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.
It still lacked half a zode of the time that I was to meet Rapas, and for the moment at least I was not concerned with him—my business was with Uldak.
As soon as Rapas had passed me upon the opposite side of the street, I came out of my hiding place and walked rapidly in the direction that Uldak had taken.
As I reached the intersection of the two streets, I saw the assassin a little distance ahead of me. He was walking slowly, evidently merely killing time until he might be certain that the hour had arrived when I was to meet Rapas at the eating place.
Keeping to the opposite side of the street, I followed the man for a considerable distance until he entered a quarter that seemed to be deserted—I did not wish an audience for what I was about to do.
Crossing the avenue, I increased my gait; and the distance between us rapidly lessened until I was but a few paces behind him. I had moved very quietly, and he was not aware that anyone was near him. Only a few paces separated us when I spoke.
“You are looking for me?” I inquired.
He wheeled instantly, and his right hand flew to the hilt of his sword. He eyed me narrowly. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“Perhaps I have made a mistake,” I said; “you are Uldak, are you not?”
“What of it?” he demanded.
I shrugged. “Nothing much, except that I understand that you have been sent to kill me. My name is Vandor.”
As I ceased speaking, I whipped out my sword. He looked utterly astonished as I announced my identity, but there was nothing for him to do but defend himself, and as he drew his weapon he gave a nasty little laugh.
“You must be a fool,” he said. “Anyone who is not a fool would run away and hide if he knew that Uldak was looking for him.”
Evidently the man thought himself a great swordsman. I might have confused him by revealing my identity to him, for it might take the heart out of any Barsoomian warrior to know that he was facing John Carter; but I did not tell him. I merely engaged him and felt him out for a moment to ascertain if he could make good his boast.
He was, indeed, an excellent swordsman and, as I had expected, tricky and entirely unscrupulous. Most of these assassins are entirely without honor; they are merely killers.
At the very first he fought fairly enough because he thought that he could easily overcome me; but when he saw that he could not, he tried various shady expedients and finally he attempted the unpardonable thing with his free hand, he sought to draw his pistol.
Knowing his kind, I had naturally expected something of the sort; and in the instant that his fingers closed upon the butt of the weapon I struck his sword aside and brought the point of my own heavily upon his left wrist, nearly severing his hand.
With a scream of rage and pain, he fell back; and then I was upon him in earnest.
He yelled for mercy now and cried that he was not Uldak; that I had made a mistake, and begged me to let him go. Then the coward turned to flee, and I was forced to do that which I most disliked to do; but if I were to carry out my plan I could not let him live, and so I leaped close and ran my sword through his heart from behind.
Uldak lay dead upon his face.
As I drew my sword from his body, I looked quickly about me. No one was within sight. I turned the man over upon his back and with the point of my sword made a cross upon his breast above his heart.