murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

Lost Keys


by Jane Livingston

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Detective Story Magazine | Oct. 22, 1918 | Vol. XVIII | No. 4

Est. Read Time: 8 mins

A opium fiend’s rambling story of murder.

Say, who are you anyhow? What are you talking to me about? Newspaper men? Well, what do you want with me?

Look here, where am I anyhow? Rescue me? I don’t want to be rescued; just want to lie here and sleep. But I — I feel sick and shaky. I must have been on a howling spree, eh? Only I don’t feel quite like that; more as though I’d been asleep for a long time — a — long — long — time — with dreams. Oh, merciful Father, the dreams! But, of course, they were just dreams, weren’t they?

Yes, that looks like the real thing; Scotch, isn’t it? I haven't tasted any of the staff of life for a dog’s age. Ha, ha, ha! I said that just like a white man, didn’t I? Gee, but that tastes right! What's that? I am a white man? Course, I am, but I’ve lived so long in Chinatown, drinking that stuff of theirs — hot and fiery sweet, y’know, with a sort of ugly perfume about it.

Old Wu Lang used to say he’d make a good Chinaman out of me yet. That was when I first started coming — just for the “black smoke,” you know. No house in the quarter had the stuff like Wu Lang — the old devil ….g Wu Lang — Wu Lang … What is it makes me shake like this whenever I think of him?

Say, you fellows, you won’t laugh at me, will you? But it just shows what nightmares are — I’d almost swear — only, of course, I know it’s a dream — that I’d choke Wu Lang to death in the middle of the night, with the joss sticks all burning, and — What?

Well, don’t look like that. Say, you chaps look like reg — regular a-asses ….g Now, what’s the matter with my tongue? I never stuttered before in my life. I feel so cold … What are you saying? No … No … Don’t tell me I did it after all!

Give me something to drink again. Maybe I can remember about it … . But I’ll have to think awfully fast. Something is happening to my brain.

Who’s that?

There, looking straight at me, that old man with the horrible face.

A mirror? Nonsense!

That isn’t I — with white hair … You’re just fooling with me, you fellows — just because I’m a little sick and shaky. I know what you newspaper boys are. You see, I keep thinking I killed him …

All nonsense, of course! How could I kill Wu Lang — clever old tramp like him? He is a match for three men like me … See here, you fellows; on the quiet now — don’t give me away — what have you done with her?

No woman in the house? What!

“The Red Butterfly” wouldn’t go out of the “House of Lost Keys.” Even if the old chap is dead, she’d hang around and burn joss sticks. Great stickler for her religion, the Red Butterfly — and as tricky as they make ‘em.

Say, I was certainly smitten; I sure was. Queer little silent thing, with gorgeous clothes, and always disappearing just when you wanted her most. I’ve always been strong for The Red Butterfly … .

Say, what’s the matter with me anyway? Have I got the jimjams again? I don’t seem to be able to see straight — or think — straight.

The dreams are coming back … .

I saw her first when I just dropped in for a smoke with Wu Lang. I’d gotten into the way, you know. Beastly bad habit, the black smoke, but there’s no indulgence that can touch it. All the sensations in a pipeful — yes?

She wore a red coat thing with purple dragons on it, and gold and green combs in her hair. She never smiled, but she was adorable. Wu Lang ate out of her hand, the old sinner. Could do anything she pleased with him … .

Of course, I was keen for her. So’d you have been … Any of you seen her yet?

Say, I believe you’re lying. I thought I saw her red coat go by the door just now … What’s funny? … I thought I saw it again — just now … Only this time some one was carrying her, and she didn’t move … .

Dreaming again, I suppose. There’s that about the black smoke — you do dream!

She never admitted she liked me much. Always said I’d taken advantage of her, tricked her — such rot!

I guess she lied. Anyway, women do, even Chinese women, and it was all nonsense her firing faithful to that yellow old monster, Wu Lang. She said he was her master — had bought her — some truck like that. A custom of her people, I think she said. And if she wasn’t faithful to him she’d burn in torment forever after. Well, of course, no white man would stand for that sort of nonsense. •

Afterward she swore that I’d damned her soul, and she’d tell Wu Lang, and he’d kill us both, and she’d be glad of it. Course I never thought she’d do it, but — but —

You needn’t draw away from me like that! I’m not a leper; I’m just — a little queer. Wh — What’s the matter with the lot of you, anyhow?

I guess it was a — a joke, wasn’t it? Eh?

Say, there was a writer chap wrote a story about another fellow who smoked the black smoke, and used to watch two dragons on the wall. When they started fighting he knew he was well doped. I saw things too, but — don’t laugh — they were butterflies, red butterflies that crawled up and down the wall. Crawled, remember; for they looked as though they’d been — smashed! Ugh! Beastly thing to dream about, eh?

Be quiet. Place sounds empty, somehow … or is it my fancy? So Wu Lang’s dead! See here, you fellows; hold onto me a minute, will you? Why — why — say, my head’s clearing in a funny way. Why, I don’t seem —

I killed him. I remember perfectly now. Yes, I killed him. I put my hands around his beastly throat — makes me sort of sick to think of his throat, it was so yellow and scraggy — and squeezed and squeezed until he stopped squirming. He died hard, old Wu Lang.

I’d never have had the strength to do it if I hadn’t been driven mad by the torture. Of course, I remember it all now. That’s why I can’t move my hands straight — they go off sideways when I put them out, and they don’t touch things right. Queer’ isn’t it? Old Lang used to light joss sticks under ‘em. You ought to have heard me yell! It seems awfully far off now, and, of course, I haven’t had any pain for years and years … . You chaps look so funny!

He tortured The Red Butterfly too. That was awful bad. I wouldn’t have believed I’d mind so much. I suppose white men don’t like to see a woman cooked alive, as a general thing. But slip used to scream — and say that I’d hurt her soul worse .than Wu Lang was hurting her body — screaming, you know, all the time.

I half killed myself time and again trying to get at Wu Lang, but he had me tied up too tight. Made a good job of his knots, he did, and grinned all the time. They say Chinamen aren’t given to smiling. He used to chuckle — chuckle like a demon. I can hear his chuckling now — chuckling — chuckling — a little dry, chokey noise ….g Or is it the fire? I never could be sure after a while, which was the flames sputtering and which Wu Lang laughing at us.

The girl gave out pretty soon; she was weak, or else Lang killed her quickly on purpose. Maybe he got tired of the game. Anyhow — one day she stopped screaming and didn’t begin again …

After that he could give all his time to me. I don’t think he did much else except smoke the black smoke and torture me … In between he gave me lots of dope to send me to sleep and keep me alive … It went on for years and years and — where was I? Everything’s getting woozy again … Funny thing! A minute ago I seemed to remember so clearly … .

Say, you chaps, what have I been saying? I want a drink … You look beastly sick and white about the gills. What’s wrong?

What’s — ?

I killed him. That’s to my credit anyhow. I killed him with my bare hands, and, when he was pretty well gone, he just grinned up at me with his yellow lips back from his teeth like a dog, and snarled:

“You may have kill’ me, you white devil, but Chinaman have revenge on you.”

Ha, ha! Funny, wasn’t it? … Who are those men at the door — the ones in blue? … What are they doing here?

Wu Lang, Wu Lang! Chuck these men out of the house, the house of lost keys. Wu Lang!