Part III. At the House of Ah-Fang-Fu
Chapter I. The Brain-Thieves
 

The Assistant Commissioner lighted a cigarette. "It would appear, then," he said, "that whilst some minor difficulties have been smoothed away, we remain face to face with the major problem: who is 'The Scorpion' and to what end are his activities directed?"

Gaston Max shrugged his shoulders and smiled at Dr. Stuart.

"Let us see," he suggested, "what we really know about this 'Scorpion'. Let us make a brief survey of our position in the matter. Let us take first what we have learned of him--if it is a 'him' with whom we have to deal--from the strange experiences of Dr. Stuart. Without attaching too much importance to that episode five years ago on the Wu-Men Bridge; perhaps he is not. We will talk about this one again presently.

"We come to the arrival on the scene of Zara el-Khala, also called Mlle. Dorian. She comes because of what I have told to the scarred man from Paris, she comes to obtain that dangerous information which is to be sent to Scotland Yard, she comes, in a word, from 'The Scorpion.' We have two links binding the poor one 'Le Balafre' to 'The Scorpion': (1) his intimacy with Miguel and those others with whom 'Scorpion' communicated by telephone; (2) his possession of the golden ornament which lies there upon the table and which I took from his pocket. What can we gather from the statement made to Dr. Stuart by Mlle. Dorian? Let us study this point for a moment.

"In the first place we can only accept her words with a certain skepticism. Her story may be nothing but a fabrication. However, it is interesting because she claims to be the unwilling servant of a dreaded master. She lays stress upon the fact that she is an Oriental and does not enjoy the same freedom as a European woman. This is possible, up to a point. On the other hand she seems to enjoy not only freedom but every luxury. Therefore it may equally well be a lie. Some slight colour is lent to her story by the extraordinary mode of life which she followed in Paris. In the midst of Bohemianism she remained secluded as an odalisque in some harem garden of Stambul, whether by her own will or by will of another we do not know. One little point her existence seems to strengthen: that we are dealing with Easterns; for Zara el-Khala is partly of Eastern blood and her follower Chunda Lal is a Hindu. Eh bien.

"Consider the cowled man whose shadow Dr. Stuart has seen on two occasions: once behind the curtain of his window and once cast by the moonlight across the lawn of his house. The man himself he has never seen. Now this hooded man cannot have been 'Le Balafre', for 'Le Balafre' was already dead at the time of his first appearance. He may be 'The Scorpion'!"

Max paused impressively, looking around at those in the Commissioner's room.

"For a moment I return to the man of the Wu Men Bridge. The man of the Wu-Men Bridge was veiled and this one is hooded! The man of the Wu-Men Bridge was known as 'The Scorpion,' and this one also is associated with a scorpion. We will return yet again to this point in a moment.

"Is there something else which we may learn from the experiences of Dr. Stuart? Yes! We learn that 'The Scorpion' suddenly decides that Dr. Stuart is dangerous, either because of his special knowledge (which would be interesting) or because the 'Scorpion' believes that he has become acquainted with the contents of the sealed envelope-- which is not so interesting although equally dangerous for Dr. Stuart. 'The Scorpion' acts. He pays a second visit, again accompanied by Chunda Lal, who seems to be a kind of watch-dog who not only guards the person of Zara el-Kahla but who also howls when danger threatens the cowled man!

"And what is the weapon which the cowled man (who may be 'The Scorpion') uses to remove Dr. Stuart? It is a frightful weapon, my friends; it is a novel and deadly weapon. It is a weapon of which science knows nothing--a blue ray of the colour produced by a Mercury Vapour Lamp, according to Dr. Stuart who has seen it, and producing an odour like that of a blast furnace according to myself, who smelled it! Or this odour might have been caused by the fusing of the telephone; for the blue ray destroys such fragile things as telephones as easily as it destroys wood and paper! There is even a large round hole burned through the clay at the back of the study grate and through the brick wall behind it! Very well. 'The Scorpion' is a scientist and he is also the greatest menace to the world which the world has ever been called upon to deal with. You agree with me?"

Inspector Dunbar heaved a great sigh, Stuart silently accepted a cigarette from the Assistant Commissioner's box and the Assistant Commissioner spoke, slowly.

"I entirely agree with you, M. Max. Respecting this ray, as well as some one or two other minutiae, I have made a short note which we will discuss when you have completed your admirably lucid survey of the case."

"These are the things, then, which we learn from the terrible experiences of Dr. Stuart. Placing these experiences side by side with my own in Paris and in London--which we have already discussed in detail--we find that we have to deal with an organisation--the object of which is unknown--comprising among its members both Europeans ('Le Balafre' was a Frenchman, I believe), cross-breeds such as Miguel and Zara el-Khala" (Stuart winced), "one Algerian and a Hindu. It is then an organisation having ramifications throughout Europe, the East and, mon Dieu! where not? To continue. This little image"--he took up from the Commissioner's table the golden scorpion, and the broken fragment of tail--"is now definitely recognized by Dr. Stuart--who is familiar with the work of Oriental goldsmiths--to be of Chinese craftsmanship!"

"It may possibly be Tibetan," interrupted Stuart; "but it comes to the same thing."

"Very well," continued Max. "It is Chinese. We hope, very shortly, to identify a house situated somewhere within this red ink circle"--he placed his finger on a map of London which lay open on the table--"and which I know to be used as a meeting-place by members of this mysterious group. That circle, my friends, surrounds what is now known as 'Chinatown'! For the third time I return to the man of the Wu-Men Bridge; for the man of the Wu-Men Bridge was, apparently, a Chinaman! Do I make myself clear?"

"Remarkably so," declared the Assistant Commissioner, taking a fresh cigarette. "Pray continue, M. Max."

"I will do so. One of my most important investigations, in which I had the honour and the pleasure to be associated with Inspector Dunbar, led to the discovery of a dangerous group controlled by a certain 'Mr. King'----"

"Ah!" cried Dunbar, his tawny eyes sparkling with excitement, "I was waiting for that!"

"I knew you would be waiting for it, Inspector. Your powers of deductive reasoning more and more are earning my respect. You recall that singular case? The elaborate network extending from London to Buenos Ayres, from Peking to Petrograd? Ah! a wonderful system. It was an opium syndicate, you understand,"--turning again to the Assistant Commissioner.

"I recall the case," replied the Commissioner, "although I did not hold my present appointment at the time. I believe there were unsatisfactory features?"

"There were," agreed Max. "We never solved the mystery of the identity of 'Mr. King,' and although we succeeded in destroying the enterprise I have since thought that we acted with undue precipitation."

"Yes," said Dunbar rapidly; "but there was that poor girl to be rescued, you will remember? We couldn't waste time."

"I agree entirely, Inspector. Our hands were forced. Yet, I repeat, I have since thought that we acted with undue precipitation. I will tell you why. Do you recall the loss--not explained to this day--of the plans of the Haley torpedo?"

"Perfectly," replied the Commissioner; and Dunbar also nodded affirmatively.

"Very well. A similar national loss was sustained about the same time by my own Government. I am not at liberty to divulge its exact nature, as in the latter case the loss never became known to the public. But the only member of the French Chamber who had seen this document to which I refer was a certain 'M. Blank,' shall we say? I believe also that I am correct in stating that the late Sir Brian Malpas was a member of the British Cabinet at the time that the Haley plans were lost?"

"That is correct," said the Assistant Commissioner, "but surely the honour of the late Sir Brian was above suspicion?"

"Quite," agreed Max; "so also was that of 'M. Blank.' But my point is this: Both 'M. Blank' and the late Sir Brian were clients of the opium syndicate!"

Dunbar nodded again eagerly.

"Hard work I had to hush it up," he said. "It would have finished his political career."

The Assistant Commissioner looked politely puzzled.

"It was generally supposed that Sir Brian Malpas was addicted to drugs," he remarked; "and I am not surprised to learn that he patronised this syndicate to which you refer. But----" he paused, smiling satanically. "Ah!" he added--"I see! I see!"

"You perceive the drift of my argument?" cried Max. "You grasp what I mean when I say that we were too hasty? This syndicate existed for a more terrible purpose than the promulgating of a Chinese vice; it had in its clutches men entrusted with national secrets, men of genius but slaves of a horrible drug. Under the influence of that drug, my friends, how many of those secrets may they not have divulged?"

His words were received in hushed silence.

"What became of those stolen plans?" he continued, speaking now in a very low voice. "In the stress of recent years has the Haley torpedo made its appearance so that we might learn to which Government the plans had been taken? No! the same mystery surrounds the fate of the information filched from the drugged brain of 'M. Blank.' In a word"-- he raised a finger dramatically--"someone is hoarding up those instruments of destruction! Who is it that collects such things and for what purpose does he collect them?"

Following another tense moment of silence:

"Let us have your own theory, M. Max," said the Assistant Commissioner.

Gaston Max shrugged his shoulders.

"It is not worthy of the name of a theory," he replied, "the surmise which I have made. But recently I found myself considering the fact that 'The Scorpion' might just conceivably be a Chinaman. Now, 'Mr. King,' we believe was a Chinaman, and 'Mr. King,' as I am now convinced, operated not for a personal but for a deeper, political purpose. He stole the brains of genius and accumulated that genius. Is it not possible that these contrary operations may be part of a common plan?"