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Blue Book Magazine, May, 1936
The gypsy detective Isaac Heron solves one of his strangest cases
“THE tattooed man has died,” said Isaac Heron quietly. “I thought you would like to see the body before it is buried.”
Detective Inspector Graves, swathed in a raincoat, his bowler hat dripping wet, exploded amazement and exasperation at his friend the gypsy. They stood on the edge of a fair-ground, where a gasoline lamp hissed and spluttered in the rain.
“D'you really mean to tell me, Heron, that you've brought me from a comfortable fireside to this God-forsaken part of London to see a corpse! Good heavens, don't I see enough bodies in the course of my work?”
“But not tattooed bodies,” said Isaac Heron, with a queer smile.
“But you said this tattooed man had died.”
“Oh, everything is in order,” said the gypsy. “The doctor has signed the death-certificate, and the poor fellow is to be buried in the morning. Unless you stop it.”
Detective Inspector Graves frowned.
“But why should I? If the doctor is satisfied that the man died from natural causes—”
Isaac Heron shrugged his shoulders.
“Better come inside the tent out of the rain, anyhow,” he suggested.
And because this well-to-do gypsy had on a number of occasions been of very real help in solving difficult cases, the Scotland Yard man followed the lithe figure of Isaac Heron into that maze of drenched light that called itself, ironically, a Fun Fair.
They passed gaudy roundabouts churning out last year's jazz. Booths with dart-throwers, shooting galleries with spouting celluloid balls, and lemonade stalls with bellied bowls of yellow liquid impeded their progress. Eventually pushing through an apathetic and drifting crowd of damp people they reached a dark, deserted booth where no lights were flaring.
It was possible, however, to glimpse a gaudy painting of a man whose torso was smothered with fantastic and writhing designs.
Graves stopped to read an announcement on a signboard which assaulted the eyes with the wording:
SEE THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD
THE GREATEST OF ALL
HE BEARS 350 DESIGNS
ON EVERY PART OF HIS BODY
Walk Up and See Him for Yourself.
“And so he's dead, eh?” said Graves.
“Died in front of a crowd of thirty people who had paid threepence each to see him.”
“Well, I suppose they thought they'd had their money's worth!”
Graves stumbled up the wooden steps, across a little platform, and followed the gypsy into the booth.
A strange scene was revealed. A single low-burning lamp was slung from the canvas roof. A group of figures, as fantastic as any painted by Goya, were clustered beneath it. The Fat Lady, in a baby frock, glycerine-like tears squeezing from her eyes. The Lion-tamer, uncomfortably tapping his stained riding-breeches with a whip. Three dwarfs standing on chairs to peer over the shoulders of others. Shirt-sleeved men from the booths, and a solitary Italian ice-cream vendor.
The group fell apart as Isaac Heron advanced, and in the dim light their faces seemed filled with genuine sorrow. For a moment Graves hesitated; then, with an uncomfortable feeling, he removed his hat. He found himself regarding two trestles which upheld a coffin in which lay the body of Elmer Hayes, the Tattooed Man.
Even in death that purple-pricked body was exhibited. The huge chest displayed a series of fantastic designs—butterflies, snakes, airplanes winging among purple clouds, hearts with daggers in them and purple blood dripping, a Union Jack and the American Stars and Stripes, a clipper on a rough purple sea—there was no end to the conglomeration of pictures.
BUT it was to the now rigid face that Graves turned his gaze. Although the eyes were closed and the face possessed a semblance of peace in death, there was something drawn, something tortured, in those features that suggested the end was no happy one.
“He must have suffered,” muttered the Scotland Yard man.
“Poisoned!” wheezed a voice at his very elbow.
The detective turned. A mustached man with eyes magnified by spectacles was standing there.
“What d'you mean by that— poisoned?” snapped Graves.
“Just what I said, poisoned,” went on the mustached man. “Poisoned by his tea, I should say. He would eat mussels, and drink any sort of liquid that was given to him. That was the tea he had before he died. I warned him against it. Told him his stomach couldn't stand it. But of course he paid no attention. Nobody ever does, to me. But I come in at the death.”
He cackled, in a grim fashion.
“Who are you, anyhow?” asked the Inspector.
“A doctor,” replied the other, twisting his mustache importantly. “They call me the shilling doctor, but I don't always get my shilling.”
“And you say this man was poisoned?”
“By himself! Acute toxins resulting from indigestion attacking the heart. Or as we physicians call it, gastric enteritis. You'll find that on the death-certificate. . . . Have you a match?”
His tobacco-stained mouth was slanting a cigarette at the detective.
But it was Isaac Heron who obliged.
“I'd like my friend to see the designs on the back of the body, Doctor, if you've no objection,” he said, holding a match to the cigarette.
“None at all. Delighted,” said the medical man. “Allow me.”
He plunged his hands into the coffin and with a deft twist of powerful wrists turned the body over. The back of the corpse was revealed, also smothered in purple-pricked designs.
“I think I've seen enough,” grunted Graves. There was something about this group of freaks and the sardonic “shilling doctor” that made him feel sick, and he was anxious to regain the rain-slashed darkness of the open air.
“But I particularly want you to see this design, Graves,” insisted the quiet voice of Isaac Heron.
Reluctantly, the Inspector followed the pointing brown finger and bent his head nearer. For among that phantasmagoria of dragons and flaming torches and yawning crocodiles was a tombstone. And marked on the tombstone, minutely pricked but clearly discernible were the words:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF
DIED Nov. 30, 1935
“And when did this poor fellow die?” asked Graves.
“Yesterday,” replied the doctor importantly. He was not looking at the body. “You will find it on the death certificate, which is quite in order. 'Gastric enteritis. November 30, 1935.' ”
“Thank you, Doctor,” said Isaac Heron.
“But—but has he seen this?” blurted out Graves.
“Seen what?” asked the physician. He bent down over the corpse. “Umph! That's queer. November 30th. The very day he died. I wonder how he got that tattoo mark?”
“It seems fairly recent to me,” said Heron.
The doctor nodded. “Yes, it is. Very recent.” He swung round upon the little group of freaks. “Has anybody been fooling about with this body?”
His eyes were blazing behind the spectacles.
A SHIRT-SLEEVED individual pushed his way forward. “P'raps I can explain, guv'nor!”
“Who are you?”
The shirt-sleeved individual jerked his head in the direction of the body.
“He was my show. I paid him his wages.”
“And what do you know about this tattoo mark?” demanded Graves.
The showman scratched his head.
“Well, guv'nor, all I can say is he had it done hisself. He was allus anxious to add a new picture to his collection, as it were. Most big towns we stopped at, he would look round for a tattooer and ask for a new picture. That one you're looking at now was done about a week ago. Leastways, that's when Elmer started going to a new tattooer he'd found.”
The doctor grunted.
“Well, that explains it,” He turned to the Scotland Yard man and the gypsy. “Seen enough?”
“Quite enough, thank you, Doctor,” said Isaac Heron.
Deftly the body was turned over. As the men moved away, the group of show people, the freaks, the dwarfs, and the workers closed in again upon the coffin and resumed their silent staring mourning.
“There's Elmer's daughter,” indicated the shirt-sleeved man. “Poor girl, she misses her father, shocking!”
Isaac Heron, followed by the detective, moved over to a figure sitting on an upturned bucket and crouched in an attitude of grief.
“My dear,” he murmured.
A shock of black hair was raised, revealing a face whose slightly yellow tinge, high cheek-bones and oblique eyes emphasized an Asiatic origin.
“Her mother was a Jap,” whispered the showman. “She died when the girl was born, so Elmer told me.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” asked Heron.
The girl shook her head.
“Nothing—nothing. Father is dead— and that's all.”
Sobs choked the rest of her utterance. Sadly the gypsy turned away. He whispered something to the showman, who nodded. It was the shilling doctor who broke in upon them.
“Well, I suppose there's a queue of patients waiting for me. You won't need me any more.” The end of his glowing cigarette was almost burning his lips. “Everything is in order. You've got the death-certificate. . . . Good night, gentlemen.”
And peering through his spectacles, he shuffled away into the night.
Five minutes later Isaac Heron and Detective Inspector Graves were standing once more in the rain on the edge of the fair-ground.
“Well?” asked the Scotland Yard man.
“Queer, isn't it, that Elmer Hayes should die on the very day that the tattooed tombstone on his back indicated?” observed the gypsy.
“Might be coincidence,” said Graves.
“And it might be murder,” Heron rejoined quietly.
The Scotland Yard man started. “1 saw no indications of that.”
“Not even the redness and swelling beneath the tattooing of the tombstone?”
“Heavens, no! Are you suggesting—”
“Poison!” nodded Isaac Heron. “Certainly not gastric enteritis. That shilling doctor is overworked and careless. And once he's signed a death-certificate, he believes in it implicitly.”
Graves stared at his companion. “Aren't you rather jumping to conclusions?”
“Maybe I am,” admitted the gypsy. “But here's a taxi. Let's take it. There's something else I want to show you tonight.”
Graves was too bewildered to protest.
“I SAW the body of Elmer Hayes earlier in the day,” explained Isaac Heron, leaning back comfortably in the taxi. “And incidentally, I spotted that peculiarly new tattoo mark.”
“Who told you of his death?” asked Graves.
“A brother of the black tents,” smiled the gypsy. “News travels fast among show folk. And I confess to a Barnum-like fascination for freaks. Yes, I went to see the body of that poor fellow out of sheer curiosity.”
“And having seen it?”
“I telephoned for one of the best tattooists in London to come and see it. You probably know the man. He has his shop, or studio, as he prefers to call it, near Waterloo Bridge.”
“I know him,” nodded Graves.
“I showed him that tombstone on the back of the dead man. He examined it through a magnifying glass. To him that design was as plain as a fingerprint to your department at Scotland Yard.”
“What was plain about it?”
“That it was the work of a Japanese tattoo artist. I don't know whether you are aware, Graves, but the art of tattooing began in the East and reached its highest development in Japan. The Japanese became past-masters of the art. Then it was prohibited in the East, and it traveled across the world and flourished in our East End.”
“Japanese!” said the startled Graves. “That girl we saw weeping for her father was half Japanese.”
Isaac Heron nodded.
“Her mother was pure Japanese. She married Elmer Hayes when, as a sailor, he landed in Japan. And as my tattoo expert pointed out, the majority of the three hundred and fifty designs on that body we saw had been done by Japanese artists.”
“As also the tombstone?”
“Yes, the tombstone that was pricked into his body only a few days ago,” emphasized the gypsy. “But the artist who executed that design, even though murder was in his heart and stringing at the end of his needles, couldn't resist putting his signature to his devilment.”
“Signature! I saw no signature.” protested Graves.
“Just the letters 'Y.S.' beneath the inscription on the tombstone,” said Heron. “They were enough.”
The Scotland Yard man gave a quick glance out of the window of the taxi.
“I say, Heron, this fellow is heading for Limehouse. Is that all right?”
“Quite all right. Limehouse is where the Orientals insist upon clustering, in London. Chinese—and Japanese,” he added significantly.
“I took the liberty of telephoning the Poplar police-station in your name,” explained Heron. “I asked them if they knew of any Japanese claiming to be a tattooer, with the initials Y.S., who had set up shop in their district. I must say they were exceedingly smart. Within ten minutes they had the information for me. Yogai Safu was my man. His address was Limehouse Causeway. And here we are!”
HERON tapped sharply on the driver's window. The man slurred his cab against the pavement and stopped. The two men stepped out. They were at the entrance to that dark, twisting gully of a street where solitary men shuffle quietly against unlighted houses.
Followed by the Scotland Yard man, Isaac Heron plunged into that cleft in the darkness. They walked for about a hundred yards, then the gypsy stopped outside a shuttered shop that presented a blind exterior. The gypsy stretched out a hand, found a door-knob, turned it and padded along a narrow corridor. Then he opened another door and entered a room badly lit by a shield of bluish white gas.
Graves shuffled after him and peered about expectantly. It was the second strange interior he had seen that evening. The dirty yellow of the walls was an almost perfect camouflage for the wrinkled almond face of an old Japanese squatting on a heap of greasy cushions. There was not even a blink of surprise on that impassive Oriental face as it regarded the intruders.
“Yogai Safu?” asked the gypsy.
“Your honorable servant,” replied the Japanese, bowing and displaying a smooth bald head. “What would you have me do, gentlemen?”
His English was passable, his manner completely assured. Isaac Heron smiled easily.
“I've a friend here who wants to be tattooed.” Graves started; but Heron went on without a pause: “A sailorman tells me that Japs are the best at the job, and I saw the card in your window yesterday. Can you do the job?”
“It is, gentlemen, somewhat late in the evening.”
“But my friend is willing to pay,” added Heron.
The Scotland Yard man sniffed. This opening conversation was not to his liking. He preferred more direct methods. He opened his mouth and spoke roughly.
“What I want to know—” he began.
But Heron quickly interposed.
“My friend, as you will gather, is a little nervous. But then they all are, eh? Graves, strip off your coat and bare your arm to the gentleman.”
Mechanically, but more worried than ever, the Scotland Yard man obeyed. Despite the absurdity of the situation, his trained eyes were observing every detail, every object in that strange room.
A LONG low table was covered with little colored bowls and bottles—inks for the tattooer. A bunch of gleaming needles lay in a tray. And behind the table, against the wall, was pasted a medley of designs: mermaids rising on their tails, cherry trees dripping blossoms, a naked diver fighting a shark under water, a dragon breathing fire—these and scores of other sensational and murderous designs were ranged there.
“What a beautiful white skin for tattooing!”
The old Japanese was purring as he took the bared left arm of Graves in his own yellow fingers. The Scotland Yard man shuddered at the touch. At the same time he gave an appealing glance at Isaac Heron which suggested that the farce had gone far enough.
“And will the gentleman decide upon the design?” asked the Japanese.
Heron replied with that subtle smile:
“My friend is often in dangerous situations. He might easily be killed and his body be unrecognized. Now I suggest that, as a form of identification, you tattoo a tombstone on his arm.”
The oblique eyes of the Japanese seemed to become mere slits in a yellow mask as he repeated the words.
“Why not?” inquired the gypsy. “It's not an unusual design, is it?”
“Then go ahead.”
The yellow hand stretched out for a needle. The point was tried against a thumb. He lit a spirit lamp, and dabbed the needle in the flame. Then he dipped it into a little bowl of purple ink.
“And what name would the honorable gentleman like to have tattooed on the tombstone?” asked the Japanese, the needle poised in the air.
“Detective Inspector Graves of Scotland Yard,” replied Isaac Heron.
GRAVES felt the yellow clutch on his arm tighten. But on the face of the tattooer there was no expression.
“Very well,” he murmured, and dipped the needle into another bowl.
The slitlike eyes were regarding the sinewy white arm that he held in his grasp. Beads of perspiration broke out on the brow of the detective. His own gaze was fixed upon that gleaming needle that was about to plunge into his arm.
But even as the needle came toward the white skin, the hand of Isaac Heron was quicker. His fingers clutched the hand of the old Japanese in a vise-like grip.
“Grab the other hand, Graves!” came his warning voice.
The Scotland Yard man was only too eager to obey. In a few seconds the Japanese was lying on the cushions, his yellow wrists circled with the steel handcuffs which Graves always thoughtfully carried about with him.
“Poison, as I suspected,” said Heron, sniffing at one of the little bowls. “Once he heard you were from Scotland Yard, he realized he was suspected. He intended you to go the same way as Elmer Hayes. Isn't that so, Yogai Safu?”
For once the yellow mask was twisted with rage.
“Elmer Hayes was a white dog. He deserved to die. Twenty years ago I swore, at the shrine of my ancestors, to kill him!”
“Twenty years ago!”
Isaac Heron lifted an eyebrow inquiringly.
IN native fashion, the Japanese hissed through clenched teeth: “Twenty years ago, that Elmer Hayes pose as honorable gentleman, and come to my studio in Yokohama for be tattooed.
He wanted many, many designs upon body. I not know it was intention to show himself to crowds and make money by displaying body. Ugh! A vulgar practice. But many things I did not know at that time.”
“What else didn't you know?” asked the gypsy.
“Elmer Hayes had infatuated my daughter, my only daughter. She was as sweet as cherry blossom in spring. I loved her as the last descendant of most honorable ancestors. That white dog from overseas smuggled her away in steamer.”
The old man's voice was firm. Not a tear trickled down that wrinkled face.
“And then?” encouraged Heron.
“I make for hara-kiri,” said the old man. “But even as I prepare before shrine of ancestors, voice told me it was duty to get vengeance first. Honor had been violated. Until stain had been washed out with blood, my work on this miserable earth not ended. I packed up my needles, my inks and my kakemono, and sailed for America.
“A stranger in strange countries, it was not easy for me to follow their path. I find myself always too late. Across America, into Europe, through far lands I follow— for twenty years! I must stop often to earn money with tattoo. I open studio here in London. Then one morning the man himself walked into studio.
“The gods of my ancestors had answered my prayers and given enemy into my hands. He not recognize me. I used the same initials, but fake name. He saw only an old Nipponese who practice ancient art of tattooing. He asked me to prick design on back, one of few empty places left. I think first kill him quick. Then I remember he taken my daughter to live his life of shame; she had died in poverty. He must suffer for that. So, slowly, with cunning, I pricked poison into his body while making tombstone on his back. I knew just when that poison would take effect. So I pricked date on tombstone.”
“Yes, we saw it,” said Graves roughly.
“On his dead body, eh?” chuckled the old man.
There was silence for a moment. Then Isaac Heron spoke.
“There is one thing you do not know, old man,” he said.
“And what is that, honorable sir?”
“Elmer Hayes has a daughter. You are her grandfather.”
Once again came that hiss of emotion through clenched teeth. The old Japanese seemed to age before their eyes.
“That I did not know,” he faltered. “Is—is she beautiful?”
“Like her mother.”
The old man sighed.
“It is not right that her grandfather should be branded as a murderer.”
THE remark seemed to rouse Detective Inspector Graves. He reached out for his coat and struggled into it.
“We'll be making our way to the station,” he said. “I must phone to stop the burial of Elmer Hayes for tomorrow.”
He took hold of the old Japanese and raised him from the couch of cushions. In that moment the man seemed to age incredibly; he swayed and almost crumpled to the floor. With a jerk Graves brought him to his feet.
“I apologize, honorable sir,” smiled the Japanese weakly. “You see, I am dying.”
“Dying!” Graves stared, disconcerted.
“Yes,” mumbled the old man. “My work now is finished. I have avenged. It is better for the girl—she who is my granddaughter—that I do not live.”
He seemed to lapse into a coma. With the help of Isaac Heron the detective carried the Japanese to the door. Under the light of the street lamp the gypsy gave the old man a searching glance.
“Yes,” he nodded to Graves. “I think he is dying—and because he has determined in his mind to die. I doubt whether you'll ever get him to trial. The ways of the Oriental are strange, Graves.”
And he went off in search of a taxi, leaving Graves supporting a very old and unconscious man.