The Spider Strikes/Chapter 14
Richard Wentworth was not one to give up while the least trace of hope remained. It was this trait which had kept him alive upon many desperate occasions and which, at times, had brought him success amid overwhelming difficulties. The mention of a doctor as the friend of Madame Pompe gave him a faint hope that he might yet be able to rescue the man upon whom Dorothy Canfield depended for her happiness. Jack Selwyn's note to the tobacconist had stated that he was going to a doctor. If this doctor proved to be Dr. Sylvester Quornelle, much could and would be done.
Dr. Quornelle lived within a few blocks of Wentworth's Park Avenue apartment, just off Fifth Avenue. Wentworth found the address in the telephone book, and straightway dialed a medical friend, who was at that moment asleep and dreaming.
"This is Richard Wentworth."
"Dick Wentworth? You are never sick. What the devil do you mean by waking me up in the middle of the night?"
"The sun is up and the robins are pulling worms on the golf course. Tell me what you know about Dr. Quornelle."
"Sylvester Quornelle? Don't know much of anything about him. But I believe that he was a rather clever alienist. Had a theory that all bodily ailments came from diseases of the mind. He disappeared a couple of years ago. I think he went to Europe to study. Your mind going back on you?"
"Must be or I wouldn't call up such a blithering idiot for information. Shoot you some golf next week."
The information seemed to be significant and very interesting, when related to the other slight details which Wentworth knew about the man he was hunting. Of course Dr. Sylvester Quornelle might be perfectly innocent and quite unconnected with crime. But Wentworth decided that he must investigate.
His first act was to survey Dr. Quornelle's residence from the street. To do this he took Apollo for his morning walk and strolled slowly past the address which he had found in the telephone book, apparently only interested in the great dog and enjoying the leisurely exercise of his early morning walk.
Dr. Quornelle's home proved to be a fairly large house of evident value. Doors and windows were completely boarded over, and it seemed as though it had not been lived in for a long time. The fact that Dr. Quornelle's telephone was still listed did not mean anything, since many wealthy owners maintained their telephones while absent, for the use of caretakers in case of emergency.
Wentworth was not satisfied. He quickened his steps and returned to his apartment, determined to investigate more certainly. From a locked cabinet in his bedroom he took a remarkably thin leather case which he strapped to his side underneath his vest. The case was so thin that his coat hung over it without giving any evidence of its presence. Inside the case was a set of chrome steel tools which would have made any burglar envious. From the same cabinet he also took a bunch of delicate keys one of which would, in his expert fingers, open any ordinary lock. He also placed in his pocket the new air pistol, one of the few air weapons ever made to have high-power penetration.
Richard Wentworth was well prepared when he started out the second time, now without the dog. He was well prepared, but it required more than preparation to burglarize a residence on a fashionable New York street in broad daylight. It required, also, the amazing daring and quick resourcefulness with which Wentworth was so well equipped. In the interest of what he considered to be justice he was about to break the law by forcibly entering another man's home. If caught he would have no defense save, perhaps, his wit.
It was still very early morning in fashionable New York when Wentworth again approached the house of Dr. Quornelle. Few people were astir and the street was almost bare. He was reading a newspaper as he arrived at the house and he turned into the tradesman entrance without ceasing to read the paper, quite as if he had a perfect right to go where he was going. A bold approach was much better than a crafty approach in daylight. He knew that it was taking a chance, but the risk, he believed, was comparatively small. And in any event it was taking chances which afforded him most of his interest in life.
The door for tradespeople was unboarded, which might mean that it was being used by a caretaker. Wentworth had no difficulty with the lock, which yielded to one of his keys almost immediately. He entered and closed the door, locking it behind him. The locked door might interfere with a rapid escape, but an unlocked door might warn somebody of the presence of an intruder. It was dark inside and he stood very still, listening and even smelling, but there was nothing to hear, and the musty smell seemed natural under the circumstances.
After a pause he moved forward and used his flashlight sparingly, noticing the usual basement arrangements. As he was about to ascend the stairs, he noticed a door at the rear of the basement. Testing it, he was surprised to find that it was unlocked. He opened it slightly and found that it gave upon a small back yard. This, thought Wentworth, was most unusual. Why should this door be unlocked?
He studied the back yard through the partly opened portal and saw a door in the wall of the yard— a door which must open into the back yard of the adjacent building. Here then was an undercover means of exit from and entrance to the house with the boarded windows.
Wentworth closed the back door thoughtfully. He had found the first slight indication that things were not as they seemed in the Quornelle house. It was quite possible that he was not alone in the building.
He ascended the stairs very quietly and emerged in the kitchen as he had expected. But here he found more evidence of life. The kitchen window, overlooking the back yard, was not boarded. Pilot flames were burning in the gas stove and a half filled coffee pot was still warm.
Swiftly but carefully Wentworth peered into the front rooms of the first floor. They were almost completely dark because of the boarded windows at the front of the house.
Furniture showed dim and ghostly in white coverings. At the entrance to a large room at the front of the house a moth, disturbed by his presence, brushed his face. But he stood perfectly still in the deep gloom, not starting in the slightest. It was well that he did so.
From the top of the broad stairs, leading to the floor above, a beam of light shot downward. Wentworth leaned slowly backward into the folds of a heavy portiere which hung at the entrance to the large front room.
The light from above vanished, and there came the soft tread of a man descending the heavily carpeted stairs. He came slowly and stepped irregularly, as if he were slightly lame. He passed so close to the entrance of the front room that Wentworth could hear him breathing but it was too dark to see his face or even to note his figure distinctly.
Without using his flashlight again, and evidently quite familiar with the house, the man turned to the rear, and Wentworth heard him opening the door which led to the basement.
It was a natural conclusion that the unknown man was about to leave the house by way of the rear door in the basement. Rapidly Wentworth returned to the kitchen and cautiously peered through the window into the back yard. But his view of the gate in the wall was cut off by a jutting bay window. He descended swiftly, but with the caution of a cat, into the basement and found that the rear door had been locked. Somebody had used the door since he had left it. Once more Wentworth ascended to the first floor and stood in the dark at the foot of the main stairway. He believed now that he was alone in the house, but he could not be certain. His feet touched the thick covering of the stairs very, very gently as he ascended to the floor above.
At the top of the stairs Wentworth found himself in a hall almost as large as the one he had left. There were doors on both sides leading to bedrooms and a library. The furniture of the bedrooms was white covered, and the beds showed no sign of recent use. There was a locked door at the back of the house which interested the investigator. But not knowing how much time he might have, he turned his attention first to the library.
Wentworth threw his flashlight over the backs of the books and found most of them to be either medical or scientific. He was examining an ash tray with fresh ashes in it when he stopped to sniff. He had detected at that moment a slight odor of chemicals.
It is difficult to trace the source of a slight smell in a room; it is almost impossible to discover that source in a dark room fitfully exposed by a wandering flashlight. But Wentworth was extremely thorough when he was at work. What he did not know, he fought to learn. finally he decided that the faint smell of chemicals was issuing from what seemed to be a large box or chest covered with a rich drapery. This piece of furniture was not in harmony with the remainder of the room, and Wentworth surveyed it critically.
Lifting the drapery carefully, he exposed a large iron safe; and the faint chemical smell became a trifle more distinct. A moth fell out of the drapes and lay upon the floor under the beam from his flashlight. He smiled indulgently at sight of the old-fashioned combination lock of the safe, knowing quite well that he could open such a safe in less than a minute.
Another moth fell to the floor under his light. He shook the drapery and three more fell out of it. Kneeling quickly, he counted seventeen moths upon the floor. They were all dead.
Wentworth stood up and drew in his breath thoughtfully. He turned to another piece of furniture and shook its covering. No moth fell to the floor. The covering of another piece of furniture upon being shaken, rendered up one moth which flew away, very much alive.
Wentworth returned to the iron safe and regarded the seventeen dead moths upon the floor. What did the safe contain which caused the moths to die? The chemical odor, which escaped from it, was very slight indeed. But it showed that the door of the old fashioned safe did not fit perfectly. The very slight smell, which escaped, had killed the moths. What would happen to the man who opened the door of that safe?
What murderous weapon did the safe contain? And still more important, what thing of value did such a murderous weapon defend?
Wentworth knelt upon the floor with an ear against the safe door while his long fingers gently turned the knob.
His eyes watched the door of the library as well as possible in the very subdued light. He listened intently, trying to hear the slight sound of the tumblers and also any other sound which might occur in the house. Few men would have knelt in such a way amid the shadows of a boarded up house and tampered with a great iron box which seemed to contain death.
But Wentworth did not open the safe. He rose to his feet and placed a hand against his forehead. Already he was being assailed by a slight headache. What chance would he have if he opened the door of that safe. As a matter of fact he had only been testing the combination. And he knew now, beyond question of doubt, that he could open the safe within a very few seconds.
Faintly, apparently from downstairs, there came the sound of a door opening and closing. Wentworth, listening at the library door, heard the unmistakable sound of steps upon the stairs. They were heavy steps and he noted that same apparent lameness which the unknown man had displayed in passing him upon his way out of the house. Was this man then the author of the murderous thing in the library?
Wentworth had replaced the drapery over the iron safe. Now he crossed the hall and stood silently in the doorway of the nearest unused bedroom while the man from below, with an occasional flash from an electric torch, steadily mounted the broad stairs.
It would seem as though two very dangerous men were alone together in the dark house.