A MANHUNT CHILLER
KNIFE of a THOUSAND CUTS
by Gardner F. Fox
Originally written for MANHUNT #5 (1948) and published by Magazine Enterprises
SUDDENLY he saw the glint of moonlight on the knife and knew that the Black Cult was on his trail. Evan Hardin turned, fumbled at his belt for the gun tucked into the broad leather. He had an answer for the Black Cult—in hot lead!
For a single instant, he could see the man molded in moonlight. He was a swart, bronzed man, naked to the waist. A turban, badge of the Cult, was wrapped about his head. He was standing, knife in hand, at the far end of the street. Hardin knew the man was touching the knife, feeling its point sharp and hard; was planning to sink that blade in Hardin's back!
Hardin grinned, swore under his breath. "I'll get him, yet. He doesn't know the city like I do. I'll lead him a pretty chase, just as I led his fellow Cultists in Calcutta..."
Hardin yanked his gun free of his belt, held it poised and ready in his hand. He thought, Let him come after me now! Just let him.
He was near the wharves, down here. If he could decoy his man onto one of the long docks, pump him full of lead, weight his body and drop it overboard, he would be forever free of the Black Cult. The salt air was strong in his nostrils as he turned and began to run.
Behind him he could hear the slap-pat of naked feet following him...
... Just as the naked feet had come after him in Calcutta, the night he lifted the KuFan emeralds from the neck of Ming Tei, priestess of the Cult. He had been to a lawn party given by the town governor, had mingled with the guests as "that American explorer." Ming Tei had been pretty, had let him tell her stale jokes, had let him feed her poppied wine (into which he had slipped the drug so she would not see). When she reeled and fell into his arms, he was in a corner of the garden; he had placed her gently on the grass, had deftly undone the snap of the priceless emeralds and slipped them into his pocket.
A turbaned guard had seen him, had given chase. Across the cobble-stone streets of the city, Hardin had led the man. When they were in the shadows, Hardin shot him down and left him there in a pool of his own blood.
He had taken the next boat to the States, had sold the emeralds to a collector at a fancy price. He had forgotten all about it until the Cult sent him a message: threatening his life unless the emeralds were returned.
Now, running along the wharf, hearing the hollow wood thud and pound under his feet, he chuckled to himself. He lifted his gun up, snapped off the safety catch, He turned his head—
That was where Evan Hardin made his mistake, to turn his head. For if he had not turned his head, he would have seen the looped rope piled up on the wharf—would have seen it and stepped aside to avoid it.
He did not see it. He was looking behind him. His foot hit the rope. He pitched forward, falling.
The gun flew out of his hand. It seemed to hang a moment in midair, then fall faster and faster. Hardin bounced on the wooden wharfing, but he was up and scrambling on hands and knees after the gun.
The revolver hit the edge of the wharf. It bounced. It slid. It went toward the edge and fell over! Hardin heard the flat splash as it landed in the water of the harbor. He could picture it sinking down and down, past the clutching seaweed, coming to rest on the muddy bottom.
Frightened, Hardin turned his head.
Now he had no weapon! Now the man in the turban held the upper hand. With that knife, he could skewer Hardin in the back before he could get away.
"No ... no," he whimpered, struggling to his feet. "I can't die out here ... alone and helpless. ..."
He staggered into the shadows of a big warehouse, stood with his back against the brick wall. His heart thundered and pounded. His hands were clammy with sweat. His head ached. His muscles felt jellyish.
"Got to... get away ... from him. Can't do it... just by running. That devil in back of me has the constitution of an ox. He's a trained killer. Ming Tei wouldn't send an amateur. He's probably one of the best..."
He listened. Only the sighing of the night wind rattling the rigging of a docked fishing smack answered his straining ears. Water lapped against a piling. A foghorn boomed, thoooon-thoooon, somewhere out on the water.
He could hear them coming down the alley. Loud, noisy feet. Not—bare feet!
"You!" bellowed a voice. "Hey, you! I see you. Answer me, can't you?"
Light blinded him, etched him in brightness with his back against the wall. A flashlight, in the hands of—a policeman!
Evan Hardin giggled in hysterical relief. He panted, "Don't mind me, officer. I'm just ... a little sick, that's all."
The blue-coated patrolman came forward suspiciously, his nightstick in his hand. He lowered the light, but its indirect beam still showed Evan Hardin to him clearly. The policeman was searching him with his keen eyes.
"You do look done in," the officer said kindly. "Why not walk along with me? Maybe the fresh salt air will snap you out of it."
"A good idea, officer. A swell, wonderful idea."
Rubbing his cheek, the officer looked at Hardin quizzically. He murmured, "If it's pulling my leg you are—"
"No, officer. I mean it. In case I had another attack of sickness, you know, you'd be there..."
Mollified, the blue-coat smiled and moved on. He put his feet down solidly, protectively. Evan Hardin smiled to himself. The killer wouldn't have a chance to get him now. He'd walk the rounds with the cop, let the cop see him into a taxi. He'd press a sawbuck into the driver's hand and tell him to hit the bright lights on his way home. The Black Cult killer wouldn't dare strike at him where he would be seen, and cornered.
Side by side, the policeman and the explorer walked along the warehouse sidewalks. They passed under street lamps, moved along cobblestone streets.
Twice Hardin looked back, and saw no one. A third time he glanced back—
A half-naked man was padding into dark shadows. On his head he wore a turban. In his hand was a glittering knife, the knife of a thousand cuts, the knife of KuFan. Hardin saw the man grin, saw the white and even teeth in the swart face; even as the man, knowing Hardin was watching, ran a blunt fingertip down the keen edge of the knife blade that was sharp as the finest razor made.
"Huh? Whazzat?" asked the cop.
Hardin realized he had made choking sounds low in his throat. An idea occurred to him. He caught at the blue-coat's arm and whispered, "Someone—following us... over there in the shadows!"
"He is, is he?" growled the patrolman. "One of those skulkin' crooks who's waitin until I make my rounds, an' then he'll slip into a warehouse an' loot to his heart's content. Well, he won't!"
The officer pulled his service revolver. He ran into the shadows. He hunted where the turbaned man should be—and was not. The policeman came back scowling.
"Nobody there. I looked all over. You must be gettin' an attack again. Let's move on an' finish my rounds, then I'll see you safely to a cab.”
Evan Hardin sighed with relief. He said, “That's fine."
They went together for three blocks, then the policeman turned right and moved out onto a wharf where there was nothing but pale moonlight. The cop whistled cheerfully and swung his nightstick. His happiness and contentedness communicated themselves to Hardin. He felt cheery, laughed at his worries. Why, tomorrow morning, this would be like a bad dream!
A motorboat chugged out on the water, heading toward the wharf. A flashlight waved, signaling.
The cop said, "A patrol boat. Harbor patrol. Hello, out there!"
"Who's there? Kelly?"
"Kelly it is."
"Come aboard, Jim. The commissioner sent word to get you down to his office to identify a man. We'll pick you up, take you in..."
Even Hardin whispered, "No...no... don't leave me!"
Kelly was cheerful. "Sure, you'll be all right. I'd take you with me, only orders is orders, you know."
Hardin watched the boat pull in, watched Kelly jump aboard. Fascinated, he saw the boat leave bubbles in its wake as it chugged away from the wharf. Standing there, he sweated. He had to go back the whole length of the wharf... go back to that man ... alone and unprotected.
He started to run. His feet made slapping sounds. His breath sobbed in his throat. His forehead beaded with sweat. He ran the length of the wharf, raced onto the side-wharf that led to the street.
He was still running as the man in the turban stepped out of the shadows and threw the knife.
The blade made a soft sound going into Hardin's back, up to the hilt. He crumpled and fell, and rolled over twice. When he stopped rolling, he was dead.