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THE CASE OF THE FLYING HANDS
THE BLACK MARBLES
Quiribus Brown, 7½ foot high giant, ascending the narrow low-ceilinged staircase that led upstairs to the “Restaurant of the 99 Blackbirds Returning to Nest, Prop. Hung Fung Lee”, in Chicago’s Chinatown, realized that this heavily adorned and ornate place, smelling of weird though fragrant incense, must undoubtedly have been constructed, and was being run, for the delectation of people visiting Chinatown for a thrill.
For it bore certain unmistakable marks about itself, even as the 27-year-old young man himself bore certain unmistakable marks that branded him conclusively as from a small town. Such as the crudely fitting, specially made black suit that shrouded the 360-pound frame with its 3-foot-long arms, its grey flannel shirt, its stovepipe legs dropping into veritable gunboats of shoes; and the flatbrimmed black felt parson-like hat, surmounting the kindly trusting brown eyes and genial easy-going face with sunburn on it. A man who, however, was not here for thrills, nor curiosity, this 20th of September afternoon, but on odd business. Business criminological, even! At least so he hoped.
But just now ascending the staircase of Mr. Hung Fung Lee’s establishment, Quiribus Brown was taking in the staircase itself. And noting that it was indeed manifestly built for people visiting Chinatown for a thrill. For it bore about itself, from the thick red carpet covering the stairs, to the dragon-embroidered silken panels covering the stairway walls, the wide handcarved teakwood balustrades each side, and the pair of gargantuan porcelain lions surmounted by a hanging gold Buddha gazing down from the upper landing, an air of colorful richness and regal expense not to be seen elsewhere in Chinatown. A region that, surprising to Quiribus, who had never been in a Chinatown of any sort, had proved to be a place chiefly of miserable shops, with flyspecked merchandise in the windows, looking across narrow muddy streets to sunbaked wooden fronts on the opposite sides.
He had come to a stop midway of the stairs where hung, at one side, a bizarre Chinese lantern which was the obvious source of the incense smell, as well as stair illumination. As a lantern, it was a pagoda-1ike framework of teakwood containing many vertical, handtinted glass panels, through which its light filtered; and out of a bronze cage built in its top drifted the tiny thin wisp of smoke that gave the welcoming incense. Here Quiribus was troubledly drawing from his hip pocket the telegram he had received early this morning at River’s Fork, Indiana. The wire was from a detective-agency owner in Chicago named Dannay. And troubledly, dubiously, under the light, Quiribus read it again. Set in capitals—but punctuated!—it ran:
GOT YOUR VERY TROUBLED LETTER THIS MORNING JUST AS AM LEAVING FOR A 4 WEEK’S BUSINESS TRIP EAST STOP WELL, YOU ARE IN A BAD SPOT ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, AS WELL AS A STRANGE SPOT, AND THERE IS QUITE NOTHING I CAN DO TO HELP YOU MUCH AS I WOULD LIKE TO HELP THE MAN WHO GUIDED ME LAST SUMMER TO THE FINEST FISHING HOLE IN RIVER COUNTY INDIANA STOP YOU SEE, QUIRIBUS, WE HANDLE ONLY DIVORCE STUFF, AND NOTHING WHATSOEVER ALONG YOUR PROJECTED LINE STOP HOWEVER, HOP A TRAIN FOR CHICAGO, AND GO AT ONCE TO A RESTAURANT CALLING ITSELF THE 99 BLACKBIRDS RETURNING TO NEST, IN CHINATOWN, AND INTERVIEW ITS PROPRIETOR, ONE HUNG FUNG LEE, STATING THAT YOU ARE THE PRIVATE CONFIDENTIAL INVESTIGATOR WHOM HIS FRIEND, MICHAEL DANNAY, RECOMMENDED STOP I CANNOT HELP BUT FEEL QUIRIBUS THAT HE HAS A CASE THAT JUST MIGHT BE ONE SUCH AS YOU SEEK, THOUGH HE WAS VERY DEJECTED WHEN HE CALLED AND COULD NOT EVEN CLARIFY EXACTLY WHAT HE WANTED OR WHAT HE HAD EXCEPT THAT HE SEEMED TO THINK HE WAS UP AGAINST “SCIENTIFIC CRIME” OF SOME SORT; AND SO, KNOWING HOW MUCH SCIENCE IS MIXED UP WITH THE FIELD OF KNOWLEDGE YOU’VE BEEN TRAINED IN, I JUST UP AND RECOMMENDED YOU TO MR. HUNG FUNG LEE ESQUIRE STOP I DO HOPE IT IS SOMETHING THAT CAN AT LEAST BE TWISTED OVER TO FIT INTO YOUR PECULIAR CATEGORICAL NEEDS, AND HERE’S HOPING THE BEST OF LUCK.
“And all I hope,” said Quiribus sepulchrally—for all he knew about Chinese and Chinatowns was what he’d read in pulppaper magazines!—“is that my client’s ‘scientific problem’ isn’t how to shoot down more Chinamen in whatever tong war he’s engaged in right now.”
And putting the telegram away, Quiribus resumed his upward trudge.
Now he was turning off the landing containing the huge pair of porcelain lions, surmounted by the hanging gold Buddha, into the actual restaurant itself of the 99 Blackbirds Returning to One Nest. It was surprisingly huge—staggeringly so—covering a floor area that must have lain over the roofs of quite a number of the dismal stores that lay beneath it; traveling far enough, indeed, all in all, as to undoubtedly cover the corner store, all of 4 street numbers down, and thus attain daylight along two of its long sides; there could be no doubt whatsoever that on certain gala nights—and perhaps on Sundays too—the place must be accommodating hundreds of diners, even to family parties and sometimes wedding parties. The vast floor was as regally covered as were the narrow stairs leading up to it, by carpeting woven specially for it, for the long lengths of floor area, beautiful and accurately matched in the laying, showed great golden dragons rearing their snorting lengths against a background of rich tan. The restaurant was studded with pearl-inlaid octagonal and square tables, with pearl inlaid chairs, and was given a mock suggestion of being divided off into cozy rooms by heavy gilded handcarved frescoes of wood that hung here and there from the ceiling, but never more than a third way down. No oblique eyes gazing from human rabbit-warrens across the way in either direction could ever discomfit the diners here, for the tall windows along the two sides were translucent only—not transparent—beautifully painted to represent Chinese scenes—here, a black-banged girl picking a lily from a pond—here, a great dragon-fly floating lazily over a lily—here, an emperor in red costume on a throne...
A waiter, long and thin and yellow of face, and dressed in dress suit and impeccable white shirt, approached Quiribus from nowhere.
“Is li’1 too ea’ly yet fo’ d’innel, Mistah Gentleman. Is mebbe not fo’ two hou’ll yet.”
“Oh, I’m not here for dinner,” said Quiribus. “Not by gosh, that this isn’t the first time in my life that I’ve ever been this close to real, genuine, Chinese food like they serve in far-off China, or—well what I’m here for,” he broke off, “is—well, I received a communication from Mr. Michael Dannay, stating that it’s arranged that I’m to call upon a—a Mr. Hung Fung Lee here. On—on business.”
The waiter’s yet impassive face creaked into a welcoming, kindly smile. The smile of true China. Not the China Quiribus had already learned about. “Mistel Boss he did say that man who know all ’bout—’bout file, watel, ail and ealth”—He was plainly trying to say “scientist”, in his own lipless speech and method of thought, and which, as even Quiribus had to concede, anybody who knew all about fire, water, air and earth, surely would be!—“is to come heah soon—an’ me, I am to catch him—only I tlink such man he goin’ be one of many plofessals with whi’ bealds who often come heah slummin’—no nevel ’spec big young man who look like off falm, and—hrmph—come—I take you boss.”
He led Quiribus across the edge of the carpeted space to where a black door lay tight in a wall, with three red Chinese letters on it.
He explained the letters courteously.
“Mean office,” he detailed. “Mean even mo’. Mean ‘Hele is Mistel Boss who no wan’ be distulbed unless is impolten business, in w’ich case knock tlee time!’ ”
Which he did. Knocked once—twice—thrice.
A muffled, quite indistinguishable call, probably meaning “enter” in Chinese, could be heard through the tightly-fitting door, and the waiter flung it open.
And spoke in Chinese. Possibly—and possibly not—saying “the man who knows all about fire, water, air and earth is here.”
Quiribus, towering in the doorway, saw a tiny room with an old-fashioned rolltop desk over at the further corner, a fireproof safe, minus cover paint, in another, a mahogany visitor’s chair, with one loose arm, in a third corner, a hanging ornate lamp, lighted up, since there were no windows whatsoever, and cheap patternless matting on the floor. Plainly, quite plainly, the public never got to come in here!
At the desk, in a modern swivel chair, but with head turned now doorwise questioningly, sat a fat little Chinaman, of perhaps 50 or so, dressed in conservative grey-brown tweeds, roly-poly of body, and bald of head His expression, turning questioningly on Quiribus, was so worried and harassed and desperate looking that Quiribus could not help but wonder, then and there, at what second the other was going to commence killing himself!
The waiter now gave more explanation in Chinese. Evidently the first had been non-illuminative. For this time Quiribus heard the name “Michael Dannay”.
For now the little Chinaman arose, beaming sheer welcome. Swept across the room. Thrust out his hand, And seized the hand that Quiribus was gravely extending. Quiribus could see a diamond ring on the other’s finger; guessed it to be all of 5 carats in size, if not larger.
“Ah, my scientific friend,” the little man said, speaking in what proved then to be very good English, and looking grotesquely up at Quiribus’ face, “when the detective-gentleman in divorce, Michael Dannay, did so honor me by sending you, I am so glad you did consent to come—and with such promptitude.”
“And I,” said Quiribus, “am right smart glad to’ve come. For if you’ve a problem here dealing with science—we-ell, science, you know, so darned often touches on the field of mathe—” He said no more. Doubting that the Chinaman could understand what he had intended to say.
The roly-poly little Chinaman withdrew his hand. Toddled back across the room. Was whirling over to the side of his desk, to face his own chair, the single mahogany visitor’s chair the room held. “Come, my good friend,” he invited, “sit over here with me.” He spoke to the waiter, in Chinese. Who withdrew, closing the tightly-fitting red-lined door behind him. The roly-poly little Chinaman stood courteously at his own chair, till Quiribus had seated himself. Took his guest’s hat. And withdrawing four clean sheets of paper from the drawer of his desk, and making a resting place of them at the back of that piece of furniture, he set the hat squarely upon the clean area.
Only now did he drop down into his chair.
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