Wings of the Black Death/Chapter 3
Facing the gun in the hands of the masked man, Wentworth straightened slowly. His voice was entirely calm.
“You have me at a disadvantage. I'm afraid I don't know you.”
The man chuckled behind his mask.
“You never will,” he said. “It is unfortunately necessary for me to leave you here — dead.”
There was mild amusement in the Spider's tone, but there was none in his face beneath the shielding black silk. Death glared at him from the slits of the other man's mask, from the black muzzle of that leveled gun.
Somewhere not far away Ram Singh was even then entering a telephone booth. Police would come. But they would bring no help to Wentworth. To the Spider the police meant death just as sure as that unwavering muzzle into which he looked. For there behind him in a huddled heap across the table was another who had paid the penalty for his sins. And the brilliant, small seal of the Spider glowed like a drop of blood upon his forehead!
Yet there was nothing of all this apprehension in the Spider's voice. He must play for time and trust to his split second reflexes, his keen mind, to yank him from the closing jaws of death.
“Curiosity,” he told the masked man, “is an unpleasant thing to carry to one's grave. I don't know you, and I know most of the crooks of this world. Why do you seek my death?”
Once more the man chuckled.
“Simply because you have learned too much — ”
Wentworth's eyes became pinpoints as he read the meaning behind those words. Then this man knew the secret of those vials in the safe, knew the horror at which they hinted.
“I don't know what you mean,” he said. “Learned what?”
The man's laughter hissed into the silent room again.
“Guess, Spider,” he rasped. “But guess fast. You have but a few moments left.”
Wentworth raised a hand before him as though inspecting his fingernails, but his eyes shot to the face of his watch. Two minutes had elapsed now since Ram Singh had called the police. Any second would see them ascending the stairs. They might seize this man from behind, might interrupt this execution. But what would follow for the Spider ?
Wentworth dreaded to think what might happen to the city should he himself be arrested now and placed on trial for murder. He might tell his suspicions to the police. But after all they were nothing but suspicions. And who would believe the Spider? Who would take his vague, unfounded charges seriously?
Wentworth's eyes caught the glint of electric light on moving metal and glanced quickly at the man who was his captor. The gun was rising slowly; he could see the increasing tension of the man's knuckles. The trigger was moving slowly back! And at the same instant Wentworth's straining ears caught the cautious tread of feet upon the stair.
The police had arrived; it could be no one else. Wentworth's body tensed for the final desperate moment. Then in the blackness of the hall, a voice roared:
“Hands up there!”
The Spider himself could not have whirled more quickly than the tall man in the doorway. Whirl and shot were instantaneous, and in the hall a man cried out hoarsely.
With a single movement of his hand, the Spider extinguished the light. In two strides he reached the window, yanked down the top casement.
No fear now that the killer would get him. Guns roared and bellowed in the hallway; lead sang and whined. The Spider smiled thinly as he fled. The police would take care of his recent captor now.
With swift, lithe movements Wentworth climbed out through the upper casement, planted his foot upon it as upon a ladder, and sprang upward. His hands closed upon the edge of the roof and for a moment he dangled there, clinging with aching fingers.
There were hoarse shouts below him in the yard, guns blazed, and lead plunked into the wood beside him. Wentworth flexed his arms, levered himself upward. In an instant he got a foot over the gutter, rolled and was safe.
More lead whistled by as he dodged away from the edge of the roof. He ran crouchingly across its narrow width, hurdled the barrier to the next house, and, ducking beneath radio wires, proceeded swiftly across four buildings. Atop the fifth dwelling, he jerked up a roof scuttle and dropped through on light feet into the black upper hallway of another, smelly tenement.
It was the work of moments then to run swiftly down the stairs, jerking off the telltale mask and slipping it into the toolkit beneath his arm. And once more the Spider became a shadow, merged with the blackness of the lower hall. Casually he drifted out into the street and mingled with the excited crowd that was being pushed back by policemen from the danger zone about John Harper's pawnshop, where guns still blazed.
Richard Wentworth remained with that crowd until the police drove them away. Then, as if reluctantly, he moved off down the street.
Five minutes later, in a dank by-way, he slid again into the Lancia with a brief nod to Ram Singh. Then, as the imperturbable Hindu slid the limousine into smooth purring speed, Wentworth's finger touched once more the button that revealed the wardrobe behind the seat and he quickly garbed himself again in evening dress.
As he alighted from the car at the Police Commissioner's house, he glanced again at his watch. Nearly an hour. Too long — he should have been back half an hour ago.
Swiftly he moved, dodging again the pacing policeman and entered the conservatory. Standing in the doorway, he drew out a cigarette and lighted it with a flick of the lighter that so recently had implanted the seal of the Spider upon a dead man's forehead.
A dangerous thing for any man to carry — the seal of the Spider. And so Wentworth had found it in the past; but now his old friend, Professor Brownlee, had made him a lighter which was practically proof against discovery. The seals were there in the base of the lighter, in a secret chamber, but even that secret chamber would be hard to find; for a thin coating of varnish which matched the lighter, and which Wentworth had reapplied on his trip back to Kirkpatrick's home, concealed the narrow crack that marked the opening of the secret chamber.
In addition to that, if anyone but Wentworth opened that compartment, the seals dissolved in thirty seconds, for it was necessary to press a small hidden button and to bring the seal swiftly in contact with a surface to which it would adhere to prevent its dissolution.
Wentworth's hand, as he held the flame, was rock steady; he smiled slightly to see it, and strolled out among the guests. Nita van Sloan, the one woman he trusted in all the world, was whirling in the stately measures of a waltz in the arms of Police Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick.
The men's eyes met, and a wintry smile lifted the small black pointed mustache of the Commissioner of Police. He turned slowly in the rhythm of the dance, and Nita's quick eyes flew to Wentworth's face. She smiled, but in the depths of her blue eyes was a haunting fear.
It was not that she did not rely on the keen mind of her sweetheart; it was only that she knew the desperate chances he took, and the knowledge that sooner or later every man must yield to the mathematics of chance.
Standing there in the doorway, carelessly smoking as if guns had never whined bullets past his head, as if his swift justice had never taken life, Wentworth showed no evidence of his minutes-old tussle with death. What first impressed you about him was the remarkable physical alertness of the man. Five feet eleven, with the tapered body and light stride of an athlete, he had a keen, tanned face and the friendly interested eyes of a man who has long since learned the secret of enjoying life.
He smiled slowly, and even half across the room the magnetism of the man became apparent. He was so completely vital and alive. The music halted and he crossed swiftly, took Nita's hand and bowed over it, his gray-blue eyes smiling up beneath black brows that held always a hint of raillery.
“I have missed you,” Kirkpatrick said.
Wentworth smiled lightly. “I have been communing with the stars. Libra, you know, is in the ascendant. That always brings luck — Libra, that is, in conjunction with Saturn — so I went out to watch my luck rise.”
He turned smiling to the girl. His swift glance traveled over the bright turquoise of the simple dress that subtly emphasized the soft lines of her young body.
“Have I told you, my dear, how charming you are?” he asked. “A singularly trying color to wear, and you do it perfectly.”
The girl blushed with pleasure, her face radiant beneath the clustering brown warmth of her curling hair.
“Really, Dick,” she said, “and right out in public!” She turned to Kirkpatrick. “Isn't he simply impossible?” she asked lightly.
The commissioner's lips beneath the pointed black mustache were lifted by a slight smile.
“Dick Wentworth,” he said, “is a man who does the impossible.
He took the cigarette Wentworth proffered in a platinum case.
“The stars have given me a message,” Wentworth laughed, “I have a feeling that the Spider,” he waved his hand and a thread of blue smoke from his cigarette wavered slightly, “I have an idea that the Spider will be with us again. I heard stories in Europe that he was returning.”
The words seemed to hover over the three standing there in the brilliant ballroom. It was like an Arctic blast In the midst of warm comfort; like a window banged suddenly open into a quiet drawing room, the storm and the rain beating in.
The eyes of the two men met. Challenge was there, despite all the friendship between the two. Wentworth had once saved Kirkpatrick's life. There were bonds of admiration and respect between them, and yet in the police commissioner's mind was always a germ of suspicion. Many times now Wentworth and the Spider had been closely connected in circumstance and in simultaneous action. Always Wentworth had been able ultimately to turn aside that suspicion. But always it returned.
The girl's laughter at their side became strained and slightly uneasy, and the laughter was not in her blue eyes.
“Did the Spider, by any chance,” asked Kirkpatrick softly, “come over on the boat with you?”
Wentworth threw back his head and laughed. “That man,” he said, “he is so elusive. Who can say what boat he takes, what homes he will penetrate?” and he cast his gray-blue eyes over the rich assembly. “Why good Lord!” he exclaimed suddenly, “the man might even be here, in this room.” He waved his hand again, and a tall man with forward-thrust bald head and eyes keen beneath heavy brows, walked over and grasped it.
“What man is this that might be here, Dick?” he asked and laughed — and added “Welcome home!
Nita seized on the diversion.
“Really, Mac, it's been ages since we've seen you.”
“MacDonald Pugh,” greeted Wentworth, “the great fisherman! Tuna will be running soon, Mac, and we'll have to go for some.”
Kirkpatrick bowed to the newcomer, bowed again to Nita. For an instant a third smile flickered over his lips. “It was the Spider we were talking about, Mac,” he said, looking at Wentworth. “I trust the Spider's presence, if he is here, will not cause you discomfort, Dick.”
And Kirkpatrick, smiling suavely, moved away.
MacDonald Pugh looked after him with an amused smile.
“What's eating the old boy tonight?” he queried.
“Same old problem, Mac,” Wentworth told him. “The Spider. I was teasing him about the fellow and, as usual, Stan rose to the bait. By the way, Mac, speaking of crime, you had a bit of an outbreak in your office recently.”
Pugh's face lengthened so that creases diagonaled from his nose to mouth corners.
“A pity about Virginia Doeg,” he said. “I'd have sworn she was honest. She was getting along nicely, too, engaged to marry a boy in the office, a James Handley. Intelligent lad, Handley, going places some day. And now — ”
Pugh waved a hand.
“Good-bye to all that, eh?” Wentworth said musingly. “Usual thing, I know, that claim of frame-up. But I wonder if there isn't something to it in this case?”
MacDonald shook his bald head.
“Let's talk about something else,” he growled. “Tuna fishing, for instance.”
“I'll be by some week-end soon and make plans,” Wentworth promised and Pugh nodded, smiled pleasantly and drifted off.
Nita's hand was quick on Wentworth's arm. “Oh, Dick, Dick, why must you always stir up Kirkpatrick? He's convinced already that you're the Spider. Why make him sure?”
Wentworth turned his head, smiled down at her with his gray-blue eyes beneath his mocking brows.
“But my dear,” he said, “there must be some zest to life.”
“But to get it,” cried the girl, “from hair- breadth danger, from laughing in the very face of death!”
Wentworth patted the small white hand upon his arm.
“Nita van Sloan,” he said, “if I recall, has done a bit of laughing in the face of the gloomy old specter herself.”
A pompous butler appeared in the doorway abruptly. Wentworth looked at him inquiringly.
“I was just looking, sir,” he said, 'For Mr. Kirkpatrick.”
Wentworth glanced about. “There he is,” he said, and at the butler's signal the police commissioner strode across.
“A phone call, sir, an important one, they say. Shall I attach the phone here?”
“Yes,” said Kirkpatrick, and stood chatting carelessly with his two friends while the butler brought the instrument and plugged it into the wall.
The commissioner excused himself and spoke into the transmitter. Wentworth, watching him while apparently he listened to Nita's swift words, saw Kirkpatrick's tall body tighten, saw his hands clutch the telephone, heard his staccato words as he barked orders into the transmitter. Then he returned the phone to the butler and whirled. His striding across the room was like the charge of a lion. His eyes were hard as agates and his voice grated.
“The Spider,” he said sharply, “has just killed two of my policemen!”