After looking in a telephone book, Drew hailed a taxi outside Police Headquarters at 240 Centre Street and, once out of view of the police station, instructed the driver to an address off Catherine Street in Two Bridges. The driver nodded, but stopped at Madison Street as the street was blocked by crowds of people. Reluctantly, Drew paid the cabbie and the three exited the taxi.
“What are we doing here, sir?” Katie asked looking warily at the run down neighborhood. Drew had refused to say anything in the taxi.
“There was a name in that notebook, Chinmayananda Kaur,” he replied “His address is 1 Ransom Court, which is somewhere around here.”
“Dat ain’t much not go on,” Tank said. Looking around, he noticed that there were only a handful of white people among the predominantly Oriental crowds that massed in the streets around carts that bore all manner of unusual wares. “Dis ain’t no place to wander.”
The din of foreign tongues echoed from the tenements all around, and the signs on the shops all bore strange characters.
“Excuse me, my good man,” Drew said to a passing man wearing a blue silk robe and short round felt cap. The man said something in a foreign tongue as he walked by. “That wasn’t very helpful,” Drew said with disappointment.
“Perhaps we should try someone in western dress, sir,” Katie said, indicating a group of younger men in shirts and trousers.
“Capital idea, Kate-O!” Drew said with a smile and started off across the street before Tank grabbed his arm to prevent him from blindly stepping in front of a truck. The driver honked the horn as he passed. Once the vehicle went by, all three checked from oncoming traffic before crossing to the men.
The men were speaking in a foreign tongue as they approached, but as soon as one of them noticed the newcomers, the stopped talking. They eyed the three, especially Katie, looking each up and down before one said, “You want something?”
“Why yes, my goo…” Drew started to say before Katie and Tank stepped in front of him.
“We’re looking for Ransom Court,” Katie said evenly. “Can you tell us how to get there?”
The man smiled mischievously. “Why do you want to go there?” The group spread out around the three.
“Dat’s our business,” Tank replied. “Do ya know the way or not?”
“Easy big fella,” the man said confidently. “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.” The tension was palpable, even on the street amidst the crowds.
Suddenly Drew stepped forward with a disarming smile and said,” Excellent! A man who knows how to bargain.” He stepped in front of his colleagues and stood before the speaker. “What would it take to get directions to Ransom Court, my good man?”
Katie and Tank eyed the others warily, but they were impassive. The speaker measured Drew, rubbing his clean chin with his fingers. He looked over the three again.
“We could show you the way for, say, ten dollars,” he said evenly.
“I’ll give you a dollar for verbal directions,” Drew countered.
“You really want an escort in this neighborhood,” the man said pointedly. “You wouldn’t want to get waylaid by some miscreant lurking in the crowd.”
“I think we can manage just fine,” Drew replied. “Kate…”
“We can take care of ourselves,” Katie said, looking the speaker in the eye. Tank adopted a defiant stance as well.
The man’s demeanor did not change, and the others remained motionless. He gazed from Katie to Tank and back. “Very well,” he said with a smile, holding up his hands. “Two dollars.”
“Done,” Drew said with finality, and reached into his pocket and produced two dollar coins. The man put out his hand, but Drew closed his fist around the coins. “Directions first.” The man smiled and provided simple directions. Drew handed him the coins.
Then the man snatched a red, silk handkerchief from a nearby cart, folded it neatly, and stuffed it into Drew’s jacket pocket. “As a token of my good will.” The old woman selling from the cart, looked at the man, but said nothing and turned away quickly.
“Thank you,” Drew said with a smile, and the circle of men parted to allow the three to proceed down the indicated street.
As soon as they were out of view of the gang, Katie snatched the handkerchief from his pocket. “That was a gift, Kate-O!” Drew said with irritation.
“He was markin’ ya,” Tank said.
“They’ve probably sent us to a blind alley to rob us and beat us senseless,” Katie replied, stuffing the handkerchief into her own pocket. “We stand out well enough here, sir.”
“That’s racist, Kate-O!” Drew said disapprovingly.
“Maybe so,” she replied, “but I’m not taking any chances.” With that, she pulled Drew into a shop. It was a hardware store. A burly Asian man stood behind the counter. Katie asked for directions to Ransom Court, and to her surprise, the directions matched what they had previously received. She gave the man a nickel.
“Perhaps you should be more tolerant,” Drew said with a look of reproach as they exited the shop. Katie glared and led the way in the indicated direction.
* * *
They progressed through a maze of streets and alleys compounded further by the endless cart vendors and their customers. In the end, they found themselves at a shadowed dead end capped by single storefront, whose door bore Kali’s Bounty in Oriental-styled English characters. The alley was bounded on either side by the back of five story tenements. The store appeared to be in the rear of the building before them.
“This must be the place,” Drew said, stepping confidently up to the door. He tried the knob, but the door was locked.
Katie peered through the plate glass window next to the door.The window display consisted of numerous figurines, ornately painted boxes, vases, and the like. Inside the shop, she saw shelves of small bottles, as well as display cases whose contents she could not see. The walls were decorated with masks similar to those worn by the Palmer Maxwell’s attackers.
At the sound of Drew’s knocking, she saw a man wearing a turban rise from behind the display cases and glance at the door. He quickly stepped around the counter and approached. A moment later, the door opened.
“I am sorry, sahib,” the man said with a bow of his head, his prominent Indian accent coloring each word, “but Kali’s Bounty is closed for today. Please return tomorrow.” Drew glanced at his watch and noticed that it was nearly eight o’clock in the evening.
“Please excuse the lateness of the hour,” Drew said with a smile, “but are you Chinmayananda Kaur?” The man was taken aback.
“I am Chinmayananda Kaur,” he said.
“My friend, Parker Maxwell, mentioned you to me,” Drew continued with a pleasant tone. At the mention of the name, Kaur made furtive looks behind Drew, noted his companions, glanced down the alley, and quickly motioned for them to enter.
“If Mr. Maxwell sent you,” the shopkeeper said anxiously, “then it is proven that the Thuggee’s are imposters, yes?”
“I’m afraid you have us at a disadvantage,” Drew said. “Parker and I went to school together. He told me that you were a purveyor of,” he looked around the shop, “of fine treasures of the Orient.”
“And when did Mr. Parker tell you this?” Kaur said with a slight grin.
“A few weeks ago,” Drew replied.
The man’s facade dropped. “I only met Mr. Maxwell two days ago,” Kaur said with irritation, “and he was most unpleasant.”
“Why did he come here?” Katie asked officiously. She put her hands on her hips, exposing the butt of one of her pistols.
“I don’t want any trouble,” Kaur said anxiously.
Drew looked at Katie disapprovingly. She closed her jacket. Then he turned to Kaur and smiled again. “We’re not here to trouble you sir. Parker was indeed an old friend of mine, and he asked me to meet him this afternoon. But when we got to his hotel, he was dead.”
Kaur blanched and muttered something under his breath.
“We found your name in his notebook,” Katie added, “which the police now have. You’ll probably be hearing from them soon.”
“Perhaps you might tell us what Parker came to see you about?” Drew said. Kaur was uncertain. “I’m sure I could make it worth your while,” he added, rubbing two fingers together. Kaur was unconvinced.
“Dese masks is nice,” Tank said from the back of the shop, pointing to one identical to the one he had hit. Kaur looked back to see and gulped.
“Yes,” Katie added. “What can you tell us about that mask?”
Kaur glanced from Tank, to Katie, to Drew and back to Katie. “They are not Thuggee,” he said anxiously.
“The Indian assassin cult?” Drew asked. “Why do you say that?”
“Parker came to me to ask about Thuggee masks,” Kaur said. “He looked at that very mask, saying that the one like it had been associated with a murder he was writing an article about.”
“Did he say who?” Katie probed.
“No, he did not,” Kaur responded, flustered. “He said that the dead man had been hacked to death by men wearing those masks.” He looked about nervously. “I told him that the Thuggee cult neither wore masks nor used weapons. They were known for the bloodless strangulation of their victims.”
“They could have adopted new methods,” Drew conjectured.
“No,” Kaur responded firmly. “They killed in service to the goddess Kali, who had defeated the demon Raktabija by consuming his blood, because wherever Raktabija’s blood hit the ground, another Raktabija was born. Only by consuming all his blood could Kali defeat him. That is why the Thuggee never drew blood.”
“What kind of mask is that?” Drew asked.
“Pah!” Kaur spat, but something in his demeanor stuck out to Katie. “That is a cheap facsimile for gullible tourists. My nephew makes them from scrap wood he finds.”
“So dis is da only place where ya can find dese?” Tank asked, having taken the mask from the wall and joined the others at the front of the shop.
“It is a familiar design to those who know Punjabi art,” Kaur replied. “But I do not know of anyone else who sells these masks.”
“Have you sold any recently?” Drew asked.
“As a matter of fact,” Kaur said, “I sold four masks to some white man a few weeks ago. They had prominent accents.” He thought for a moment. “I think they were Irish.” Katie noticed a furtive glance to the right, a clear sign of deception.
“So these four Irishmen came to your store,” She said warily, “bought four of these red masks with the long noses,” she pointed to the mask in Tank’s hand, “and four of these Gurkha knives,” directing Kaur’ gaze to a display case, “a few weeks ago. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Kaur said flatly, “that is correct.” He took the mask from Tank and ushered the three toward the door. “Now if you will excuse me, the store is now closed.”
Katie stopped short, stalling their progress, and turned back to stare at Kaur. “What makes you think that they were Irish?” The question caught the shopkeeper off guard.
“Um,” he stammered, “they wore plaid vests and bowler hats,” he added quickly. “And they had Irish accents?”
“So dey talked like me,” Tank said, following Katie’s line of thought. Drew was totally confused.
“Yes,” Kaur sputtered, “I mean no.” He bolstered his resolve and pointing to the door. “That is enough. I have answered your questions. Now please leave!” He ignored their further protests and closed the door and shutting the blinds behind them.
As they turned from the shuttered door, the alley was dark and empty save for lights shining down from some of the tenement windows. In the distance, they could vaguely hear the sounds of the city. But nearby, all was quiet.
TO BE CONTINUED…