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Title: Black Talons
Author: Robert E. Howard
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Title: Black Talons
Author: Robert E. Howard



Joel Brill slapped shut the book he had been scanning, and gave
vent to his dissatisfaction in language more appropriate for the deck
of a whaling ship than for the library of the exclusive Corinthian
Club. Buckley, seated in an alcove nearby, grinned quietly. Buckley
looked more like a college professor than a detective, and perhaps it
was less because of a studious nature than a desire to play the part
he looked, that caused him to loaf around the library of the
Corinthian.

"It must be something unusual to drag you out of your lair at this
time of the day," he remarked. "This is the first time I ever saw you
in the evening. I thought you spent your evenings secluded in your
rooms, poring over musty tomes in the interests of that museum you're
connected with."

"I do, ordinarily." Brill looked as little like a scientist as
Buckley looked like a dick. He was squarely built, with thick
shoulders and the jaw and fists of a prizefighter; low browed, with a
mane of tousled black hair contrasting with his cold blue eyes.

"You've been shoving your nose into books here since six o'clock,"
asserted Buckley.

"I've been trying to get some information for the directors of the
museum," answered Brill. "Look!" He pointed an accusing finger at the
rows of lavishly bound volumes. "Books till it would sicken a dog--and
not a blasted one can tell me the reason for a certain ceremonial
dance practiced by a certain tribe on the West African Coast."

"A lot of the members have knocked around a bit," suggested
Buckley. "Why not ask them?"

"I'm going to." Brill took down a phone from its hook.

"There's John Galt--" began Buckley.

"Too hard to locate. He flits about like a mosquito with the St.
Vitus. I'll try Jim Reynolds." He twirled the dial.

"Thought you'd done some exploring in the tropics yourself,"
remarked Buckley.

"Not worthy of the name. I hung around that God-forsaken Hell-hole
of the West African Coast for a few months until I came down with
malaria--Hello!"

A suave voice, too perfectly accented, came along the wire.

"Oh, is that you, Yut Wuen? I want to speak to Mr. Reynolds."

Polite surprise tinged the meticulous tone.

"Why, Mr. Reynolds went out in response to your call an hour ago,
Mr. Brill."

"What's that?" demanded Brill. "Went where?"

"Why, surely you remember, Mr. Brill." A faint uneasiness seemed
to edge the Chinaman's voice. "At about nine o'clock you called, and I
answered the phone. You said you wished to speak to Mr. Reynolds. Mr.
Reynolds talked to you, then told me to have his car brought around to
the side entrance. He said that you had requested him to meet you at
the cottage on White Lake shore."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Brill. "This is the first time I've phoned
Reynolds for weeks! You've mistaken somebody else for me."

There was no reply, but a polite stubbornness seemed to flow over
the wire. Brill replaced the phone and turned to Buckley, who was
leaning forward with aroused interest.

"Something fishy here," scowled Brill. "Yut Wuen, Jim's Chinese
servant, said _I_ called, an hour ago, and Jim went out to meet me.
Buckley, you've been here all evening. _Did_ I call up anybody? I'm so
infernally absent-minded--"

"No, you didn't," emphatically answered the detective. "I've been
sitting right here close to the phone ever since six o'clock. Nobody's
used it. And you haven't left the library during that time. I'm so
accustomed to spying on people, I do it unconsciously."

"Well, say," said Brill, uneasily, "suppose you and I drive over
to White Lake. If this is a joke, Jim may be over there waiting for me
to show up."

As the city lights fell behind them, and houses gave way to clumps
of trees and bushes, velvet black in the starlight, Buckley said: "Do
you think Yut Wuen made a mistake?"

"What else could it be?" answered Brill, irritably.

"Somebody might have been playing a joke, as you suggested. Why
should anybody impersonate you to Reynolds?"

"How should I know? But I'm about the only acquaintance he'd
bestir himself for, at this time of night. He's reserved, suspicious
of people. Hasn't many friends. I happen to be one of the few."

"Something of a traveler, isn't he?"

"There's no corner of the world with which he isn't familiar."

"How'd he make his money?" Buckley asked, abruptly.

"I've never asked him. But he has plenty of it."

The clumps on each side of the road grew denser, and scattered
pinpoints of light that marked isolated farm houses faded out behind
them. The road tilted gradually as they climbed higher and higher into
the wild hill region which, an hour's drive from the city, locked the
broad crystalline sheet of silver that men called White Lake. Now
ahead of them a glint shivered among the trees, and topping a wooded
crest, they saw the lake spread out below them, reflecting the stars
in myriad flecks of silver. The road meandered along the curving
shore.

"Where's Reynolds' lodge?" inquired Buckley.

Brill pointed. "See that thick clump of shadows, within a few
yards of the water's edge? It's the only cottage on this side of the
lake. The others are three or four miles away. None of them occupied,
this time of the year. There's a car drawn up in front of the
cottage."

"No light in the shack," grunted Buckley, pulling up beside the
long low roadster that stood before the narrow stoop. The building
reared dark and silent before them, blocked against the rippling
silver sheen behind it.

"Hey, Jim!" called Brill. "Jim Reynolds!"

No answer. Only a vague echo shuddering down from the blackly
wooded hills.

"Devil of a place at night," muttered Buckley, peering at the
dense shadows that bordered the lake. "We might be a thousand miles
from civilization."

Brill slid out of the car. "Reynolds must be here--unless he's
gone for a midnight boat ride."

Their steps echoed loudly and emptily on the tiny stoop. Brill
banged the door and shouted. Somewhere back in the woods a night bird
lifted a drowsy note. There was no other answer.

Buckley shook the door. It was locked from the inside.

"I don't like this," he growled. "Car in front of the cottage--
door locked on the inside--nobody answering it. I believe I'll break
the door in--"

"No need." Brill fumbled in his pocket. "I'll use my key."

"How comes it you have a key to Reynolds' shack?" demanded
Buckley.

"It was his own idea. I spent some time with him up here last
summer, and he insisted on giving me a key, so I could use the cottage
any time I wanted to. Turn on your flash, will you? I can't find the
lock. All right, I've got it. Hey, Jim! Are you here?"

Buckley's flash played over chairs and card tables, coming to rest
on a closed door in the opposite wall. They entered and Buckley heard
Brill fumbling about with an arm elevated. A faint click followed and
Brill swore.

"The juice is off. There's a line running out from town to supply
the cottage owners with electricity, but it must be dead. As long as
we're in here, let's go through the house. Reynolds may be sleeping
somewhere--"

He broke off with a sharp intake of breath. Buckley had opened the
door that led to the bedroom. His flash played on the interior--on a
broken chair, a smashed table--a crumpled shape that lay in the midst
of a dark, widening pool.

"Good God, it's Reynolds!"

Buckley's gun glinted in his hand as he played the flash around
the room, sifting the shadows for lurking shapes of menace; it rested
on a bolted rear door; rested longer on an open window, the screen of
which hung in tatters.

"We've got to have more light," he grunted. "Where's the switch?
Maybe a fuse has blown."

"Outside, near that window." Stumblingly Brill led the way out of
the house and around to the window. Buckley flashed his light,
grunted.

"The switch has been pulled!" He pushed it back in place, and
light flooded the cottage. The light streaming through the windows
seemed to emphasize the blackness of the whispering woods around them.
Buckley glared into the shadows, seemed to shiver. Brill had not
spoken; he shook as with ague.

Back in the house they bent over the man who lay in the middle of
the red-splashed floor.

Jim Reynolds had been a stocky, strongly built man of middle age.
His skin was brown and weather-beaten, hinting of tropic suns. His
features were masked with blood; his head lolled back, disclosing an
awful wound beneath his chin.

"His throat's been cut!" stammered Brill. Buckley shook his head.

"Not cut--torn. Good God, it looks like a big cat had ripped him."

The whole throat had literally been torn out; muscles, arteries,
windpipe and the great jugular vein had been severed; the bones of the
vertebrae showed beneath.

"He's so bloody I wouldn't have recognized him," muttered the
detective. "How did you know him so quickly? The instant we saw him,
you cried out that it was Reynolds."

"I recognized his garments and his build," answered the other.
"But what in God's name killed him?"

Buckley straightened and looked about. "Where does that door lead
to?"

"To the kitchen; but it's locked on this side."

"And the outer door of the front room was locked on the inside,"
muttered Buckley. "Doesn't take a genius to see how the murderer got
in--and he--or _it_--went out the same way."

"What do you mean, _it_?"

"Does that look like the work of a human being?" Buckley pointed
to the dead man's mangled throat. Brill winced.

"I've seen black boys mauled by the big cats on the West Coast--"

"And whatever tore Reynolds' gullet out, tore that window screen.
It wasn't cut with a knife."

"Do you suppose a panther from the hills--" began Brill.

"A panther smart enough to throw the electric switch before he
slid through the window?" scoffed Buckley.

"We don't know the killer threw the switch."

"Was Reynolds fooling around in the dark, then? No; when I pushed
the switch back in place, the light came on in here. That shows it had
been on; the button hadn't been pushed back. Whoever killed Reynolds
had a reason for wanting to work in the dark. Maybe this was it!" The
detective indicated, with a square-shod toe, a stubby chunk of blue
steel that lay not far from the body.

"From what I hear about Reynolds, he was quick enough on the
trigger." Buckley slipped on a glove, carefully lifted the revolver,
and scanned the chamber. His gaze, roving about the room again, halted
at the window, and with a single long stride, he reached it and bent
over the sill.

"One shot's been fired from this gun. The bullet's in the window
sill. At least, one bullet is, and it's logical to suppose it's the
one from the empty chamber of Reynolds' gun. Here's the way I
reconstruct the crime: _something_ sneaked up to the shack, threw the
switch, and came busting through the window. Reynolds shot once in the
dark and missed, and then the killer got in his work. I'll take this
gun to headquarters; don't expect to find any fingerprints except
Reynolds', however. We'll examine the light switch, too, though maybe
my dumb pawing erased any fingerprints that might have been there.
Say, it's a good thing you have an iron-clad alibi."

Brill started violently. "What the Hell do you mean?"

"Why, there's the Chinaman to swear you called Reynolds to his
death."

"Why the devil should I do such a thing?" hotly demanded the
scientist.

"Well," answered Buckley, "I know you were in the library of the
club all evening. That's an unshakable alibi--I suppose."

Brill was tired as he locked the door of his garage and turned
toward the house which rose dark and silent among the trees. He found
himself wishing that his sister, with whom he was staying, had not
left town for the weekend with her husband and children. Dark empty
houses were vaguely repellent to him after the happenings of the night
before.

He sighed wearily as he trudged toward the house, under the dense
shadows of the trees that lined the driveway. It had been a morbid,
and harrying day. Tag ends of thoughts and worries flitted through his
mind. Uneasily he remembered Buckley's cryptic remark: "Either Yut
Wuen is lying about that telephone call, or--" The detective had left
the sentence unfinished, casting a glance at Brill that was as
inscrutable as his speech. Nobody believed the Chinaman was
deliberately lying. His devotion to his master was well known--a
devotion shared by the other servants of the dead man. Police
suspicion had failed to connect them in any way with the crime.
Apparently none of them had left Reynolds' town house during the day
or the night of the murder. Nor had the murder-cottage given up any
clues. No tracks had been found on the hard earth, no fingerprints on
the gun other than the dead man's nor any except Buckley's on the
light switch. If Buckley had had any luck in trying to trace the
mysterious phone call, he had not divulged anything.

Brill remembered, with a twinge of nervousness, the way in which
they had looked at him, those inscrutable Orientals. Their features
had been immobile, but in their dark eyes had gleamed suspicion and a
threat. He had seen it in the eyes of Yut Wuen, the stocky yellow man;
of Ali, the Egyptian, a lean, sinewy statue of bronze; of Jugra Singh,
the tall, broad-shouldered, turbaned Sikh. They had not spoken their
thoughts; but their eyes had followed him, hot and burning, like
beasts of prey.

Brill turned from the meandering driveway to cut across the lawn.
As he passed under the black shadow of the trees, something sudden,
clinging and smothering, enveloped his head, and steely arms locked
fiercely about him. His reaction was as instinctive and violent as
that of a trapped leopard. He exploded into a galvanized burst of
frantic action, a bucking heave that tore the stifling cloak from his
head, and freed his arms from the arms that pinioned him. But another
pair of arms hung like grim Fate to his legs, and figures surged in on
him from the darkness. He could not tell the nature of his assailants;
they were like denser, moving shadows in the blackness.

Staggering, fighting for balance, he lashed out blindly, felt the
jolt of a solid hit shoot up his arm, and saw one of the shadows sway
and pitch backward. His other arm was caught in a savage grasp and
twisted up behind his back so violently that he felt as if the tendons
were being ripped from their roots. Hot breath hissed in his ear, and
bending his head forward, he jerked it backward again with all the
power of his thick neck muscles. He felt the back of his skull crash
into something softer--a man's face. There was a groan, and the
crippling grip on his imprisoned arm relaxed. With a desperate wrench
he tore away, but the arms that clung to his legs tripped him. He
pitched headlong, spreading his arms to break his fall, and even
before his fingers touched the ground, something exploded in his
brain, showering a suddenly starless night of blackness with red
sparks that were engulfed abruptly in formless oblivion.

Joel Brill's first conscious thought was that he was being tossed
about in an open boat on a stormy sea. Then as his dazed mind cleared,
he realized that he was lying in an automobile which was speeding
along an uneven road. His head throbbed; he was bound hand and foot,
and blanketed in some kind of a cloak. He could see nothing; could
hear nothing but the purr of the racing motor. Bewilderment clouded
his mind as he sought for a clue to the identity of the kidnappers.
Then a sudden suspicion brought out the cold sweat on his skin.

The car lurched to a halt. Powerful hands lifted him, cloak and
all, and he felt himself being carried over a short stretch of level
ground, and apparently up a step or so. A key grated in a lock, a door
rasped on its hinges. Those carrying him advanced; there was a click,
and light shone through the folds of the cloth over Brill's head. He
felt himself being lowered onto what felt like a bed. Then the cloth
was ripped away, and he blinked in the glare of the light. A cold
premonitory shudder passed over him.

He was lying on the bed in the room in which James Reynolds had
died. And about him stood, arms folded, three grim and silent shapes:
Yut Wuen, Ali the Egyptian, and Jugra Singh. There was dried blood on
the Chinaman's yellow face, and his lip was cut. A dark blue bruise
showed on Jugra Singh's jaw.

"The _sahib_ awakes," said the Sikh, in his perfect English.

"What the devil's the idea, Jugra?" demanded Brill, trying to
struggle to a sitting posture. "What do you mean by this? Take these
ropes off me--" His voice trailed away, a shaky resonance of futility
as he read the meaning in the hot dark eyes that regarded him.

"In this room our master met his doom," said Ali.

"_You_ called him forth," said Yut Wuen.

"But I didn't!" raged Brill, jerking wildly at the cords which cut
into his flesh. "Damn it, I knew nothing about it!"

"Your voice came over the wire and our master followed it to his
death," said Jugra Singh.

A panic of helplessness swept over Joel Brill. He felt like a man
beating at an insurmountable wall--the wall of inexorable Oriental
fatalism, of conviction unchangeable. If even Buckley believed that
somehow he, Joel Brill, was connected with Reynolds' death, how was he
to convince these immutable Orientals? He fought down an impulse to
hysteria.

"The detective, Buckley, was with me all evening," he said, in a
voice unnatural from his efforts at control. "He has told you that he
did not see me touch a phone; nor did I leave his sight. I could not
have killed my friend, your master, because while he was being killed,
I was either in the library of the Corinthian Club, or driving from
there with Buckley."

"How it was done, we do not know," answered the Sikh, tranquilly.
"The ways of the _sahibs_ are beyond us. But we _know_ that somehow,
in some manner, you caused our master's death. And we have brought you
here to expiate your crime."

"You mean to murder me?" demanded Brill, his flesh crawling.

"If a _sahib_ judge sentenced you, and a _sahib_ hangman dropped
you through a black trap, white men would call it execution. So it is
execution we work upon you, not murder."

Brill opened his mouth, then closed it, realizing the utter
futility of argument. The whole affair was like a fantastic nightmare
from which he would presently awaken.

Ali came forward with something, the sight of which shook Brill
with a nameless foreboding. It was a wire cage, in which a great gaunt
rat squealed and bit at the wires. Yut Wuen laid upon a card table a
copper bowl, furnished with a slot on each side of the rim, to one of
which was made fast a long leather strap. Brill turned suddenly sick.

"These are the tools of execution, _sahib_," said Jugra Singh,
somberly. "That bowl shall be laid on your naked belly, the strap
drawn about your body and made fast so that the bowl shall not slip.
Inside the bowl the rat will be imprisoned. He is ravenous with
hunger, wild with fear and rage. For a while he will only run about
the bowl, treading on your flesh. But with irons hot from the fire, we
shall gradually heat the bowl, until, driven by pain, the rat begins
to gnaw his way _out_. He can not gnaw through copper; he can gnaw
through flesh--through flesh and muscles and intestines and bones,
_sahib_."

Brill wet his lips three times before he found voice to speak.

"You'll hang for this!" he gasped, in a voice he did not himself
recognize.

"If it be the will of Allah," assented Ali calmly. "This is your
fate; what ours is, no man can say. It is the will of Allah that you
die with a rat in your bowels. If it is Allah's will, we shall die on
the gallows. Only Allah knows."

Brill made no reply. Some vestige of pride still remained to him.
He set his jaw hard, feeling that if he opened his mouth to speak, to
reason, to argue, he would collapse into shameful shrieks and
entreaties. One was useless as the other, against the abysmal fatalism
of the Orient.

Ali set the cage with its grisly Occupant on the table beside the
copper bowl--without warning the light went out.

In the darkness Brill's heart began to pound suffocatingly. The
Orientals stood still, patiently, expecting the light to come on
again. But Brill instinctively felt that the stage was set for some
drama darker and more hideous than that which menaced him. Silence
reigned; somewhere off in the woods a night bird lifted a drowsy note.
There was a faint scratching sound, somewhere--

"The electric torch," muttered a ghostly voice which Brill
recognized as Jugra Singh's. "I laid it on the card table. Wait!"

He heard the Sikh fumbling in the dark; but he was watching the
window, a square of dim, star-flecked sky blocked out of blackness.
And as Brill watched, he saw something dark and bulky rear up in that
square. Etched against the stars he saw a misshapen head, vague
monstrous shoulders.

A scream sounded from inside the room, the crash of a wildly
thrown missile. On the instant there was a scrambling sound, and the
object blotted out the square of starlight, then vanished from it. _It
was inside the room._

Brill, lying frozen in his cords, heard all Hell and bedlam break
loose in that dark room. Screams, shouts, strident cries of agony
mingled with the smashing of furniture, the impact of blows, and a
hideous, worrying, tearing sound that made Brill's flesh crawl. Once
the battling pack staggered past the window, but Brill made out only a
dim writhing of limbs, the pale glint of steel, and the terrible blaze
of a pair of eyes he knew belonged to none of his three captors.

Somewhere a man was moaning horribly, his gasps growing weaker and
weaker. There was a last convulsion of movement, the groaning impact
of a heavy body; then the starlight in the window was for an instant
blotted out again, and silence reigned once more in the cottage on the
lake shore; silence broken only by the death gasps in the dark, and
the labored panting of a wounded man.

Brill heard some one stumbling and floundering in the darkness,
and it was from this one that the racking, panting was emanating. A
circle of light flashed on, and in it Brill saw the blood-smeared face
of Jugra Singh.

The light wandered erratically away, dancing crazily about the
walls. Brill heard the Sikh blundering across the room, moving like a
drunken man, or like one wounded unto death. The flash shone full in
the scientist's face, blinding him. Fingers tugged awkwardly at his
cords, a knife edge was dragged across them, slicing skin as well as
hemp.

Jugra Singh sank to the floor. The flash thumped beside him and
went out. Brill groped for him, found his shoulder. The cloth was
soaked with what Brill knew was blood.

"You spoke truth, _sahib_," the Sikh whispered. "How the call came
in the likeness of your voice, I do not know. But I know, now, what
slew Reynolds, _sahib_. After all these years--but they never forget,
though the broad sea lies between. Beware! The fiend may return. The
gold--the gold was cursed--I told Reynolds, _sahib_--had he heeded me,
he--"

A sudden welling of blood drowned the laboring voice. Under
Brill's hand the great body stiffened and twisted in a brief
convulsion, then went limp.

Groping on the floor, the scientist failed to find the flashlight.
He groped along the wall, found the switch and flooded the cottage
with light.

Turning back into the room, a stifled cry escaped his lips.

Jugra Singh lay slumped near the bed; huddled in a corner was Yut
Wuen, his yellow hands, palms upturned, limp on the floor at his
sides; Ali sprawled face down in the middle of the room. All three
were dead. Throats, breasts and bellies were slashed to ribbons; their
garments were in strips, and among the rags hung bloody tatters of
flesh. Yut Wuen had been disemboweled, and the gaping wounds of the
others were like those of sheep after a mountain lion has ranged
through the fold.

A blackjack still stuck in Yut Wuen's belt. Ali's dead hand
clutched a knife, but it was unstained. Death had struck them before
they could use their weapons. But on the floor near Jugra Singh lay a
great curved dagger, and it was red to the hilt. Bloody stains led
across the floor and up over the window sill. Brill found the flash,
snapped it on, and leaned out the window, playing the white beam on
the ground outside. Dark, irregular splotches showed, leading off
toward the dense woods.

With the flash in one hand and the Sikh's knife in the other,
Brill followed those stains. At the edge of the trees he came upon a
track, and the short hairs lifted on his scalp. A foot, planted in a
pool of blood, had limned its imprint in crimson on the hard loam. And
the foot, bare and splay, was that of a human.

That print upset vague theories of a feline or anthropoid killer,
stirred nebulous thoughts at the back of his mind--dim and awful race
memories of semi-human ghouls, of werewolves who walked like men and
slew like beasts.

A low groan brought him to a halt, his flesh crawling. Under the
black trees in the silence, that sound was pregnant with grisly
probabilities. Gripping the knife firmly, he flashed the beam ahead of
him. The thin light wavered, then focused on a black heap that was not
part of the forest.

Brill bent over the figure and stood transfixed, transported back
across the years and across the world to another wilder, grimmer
woodland.

It was a naked black man that lay at his feet, his glassy eyes
reflecting the waning light. His legs were short, bowed and gnarled,
his arms long, his shoulders abnormally broad, his shaven head set
plump between them without visible neck. That head was hideously
malformed; the forehead projected almost into a peak, while the back
of the skull was unnaturally flattened. White paint banded face,
shoulders and breast. But it was at the creature's fingers which Brill
looked longest. At first glance they seemed monstrously deformed. Then
he saw that those hands were furnished with long curving steel hooks,
sharp-pointed, and keen-edged on the concave side. To each finger one
of these barbarous weapons was made fast, and those fingers, like the
hooks clotted and smeared with blood, twitched exactly as the talons
of a leopard twitch.

A light step brought him round. His dimming light played on a tall
figure, and Brill mumbled: "John Galt!" in no great surprise. He was
so numbed by bewilderment that the strangeness of the man's presence
did not occur to him.

"What in God's name is this?" demanded the tall explorer, taking
the light from Brill's hand and directing it on the mangled shape.
"What in Heaven's name is that?"

"A black nightmare from Africa!" Brill found his tongue at last,
and speech came in a rush. "An Egbo! A leopard man! I learned of them
when I was on the West Coast. He belongs to a native cult which
worships the leopard. They take a male infant and subject his head to
pressure, to make it deformed; and he is brought up to believe that
the spirit of a leopard inhabits his body. He does the bidding of the
cult's head, which mainly consists of executing the enemies of the
cult. He is, in effect, a human leopard!"

"What's he doing here?" demanded Galt, in seeming incredulity.

"God knows. But he must have been the thing that killed Reynolds.
He killed Reynolds' three servants tonight--would have killed me, too,
I suppose, but Jugra Singh wounded him, and he evidently dragged
himself away like a wild beast to die in the jungle--"

Galt seemed curiously uninterested in Brill's stammering
narrative.

"Sure he's dead?" he muttered, bending closer to flash the light
into the hideous face. The illumination was dim; the battery was
swiftly burning out.

As Brill was about to speak, the painted face was briefly
convulsed. The glazed eyes gleamed as with a last surge of life. A
clawed hand stirred, lifted feebly up toward Galt. A few gutturals
seeped through the blubbery lips; the fingers writhed weakly, slipped
from the iron talons, which the black man lifted, as if trying to hand
them to Galt. Then he shuddered, sank back and lay still. He had been
stabbed under the heart, and only a beast-like vitality had carried
him so far.

Galt straightened and faced Brill, turning the light on him. A
beat of silence cut between them, in which the atmosphere was electric
with tension.

"You understand the Ekoi dialect?" It was more an assertion than a
question.

Brill's heart was pounding, a new bewilderment vying with a rising
wrath. "Yes," he answered shortly.

"What did that fool say?" softly asked Galt.

Brill set his teeth and stubbornly took the plunge reason cried
out against. "He said," he replied between his teeth, "'Master, take
my tools to the tribe, and tell them of our vengeance; they will give
you what I promised you.'"

Even as he ground out the words, his powerful body crouched, his
nerves taut for the grapple. But before he could move, the black
muzzle of an automatic trained on his belly.

"Too bad you had to understand that death-bed confession, Brill,"
said Galt, coolly. "I don't want to kill you. I've kept blood off _my_
hands so far through this affair. Listen, you're a poor man, like most
scientists--how'd you consider cutting in on a fortune? Wouldn't that
be preferable to getting a slug through your guts and being planted
alongside those yellow-bellied stiffs down in Reynolds' shack for them
to get the blame?"

"No man wants to die," answered Brill, his gaze fixed on the light
in Galt's hand--the glow which was rapidly turning redder and dimmer.

"Good!" snapped Galt. "I'll give you the low-down. Reynolds got
his money in the Kameroons--stole gold from the Ekoi, which they had
stored in the ju-ju hut; he killed a priest of the Egbo cult in
getting away. Jugra Singh was with him. But they didn't get all the
gold. And after that the Ekoi took good care to guard it so nobody
could steal what was left.

"I knew this fellow, Guja, when I was in Africa. I was after the
Ekoi gold then, but I never had a chance to locate it. I met Guja a
few months ago, again. He'd been exiled from his tribe for some crime,
had wandered to the Coast and been picked up with some more natives
who were brought to America for exhibition in the World's Fair.

"Guja was mad to get back to his people, and he spilled the whole
story of the gold. Told me that if he could kill Reynolds, his tribe
would forgive him. He knew that Reynolds was somewhere in America, but
he was helpless as a child to find him. I offered to arrange his
meeting with the gold-thief, if Guja would agree to give me some of
the gold his tribe hoarded.

"He swore by the skull of the great leopard. I brought him
secretly into these hills, and hid him up yonder in a shack the
existence of which nobody suspects. It took me a wretched time to
teach him just what he was to do--he'd no more brains than an ape.
Night after night I went through the thing with him, until he learned
the procedure: to watch in the hills until he saw a light flash in
Reynolds' shack. Then steal down there, jerk the switch--and kill.
These leopard men can see like cats at night.

"I called Reynolds up myself; it wasn't hard to imitate your
voice. I used to do impersonations in vaudeville. While Guja was
tearing the life out of Reynolds, I was dining at a well-known night
club, in full sight of all.

"I came here tonight to smuggle him out of the country. But his
blood-lust must have betrayed him. When he saw the light flash on in
the cottage again, it must have started a train of associations that
led him once more to the cottage, to kill whoever he found there. I
saw the tag end of the business--saw him stagger away from the shack,
and then you follow him.

"Now then, I've shot the works. Nobody knows I'm mixed up in this
business, but you. Will you keep your mouth shut and take a share of
the Ekoi gold?"

The glow went out. In the sudden darkness, Brill, his pent-up
feelings exploding at last, yelled: "Damn you, no! You murdering dog!"
and sprang aside. The pistol cracked, an orange jet sliced the
darkness, and the bullet fanned Brill's ear as he threw the heavy
knife blindly. He heard it rattle futilely through the bushes, and
stood frozen with the realization that he had lost his desperate
gamble.

But even as he braced himself against the tearing impact of the
bullet he expected, a sudden beam drilled the blackness, illuminating
the convulsed features of John Galt.

"Don't move, Galt; I've got the drop on you."

It was the voice of Buckley. With a snarl, Galt took as desperate
a chance as Brill had taken. He wheeled toward the source of the
light, snapping down his automatic. But even as he did so, the
detective's .45 crashed, and outlined against the brief glare, Galt
swayed and fell like a tall tree struck by lightning.

"Dead?" asked the scientist, mechanically.

"Bullet tore through his forearm and smashed his shoulder,"
grunted Buckley. "Just knocked out temporarily. He'll live to decorate
the gallows."

"You--you heard--?" Brill stuttered.

"Everything. I was just coming around the bend of the lake shore
and saw a light in Reynolds' cottage, then your flash bobbing among
the trees. I came sneaking through the bushes just in time to hear you
give your translation of the nigger's dying words. I've been prowling
around this lake all night."

"You suspected Galt all the time?"

The detective grinned wryly.

"I ought to say yes, and establish myself as a super sleuth. But
the fact is, I suspected _you_ all the time. That's why I came up here
tonight--trying to figure out your connection with the murder. That
alibi of yours was so iron-clad it looked phony to me. I had a
sneaking suspicion that I'd bumped into a master-mind trying to put
over the 'perfect crime.' I apologize! I've been reading too many
detective stories lately!"




THE END




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