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THE FIGHT IN THE CAFE
New Scotland Yard had been advised that any reference to a scorpion, in whatever form it occurred, should be noted and followed up, but nothing had resulted and as a matter of fact I was not surprised in the least. All that I had learned--and this was little enough--I had learned more or less by accident. But I came to the conclusion that a visit to London might be advisable.
I had caused a watch to be kept upon the man Miguel, whose establishment seemed to be a recognized resort of shady characters. I had no absolute proof, remember, that he knew anything of the private affairs of the Hindu, and no further reference to a scorpion had been made by anyone using the cafe telephone. Nevertheless I determined to give him a courtesy call before leaving for London ... and to this determination I cannot doubt that once again I was led by providence.
Attired in a manner calculated to enable me to pass unnoticed among the patrons of the establishment, I entered the place and ordered cognac. Miguel having placed it before me, I lighted a cigarette and surveyed my surroundings.
Eight or nine men were in the cafe, and two women. Four of the men were playing cards at a corner table, and the others were distributed about the place, drinking and smoking. The women, who were flashily dressed but who belonged to that order of society which breeds the Apache, were deep in conversation with a handsome Algerian. I recognized only one face in the cafe--that of a dangerous character, Jean Sach, who had narrowly escaped the electric chair in the United States and who was well known to the Bureau. He was smiling at one of the two women--the woman to whom the Algerian seemed to be more particularly addressing himself.
Another there was in the cafe who interested me as a student of physiognomy--a dark, bearded man, one of the card-players. His face was disfigured by a purple scar extending from his brow to the left corner of his mouth, which it had drawn up into a permanent snarl, so that he resembled an enraged and dangerous wild animal. Mentally I classified this person as "Le Balafre."
I had just made up my mind to depart when the man Sach arose, crossed the cafe and seated himself insolently between the Algerian and the woman to whom the latter was talking. Turning his back upon the brown man, he addressed some remark to the woman, at the same time leering in her face.
Women of this class are difficult, you understand? Sach received from the lady a violent blow upon the face which rolled him on the floor! As he fell, the Algerian sprang up and drew a knife. Sach rolled away from him and also reached for the knife which he carried in a hip-pocket.
Before he could draw it, Miguel, the quadroon proprietor, threw himself upon him and tried to pitch him into the street. But Sach, although a small man, was both agile and ferocious. He twisted out of the grasp of the huge quadroon and turned, raising the knife. As he did so, the Algerian deftly kicked it from his grasp and left Sach to face Miguel unarmed. Screaming with rage, he sprang at Miguel's throat, and the tow fell writhing upon the floor.
There could only be one end to such a struggle, of course, as the Algerian recognized by replacing his knife in his pocket and resuming his seat. Miguel obtained a firm hold upon Sacah and raised him bodily above his head, as one has seen a professional weight-lifter raise a heavy dumb-bell. Thus he carried him, kicking and foaming at the mouth with passion, to the open door. From the step he threw him into the middle of the street.
At this moment I observed something glittering upon the floor close to the chair occupied by the Algerian. Standing up--for I had determined to depart--I crossed in that direction, stooped and picked up this object which glittered. As my fingers touched it, so did my heart give a great leap.
The object was a golden scorpion!
Forgetful of my dangerous surroundings I stood looking at the golden ornament in my hand ... when suddenly and violently it was snatched from me! The Algerian, his brown face convulsed with rage, confronted me.
"Where did you find that charm?" he cried. "It belongs to me."
"Very well," I replied--"you have it."
He glared at me with a ferocity which the incident scarcely seemed to merit and exchanged a significant glance with someone who had approached and who now stood behind me. Turning, I met a second black gaze--that of the quadroon who having restored order had returned from the cafe door and now stood regarding me. "Did you find it on the floor?" asked Miguel suspiciously.
He turned to the Algerian.
"It fell when you kicked the knife from the hand of that pig," he said. "You should be more careful."
Again they exchanged significant glances, but the Algerian resumed his seat and Miguel went behind the counter. I left the cafe conscious of the fact that black looks pursued me.
The night was very dark, and as I came out on to the pavement someone touched me on the arm. I turned in a flash.
"Walk on, friend," said the voice of Jean Sach. "What was it that you picked up from the floor?"
"A golden scorpion," I answered quickly.
"Ah!" he whispered--"I thought so! It is enough. They shall pay for what they have done to me--those two. Hurry, friend, as I do."
Before I could say another word or strive to detain him, he turned and ran off along a narrow courtway which at this point branched from the street.
I stood for a moment, nonplussed, staring after him. By good fortune I had learned more in ten minutes than by the exercise of all my ingenuity and the resources of the Service I could have learned in ten months! Par al barbe du prophete the Kismet which dogs the footsteps of malefactors assisted me!
Recollecting the advice of Jean Sach, I set off at a brisk pace along the street, which was dark and deserted and which passed through a district marked red on the Paris crimes-map. Arriving at the corner, above which projected a lamp, I paused and glanced back into the darkness. I could see no one, but I thought I could detect the sound of stealthy footsteps following me.
The suspicion was enough. I quickened my pace, anxious to reach the crowded boulevard upon which this second street opened. I reached it unmolested, but intending to throw any pursuer off the track, I dodged and doubled repeatedly on the way to my flat and arrived there about midnight, convinced that I had eluded pursuit--if indeed I had been pursued.
All my arrangements were made for leaving Paris, and now I telephoned to the assistant on duty in my office, instructing him to take certain steps in regard to the proprietor of the cafe and the Algerian and to find the hiding-place of the man Jean-Sach. I counted it more than ever important that I should go to London at once.
In this belief I was confirmed at the very moment that I boarded the Channel steamer at Boulogne: for as I stepped upon the deck I found myself face to face with a man who was leaning upon the rail and apparently watching the passengers coming on board. He was a man of heavy build, dark and bearded, and his face was strangely familiar.
Turning, as I lighted a cigarette, I glanced back at him in order to obtain a view of his profile. I knew him instantly--for now the scar was visible. It was "Le Balafre" who had been playing cards in Miguel's cafe on the previous night!
I have sometimes been criticised, especially by my English confreres, for my faith in disguise. I have been told that no disguise is impenetrable to the trained eye. I reply that there are many disguises but few trained eyes! To my faith in disguise I owed the knowledge that a golden scorpion was the token of some sort of gang, society, or criminal group, and to this same faith which an English inspector of police once assured me to be a misplaced one I owed, on boarding the steamer, my escape from detection by this big bearded fellow who was possibly looking out for me!
Yet, I began to wonder if after all I had escaped the shadowy pursuer whose presence I had suspected in the dark street outside the cafe or if he had tracked me and learned my real identity. In any event, the roles were about to be reversed! "Le Balafre" at Folkestone took a seat in a third-class carriage of the London train. I took one in the next compartment.
Arrived at Charing Cross, he stood for a time in the booking-hall, glanced at his watch, and then took up the handbag which he carried and walked out into the station yard. I walked out also.
"Le Balafre" accosted a cabman; and as he did so I passed close behind him and overheard a part of the conversation.
"... Bow Road Station East! It's too far. What?"
I glanced back. The bearded man was holding up a note--a pound note apparently. I saw the cabman nod. Without an instant's delay I rushed up to another cabman who had just discharged a passenger.
"To Bow Road Station East!" I said to the man. "Double fare if you are quick!"
It would be a close race. But I counted on the aid of that Fate which dogs the steps of wrong-doers! My cab was off first and the driver had every reason for hurrying. From the moment that we turned out into the Strand until we arrived at our destination I saw no more of "Le Balafre." My extensive baggage I must hope to recover later.
At Bow Road Station I discovered a telephone box in a dark corner which commanded a view of the street. I entered this box and waited. It was important that I should remain invisible. Unless my bearded friend had been unusually fortunate he could not well have arrived before me.
As it chanced I had nearly six minutes to wait. Then, not ten yards away, I saw "Le Balafre" arrive and dismiss the cabman outside the station.
There was nothing furtive in his manner; he was evidently satisfied that no one pursued him; and he stood in the station entrance almost outside my box and lighted a cigar!
Placing his bag upon the floor, he lingered, looking to left and right, when suddenly a big closed car painted dull yellow drew up beside the pavement. It was driven by a brown-faced chauffeur whose nationality I found difficulty in placing, for he wore large goggles. But before I could determine upon my plan of action, "Le Balafre" crossed the pavement and entered the car--and the car glided smoothly away, going East. A passing lorry obstructed my view and I even failed to obtain a glimpse of the number on the plate.
But I had seen something which had repaid me for my trouble. As the man of the scar had walked up to the car, had exhibited to the brown-skinned chauffeur some object which he held in the palm of his hand ... an object which glittered like gold!
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