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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 would hold in court—that is an entirely different matter!

I saw the detective's eyes rest on Chen Wan with a flash of recognition; then his gaze shifted to me.

"'Lo Minturn!" he flung over his shoulder. "Come on! Might need you!"

I SPRANG up and followed, gladly. During the years I have spent in China and in San Francisco's Chinatown, I have gained a little knowledge of Chinese customs and some facility in the use of the Cantonese language. Detective Lyons had often called on me in emergencies when he couldn't wait for the official interpreter.

The three of us passed through the swinging doors. Here, on our left, was the kitchen with its meat-block and charcoal fire and mess of steam and smoke, and slaving, sweating Chinese. Directly before us, and ranged along the wall at our right, were lockers reaching from floor to ceiling. They were fitted with double doors. Some of these doors were open, showing that the lockers were used by the kitchen help as a place for street- clothes, aprons, and the like.

I remember Detective Lyons paused for a second and glanced toward the kitchen. Squadman Darwood drew his police revolver, stepped to one side and a little back of Lyons.

Then Lyons went straight to one of the lockers, seized hold of the knobs, and jerked the doors open. Although I should have expected it, I could not restrain a startled gasp. There, on the secret stairs, lay an old Chinaman.

THE man had fallen forward on his face, fallen in such a position that when the detective opened the doors the body stirred gruesomely, then settled down again. The move, however, was enough to reveal, on the unpainted steps, a big, irregular splotch of crimson.

Lyons laid his hand on the man's shoulder as though he intended to turn him over; but instead he straightened quickly. "Dead!" he whispered. "They got him right!"

We stood there a moment, the three of us, staring; for no matter how calloused one becomes to such things, there is always that first unnerving shock of horror. I remember that as I looked down at the thing on the stairs, I became suddenly conscious again of the unbroken hum of activity in the restaurant. Then I stepped forward to get a better view.

At first I thought it was Loy Kee, the gambler; but I quickly discovered my mistake. It was a Chinaman whom I had never seen before. He was perhaps sixty. His face, what I could see of it, was gaunt and very dark. His clothes were of fair quality. I noted with some surprise that instead of the usual Chinese slippers, the man wore laced boots.

I set him down as some farmer from the river lands. No doubt he had been cheated at fan-tan? that was Loy Kee's practice. He had come back to demand the return of his money. Loy Kee, of course, had thrown him out. The old farmer must have been a bad customer, for Loy Kee had been compelled to use a gun. It was a very unwise thing. It would go hard with Loy Kee, I reflected.

All this flashed through my mind in the instant that we stood there. And then a surprising thing happened.

Just as Detective Lyons bent over again to take hold of the body, Loy Kee emerged suddenly and silently out of the gloom at the head of the stairs. It struck me that he must have been there all the time.

"Hullo!" said Loy Kee sullenly. "Whassa mallee?"

Lyons snapped erect. "Aha! So it's you, eh? Waddye shoot this poor guy for?"

"No sabby!" grunted Loy. "The devil you don't! Minturn, ask him what he knows about this!"

I put the question into Cantonese. "I do not know anything about the matter," Loy Kee answered politely.

"Hasn't this man been in your place?" I asked.

LOY KEE'S slant eyes narrowed as he looked steadily at the detective a moment. Then, with the easy grace of a cat, he padded down the stairs, bent over and eyed the prone figure.

"Tell Mr. Lyons," said Loy Kee, looking up at me, "I never saw this man before in my life. I am positive he has never been in my place."

"He's a liar," said Lyons when I had put Loy Kee's statement into English. "Ask him where he was when he heard the shot?"

Loy Kee's answer surprised me. "I've been right near my door all the time; but I heard no shot!"

"Kuai! You didn't hear that? Then what brought you out here?"

"I thought I heard sounds of fighting in the restaurant. That is nothing unusual. I came out to see that they didn't make trouble for my place."

I quickly put all this into English for the detective.

"Uh-huh!" grunted Lyons, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. For a moment he stared hard at the gambler. Loy Kee blinked like a sleepy tiger, but his face remained masklike. Presently the detective looked down at the man on the steps.

SUDDENLY I saw Lyons lean forward. He seized the old man by one shoulder, turned him over. At that, I stiffened, a startled gasp on my lips; and in my ears rang again that queer curse of the three knives. For protruding from the man's blood-stained jacket was the greasy wooden handle of a big kitchen knife!

"Good Lord!" cried Lyons. "He ain't been shot; he's been stabbed! Now who done that? Darwood, get Lee Yet!"

Darwood passed behind me into the kitchen. Lee Yet was the proprietor of the restaurant, but he spent most of his time in the kitchen, leaving the clerical work to others. I knew Lee Yet, and had always liked him. I did not like to think of Lee Yet doing this ugly thing.

"Tell Mr. Lyons," Loy Kee spoke up, "now that I have a better view of this man's face, I do recall seeing him before. I am sure he is the man Lee Yet had an argument with last night over a bill. I remember the old man swore he'd come back and get revenge. No doubt Lee Yet can tell you all about it; that looks like his knife."

"I don't like the sound of that," growled Lyons when I told him. "When one Chink squeals on another, there's a nigger in the woodpile some place."

I drew Lyons aside, whispered in his ear. I wasn't so sure that old Loy Kee was entirely ignorant of English.

"Maybe what I heard will help you, Lyons. First, I heard the sound of a shot. Then, an instant later, some Chinaman cried out in Cantonese: 'Aih-yah! May three dull knives be thrust through your wicked body!'"

"Three?" echoed the detective. "Lord, what a way to cuss! Glad I didn't hear that crazy yell. But say, why the three knives?"

"I suppose because, with some Chinese, three is an unlucky number."

"One was unlucky enough for that poor guy," commented Lyons grimly. "But go on!"

"And they say dull because—well, I won't go into unpleasant details. That is a Chinese curse that is seldom if ever used lightly. I mean it is not spoken thoughtlessly in a moment of anger. It is premeditated, used deliberately when there is some deep motive for revenge. Undoubtedly the one who pronounced that malediction is the one who used that knife."

"Lee Yet, eh?" "I couldn't say. It might have been Lee Yet; also it might have been Loy Kee, or some one else. The tone was high-pitched, unnatural. I couldn't identify it. I am sure of this much, however: if Lee Yet did it, there is something behind this crime a lot more important than the price of a meal."

"Uh-huh!" grunted Lyons, pulling at his chin. "Another one of them Chinese puzzles, eh? Well, that's none of my grief. If Lee Yet knifed this bird, I ain't concerned with any of his deep, dark reasons. He can tell them to the jury. Well, I wish Darwood would get back with Lee. Let's see! You heard the shot; then you heard that curse. That means that this Chink on the stairs saw he was going to be knifed and fired that shot in self- defense. He ought to've aimed better. Guess I'll look for his gun."

WE had stepped to one side of the locker doors that opened on the stairs. We were out of sight and, I thought, out of hearing, of Loy Kee. Now we turned back. I saw Loy Kee standing just where we had left him. He was looking above and beyond me. Something about that look made me turn quickly.

At the swinging doors stood my friend Chen Wan. He too was staring straight over my head. He was looking at Loy Kee.

Then Chen Wan stepped forward. Behind him were Squadman Darwood and Lee Yet.

"Had to hunt all over for him," explained Darwood. "Found him in the phone-booth."

"Hidin', eh?" snapped Lyons. "No. Phoning his attorney."

"Uh-huh!" Lyons rubbed his chin. He fixed a searching gaze on Lee Yet. "Say, Lee, waddye do this for, anyway?"

Lee Yet was in his thirties, a slender chap, very neat, and more than ordinarily intelligent. He spoke English with scarcely an accent. I had never seen him when he wasn't pleasant and courteous; but now his face was a sickly yellow; black flame showed in his narrowed eyes. "Do what, Mr. Lyons?" he flung back sullenly.

"Oh, excuse me!" snarled Lyons with elaborate sarcasm. "I'll put it plainer. Why did you kill this old man?"

"I didn't," returned Lee Yet evenly. "It was Loy Kee who shot him!"

"O-ho!" Lyons looked at me and winked. "So Loy Kee shot him, eh? What makes you think so?"

"I heard sounds of fighting on the stairs. That is nothing unusual. Some one is always being cheated up there and making a fight over it. I came back here to see that they didn't make trouble for my place."

Lyons looked at me. From the expression on his face I knew we had the same thought. The words used by Lee Yet to charge Loy Kee with the crime were almost identical with those used a moment ago by the gambler when he accused Lee Yet.

"When I got back here," continued Lee Yet, "I heard Loy Kee and some one quarreling. I heard Loy Kee say: 'Drop that knife or I'll shoot!' Then Loy Kee shot. I heard the old man curse him, and fall. I went at once to call my lawyer. I knew there would be much trouble. This is very bad for my business."

"No doubt!" grinned Lyons. "But something tells me you're going to take a long vacation from your business. Now, Lee?"

"Pardon me, Lyons!" I spoke up. "Let me ask Lee a question. Lee, you say you heard the old man curse Loy Kee. Of course it was in Cantonese. What were his exact words?"

Lee Yet looked me straight in the eye. "I do not remember, Mr. Minturn."

I WAS astonished, and disappointed. I had hoped to gain some further idea of the meaning of that queer curse of the three dull knives. Lee, for some reason, was lying. Moreover, he knew I had been sitting where I could hear what the old man said. Therefore Lee knew that I knew he was lying.

"Now, see here, Lee!" Lyons spoke up, pointing a stubby finger at the Chinaman. "You say you heard Loy Kee shoot this man. It's a pretty story, but it won't go. He wasn't shot; he was stabbed with a knife from your kitchen. See that!"

The detective stepped aside so Lee Yet could see what lay on the stairs.

"As for that gun," he went on, "I—ah! Here it is!" He took a revolver from beneath the dead man's right hand, broke it, and held up one empty shell. "Lee, the old man fired that at you just before you knifed him, eh?"

"That's a lie!" cried Lee Yet. "That gun belongs to Loy Kee. He fired from the head of the stairs! See where the bullet struck!"

Lee Yet sprang forward, pointed to a splintered hole in the boards along the side of the stairway. Sure enough, that hole could have been made only by a bullet fired from the head of the stairs.

"Say, d'ye think I'm a rummy?" sneered Lyons. "The old man was up there when he fired at you. You were after him with that ugly knife. Now, don't shout at me, or I'll give you some reason to yell. Darwood, phone for the wagon! Tell the captain to notify the coroner! Minturn, tell Loy Kee he's under arrest! Lee Yet, so are you!"

With that, Detective Lyons sprang up a step, caught the gambler by the arm and jerked him down the stairs. Before either man could resist, Loy Kee and Lee Yet were handcuffed together.

Twenty minutes later my friend Chen Wan and I stood outside by the restaurant door. As the wagon with the police and their prisoners disappeared around a corner, I looked at Chen. He looked at me.

"Well, Chen," I said, "I have to confess I don't know which man is guilty; but it doesn't matter I suppose. Just a plain, sordid murder case!"

An odd light flickered for an instant in Chen's bronze eyes. He touched me on the shoulder.

"Remember, Minturn," he said quietly, "remember—this is Chinatown!"

Chinatown—where all ways are dark, and nothing is what it seems! I had forgotten it for the moment. I had forgotten, too, for the moment, that queer curse of the three dull knives. Well, I had occasion before long to remember!

ABOUT a month later Chen Wan called at my rooms quite late one night. I had not expected him, and was mildly curious. I waited with some impatience through the two cigarettes he always smoked before getting down to business.

"Minturn," he said, "I have a favor to ask. I want you to help me save Lee Yet from prison.

My car is outside. Go with me to Chinatown, will you?"

"Sure, I'll go," I said, rising to get my hat. "But what's the idea? I remember reading in the Chronicle that Loy Kee was released and Lee Yet held for murder. Isn't Lee Yet guilty?"

"If you please," said Chen Wan politely, "let us not talk here. We are going to Loy Kee's place. There you will be told everything. Since you know something of Chinese customs, I think you will believe what we have to tell you. I hope so, anyway; for that's Lee Yet's only chance."

I said no more. Ten minutes later we were in Chinatown. We went to the top floor of a building just on the outskirts of the Oriental quarter, and to a room at the rear of a long hall. In this room we found Loy Kee.

Loy Kee was huddled over a filthy table he was using as a desk. He looked like a man sick in mind and body. As Chen and I entered, he sprang up like some hunted animal, glared at us with wild eyes, then sank down again on his stool.

I recalled then that Chen had said we were going to Loy Kee's place. If this was his place, he had moved since that night I heard the curse of the three knives. This, I learned afterward, was the case.

Chen closed the door and locked it. Loy Kee motioned me to a stool. I nodded; but moved by a habit formed while a secret agent of the Treasury Department, I went to the window, threw up the sash and looked out.

The room was a trap. There wasn't a roof or a fire-escape within reach. Below, clear and sharp in the white moonlight, lay the old ruins of some big building, probably a church or school destroyed by the earthquake and fire of 1906. An iron picket fence, the posts set in concrete blocks, separated the ruins from the narrow walk that skirted the rear of the building in which Loy Kee had taken up his quarters. Wondering at Loy Kee's carelessness in not providing for a quick get-away, I closed the window again, moved a stool to where I could watch both Loy Kee and the door, and sat down.

CHEN, for once in his life, got right down to business. "Mr. Loy, as you observe, is a very sick man. How could it be otherwise with that curse hanging over him? It was his suggestion that I get you, tell you the whole truth, and ask you to try to convince the police that it is the truth. Mr. Loy has done everything else he could think of to avert the?"

"Wait a minute, Chen," I spoke up. "I have been under the impression that this queer curse of the three dull knives was uttered by the one who killed that man we found on the stairs. Am I to understand now that the Chinaman we found on the stairs pronounced that malediction on Loy Kee?"

"That is correct," replied Chen. "And the shot you heard was fired by Loy Kee."

"But Detective Lyons found the gun in the dead Chinaman's hand?"

"True enough. But it was Loy Kee's gun. As I came through those swinging doors, I happened to see Loy Kee put the gun under the dead man's hand. But let me begin at the beginning."

I SETTLED back on my stool. I remember how Loy Kee was watching me, his eyes burning with fear and suspicion. Chen, however, seemed cool enough. He lighted a cigarette, then went on in his quiet, passionless voice:

"This man?Wong Sam was his name—was a farmer from up the river. For forty years he had saved his money in the hopes of being able to go back to his old home in China to spend his last days. About a year ago he fell sick. When that was over, he found his savings considerably depleted. Also, he found himself no longer able to work. He decided that the time had come for him to go back to China.

"He drew the remainder of his savings and came to San Francisco to take the boat. Now, forty years is a long time; but you understand, of course, that the pay of a Chinese laborer is not large. Besides, he had frequently lost money at fan-tan. So he should have been wise enough to take good care of what little he had; but he didn't.

"You know the type; so you will not be surprised when I tell you that Wong Sam began playing heavily at Loy Kee's gambling-house. Also, you know something of Loy Kee's methods; so you are prepared to believe that in a few nights Loy Kee had every dollar of Wong Sam's hard-earned savings.

"Well, the realization of his loss, the sudden conviction that he had been robbed, sent the old man nearly insane. He was too old to go back to work. And he was penniless. To him, there seemed to be only one course. He took it; but at the same time he planned a terrible vengeance on Loy Kee.

"Now, you may not believe it, but what I tell you is true, and any Chinese will tell you that it is true. If any man wrong you, the very worst punishment you can bring down on that man's head is to go to his doorstep and there, with a curse on your lips, slay yourself."

I HAD heard of this ancient Chinese custom; but I could not restrain a smile. It seemed ridiculous that Chen Wan, with his American education, should have any faith in such a silly old superstition. But Chen Wan, if he saw my smile, paid no attention to it. He hurried on:

"So with Wong Sam. In one of the open lockers he happened to see a knife. You know many Chinese cooks furnish all their own tools. Wong Sam took the knife, and started up the stairs.

"It happened that at that moment Loy Kee was coming down. He saw Wong Sam with that ugly knife. He supposed that Wong Sam had come back to slay him for the way he had cheated and robbed the old man. He drew his revolver, ordered Wong Sam to drop the knife.

"The crazed old man paid no attention. He took another step up the stairs. He made a move that looked to Loy Kee as though he intended to throw the knife. Loy Kee, a coward at heart, as all dishonest gamblers are, fired—and missed.

"You know the rest. You heard Wong Sam pronounce that terrible curse of the three dull knives upon Loy Kee. You saw what the poor old fellow did with that kitchen knife. And you know now that neither Loy Kee nor Lee Yet killed the old man. He killed himself.

"Loy Kee and Lee Yet were bitter enemies. Each man thought that the other was trying to injure him in a business way; and each man was right. Therefore each man, thinking to rid himself of an enemy, accused the other of killing Wong Sam. Loy Kee, of course, knew the facts. Lee Yet guessed them; but he hoped to implicate Loy Kee. That's why Lee Yet lied to you about not hearing that curse.

"Loy Kee has located Wong Sam's relatives in China. He has arranged to pay all expenses of shipping the old man's body to China for burial in the cemetery of the family of Wong. More than that, he has sent the relatives double the sum he took away from Wong Sam in a dishonest game. And now he wants to convince the police of the truth of this queer story so that Lee Yet may be saved from prison. First, however, you must be convinced, yourself. Are you?"

I was. I found it easy to believe that Wong Sam had slain himself after the manner of the old Chinese who wish to wreak vengeance on an enemy; but it seemed incredible that Loy Kee should worry for a moment over that queer curse.

I looked at Loy Kee. During all this time he had spoken no word. Now, I saw he was no longer watching me. He had half risen from his stool, was crouching over his filthy table, his wild eyes staring at something that resembled an ordinary glass inkwell, but which I now saw was an electric signal. Flash after warning flash turned the dark glass a lurid red.

Then, in the hallway outside the door, sounded the swift patter of slippered feet.

Chen Wan sprang up. "A raid, Minturn! We'd better get out!"

"No use!" said I, getting up. "We're trapped. Anyway?"

Suddenly Loy Kee let out a yell. A huge blued-steel revolver leaped into his hand as though by magic. He waved the thing at Chen and me.

"You foreign devil!" he screamed in Cantonese. "I asked you to help! You have betrayed me to your police! Go?"

I went! And believe me, my going displayed more agility than dignity. I learned years ago that it is not good taste to argue with a crazy Chinaman whose finger is twitching around the trigger of a big revolver. Quick as I was, Chen Wan was halfway down the hall when I sprang across the threshold. I wasn't the least bit offended when old Loy Kee slammed the door on me, and locked it.

TEN minutes later Detective Lyons smashed down the door. Loy Kee was gone. A rope running from a table-leg out the open window showed that, after all, Loy Kee had planned for his get-away.

I remember how the three of us crowded to the window and looked down; but I recall nothing of what must have been a mad scramble out of that room, down the hall, and out of the building. I remember only the amazingly incredible thing we found there by those old ruins.

Loy Kee, in his weakness and excitement, had slipped and fallen. I remember thinking that he must have fallen clear from the window, for his body had pitched farther away from the building than if he had lost his hold when part way down the rope. And as I stared at the body, more astounded by what appeared to be a monstrous and ghastly coincidence, than horrified by the sight of it, there rang again in my ears that shrill cry: "May three dull knives be thrust through your wicked body!"

Loy Kee had fallen across that iron picket fence. Three of the dull, spear-pointed pickets had gone clear through him!