The Serpent's Nest
by "Doc" R.B. Danby
Moyalai, Maroon, in the South China Sea, 1934
B ARNEY CALHOUN BROUGHT THE BUTT of his pistol down upon the iron lock, wrenching it from the door in a shower of splinters. Then, with an insolent kick, he pushed the door open, letting simmering sunlight from the grungy alley spill over his broad shoulders, cutting a slab of illumination into the ebon room beyond.
The warehouse appeared deserted, with only the dull ocean sound of the harbour on the other side of the building disturbing the silence. Though entering an enemy’s lair and finding it empty would, in most circumstances, be a cause for relief -- Barney was uneasy. This whole situation had made him uneasy, almost from the beginning, and it just seemed to be getting worse. “Battling” Barney Calhoun was a rough and tumble guy, the so-called Cape Breton Brawler, and since he had split with his former ship’s captain he had kind of settled down in this Asiatic island nation of Maroon, working odd jobs that his fists, and his guts, could land him. He didn’t mind a little trouble.
He just didn’t like a puzzle.
Suddenly a weak light flickered to his left as a match touched a cigarette tip, and he whirled as three men emerged from the surrounding darkness like crocs rising sinisterly from a mud-dark river.
“You impudent barbarian,” sneered one, the pejorative put down telling Barney the man was Chinese even before the light did. His two companions were of similar ethnicity. “You must wish to commit suicide to enter here so brazenly.”
Barney grinned wolfishly. A puzzle he couldn’t abide. A fight, though -- that he understood. “I wouldn’t get all Tony on me, fella, throwing about ‘barbarian’ like that. After all, you ain’t nothing but a thug, a pimp, and a hired punk.”
“I am a business man,” responded the other primly. “And you are a fool to enter the Serpent’s Nest.” He was dressed, western-style, in a beige suit, while his two companions affected the baggier, more traditional garb of the Chinese.
At a casual twitch of his head, his two companions launched themselves at Barney, clearly not having seen the gun in the dim light. Fortunately for them, Barney had forgotten it as well. Or was loathe to shoot unarmed men in cold blood. Either way, he met their physical attack with a physical defence. His fists were like great sledge hammers and as the first of the goons reached him, he laid the man out with a savage left hook. The other came on, undaunted, like he was some remnant of the Boxer Rebellion on the mainland, years ago -- convinced, as the Boxer’s had been, of some mystical invulnerability.
Barney swung with his right hand, intending to pistol whip the man. But the man was fast, like mercury, and Barney was pounding empty air, the uninterrupted force of his swing half turning him around, almost tangling him in his own feet. He groaned as the attacker popped up next to him, delivering a succession of rapid fire rabbit punches to his side. Bellowing like a wounded Canadian moose, Barney swung about again, and again the man had ducked, only to pop up, this time leaping into the air and kicking out. Barney twisted, taking a blow on his shoulder that was meant to take off his head. But the blow knocked the gun from his hand and sent him reeling.
He slammed back against the wood slates of a window, hearing the closed blinds rattle.
“Stupid barbarian,” mocked the leader, still puffing languidly on his cigarette.
Suddenly knives glinted in the dim light as the attacker launched himself forward again. Barney twisted, hooked one powerful hand in the blinds, and wrenched. The blinds came away and daylight exploded into the room, directly into the eyes of the on-coming attacker whose eyes had adjusted to the darkness. He cried out, throwing up his hands, and Barney, spared the worst of the glare by virtue of it being at his back, pressed his advantage. With a mighty swat, he knocked the knives from the man’s hands, then, grabbing shoulder and thigh, heaved the smaller man up over his head. The man gave a plaintive shriek as Barney hurled him forcefully down upon his companion who was just rising from the floor.
Panting, but grinning wickedly, Barney turned on their leader, just as he saw the man yank his hand from the jacket of his beige suit. Barney registered the gun a moment before the air was slammed with the popping of gunfire. Barney leapt aside, hitting the ground with his bad shoulder but snatching up his gun. Grimacing, he rolled to a crouch and blasted back at the man, filling the air with his own contribution of cordite. Ducking, the man whirled and raced through a back door.
His blood up, Barney leapt to his feet and gave chase, blindly.
He burst through the door into the next room -- and skidded to a halt!
The floor only extended a few feet, then dropped off into a pit over which was laid a few crossbeams. Barney blanched as he realized the floor below seemed to move and glisten in an unnatural way. And then he understood why.
The pit was full of snakes!
His quarry had ducked beside the door, waiting for Barney to pass, and as Barney whirled, the man shoved him. It was a simple, school yard push, nothing dramatic or particularly impressive. But it was enough to send Barney over the edge…
Two days earlier, Barney had fingered the little slip of yellow paper thoughtfully as the hired rickshaw rattled away down the narrow, uneven street. The note listed a place and a time…and an amount. But not a why. The paper was delicate, as was the handwriting. And there was a faint, enticing scent to it. A woman had sent him the note. But there was a part of him that warned answering vague notes was a good way to get killed.
Another part said the number quoted would pay off a few debts.
He looked up at the dingy hotel, then back at the note, just to confirm the address. Then he pocketed the note and boldly stepped inside, the rusty bell over the door giving a strangled rattle. Maroon was a mongrel nation, composed of many peoples. Currently it was ruled by the British, but the majority of the population were the descendants of Chinese who had migrated from the mainland centuries before, though even the Mandarin tongue they spoke was corrupted and bastardized. But this was the Dutch quarter of town, the dissipated leftovers of what had once been yet another European empire when the Dutch claimed this island nation. Most of the men who lived here were either transients, on their way to, or from, a better life, or broken drunks, dreaming about their glory days.
Barney ignored the sad-eyed man behind the iron barred front desk, and strode purposefully up the creaking stairs, the threadbare carpet likewise having known glory days, but long, long ago.
On the third floor he found the right room, hesitated but a moment, feeling the humidity of the morning in the sweat down his back, then knocked. He waited a moment.
“Come in, please,” came a soft, feminine voice.
Barney hesitated, then turned the brass handle and pushed in the door. He stepped inside. The room wasn’t particularly big, but was less distasteful than he had presumed. The bed sheets looked clean, the window curtains, though moth eaten, appeared to get a beating from time to time. But he only spared the room a cursory glance. His main focus was on the occupant of the room. He took a deep breath.
She was a beautiful Chinese woman, early twenties at most. Her skin was smooth, her lips full, her eyes dark an intelligent. She wore an English-style cape, complete with a hood that was pulled down, but would doubtless be pulled up to conceal her face when she left. A Chinese girl meeting a Canadian drifter in a shady hotel in the Dutch part of town…this was a meeting she obviously was trying hard to keep obscure.
“You are Barney Calhoun?” she asked in a light accent.
Barney nodded curtly. “And you are…?”
She hesitated. Then, as if deciding there was no recourse, she shrugged her delicate shoulders and said, “My name is Yum-Loo. And I understand you are available for certain…services? Please understand, this is a most delicate matter. My family…well, we have enjoyed good fortune in recent years, and my father is the owner of a respected company. But it was not always so.” Her cheeks flushed. “Once we were quite poor and desperate. To earn money, I availed myself of the gifts fortune had seen fit to bestow upon me.” Her darks eyes flickered away, then rose to meet his, defiantly. “My beauty. I became a prostitute.”
Barney said nothing.
“My father knew nothing of this or, at least, did not want to know. Still, the money kept us from poverty. But, as I said, this is past and gone.”
“But not really, eh?” said Barney, inferring something of where this was headed.
“Correct,” she agreed. “Recently my honourable father has seen fit to arrange my marriage to the scion of a proud and rich family. It will ensure that my family’s fortunes are never again imperilled.”
“And you love this guy, this, uh, scion?”
She frowned at him. “Love is not the issue. Family is. But the point is, he knows nothing of my past, and should he learn of it, all would be undone. The marriage would be called off and my family disgraced.”
“And someone aims to snitch?”
Her brow crinkled, obviously unsure of the term ‘snitch’, but said, “The gangster for whom I once worked is called Chung Wo-Tan, and he has threatened to present to my fiancé’s family photographs taken back then -- unless I agree to pay him a ridiculous sum. A sum I do not even have, certainly not without having to tell my father everything. But I do have enough…to pay you, Mr. Calhoun, to retrieve the pictures for me.”
Barney laughed coarsely, thinking of the number written on the piece of paper in his pocket. “I feel sorry for you, miss, I really do. But that number you offer ain’t enough. I’ve heard of this Chung Wo-Tan -- he’s the so-called Serpent of the Harbour. His gang controls a lot of the east harbour, and by all accounts, he’s pretty much a psychopath. I hear he wears these fancy snake skin gloves, just to emphasize how he never leaves enough of a mark, fingerprint or otherwise, in his dealings for the authorities to pin anything on him. I value my skin at more than what you’re offering.”
“I have no more,” she said levelly.
He shrugged. “Maybe you should come clean. Tell your would-be hubby all about it, about how hard times were, how you’ve turned over a new leaf. Maybe he’d be understanding. Then Chung Wo-Tan would have nothing to hold over you.”
Yum-Loo unknotted the cape at her throat and let it fall to the ground, revealing a shimmering black and gold Chinese robe beneath. She hesitated but a moment, then that to was discarded and she stood before him, fully nude, radiant in the honey glow of the sun through the window. “Perhaps I could offer you a further incentive, Mr. Calhoun?”
Barney stared for a long moment at the perky breasts and the swell of her round hips. “Lady…” he said hoarsely, “you’re something to look at, I’ll grant you. But a man’d have to be a fool to throw his life away just for…”
She did not so much walk towards him as she flowed, her feminine curves catching the golden light as she slipped up to him, and laid her warm hands upon his chest.
“Aw, Hell…” muttered Barney as he grabbed her up in his powerful arms and closed his mouth about hers, her soft tongue darting playfully between his lips. Together, they fell upon the bed…
For a woman who had once been a professional prostitute, Yum-Loo lacked a certain finesse on the bed. But Barney suspected her undeniable beauty would make most clients forgive a lack of technique. And she made up for it with a definite, primal enthusiasm. Yum-Loo may no longer have been a prostitute, but there was more than a little of a slut in her nature. Barney half-wondered if she had deliberately offered him such a low sum of money simply to give her an excuse to provide this pulchritudinous bonus.
Whatever her reasons or motives, Barney left an hour later, committed.
Barney plunged toward the writhing carpet of deadly snakes below, then lashed out, barely catching hold of the cross beam. The old, dry wood creaked and bowed slightly, as though threatening to break. But it held. For now. Barney dangled for a moment, the hissing and snapping of angry snakes just a few feet below him.
“It would seem I have returned to Moyalai none too early,” purred a voice Barney had not heard before. Looking up and craning his neck around, attempting to see from whom it came, he spied a gaunt Chinese man, dressed immaculately in a European-style black suit. Upon his narrow hands he sported very expensive snake-skin gloves. Though Barney had never met him, those trademark gloves identified him instantly as Chung Wo-Tan, the Serpent of the Harbour. “I was heading to Chinquo, to oversee some interests of mine there, when I learned a mudslide had interrupted the train service. So I returned home…only to find a veritable termites’ nest of interlopers.” His dark, soulless, reptilian eyes glinted as they stared at Barney. “Most fortuitous, is it not?”
Barney scowled, still depending from the beam. That confirmed what he had heard on the street, but hadn’t fully believed -- that Chung Wo-Tan was going to be out of town for a few weeks. A strange time to take a powder if he was in the midst of a blackmail scheme, Barney thought. Then Barney glanced beyond the gangster -- and he realized what the man had meant by a “nest” of “interlopers”. Yum-Loo was there, looking wide-eyed and terrified, held in the arms of one of Chung Wo-Tan’s henchmen, a young, good-looking man. What the Hell was she doing here? Barney wondered. Hadn’t she trusted him to do the job?
The beam creaked again, and Barney eyed it nervously.
“Snake poison is not a pretty way to die,” said the gangster. “Tell me why you’ve come, and I will see you die more cleanly.”
“You know why I’ve come,” snarled Barney, his eyes darting about, seeking some escape. “To get back her pictures!”
“Pictures?” demanded Chung Wo-Tan. “What pictures? I do not even know who this wench is. Now tell me the truth, or…”
Clearly there was more going on than he knew, Barney realized bitterly. And he wouldn’t live to learn what unless he acted quickly. There was no way to swing up and out of the pit -- not without giving the others time to shoot him. And there was no way he could drop without being bitten to death. And the old beam, not used to bearing weight, didn’t look as though it would hold much longer. If only he could drop, and not touch the ground.
Then his eyes narrowed and he looked up. The beam had been roughly cut from a tree -- there were still knots of wood bumping along its length. It wasn’t completely smooth.
It was a mad plan -- but those were often the only ones he had. He grinned up at Chung Wo-Tan. “Get stuffed!” he growled, then he began shaking himself, rocking back and forth on the beam. The wood creaked, and dust rained into the pit from where the beam joined with the floor.
“What are you doing?” demanded the gangster. “You’ll just kill yourself-!”
Suddenly the beam cracked at one end and plunged toward the ground below. Barney held on for dear life -- literally. One end hit the ground, hard, the shock almost knocking Barney off -- almost, but not quite. The beam now formed a pole from the bottom of the pit to the lip of the floor. Snakes hissed and snapped below him, but Barney, taking advantage of the knots in the wood as handholds and footholds, scrambled up the beam while Chung and his men were still staring in opened mouth shock. He made it to the floor and gained his feet even as the man who had lured him here, the smoker, finally shook himself from his stupor and started to draw his gun again. But he was too slow, or perhaps Barney was too fast. The result was the same.
Barney slammed a fist into his chest, winding him, then cracked him across the jaw, sending him down for the count. He spun around as another goon flung himself at him, but the man landed on Barney’s back, and Barney simply kept spinning, then rammed himself back against the door. The door splintered and burst outward, and the insensible goon went with it.
That left only Chung Wo-Tan, Yum-Loo and the man holding her. Chung was fumbling with a pistol, trying to drag it from his pressed suit that was better for looking good in than for action. Barney scooped up the cigarette smoking man’s gun and, not having time to aim the barrel, simply flung it altogether at the gangster. It glanced off his head, sending Chung stumbling and cursing. Then his gun came free of his jacket and he waved it about triumphantly.
Then his stumbling foot went over the edge of the pit. He hovered for a moment, then screamed as he fell. He lashed out and caught the edge with his hands, his gun discarded. He held on for a moment, cursing in the corrupted Mandarin that was island’s chief tongue. Then his eyes grew wide, his face ashen.
His grip began to slide.
His expensive, snake-skin gloves, long a sign of his untouchableness by the authorities, were not very good for traction. With a final, blood curdling cry, the Serpent of the Harbour joined his pets.
Panting, Barney turned upon the final man -- the one holding Yum-Loo. He started forward menacingly. “Your turn, sonny. Let the lady go, or I-”
Instantly, the young man released Yum-Loo. Barney stared, surprised. “Well, Hell, that was easy. I guess that means I‘m only gonna thrash you a little-”
“No,” Yum-Loo said, leaping between them. “Do not harm him!”
“What?” His eyes narrowed. “You better come clean, lady -- fast. Or I’ll feed you both to the snakes.”
Yum-Loo looked from Barney, to the other man, then back to Barney. Her eyes were wide and nervous but, perhaps for the first time, honest. “As you suspect -- I misled you. Though not wholly. I am indeed to be married, to honour my family’s wishes. But I do not love him. I love Lee To,” she nodded at the young man. “Lee To is not a bad man, but to pay debts he has had to work for Chung Wo-Tan. My family would never permit our marriage. And so we concocted this scheme. We would make it look like I was killed by a gangster. All we needed was a witness -- someone who would come to Chung Wo-Tan’s warehouse, and see me ‘murdered’, thrown out a window here into the harbour, where my body would not be recovered -- murdered by Lee To, a known employee of Chung Wo-Tan’s. Obviously Lee-To would flee -- Chung Wo-Tan could not question the need for that, even as Chung Wo-Tan himself would be investigated. We would both be free from our obligations -- I would be pronounced dead, and Chung Wo-Tan would not want to have anything more to do with the ‘fugitive’ Lee To, as it would incriminate him further. And even if the fabricated story of my being a prostitute were to get out -- what did it matter to one who was ‘dead’ if she were thought a whore?” She shrugged. “Since Lee To knew Chung Wo-Tan’s itinerary, we planned it for today when Chung would be out of town and the warehouse deserted. Obviously, we did not anticipate Chung Wo-Tan returning.”
“Obviously,” Barney said ironically. “And all you needed to clinch the plan was a sap who wouldn’t question things too closely.”
“As you say,” she said.
Barney stared at Lee To. “Does he speak English?”
“No.” Then she smiled slightly, knowing where he was headed. “I shared your bed to insure you would not question too closely. And…” she hesitated, then softly, “..though I love Lee To, he is scarcely more than a boy when it comes to the ways of love. And I wanted to be with a man once more before I committed myself to him fully.”
Barney frowned, unsure if she was still playing him or not. Then, he decided, he didn’t care. “You two better get the Hell out of here, before I come to my senses.” Then, in a softer voice, he said, “I guess I can tell the authorities something like you want. Chung Wo-Tan pushed you out a window, then fell to his snakes.”
Lee To, only inferring the gist of Barney’s comments, sidled nervously past the brawny Cape Bretoner, then disappeared into the room beyond. Yum-Loo started to pass him, then turned and, impulsively, threw her arms around Barney and kissed him, hungrily.
Then she pulled away, and hurried after Lee To.
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