A cry from beyond the bolted door—a thick, desperate croaking that gaspingly repeated a name. Stuart Brent paused in the act of filling a whisky glass, and shot a startled glance toward the door from beyond which that cry had come. It was his name that had been gasped out—and why should anyone call on him with such frantic urgency at midnight in the hall outside his apartment?
He stepped to the door, without stopping to set down the square amber bottle. Even as he turned the knob, he was electrified by the unmistakable sounds of a struggle outside—the quick fierce scuff of feet, the thud of blows, then the desperate voice lifted again. He threw the door open.
The richly appointed hallway outside was dimly lighted by bulbs concealed in the jaws of gilt dragons writhing across the ceiling. The costly red rugs and velvet tapestries seemed to drink in this soft light, heightening an effect of unreality. But the struggle going on before his eyes was as real as life and death.
There were splashes of a brighter crimson on the dark-red rug. A man was down on his back before the door, a slender man whose white face shone like a wax mask in the dim light. Another man crouched upon him, one knee grinding brutally into his breast, one hand twisting at the victim's throat. The other hand lifted a red-smeared blade.
Brent acted entirely through impulse. Everything happened simultaneously. The knife was swinging up for the downward drive even as he opened the door. At the height of its arc it hovered briefly as the wielder shot a venomous, slit-eyed glance at the man in the doorway. In that instant Brent saw murder about to be done, saw that the victim was a white man, the killer a swarthy alien of some kind. Age-old implanted instincts acted through him, without his conscious volition. He dashed the heavy whisky bottle full into the dark face with all his power. The hard, stocky body toppled backward in a crash of broken glass and a shower of splattering liquor, and the knife rang on the floor several feet away. With a feline snarl the fellow bounced to his feet, red-eyed, blood and whisky streaming from his face and over his collar.
For an instant he crouched as if to leap at Brent barehanded. Then the glare in his eyes wavered, turned to something like fear, and he wheeled and was gone, lunging down the stair with reckless haste. Brent stared after him in amazement. The whole affair was fantastic, and Brent was irritated. He had broken a self-imposed rule of long standing—which was never to butt into anything which was not his business.
"Brent!" It was the wounded man, calling him weakly.
Brent bent down to him.
"What is it, old fellow—Thunderation! Stockton!"
"Get me in, quick!" panted the other, staring fearfully at the stair. "He may come back—with others."
Brent stooped and lifted him bodily. Stockton was not a bulky man, and Brent's trim frame concealed the muscles of an athlete. There was no sound throughout the building. Evidently no one had been aroused by the muffled sounds of the brief fight. Brent carried the wounded man into the room and laid him carefully on a divan. There was blood on Brent's hands when he straightened.
"Lock the door!" gasped Stockton.
Brent obeyed, and then turned back, frowning concernedly down at the man. They offered a striking contrast—Stockton, light-haired, of medium height, frail, with plain, commonplace features now twisted in a grimace of pain, his sober garments disheveled and smeared with blood; Brent, tall, dark, immaculately tailored, handsome in a virile masculine way, and self-assured. But in Stockton's pale eyes there blazed a fire that burned away the difference between them, and gave the wounded man something that Brent did not possess—something that dominated the scene.
"You're hurt, Dick!" Brent caught up a fresh whisky bottle. "Why, man, you're stabbed to pieces! I'll call a doctor, and—"
"No!" A lean hand brushed aside the whisky glass and seized Brent's wrist. "It's no use. I'm bleeding inside. I'd be dead now, but I can't leave my job unfinished. Don't interrupt just listen!"
Brent knew Stockton spoke the truth. Blood was oozing thinly from the wounds in his breast, where a thin-bladed knife must have struck home at least half a dozen times. Brent looked on, awed and appalled, as the small, bright-eyed man fought death to a standstill, gripping the last fading fringes of life and keeping himself conscious and lucid to the end by the sheer effort of an iron will.
"I stumbled on something big tonight, down in a water-front dive. I was looking for something else uncovered this by accident. Then they got suspicious. I got away—came here because you were the only man I knew in San Francisco. But that devil was after me—caught me on the stair."
Blood oozed from the livid lips, and Stockton spat dryly. Brent looked on helplessly. He knew the man was a secret agent of the British government, who had made a business of tracing sinister secrets to their source. He was dying as he had lived, in the harness.
"Something big!" whispered the Englishman. "Something that balances the fate of India! I can't tell you all now—I'm going fast. But there's one man in the world who must know. You must find him, Brent! His name is Gordon—Francis Xavier Gordon. He's an American; the Afghans call him El Borak. I'd have gone to him—but you must go. Promise me!"
Brent did not hesitate. His soothing hand on the dying man's shoulder was even more convincing and reassuring than his quiet, level voice.
"I promise, old man. But where am I to find him?"
"Somewhere in Afghanistan. Go at once. Tell the police nothing. Spies are all around. If they know I knew you, and spoke with you before I died, they'll kill you before you can reach Gordon. Tell the police I was simply a drunken stranger, wounded by an unknown party, and staggering into your hall to die. You never saw me before. I said nothing before I died.
"Go to Kabul. The British officials will make your way easy that far. Simply say to each one: 'Remember the kites of Khoral Nulla.' That's your password. If Gordon isn't in Kabul, the ameer will give you an escort to hunt for him in the hills. You must find him! The peace of India depends on him, now!"
"But what shall I tell him?" Brent was bewildered.
"Say to him," gasped the dying man, fighting fiercely for a few more moments of life, "say: 'The Black Tigers had a new prince; they call him Abd el Khafid, but his real name is Vladimir Jakrovitch.'"
"Is that all?" This affair was growing more and more bizarre.
"Gordon will understand and act. The Black Tigers are your peril. They're a secret society of Asiatic murderers. Therefore, be on your guard at every step of the way. But El Borak will understand. He'll know where to look for Jakrovitch—in Rub el Harami—the Abode of Thieves—"
A convulsive shudder, and the slim threat that had held the life in the tortured body snapped.
Brent straightened and looked down at the dead man in wonder. He shook his head, marveling again at the inner unrest that sent men wandering in the waste places of the world, playing a game of life and death for a meager wage. Games that had gold for their stake Brent could understand—none better. His strong, sure fingers could read the cards almost as a man reads books; but he could not read the souls of men like Richard Stockton who stake their lives on the bare boards where Death is the dealer. What if the man won, how could he measure his winnings, where cash his chips? Brent asked no odds of life; he lost without a wince; but in winning, he was a usurer, demanding the last least crumb of the wager, and content with nothing less than the glittering, solid materialities of life. The grim and barren game Stockton had played held no promise for Stuart Brent, and to him the Englishman had always been a little mad.
But whatever Brent's faults or virtues, he had his code. He lived by it, and by it he meant to die. The foundation stone of that code was loyalty. Stockton had never saved Brent's life, renounced a girl both loved, exonerated him from a false accusation, or anything so dramatic. They had simply been boyhood friends in a certain British university, years ago, and years had passed between their occasional meetings since then. Stockton had no claim on Brent, except for their old friendship. But that was a tie as solid as a log chain, and the Englishman had known it, when, in the desperation of knowing himself doomed, he had crawled to Brent's door. And Brent had given his promise, and he intended making it good. It did not occur to him that there was any other alternative. Stuart Brent was the restless black sheep of an aristocratic old California family whose founder crossed the plains in an ox wagon in '49—and he had never welshed a bet nor let down a friend.
He turned his head and stared through a window, almost hidden by its satin curtains. He was comfortable here. His luck had been phenomenal of late. To-morrow evening there was a big poker game scheduled at his favorite club, with a fat Oklahoma oil king who was ripe for a cleaning. The races began at Tia Juana within a few days, and Brent had his eye on a slim sorrel gelding that ran like the flame of a prairie fire.
Outside, the fog curled and drifted, beading the pane. Pictures formed for him there—prophetic pictures of an East different from the colorful civilized East he had touched in his roamings. Pictures not at all like the European-dominated cities he remembered, exotic colors of veranda-shaded clubs, soft-footed servants laden with cooling drinks, languorous and beautiful women, white garments and sun helmets. Shiveringly he sensed a wilder, older East; it had blown a scent of itself to him out of the fog, over a knife stained with human blood. An East not soft and warm and exotic-colored, but bleak and grim and savage, where peace was not and law was a mockery, and life hung on the tilt of a balanced blade. The East known by Stockton, and this mysterious American they called "El Borak."
Brent's world was here, the world he had promised to abandon for a blind, quixotic mission; he knew nothing of that other leaner, fiercer world; but there was no hesitation in his manner as he turned toward the door.