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THE DEVIL IN THE DARK: A CASE FOR STEVE HARRISON
By Robert E. Howard & Steve Miller
(Copyright ©2012 Steve Miller. All Rights Reserved.)
Part Two: The Cabin in the WoodsJim Hong was lying face down in a pool of his own blood, his red-dabbled limbs sprawling drunkenly. He was dead.
Harrison rose from his crouch, shaking out and discarding the match. He thought that Jim hadn’t deserved a death like that—he had been a petty crook, but he had never made anyone suffer like he had suffered in his final moments. The detective gritted his teeth, looking at the surrounding forest that hid the thing that had killed him. That it was a man he knew; the outline, in the brief light of the muzzle flashes, had been vague, but unmistakably human. He also knew that it had been too slender of build to be Ku Chang eventhough Harrison wouldn’t put it past the diseased and psychopathic imagination of Chang to conceive of a weapon that could make a wound like the merciless champing of great bestial teeth. It meant there wasn’t just one killer lurking in these woods, but two.
Harrison weighed his choices. Should he risk his life further by continuing to Shen’s cottage, or should he return to the outer world and bring in men and dogs, to carry out poor Jim’s corpse, and hunt down his murderer? It only took moments for him to reach a decision. He had set out to perform a task, and if a murderous criminal besides Ku Chang were abroad in the piney woods, there was all the more reason for warning the men in that lonely cabin and all the more likelihood that it might serve as a lure to one or both of them. As for his own danger, he was already more than halfway to the cabin. It would scarcely be more dangerous to advance than to retreat.
So he left Jim Hong’s body there in the trail, and went on, gun in hand, and nerves sharpened by the new peril. Where he had been moving through the darkness by choice before, he now did so without option. The flashlight’s malfunction might have been temporary, but when he had failed to locate it on the ground. After using five matches in the search, he decided to save the rest in the box and just brave the night. His reasoning for not keeping his flashlight on still remained—he didn’t want the light alerting his quarry. Either one of them.
His nerves on edge and all his senses heightened in their anticipation of danger, Harrison kept his calm by reviewing what he knew about the situation. Jim Hong had definitely not been killed by Ku Chang. Harrison had the dead man’s word for it that the attacker was a mysterious white man; the glimpse he had had of the figure had confirmed the fact that he wasn’t Chang. This man who had come at Harrison was tall and spare, while Chang was squat and muscular. And the face? Harrison couldn’t remember the face except for a possible falsh of white. It might have been bandaged as Jim had said, or might Harrison have seen a glimpse of monstrous fangs?
He swore under his breath as an involuntary shudder ran through him, causing his wounded shoulder to throb. Walking along a black forest trail with only the stars glinting through the dense branches, with the knowledge that any one of two ruthless murderers by be lurking within arm’s length in the concealing darkness, was bad enough without needing to spook himself further.
He dismissed all thoughts of monstrous fangs, but the recollection of the butchered Chinaman and his tortured screams burned vividily in his mind. Sweat beaded on his face and hands, and he wheeled a score of times, glaring into the blackness where his ears had caught the rustle of leaves or the breaking of a twig—how could he know whether the sounds were but the natural noises of the forest, or the stealthy movements of a killer?
Harrison stopped dead. Some distane away, through the black trees, he glimpsed a faint, lurid glow. It was not stationary; it moved, but it was too far away for him to make out the source. With his hair prickling unpleasantly he watched as the mysterious glow bobbed up and down and vanished.
“You damned idiot,” Harrison growled at himself. That light had been someone walking with a pine-knot torch, but he had let irrational fear seize him again, and he had stood there like a little child afraid of the dark and ghosts. That was probably Ku Chang that he had just let slip away.
Steeled by self-disgust, Harrison moved on, a little quicker that before. He was out of his element, and that was rattling his nerves, but this fear that kept seizing him was going to get him killed if he didn’t control it.
He saw the light of Kai Shen’s cottage gleaming through the pines. While he sighed with relief, he did not relax his vigilance. Many a man, danger-dogged, had been struck down at the very threshold of safety—because what appeared to be safety might be a trap; either one of the killers in the woods could have gotten here first. Knocking on the door, Harrison stood sidewise, shifting his gaze from the door to the shadows that ringed the tiny clearing and seemed to repel the faint light from the shuttered windows and back again.
“Who’s there?” came a deep harsh voice from within. “Is that you, Ashley?”
Harrison knew Ashley was Kai Shen’s man-servant. “No; it’s Steve Harrison—I’m a detective from the River Street Precinct. We met a couple of years ago. Open the door.”
The upper half of the door swung inward, and Kai Shen’s head and shoulders were framed in the opening. The light behind him left most of his face in shadow, but could not obscure the harsh gaunt lines of his features nor the gleam of the bleak black eyes.
“What do you want, at this time of night?” he demanded, his bruqueness seemingly heightened by his perfect and proper British accent.
“I came to tell you that it’s very likely that a dangerous criminal is nearby. He’s a Tong enforcer by the name of Ku Chang. This morning he killed two police officers and a shopkeeper I think you know, Ming Lee. He fled into the forest, and since he’s a superstitious sort, so I think he’s headed here so you can maie him a good luck charm. I thought you ought to be warned and—”
“Well, you’ve warned me,” he said, cutting Harrison off. “Now be off.”
“I have no intention of going back through those woods tonight,” Harrison answered coldly. “I came in here to warn you, but also because I think I can lay a trap for Chang here. If I stay the night—“
“That is out of the question,” Shen snapped. “I never admit strangers into my home, and if this Ku Chang shows up here, I assure you that I have the means to defend myself.”
Shen shifted behind his weight on his feet and Harrison realized that he couldn’t see the other man’s hands. “I’m not a stranger,” Harrison reminded him. “I’m also an officer of the law. I’m going to take out my badge and show you, so relax. See?”
Shen scowled at the small shield in Harrison’s hand. “Just because I’ve met you doesn’t mean I know you. And I don’t care that you’re a policeman. I know my rights as an American citizen, and I don’t have to let you into my house unless you have a warrant.”
“Fine. But— Can I at least ask you to help me clean and dress my shoulder?”
Shen lifted one of his hands to peel back Harrison’s torn jacket. From his shoulders, the detective guessed the other held something heavy—a weapon of some sort. Shen scowled again. “It is not that bad, but— Fine. I will help you, but then you will leave.”
“Sure. Whatever we can work out.” Harrison thought that once he was inside, he could speak with Shen’s servant, Ashley, and get an ally to help make his case in favor of him remaining here, at least for the night. “But let’s hurry. Ku Chang isn’t the only killer out there tonight.”
At that Shen halted in his fumbling at the lower door, and glared at Harrison. “What do you mean?”
“There’s a dead man a mile or so up the trail. The person who killed him tried to kill me. He may be after you, for all I know. The man he killed was guiding him here.”
Shen started violently and his face went livid. “Who—what man?”
“The dead man is Jim Hong; I doubt you knew him.”
“No! The killer!”
“I don’t know. A fellow who manages to rip his victims like a hound—”
“A hound!” The words burst out in a scream. “Ashley! Did you see Ashley out there?!”
“Ashley? No—isn’t he in the house with you?”
“No, you fool! He went to the city for supplies!” The change in Shen was hideous. His eyes seemed starting from his head and his skin was the hue of ashes. His lips drew back from his teeth in a grin of sheer terror. He gagged and then found voice. “You must have passed him in the forest!”
“Not if he was traveling by motor,” Harrison noted, gesturing to indicate the forest behind the cottage, and the road that lay somewhere beyond that.
“Find him! Bring him back here, or I will not admit you!” Shen shrieked.
“No!” Shen screamed. He brought his hands above the lower half of the door and Harrison was staring into the gaping muzzles of a sawed-off shotgun. “I know why you wanted to get into my house! You bloody devil! He sent you! You’re his spy! Get out of here!”
“You’re threatening an officer of the law, Shen,” Harrison growled. “This won’t end well for you.”
“Go before I kill you!” Shen shrieked, thrusting the shotgun forward.
“Be careful with that thing,” Harrison grumbled and stepped back off the stoop. He was well aware of what a close-range blast from that murderous implement of destruction could bring, and the livid, convulsed face behind those black muzzles promised sudden demolition. “I’m going. But don’t think you’ve heard the end of this, Shen. I’ll be back. Meanwhile, keep your doors and windows locked—I don’t want you getting killed before the judge has his way with you.”
Shen made no reply; panting and shivering like a man smitten with ague, he crouched over his shotgun and watched Harrison as the detective walked backwards across the clearing. Where the trees began, Harrison could have drawn his gun wheeled and shot Shen without much danger, for his .45 would out-range the old man’s shortened scatter-gun. But Harrison had come there to warn the fool, not to kill him. There was also the issue of the sound of gunfire scaring Ku Chang off—and it really would be more satisfying to see that idiot Shen up on some charges rather than dead.
When Harrison was close to the trees, he turned to the piney dark. As he did, the upper door slammed, and the stream of light was cut abruptly off. He walked a few paces into the forest, drew his gun, and leaned against a tree.
What now? He had beaten Chang here, so his hope of staging an ambush still stood. But was it still the best move? There was someone else in the area, someone who had asked to be led to Kai Shen’s cottage. Whoever it was, he was a killer even more brutal than Chang and someone who had filled Shen with a fear that bordered on insanity. He must have exiled himself to this lonely stretch of pinelands to escape this person. A person who he knew ripped victims to shreds like a savage dog.
But Shen hadn’t come into the woods alone. He had brought Ashley. Ashley might have the answers Shen was unwilling to give. Ashley might also be in danger, because if Shen’s reaction was anything to go by, whoever this person was, he was just as much after Ashley has he was Shen.
With a grunt, Harrison, righted himself and circled around the edge of the clearing, looking for the rutted path that connected the cottage with the highway. When he located it, he again strode into the darkness. As the faint light shining from the cabin’s shuttered windows vanished among the black trees, a curious, chill, sinking feeling obsessed me, as if the disappearance of that light, hostile as was its source, had severed the only link that connected this nightmarish adventure with the world of sanity and humanity.
Grimly taking hold of his nerves, he strode steadily on up the trail, trying to keep as close to its center as he could, trying to pierce the darkness with his eyes and his ears pricking with every sound. At that point the branches interlaced over the trail, forming a black arch through which not even the stars gleamed. As he passed through this even deeper darkness, he heard a branch snap to his left.
Without conscious thought, he whippd his gun toward the sound and fired. The momentary burst of light from the gun’s muzzle revealed nothing but the rutted dirt road and the trees that lined it—and in its aftermath, Harrison saw phantom lights before his dazzled eyes and had the rapport ringing in his ears. But he was sure he heard no other sounds of movement; it must have been his imagination or a sound more remote than it had seemed.
Reminding himself that the gunfire could draw both Chang and the mysterious killer to his location, Harrison started moving again, a little quicker this time.
He reached the highway. There wasn’t much more light out of the forest as there had been in it, but Harrison found the clear view of the stars overhead and the dull sheen of the blacktop that stretched like a lifeline back to the city very, very comforting.
“Next time you get a bright idea like heading into the forest at night,” he grunted, “damn well stop and get a second opinion. At least don’t do it when your partner’s recovering from a bullet to the shoulder.”
Harrison began walking in the direction of the city, again keeping to the middle of the road. It seemed to him that his shoes were clicking on the blacktop with each step, but he knew that had to be his imagination—his relentless foe this night. But he felt fairly safe with his feet on the pavement that was his natural environment… and he knew that he would easily spot and shoot anyone who tried to charge at him from the woods.
He crested a small rise after which the road started a gradual decline to a bend that took it out of view. But in the distance he saw the lights of the city and the ships in the bay. His heart soared at that sight, and he promised himself that he would take his girlfriend Joan to every play, nightclub act and movie she wanted to see; every resteraunt she wantd to try; every art exhibit she wanted “experience” for the next year. Hell, he might even join her at one of those meetings or whateer it was that she had been going to in order to get more in touch with the Chinese side of her background. Likewise, whenever one of the detectives wanted to go for a drink after work, Harrison would not turn down the invitation. However this night ended, he knew that he was going to spent the foreseeable future appreciating everything glorious citylife had to offer. Even the bums, drunks, and grifters.
As he was making these vows to himself, Harrison heard the unmistakable sound of a car engine drawing closer, out of site as it climbed the hill from the city. Soon, twin shafts of light pierced the darkness, first illuminating treetops and then shifting and angling and vanishing moments moments later a pair of headlights appeared from around the bend in the road.
Harrison holstered his weapon and drew out his badge. He planted himself firmly in the vehicle’s path and held it out before him. As the car drew nearer, he shouted: “Police! Pull over!”
The vehicle slowed, and came to a stop. Harrison went to the driver’s side of the sedan and looked in. A square-faced, elderly white man in a dark fedora looked back. he recognized him to be Ashley. In the front seat next to him, much to Harrison’s surprise, was a young Chinese woman. Her dark eyes glittered by the dashboard lights under the broad brim of a hat not unlike one Joan only wore on special occasions.
“Ashley... Miss,” he said. “I am Steve Harrison, a detective with the River Street Precinct.”
“Another checkpoint?” asked the young woman, putting a slim, gloved hand on Ashley’s arm.
. “No, Miss. I came out here to warn Ashley’s employer about Ku Chang possibly heading for his cabin. There’s been a development, so I thought it best to stop you here on the road.”
“Is Mr. Sheng all right?” Ashley asked, his voice carrying a tone of apprehension rather than concern. Harrison also saw the inquisitiveness ebb from his countenance and horror grow there. It was clear to Harrison that he wouldn’t have to go into too many details; Ashley was obviously already concerned about danger to his master.
“Mr. Shen is fine for the moment,” Harrison said. “But I need to ride with you back to the cabin. And, pardon me, but who is the young lady with you?”
“She’s Mr. Shen’s niece.” The answer came tonelessly through dry lips. “Please, get in the car.”
Harrison opened the back door and slid into the car. He grunted at a painful twinge in his shoulder.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Harrison. I am Sarah Shen,” the young woman said, turning in her seat as Ashley set the car moving again. She continued in a cultured accent, “I’ve come down from—oh! You’re hurt!”
Harrison pulled his coat tighter, trying to cover the red that stained his white shirt. “It looks worse than it is. You’ve no reason to worry, Miss Shen.”
“My uncle will take care of you,” she said confidently and sweetly; it was a real struggle for Harrison to not make a bitterly sarcastic reply.
“Whatn was it you were saying about coming down from somewhere?” Harrison asked.
“I’ve come down from New York, because Uncle Kai wired for me to come to him at once—”
“I’ve seen the wire,” Ashley muttered. Harrison got the feeling that an argument was about to restart. “You showed it to me. But I don’t know how he sent it. He hasn’t been to the city, to my knowledge, in months.”
“And I can’t understand why the telegram was sent to me, instead of to somebody else in the family—”
“You were always your uncle’s favorite, Miss,” said Ashley. He turned the car onto the unpaved road leading to Shen’s cabin.
“We should all be blessed with such close relations,” Harrison said, hoping to disrupt the repeat. “But if Ashley wasn’t expecting you, it was awfully lucky that you should arrive on the very day Ashley was picking up supplies—and even luckier that you should happen upon each other."
“Oh, it wasn’t luck. Uncle’s telegram was quite specific in the train I should take. I was leaving the station and abot to hire a car when I saw Ashley coming out of the shipping office.”
“I always check to see if there are packages from the Master’s business interests abroad that I need to collect when I’m in the city,” Ashley muttered. “It’s always my last stop.”
“And you’re always very precise.” Sarah said cheerfully, patting his arm. “Uncle Kai knows that you’re like a Swiss clock when it comes to your routines.” She turned to Harrison and said: “Tell him there is nothing fantastic about me being in the train station at just the time to meet him.”
“I’d need to know a little more about the circumstances, Miss,” Harrison said distractedly, glancing out the window at the black forest, then back to the girl, to look past her at the dirt road being illuminated by the headlights. A large pine to the left stood out from his brothers, leaning drunkenly in the direction of the road; Harrison gathered that is what had blotted out the stars for a stretch as he was heading to the highway. Shen’s cabin was’t far .
“My uncle is a very clever man,” she continued. “He and Ashley have been together longer than I’ve been alive, so it wouldn’t be difficult for him to arrange it so our paths crossed. He—”
Harrison noticed the sudden rush of movement to the car’s right. Ashley let out a startled cry. Something massive, like the fist of God Himself, shot out of the shadows and slammed onto the car’s hood. The windscreen blasted inward, showering the car’s inhabitants with glass.
The silence that followed was absolute.
To Be Continued...?