They had proved that a moment ago with a death-dealing tommygun.

McCune was afraid. He admitted it to himself. Nor was he thinking only of his own safety. There was his mother to consider, and his brother Don, and the younger kids. He debated the wisdom of driving straight to the Federal Building right now and giving himself up, telling exactly what had happened, confessing everything he knew about the whole sordid affair.

Would the Government men believe him, though? Would they believe that he'd had nothing to do with the killing of the F.B.I. agents who had been assigned to take him in custody?

"No!" he whispered grimly. "I can't risk it!"

THAT was his terror talking, advising him to go home and think it over until morning. Then it would be time enough to surrender. For the present he needed freedom. Freedom to consider all the angles, maybe to warn his family and take them into his confidence, ask them what he ought to do.

That was it. He would go home to the safety of his attic bedroom, where he could think in the bright light of his reading lamp instead of in the depressing, malignant darkness of this dimmed-out waterfront street.

He swerved his coupé across Market, up the hill, and into his own garage. Below him the city fanned out, sinister in its silence. Matching that silence, McCune removed his shoes before he entered the house. He didn't want to awaken anyone now. In solid darkness he edged up the stairway, pausing when a tread creaked under his weight. Sometimes his mother woke up when he came in. Sometimes she would question him about the night's work.

He wanted no questions tonight. He wanted to see nobody. What he needed was to be alone, to ponder the problem confronting him.

He climbed the steep attic steps, fumbled his bedroom door open, stepped over the threshold, closed the door, and turned on the light. There was sanctuary here in these familiar surroundings. He stood still for an instant, breathing deeply of the peace and orderly cleanliness of the place.

So complete was his concentration that he did not hear the small shuffling sound behind him?the rustling noise of a rope being paid out. He did not see the hangman's noose at the end of the peculiarly knotted rope, nor did he guess that he was not alone in the room until the loop was dropped over his head and drawn tight about his gullet.

He tried to turn, then, but it was too late. His hands came up, clawing desperately at the hempen cord which was strangling out his life. His struggles were fruitless. A brutal knee was jammed into the small of his back. The noose cut into his windpipe.

Steve McCune went limp.

CHAPTER II
DR. ZENG TSE-LIN

CHINATOWN, that mysterious sector of San Francisco rumored to conceal a thousand secret passages and twice that many weird Oriental customs, was as dimmed-out as the rest of the city. The streets were almost entirely deserted at this late hour, and all shop-window lights had long since been turned off.

The Mandarin Emporium, one of the biggest establishments in the area, was no exception to the rule. Its windows, filled with Asiatic objects of art, were tightly shuttered. No trace of illumination could be discerned either downstairs or on the upper floors of the "House of a Thousand Beatitudes" which comprised the residence portion of the building.

But there were lights behind the shrouding curtains of heavy black silk which masked those upstairs windows. For this was the home of that mysterious Chinese physician known as Dr. Zeng Tse-Lin, a man whose vast wealth was exceeded only by his learning. Despite the lateness of the hour, Dr. Zeng was seated in a low teakwood chair, studying the brush marks of an ancient Chinese parchment manuscript.

Zeng was a tall man who looked even taller in his brocaded robe of Oriental silk and his black skullcap with its green button denoting a fifth examination scholar who possessed degrees from the finest Chinese universities. His ascetic face was hawk-like, and his dark eyes glowed weirdly with imponderable depths of knowledge.

Through his studies in American as well as Asiatic schools, he had attained mastery of every known science and art. There also were whispered rumors that he sometimes dealt in black magic as well as in medicine and surgery.

Such rumors were bound to surround a man as mystifying as Dr. Zeng Tse-Lin. It was only natural that his Chinatown friends and neighbors should wonder how anybody as young as Zeng could have acquired so many diplomas from so many colleges throughout the world. How could a man scarcely more than thirty be a master surgeon, an internationally famed scientist, an inventor whose patents had already brought him uncounted riches? Surely there must be magic in such a fellow!

In a sense, Zeng actually possessed a magic touch?but it was a magic gained through study of all branches of Oriental and Occidental lore, ancient and modern. That was the true secret of his multifold abilities, just as constant rigorous exercise was the secret of his splendid physical stamina, his superlative strength and his inexhaustible endurance. But of all the rumors which circulated concerning this amazing personage, there was one fact nobody had ever guessed?

Dr. Zeng Tse-Lin was actually a white American whose real name was Robert Charles Lang!

True, Zeng had been born in China. His parents, though, had been affluent American missionaries slain by hoodlum Jap soldiers in the sacking of Shanghai. Zeng himself had been in the United States at that time, completing his education. Upon hearing that Nip thugs had murdered his mother and father, he had vowed his life to vengeance against all wrong-doers, all killers, all criminals.

In consequence, he had made an exhaustive study of the science of detection and had devoted himself to a secret career of bringing lawbreakers to justice. Ostensibly he was a Chinese physician of splendid attainments, respected by all who came in contact with him. Outwardly he appeared to be a man who operated the Mandarin Emporium as a sort of hobby. But his medical practice and his Orienta...

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