Chapter Thirty-Seven. Chang Li

Not without some grumbling as to waste of time and interference with business, the Pilmansey brothers led the way to a side door which opened into a passage that ran along the side of the shop and from whence a staircase rose to the upper regions of the house. The elder pointed, significantly, to the street door at the end.

"You'll take notice that these young fellows I told you of get to the rooms we let them through that?" he observed. "That door's always locked-- they all have latch-keys to it. They never come through the shop--we've nothing to do with them, and we don't know anything about whatever they may do in their rooms--all we're concerned with is that they pay their rent and behave themselves. And quiet enough they've always been--we've had no reason to complain."

"And, as they all have latch-keys, I suppose they can get into the place at any hour of the day--or night?" suggested the Inspector. "There's no bar against them coming here at night?"

"They can come in--and go out--whenever they please," answered the elder man. "I tell you we've nothing to do with them--except as their landlords."

"Where do you live--yourselves?" asked the Inspector. "On these premises?"

"No, we don't," replied the younger brother, who, of the two, had showed the keenest, if most silent, resentment at the police proceedings. "We live--elsewhere. This establishment is opened at eight in the morning, and closed at seven in the evening. We're never here after seven--either of us."

"So that you never see anything of these foreigners at night-time?" asked the Inspector. "Don't know what they do, I suppose?"

"We never see anything of 'em at any time," said the elder brother. "As you see, this passage and staircase is outside the shop. We know nothing whatever about them beyond what I've told you."

"Well--take us up, and we'll see what we can find out," commanded the Inspector. "We're going to examine those rooms, Mr. Pilmansey, so we'll get it done at once."

The intervening rooms between the lower and the top floors of the old house appeared to be given up to stores--the open doors revealed casks, cases, barrels, piles of biscuit and confectionery boxes--nothing to conceal there, decided the lynx-eyed men who trooped up the dingy stairs after the grumbling proprietors. But the door on the top floor was closed --and when Ayscough turned its handle he found it to be locked from within.

"They've keys of their own for that, too," remarked the younger Pilmansey. "I don't see how you're going to get in, if there's nobody inside."

"We're going in there whether there's anybody or not," said the Inspector. "Knock, Ayscough!--knock loudly!"

The group of men gathered behind the leaders, and filling the whole of the lobby outside the closed door, waited, expectant and excited, in the silence which followed on Ayscough's loud beating on the upper panel. A couple of minutes went by: the detective knocked again, more insistently. And suddenly, and silently, the door was opened--first, an inch or two, then a little wider, and as Ayscough slipped a stoutly booted foot inside the crack a yellow face, lighted by a pair of narrow-slitted dark eyes, looked out--and immediately vanished.

"In with you!" said the Inspector. "Careful, now!"

Ayscough pushed the door open and walked in, the rest crowding on his heels. And Purdie, who was one of the foremost to enter, was immediately cognizant of two distinct odours--one, the scent of fragrant tea, the other of a certain heavy, narcotic something which presently overpowered the fragrance of the tea and left an acid and bitter taste.

"Opium," he whispered to Lauriston, who was close at his elbow. "Opium! Smell it?"

But Lauriston was more eyes than nose just then. He, like the rest of his companions, was staring at the scene on which they had entered. The room was of a good size--evidently, from its sloping ceilings, part of the attic story of the old house. The walls were hung with soft, clinging, Oriental draperies and curtains; a few easy chairs of wickerwork, a few small tables of like make, were disposed here and there: there was an abundance of rugs and cushions: in one corner a gas-stove was alight, and on it stood a kettle, singing merrily.

The young man who had opened the door had retreated towards this stove; Purdie noticed that in one hand he held a small tea-pot. And in the left- hand corner, bent over a little table, and absorbed in their game, sat two other young men, correctly attired in English clothes, but obviously Chinese from their eyebrows to their toes, playing chess.

The holder of the tea-pot cast a quick glance at the disturbance of this peaceful scene, and set down his tea-pot; the chess-players looked up for one second, showed not the faintest sign of perturbation--and looked down again. Then the man of the tea-pot spoke--one word.

"Yes?" he said.

"The fact is, Mister," said the elder Pilmansey, "these are police- officers. They want one of your friends--Mr. Chang Li."

The three occupants of the room appeared to pay no attention. The chess- players went on playing; the other man reached for a canister, and mechanically emptied tea out of it into his pot.

"Shut and lock that door, Ayscough," said the Inspector. "Let somebody stand by it. Now," he continued, turning to the three Chinese, "is one of you gentlemen Mr. Chang Li?"

"No!" replied one of the chess-players. "Not one of us!"

"Is he here?" demanded the Inspector. Then seeing that he was to be met by Oriental impassivity, he turned to the Pilmanseys. "What other rooms are there here?" he asked.

"Two," answered the elder brother, pointing to the curtains at the rear of the room. "One there--the other there. Behind those hangings--two smaller rooms."

The Inspector strode forward and tore the curtains aside. He flung open the first of the doors--and started back, catching his breath.

"Phew!" he said.

The heavy, narcotic odour which Purdie had noticed at once on entering the rooms came afresh, out of the newly-opened door, in a thick wave. And as the rest of them crowded after the Inspector, they saw why. This was a small room, hung like the first one with curiously-figured curtains, and lighted only by a sky-light, over which a square of blue stuff had been draped. In the subdued life they saw that there was nothing in that room but a lounge well fitted with soft cushions and pillows--and on it, his spare figure wrapped in a loose gown, lay a young Chinaman, who, as the foremost advanced upon him, blinked in their wondering faces out of eyes the pupils of which were still contracted. Near him lay an opium pipe-- close by, on a tiny stand, the materials for more consumption of the drug.

The man who had accompanied the Inspector in his entrance to the tea-shop strode forward and seized the recumbent figure by the shoulder, shaking him gently.

"Now then!" he said, sharply, "wake up, my man! Are you Chang Li?"

The glazed eyes lifted themselves a little wonderingly; the dry lips moved.

"Yes," he muttered. "Chang Li--yes. You want me?"

"How long have you been here?" demanded the questioner.

"How long--yes? Oh--I don't know. What do you want?" asked Chang Li. "I don't know you."

The tea-maker thrust his head inside the room.

"He can't tell you anything," he said, with a grin. "He has been--what you call on the break-out--with opium--ever so many days. He has--attacks that way. Takes a fit of it--just as some of your people take to the drink. He's coming out of it, now--and he'll be very, very unhappy tomorrow."

The Inspector twisted round on the informant.

"Look here!" he said. "Do you know how long he's been here--stupifying himself? Is it a day--or days?"

One of the chess-players lifted a stolid face.

"He has been here--like that--several days," he said. "It's useless trying to do anything with him when he takes the fit--the craving, you understand?--into his head. If you want any information out of him, you'd better call again in a few hours."

"Do you mean to tell me he's been here--like that--several days?" demanded the Inspector.

"The young man with the tea-pot grinned again.

"He's never been at a class at the medical school since the 17th," he announced. "I know that--he's in some classes with me. He's been here--all the time since then."

The Inspector turned sharply on Ayscough.

"The 17th!" he exclaimed. "And that affair was on the 18th! Then--"

Chang Li was fumbling in a pocket of his gown. He found something there, raised a hand to his lips, swallowed something. And in a few seconds, as his eyes grew brighter, he turned a suspicious and sullen glance on the group which stood watching him.

"What do you want?" he growled. "Who are you?"

"We want some information from you," said the Inspector. "When did you last see your brother, or friend, or whatever he is--Chen Li?"

Chang Li shook his head--it was obvious that he had no clear recollection.

"Don't know," he answered. "Perhaps just now--perhaps tomorrow--perhaps not for a long time."

"When were you last at home--in Maida Vale?" asked the Inspector.

But Chang Li gave no answer to that beyond a frown, and it was evident that as his wits cleared his temper was becoming ugly. He began to look round with more intelligence, scanning one face after another with growing dislike, and presently he muttered certain observations to himself which, though not in English, sounded anything but complimentary to those who watched him. And Ayscough suddenly turned to the superior officials.

"If this man's been here ever since the 17th," he said, "he can't have had anything to do with the affairs in Praed Street and Maida Vale! Supposing, now--I'm only supposing--that young Jap's been lying all the time?" He turned again--this time on the two chess-players, who had now interrupted their game and were leaning back in their chairs, evidently amused at the baffled faces of the searchers. "Here!" he said, "do you know one Yada-- Mori Yada--a Japanese? Is he one of you?"

"Oh, yes!" answered one of the chess-players. "Yada,--yes! We know him--a very smart fellow, Yada. You know him--too?"

But before Ayscough could reply to this somewhat vexatious question, a man who had been left in the tearooms came hurrying up the staircase and burst in upon them. He made straight for the Inspector.

"Man from the office, sir, outside in a taxi!" he exclaimed breathlessly. "You're on the wrong track--you're to get to Multenius's shop in Praed Street at once. The real man's there!"