At six o'clock on the following Thursday evening, Alexander Eden drove to th_tewart Hotel. All day a February rain had spattered over the town, bringin_n early dusk. For a moment Eden stood in the doorway of the hotel, staring a_he parade of bobbing umbrellas and at the lights along Geary Street, glowin_ dim yellow in the dripping mist. In San Francisco age does not matter much, and he felt like a boy again as he rode up in the elevator to Sally Jordan'_uite.
She was waiting for him in the doorway of her sitting-room, lovely as a gir_n a soft clinging dinner gown of gray. Caste tells, particularly when one ha_eached the sixties, Eden thought as he took her hand.
"Ah, Alec," she smiled. "Come in. You remember Victor."
Victor stepped forward eagerly, and Eden looked at him with interest. He ha_ot seen Sally Jordan's son for some years and he noted that, at thirty-five, Victor began to show the strain of his giddy career as man about town. Hi_rown eyes were tired, as though they had looked at the bright lights to_ong, his face a bit puffy, his waistline far too generous. But his attire wa_erfection; evidently his tailor had yet to hear of the failing Phillimor_ortunes.
"Come in, come in," said Victor gaily. His heart was light, for he sa_mportant money in the offing. "As I understand it, tonight's the night."
"And I'm glad it is," Sally Jordan added. "I shall be happy to get tha_ecklace off my mind. Too great a burden at my age."
Eden sat down. "Bob's gone to the dock to meet the President Pierce," h_emarked. "I told him to come here at once with your Chinese friend."
"Ah, yes," said Sally Jordan.
"Have a cocktail," suggested Victor.
"No, thanks," Eden replied. Abruptly he rose and strode about the room.
Mrs. Jordan regarded him with concern. "Has anything happened?" she inquired.
The jeweler returned to his chair. "Well, yes—something has happened," h_dmitted. "Something—well, something rather odd."
"About the necklace, you mean?" asked Victor with interest.
"Yes," said Eden. He turned to Sally Jordan. "You remember what Madden tol_s, Sally? Almost his last words. 'New York, and nowhere else.'"
"Why, yes—I remember," she replied.
"Well, he's changed his mind," frowned the jeweler. "Somehow, it doesn't see_ike Madden. He called me up this morning from his ranch down on the desert, and he wants the necklace delivered there."
"On the desert?" she repeated, amazed.
"Precisely. Naturally, I was surprised. But his instructions were emphatic, and you know the sort of man he is. One doesn't argue with him. I listened t_hat he had to say, and agreed. But after he had rung off, I got to thinking.
What he had said that morning at my office, you know. I asked myself—was i_eally Madden talking? The voice had an authentic ring—but even so—well, _etermined to take no chances."
"Quite right, too," nodded Sally Jordan.
"So I called him back. I had a devil of a time finding his number, but _inally got it from a business associate of his here in town. Eldorado 76. _sked for P.J. Madden and I got him. Oh, it was Madden right enough."
"And what did he say?"
"He commended me for my caution, but his orders were even more emphatic tha_efore. He said he had heard certain things that made him think it risky t_ake the necklace to New York at this time. He didn't explain what he meant b_hat. But he added that he'd come to the conclusion that the desert was a_deal place for a transaction of this sort. The last place in the world an_ne would come looking for a chance to steal a quarter of a million dolla_ecklace. Of course he didn't say all that over the wire, but that was what _athered."
"He's absolutely right, too," said Victor.
"Well, yes—in a way, he is. I've spent a lot of time on the desert myself. I_pite of the story writers, it's the most law-abiding place in America today.
Nobody ever locks a door, or so much as thinks of thieves. Ask the averag_ancher about police protection, and he'll look surprised and murmur somethin_bout a sheriff several hundred miles away. But for all that—"
Eden got up again and walked anxiously about the room. "For all that—o_ather, for those very reasons, I don't like the idea at all. Suppose somebod_id want to play a crooked game—what a setting for it! Away out there on tha_cean of sand, with only the Joshua trees for neighbors. Suppose I send Bo_own there with your necklace, and he walks into a trap. Madden may not be a_hat lonely ranch. He may have gone east. He may even, by the time Bob get_here, have gone west—as they said in the war. Lying out on the desert, with _ullet in him—"
Victor laughed derisively. "Look here, your imagination is running away wit_ou," he cried.
Eden smiled. "Maybe it is," he admitted. "Begins to look as though I wer_rowing old, eh, Sally?" He took out his watch. "But where's Bob? Ought to b_ere by now. If you don't mind, I'll use your telephone."
He called the dock, and came away from the phone with a still more worrie_ook. "The President Pierce got in a full forty-five minutes ago," h_nnounced. "Half an hour should bring them here."
"Traffic's rather thick at this hour," Victor reminded him.
"Yes—that's right, too," Eden agreed. "Well, Sally, I've told you th_ituation. What do you think?"
"What should she think?" Victor cut in. "Madden's bought the necklace an_ants it delivered on the desert. It isn't up to us to question his orders. I_e do, he may get annoyed and call the whole deal off. No, our job is t_eliver the pearls, get his receipt, and wait for his check." His puffy whit_ands twitched eagerly.
Eden turned to his old friend. "Is that your opinion, Sally?"
"Why, yes, Alec," she said. "I fancy Victor is right." She looked at her so_roudly. Eden also looked at him, but with a vastly different expression.
"Very good," he answered. "Then there is no time to be lost. Madden is in _reat hurry, as he wants to start for New York very soon. I shall send Bo_ith the necklace at eleven o'clock tonight—but I absolutely refuse to sen_im alone."
"I'll go along," Victor offered.
Eden shook his head. "No," he objected, "I prefer a policeman, even though h_oes belong to a force as far away as Honolulu. This Charlie Chan—do yo_hink, Sally, that you could persuade him to go with Bob?"
She nodded. "I'm sure of it. Charlie would do anything for me."
"All right—that's settled. But where the devil are they? I tell you, I'_orried—"
The telephone interrupted him, and Madame Jordan went to answer it. "Oh—hello, Charlie," she said. "Come right up. We're on the fourth floor—number 492. Yes.
Are you alone?" She hung up the receiver and turned back into the room. "H_ays he is alone," she announced.
"Alone," repeated Eden. "Why—I don't understand that—" He sank weakly into _hair.
A moment later he looked up with interest at the chubby little man his hostes_nd her son were greeting warmly at the door. The detective from Honolul_tepped farther into the room, an undistinguished figure in his Wester_lothes. He had round fat cheeks, an ivory skin, but the thing about him tha_aught Eden's attention was the expression in his eyes, a look of kee_rightness that made the pupils gleam like black buttons in the yellow light.
"Alec," said Sally Jordan, "this is my old friend, Charlie Chan. Charlie—Mr.
Chan bowed low. "Honors crowd close on this mainland," he said. "First I a_iss Sally's old friend, and now I meet Mr. Eden."
Eden rose. "How do you do," he said.
"Have a good crossing, Charlie?" Victor asked.
Chan shrugged. "All time big Pacific Ocean suffer sharp pain down below, an_oss about to prove it. Maybe from sympathy, I am in same fix."
Eden came forward. "Pardon me if I'm a little abrupt—but my son—he was to mee_our ship—"
"So sorry," Chan said, regarding him gravely. "The fault must indubitably b_ine. Kindly overlook my stupidity, but there was no meeting at dock."
"I can't understand it," Eden complained again.
"For some few minutes I linger round gang-board," Chan continued. "No on_entures to approach out of rainy night. Therefore I engage taxi and hurry t_his spot."
"You've got the necklace?" Victor demanded.
"Beyond any question," Chan replied. "Already I have procured room in thi_otel, partly disrobing to remove same from money-belt about waist." He tosse_n innocent-looking string of beads down upon the table. "Regard th_hillimore pearls at journey's end," he grinned. "And now a great burden drop_rom my shoulders with a most delectable thud."
Eden, the jeweler, stepped forward and lifted the string in his hands.
"Beautiful," he murmured, "beautiful. Sally, we should never have let Madde_ave them at the price. They're perfectly matched—I don't know that I eve_aw—" He stared for a moment into the rosy glow of the pearls, then laid the_gain on the table. "But Bob—where is Bob?"
"Oh, he'll be along," remarked Victor, taking up the necklace. "Just a case o_issing each other."
"I am the faulty one," insisted Chan. "Shamed by my blunder—"
"Maybe," said Eden. "But—now that you have the pearls, Sally, I'll tell yo_omething else. I didn't want to worry you before. This afternoon at fou_'clock some one called me—Madden again, he said. But something in hi_oice—anyhow, I was wary. Pearls were coming on the President Pierce, wer_hey? Yes. And the name of the messenger? Why should I tell him that, _nquired. Well, he had just got hold of some inside facts that made him fee_he string was in danger, and he didn't want anything to happen. He was in _osition to help in the matter. He insisted, so I finally said: 'Very good, Mr. Madden. Hang up your receiver and I'll call you back in ten minutes wit_he information you want.' There was a pause, then I heard him hang up. But _idn't phone the desert. Instead I had that call traced, and I found it cam_rom a pay-station in a cigar store at the corner of Sutter and Kearn_treets."
Eden paused. He saw Charlie Chan regarding him with deep interest.
"Can you wonder I'm worried about Bob?" the jeweler continued. "There's som_unny business going on, and I tell you I don't like it—"
A knock sounded on the door, and Eden himself opened it. His son stepped int_he room, debonair and smiling. At sight of him, as so often happens in such _ituation, the anxious father's worry gave way to a deep rage.
"You're a hell of a business man," he cried.
"Now, father—no compliments," laughed Bob Eden. "And me wandering all over Sa_rancisco in your service."
"I suppose so. That's about what you would be doing, when it was your job t_eet Mr. Chan at the dock."
"Just a moment, dad." Bob Eden removed a glistening rain coat. "Hello, Victor.
Madame Jordan. And this, I imagine, is Mr. Chan."
"So sorry to miss meeting at dock," murmured Chan. "All my fault, I am sure—"
"Nonsense," cried the jeweler. "His fault, as usual. When, in heaven's name, are you going to show a sense of responsibility?"
"Now, dad. And a sense of responsibility is just what I've only this minut_topped showing nothing else but."
"Good lord—what language is that? You didn't meet Mr. Chan, did you?"
"Well, in a way, I didn't—"
"In a way? In a way!"
"Precisely. It's a long story, and I'll tell it if you'll stop interruptin_ith these unwarranted attacks on my character. I'll sit down, if I may. I'v_een about a bit, and I'm tired."
He lighted a cigarette. "When I came out of the club about five to go to th_ock, there was nothing in sight but a battered old taxi that had seen bette_ays. I jumped in. When I got down on the Embarcadero I noticed that th_river was a pretty disreputable lad with a scar on one cheek and _auliflower ear. He said he'd wait for me, and he said it with a lot o_nthusiasm. I went into the pier-shed. There was the President Pierce out i_he harbor, fumbling round trying to dock. In a few minutes I noticed a ma_tanding near me—a thin chilly-looking lad with an overcoat, the collar u_bout his ears, and a pair of black spectacles. I guess I'm psychic—he didn'_ook good to me. I couldn't tell, but somehow he seemed to be looking at m_rom back of those smoked windows. I moved to the other side of the shed. S_id he. I went to the street. He followed. Well, I drifted back to the gang- plank, and old Chilly Bill came along."
Bob Eden paused, smiling genially about him. "Right then and there I came to _uick decision. I'm remarkable that way. I didn't have the pearls, but Mr.
Chan did. Why tip off the world to Mr. Chan? So I just stood there starin_opefully at the crowd landing from the old P.P. Presently I saw the man _ook to be Mr. Chan come down the plank, but I never stirred. I watched hi_hile he looked about, then I saw him go out to the street. Still th_ysterious gent behind the windows stuck closer than a bill collector. Afte_verybody was ashore, I went back to my taxi and paid off the driver. 'Was yo_xpecting somebody on the ship?' he asked. 'Yes,' I told him. 'I came down t_eet the Dowager Empress of China, but they tell me she's dead.' He gave me _irty look. As I hurried away the man with the black glasses came up. 'Taxi, Mister,' said Cauliflower Ear. And old Glasses got in. I had to meande_hrough the rain all the way to the S.P. station before I could find anothe_ab. Just as I drove away from the station along came Cauliflower Ear in hi_plendid equipage. He followed along behind, down Third, up Market to Powell, and finally to the St. Francis. I went in the front door of the hotel and ou_he side, on to Post. And there was Cauliflower Ear and his fare, drifting b_ur store. As I went in the front door of the club, my dear old friends dre_p across the street. I escaped by way of the kitchen, and slipped over here.
I fancy they're still in front of the club—they loved me like a brother." H_aused. "And that, dad, is the long but thrilling story of why I did not mee_r. Chan."
Eden smiled. "By jove, you've got more brains than I thought. You wer_erfectly right. But look here, Sally—I like this less than ever. Tha_ecklace of yours isn't a well-known string. It's been in Honolulu for years.
Easy as the devil to dispose of it, once it's stolen. If you'll take m_dvice, you'll certainly not send it off to the desert—"
"Why not?" broke in Victor. "The desert's the very place to send it. Certainl_his town doesn't look any too good."
"Alec," said Sally Jordan, "we need the money. If Mr. Madden is down a_ldorado, and asks for the necklace there, then let's send it to hi_mmediately and get his receipt. After that—well, it's his lookout. His worry.
Certainly I want it off my hands as soon as may be."
Eden sighed. "All right. It's for you to decide. Bob will take it at eleven, as we planned. Provided—well, provided you make the arrangement yo_romised—provided he doesn't go alone." He looked toward Charlie Chan who wa_tanding at the window watching, fascinated, the noisy life of Geary Stree_ar below.
"Charlie," said Sally Jordan.
"Yes, Miss Sally." He turned, smiling, to face her.
"What was that you said about the burden dropping from your shoulders? Th_electable thud?"
"Now vacation begins," he said. "All my life I have unlimited yearning to fac_he wonders of this mainland. Moment are now at hand. Care-free and happy, no_ike crossing on ship. There all time pearls rest heavy on stomach, mos_ndigestible, like sour rice. Not so now."
Madame Jordan shook her head. "I'm sorry, Charlie," she said. "I'm going t_sk you to eat one more bowl of sour rice. For me—for auld lang syne."
"I do not quite grasp meaning," he told her.
She outlined the plan to send him with Bob Eden to the desert. His expressio_id not change.
"I will go," he promised gravely.
"Thank you, Charlie," said Sally Jordan softly.
"In my youth," he continued, "I am house-boy in the Phillimore mansion. Stil_n my heart like old-time garden bloom memories of kindness never to b_epaid." He saw Sally Jordan's eyes bright and shining with tears. "Life woul_e dreary waste," he finished, "if there was no thing called loyalty."
Very flowery, thought Alexander Eden. He sought to introduce a more practica_ote. "All your expenses will be paid, of course. And that vacation is jus_ostponed for a few days. You'd better carry the pearls—you have the belt, an_esides, no one knows your connection with the affair. Thank heaven for that."
"I will carry them," Chan agreed. He took up the string from the table. "Mis_ally, toss all worry out of mind. When this young man and I encounter prope_erson, pearls will be delivered. Until then, I guard them well."
"I'm sure you will," smiled Madame Jordan.
"Well, that's settled," said Eden. "Mr. Chan, you and my son will take th_leven o'clock ferry to Richmond, which connects with the train to Barstow.
There you'll have to change to another train for Eldorado, but you shoul_each Madden's ranch tomorrow evening. If he is there and everything seems i_rder—"
"Why should everything be in order?" broke in Victor. "If he's there—that'_nough."
"Well, of course, we don't want to take any undue risk," Eden went on. "Bu_ou two will know what to do when you reach there. If Madden's at the ranch, give him the string and get his receipt. That lets us out. Mr. Chan, we wil_ick you up here at ten-thirty. Until then, you are free to follow your ow_nclination."
"Present inclination," smiled Chan, "means tub filled with water, steamin_ot. At ten-thirty in entrance hall of hotel I will be waiting, undigestibl_earls on stomach, as before. Good-bye. Good-bye." He bobbed to each in tur_nd went out.
"I've been in the business thirty-five years," said Eden, "but I neve_mployed a messenger quite like him before."
"Dear Charlie," said Sally Jordan. "He'll protect those pearls with his life."
Bob Eden laughed. "I hope it doesn't go as far as that," he remarked. "I'v_ot a life, too, and I'd like to hang on to it."
"Won't you both stay to dinner?" suggested Sally Jordan.
"Some other time, thanks," Alexander Eden answered. "I don't think it wise w_hould keep together tonight. Bob and I will go home—he has a bag to pack, _magine. I don't intend to let him out of my sight until train time."
"One last word," said Victor. "Don't be too squeamish when you get down o_hat ranch. If Madden's in danger, that's no affair of ours. Put those pearl_n his hand and get his receipt. That's all."
Eden shook his head. "I don't like the look of this, Sally. I don't like thi_hing at all."
"Don't worry," she smiled. "I have every confidence in Charlie—and in Bob."
"Such popularity must be deserved," said Bob Eden. "I promise I'll do my best.
Only I hope that lad in the overcoat doesn't decide to come down to the deser_nd warm up. Somehow, I'm not so sure I'd be a match for him—once he warme_p."