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The Curse of the Knives

by Lemuel L. DeBra

Strange ideas, these Chinese have—as witness this tense little drama by the author of "Ways That Are Wary," "Border Intrigue" and many other well-liked stories.

WE had finished our Chow Heung Sen Gai Mein, which I had found not so good as usual, the noodles being fried too brown, and the onions, which I do not like, being more plentiful than the mushrooms and bamboo shoots, which I like very much. My good friend Chen Wan had ordered more of his favorite Water Fairy tea and set out cigarettes. I remember noting his slender, well-shaped hand as he took a match from his silver case. I saw his hand poised to strike the match.

The main dining-room of this Chinese restaurant, where we were taking our evening meal, was on the ground floor. Swinging doors opened from the rear of the room into the kitchen entrance. Here was a flight of stairs which, like so many things in San Francisco's Chinatown, you might pass by a dozen times without discovering. The stairs were used, I happened to know, as a get-away for the gambling den of Loy Kee, just above the restaurant.

Now, as I sat there, tapping my cigarette, my idle gaze on Chen Wan's poised hand, there came, from the neighborhood of these stairs, the sudden dull roar of a revolver. Instantly the harsh clatter of dishes, the noisy smacking of Chinese lips, the undertone of clacking gutturals, ceased.

Then, out of that silence, rose a blood- chilling cry—a shrill and horrible cry of mingled rage and despair that even to this day I cannot recall without a shudder. It came from the region of those secret stairs. It was in Cantonese; but every syllable was so clearly enunciated that at once I caught the full meaning:

"Aih-yah! May three dull knives be thrust through your wicked body!"

A choking gasp punctuated this weird

Chinese curse; then—silence.

And then?Chen Wan struck his match, calmly lighted his cigarette.

I was half out of my chair. "Ts'ing tso," said Chen quietly. "Sit down!" "But Chen! Some one has been shot, perhaps killed!"

My Chinese friend made a peculiar gesture with his slender brown hands.

"All the more reason you should sit still.

Remember, Minturn—this is Chinatown!"

I SAT down. And I realized then that the clatter of dishes, the smacking of lips, the undertone of clacking gutturals had started again as though nothing had happened. Looking around, I saw that every Chinese in the place had ducked his head and was ostentatiously devoting his whole attention to the food before him.

"The police will be here in a minute," Chen went on. "As you know, they will ask many foolish questions. The less you know, the less you will have to explain."

"True enough," I admitted ungraciously.

Chen's infernal coolness was irritating. "But you're talking for yourself, not for me. I have nothing to fear; and I want to help?"

Before I could say more, the street door was flung open and two men rushed in. I recognized them at once, although both were in plain clothes. One was Detective Lyons, red-faced and perspiring as ever. The other, a quiet, dark man, was Darwood, of the Chinatown squad.

I had never liked Lyons; but I was fair enough to admit that as a detective, especially in the Oriental quarter, he was above the average. I remembered how he hesitated for just an instant while his narrowed eyes whipped around the room. Then he came straight on. Lyons knew about those secret stairs.

That statement may need explaining. Lyons, as a detective detailed to Chinatown work, knew every gambling den in the quarter. He knew Loy Kee, had raided his place many times. But to get into a Chinese gambling-house in time to seize evidence that...

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