Beyond the door was a corridor. It was very faintly illuminated, as though by reflected light from an open doorway or from another corridor. Now the sound of voices was more distinct. Silently I crept in the direction from which they came.
Presently I came to another corridor running at right angles to the one I was following. The light was stronger here, and I saw that it came from an open doorway farther along the corridor which I was about to enter. I was sure, however, that the voices did not come from this room that I could see, as they would have been far more clear and distinct had they.
My position was a precarious one. I knew nothing at all about the interior arrangements of the building. I did not know along which corridor its inmates came and went. If I were to approach the open doorway, I might place myself in a position where discovery would be certain.
I knew that I was dealing with killers, expert swordsmen all; and I did not try to deceive myself into believing that I would be any match for a dozen or more of them.
However, men who live by the sword are not unaccustomed to taking chances, sometimes far more desperate chances than their mission may seem to warrant.
Perhaps such was the case now, but I had come to Zodanga to learn what I could about the guild of assassins headed by the notorious Ur Jan; and now that fortune had placed me in a position where I might gain a great deal of useful information, I had no thought of retreating because a little danger confronted me.
Stealthily I crept forward, and at last I reached the door. Very cautiously I surveyed the interior of the room beyond, as I moved, inch by inch, across the doorway.
It was a small room, evidently an anteroom; and it was untenanted. There was some furniture in it—a table, some benches; and I noticed particularly an old-fashioned cupboard that stood diagonally across one corner of the room, one of its sides about a foot from the wall.
From where I stood in the doorway, I could now hear the voices quite distinctly; and I was confident that the men I sought were in the adjoining room just beyond.
I crept into the anteroom and approached the door at the opposite end. Just to the left of the door was the cupboard that I have mentioned.
I placed my ear close to the panels of the door in an effort to overhear what was being said in the room beyond, but the words came to me indistinct and muffled. This would never do. I could neither see nor hear anything under these conditions.
I decided that I must find some other point of approach and was turning to leave the room when I beard footsteps approaching along the corridor. I was trapped!
IV.— DEATH BY NIGHT
On more than one occasion in my life have I been in tight places, but it seemed to me at the time that I had seldom before blundered into such a trap. The footsteps were approaching rapidly along the corridor. I could tell by their sound that they were made by more than one person.
If there were only two men, I might fight my way past them; but the noise of the encounter would attract those in the room behind me, and certainly any sort of a fight whatever would delay me long enough so that those who were attracted by it would be upon me before I could escape.
Escape! How could I escape if I were detected? Even if I could reach the balcony, they would be directly behind me; and I could not climb out of reach toward the roof before they could drag me down.
My position seemed rather hopeless, and then my eye fell upon the cupboard standing in the corner just beside me and the little foot wide crack between it and the wall.
The footsteps were almost opposite the doorway. There was no time to be lost.
Quickly I slipped behind the cupboard and waited.
Nor was I a moment too soon. The men in the corridor turned into the room almost immediately, so soon, in fact, that it seemed to me that they must have seen me; but evidently they had not, for they crossed directly to the door to the inner chamber, which one of them threw open.
From my hiding place I could see this man plainly and also into the room beyond, while the shadow of the cupboard hid me from detection.
What I saw beyond that door gave me something to think about. There was a large room in the center of which was a great table, around which were seated at least fifty men—fifty of the toughest looking customers that I have ever seen gathered together. At the head of the table was a huge man whom I knew at once to be Ur Jan. He was a very large man, but well proportioned; and I could tell at a glance that he must be a most formidable fighter.
The man who had thrown open the door I could see also, but I could not see his companion or companions as they were hidden from me by the cupboard.
Ur Jan had looked up as the door opened. “What now?” he demanded. “Who have you with you?” and then, “Oh, I recognize him.”
“He has a message for you, Ur Jan,” said the man at the door. “He said it was a most urgent message, or I would not have brought him here.”
“Let him come in,” said Ur Jan. “We will see what he wants, and you return to your post.”
“Go on in,” said the man, turning to his companion behind him, “and pray to your first ancestor that your message interests Ur Jan; as otherwise you will not come out of that room again on your own feet.”
He stood aside and I saw a man pass him and enter the room. It was Rapas the Rat.
Just seeing his back as he approached Ur Jan told me that he was nervous and terrified. I wondered what could have brought him here, for it was evident that he was not one of the guild. The same question evidently puzzled Ur Jan, as his next words indicated.
“What does Rapas the Ulsio want here?” he demanded.
“I have come as a friend,” replied Rapas. “I have brought word to Ur Jan that he has long wanted.”
“The best word that you could bring to me would be that someone had slit your dirty throat,” growled Ur Jan.
Rapas laughed—it was a rather weak and nervous laugh.
“The great Ur Jan likes his little joke,” mumbled Rapas meekly.
The brute at the head of the table leaped to his feet and brought his clenched fist down heavily upon the solid sorapus wood top.
“What makes you think I joke, you miserable little slit throat? But you had better laugh while you can, for if you haven’t some important word for me, if you have come here where it is forbidden that outsiders come, if you have interrupted this meeting for no good reason, I’ll put a new mouth in your throat; but you won’t be able to laugh through it.”
“I just wanted to do you a favor,” pleaded Rapas. “I was sure that you would like to have the information that I bring, or I would not have come.”
“Well, quick! out with it, what is it?”
“I know who does Fal Sivas’s killing.”
Ur Jan laughed. It was rather a nasty laugh. “So do I” he bellowed; “it is Rapas the Ulsio.”
“No, no, Ur Jan,” cried Rapas, “you wrong me. Listen, Ur Jan.”
“You have been seen entering and leaving the house of Fal Sivas,” accused the assassin chief. “You are in his employ; and for what purpose would he employ such as you, unless it was to do his killing for him?”
“Yes, I went to the house of Fal Sivas. I went there often. He employed me as his bodyguard, but I only took the position so that I might spy upon him. Now that I have learned what I went there to learn, I have come straight to you.”
“Well, what did you learn?”
“I have told you. I have learned who does his killing.”
“Well, who is it, if it isn’t you?”
“He has in his employ a stranger to Zodanga—a panthan named Vandor. It is this man who does the killing.”
I could not repress a smile. Every man thinks that he is a great character reader; and when something like this occurs to substantiate his belief, he has reason to be pleased; and the more so because few men are really good judges of character, and it is therefore very seldom that one of us is open to self congratulation on this score.
I had never trusted Rapas, and from the first I had set him down as a sneak and a traitor. Evidently he was all these.
Ur Jan glowered at him skeptically. “And why do you bring me this information? You are not my friend. You are not one of my people, and as far as I know you are the friend of none of us.”
“But I wish to be,” begged Rapas. “I risked my life to get this information for you because I want to join the guild and serve under the great Ur Jan. If that came to pass, it would be the proudest day of my life. Ur Jan is the greatest man in Zodanga—he is the greatest man on all Barsoom. I want to serve him, and I will serve him faithfully.”
All men are susceptible to flattery, and oftentimes the more ignorant they are, the more susceptible. Ur Jan was no exception. One could almost see him preening himself. He squared his great shoulders and threw out his chest.
“Well,” he said in a milder voice, “we’ll think it over. Perhaps we can use you, but first you will have to arrange it so that we can dispose of this Vandor.” He glanced quickly around the table. “Do any of you men know him?”
There was a chorus of denials—no one admitted to knowing me.
“I can point him out to you,” said Rapas the Ulsio. “I can point him out this very night.”
“What makes you think so?” asked Ur Jan.
“Because I have an engagement to meet him later on at an eating place that he frequents.”
“Not a bad idea,” said Ur Jan. “At what time is this meeting?”
“About half after the eighth zode,” replied Rapas.
Ur Jan glanced quickly around the table. “Uldak,” he said, “you go with Rapas; and don’t return while this Vandor still lives.”
I got a good look at Uldak as Ur Jan singled him out; and as I watched him come toward the door with Rapas on his way to kill me, I fixed every detail of the man’s outward appearance indelibly upon my mind, even to his carriage as he walked; and though I saw him for but a moment then, I knew that I should never forget him.
As the two men left the larger chamber and crossed the anteroom in which I was concealed, Rapas explained to his companion the plan that he had in mind.
“I will take you now and show you the location of the eating place in which I am to meet him. Then you can return later and you will know that the man who is with me is the man whom you seek.”
I could not but smile as the two men turned into the corridor and passed out of earshot. What would they and Ur Jan have thought, had they known that the object of their criminal purpose was within a few yards of them?
I wanted to follow Rapas and Uldak, for I had a plan that it would have been amusing to carry out; but I could not escape from behind the cupboard without passing directly in front of the doorway leading into the room where sat Ur Jan and his fifty assassins.
It looked as though I would have to wait until the meeting ended and the company had dispersed before I could make my way to the roof and my flier.
Although I was inclined to chafe at the thought of this enforced inactivity, I nevertheless took advantage of the open door to familiarize myself with the faces of all of the assassins that I could see. Some of them sat with their backs toward me, but even these occasionally revealed a glimpse of a profile.
It was fortunate that I took early advantage of this opportunity to implant the faces of my enemies upon my memory, for but a moment or two after Rapas and Uldak had left the room, Ur Jan looked up and noticed the open door and directed one of the assassins sitting near it to close it.
Scarcely had the lock clicked when I was out from behind the cupboard and into the corridor.
I saw no one and heard no sound in the direction that the assassins had used in coming into and going from the anteroom; and as my way led in the opposite direction, I had little fear of being apprehended. I moved rapidly toward the apartment through the window of which I had entered the building, as the success of the plan I had in mind depended upon my being able to reach the eating place ahead of Rapas and Uldak.
I reached the balcony and clambered to the roof of the building without mishap, and very shortly thereafter I was running my flier into the hangar on the roof of the public house where I stored it. Descending to the street, I made my way to the vicinity of the eating place to which Rapas was conducting Uldak, reasonably certain that I should arrive there before that precious pair.
I found a place where I could watch the entrance in comparative safety from discovery, and there I waited. My vigil was not of long duration, for presently I saw the two approaching. They stopped at the intersection of two avenues a short distance from the place, and after Rapas had pointed it out to Uldak, the two separated, Rapas continuing on in the direction of the public house where I had first met him, while Uldak turned back into the avenue along which they had come from the rendezvous of the assassins.