The Wheel of Death/Chapter 15

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In the jet blackness of the steel box a slender beam of light shot out from a "fountain pen" flashlight which Wentworth had taken out of the fat, leather case which somewhat resembled a cigar case. It was one of several surprises which that case contained, surprises ingeniously constructed by the old professor. Perhaps no burglar ever had so compact a kit of tools, instruments which were constructed upon the smallest possible scale but with such ingenuity that they were of great power in the hands of so skillful a man as Wentworth.

Only a stab of light was necessary for Wentworth to find the bolt which held the door of the imitation safe. For the moment he had lost his sense of direction in the complete darkness. No man can kiss a lady in the dark and remain oriented. If he can, he doesn't know how to kiss.

Gently Wentworth pulled back the bolt and opened the door a very little. Light was burning in the study which appeared to be empty, but through the crack he could not see the entire room. He listened and, hearing nothing, took a chance by throwing the door wide and swiftly stepping into the room. The room was empty, but he glimpsed a flicker of green at the door. It might have been the flash of a woman's dress. It might have been Cora's emerald green dress, a bit of her clinging skirt as she stepped out of the room into the hall. If so, had she seen the opening of the steel door?

As Nita stepped out of the steel box, Wentworth closed its door and noted that it automatically locked itself. It could only be opened again, from the study, by means of the combination.

There might be other tricks to that dangerous study, but Wentworth believed that, for a few moments at least, they were safe. He took one of the books from a shelf and opened it with Nita beside him as though they were idly examining it.

"Now tell me," he said quickly in a low voice while he turned a page, "what became of Jerry Stone?"

She had, she told him, followed Jerry into the passage, but had not had to dissuade him from entering the study. He had hesitated at the door and then, plainly frightened, had bolted through the side entrance to the ballroom and on through that large room to the elevator, which he had entered. The car door had closed behind him before she could reach it.

She had then returned to the gambling salon and left it at once to enter the passage in her search for Wentworth, only to be captured at the study door by the unknown man who was now a dead passenger in an automatic elevator.

"Come on!" he exclaimed, closing the book when she had told him all she knew. "Let's hunt up Mortimer Mack and see what happens. He should be surprised to see us both alive and together."

But at the entrance to the gold-draped gambling salon it could be seen that something of a change had come over the room. Some of the guests had departed, leaving fewer at the table. And the table, itself, had changed. A smooth, white covering was upon it, and upon the covering, before the remaining guests, were a number of sets of dominos and jig-saw puzzles with which some of the guests were listlessly playing. The roulette table had been completely concealed, and the professional croupiers were no longer to be seen.

And the reason for this sudden change was in plain view. In the middle of the room, talking with Mortimer Mack, was Stanley Kirkpatrick, Commissioner of Police of New York City.

Probably Kirkpatrick would not be greatly incensed by a roulette table where there was no profit to the house, and where so much money was given to charity. But his official conscience had been eased by concealing from him the sight of so professional a table.

But why, Wentworth wondered, was the Commissioner of Police present? He was one of the most brilliant heads that the New York Police Department had ever had. He was one of the few high officials who was completely incorruptible and who lived up to his oath of office without thought of anything except his duty.

Richard Wentworth knew Commissioner Kirkpatrick well. He often dined with him and golfed with him and, frequently, fought with him over police work. And so highly did the Commissioner regard his friend, Wentworth, that upon one occasion he had paid him the dubious compliment of suspecting him of being the notorious "Spider."

Upon one occasion of this suspicion Kirkpatrick had very nearly caught his friend. By a remarkably clever deduction he had concluded that the mysterious killer must carry his tiny seal in his cigarette lighter. Immediately after a Spider killing he had forced his friend to hand over his lighter for examination, and it was only an adroit subterfuge on the part of Nita that hid Wentworth from exposure. Kirkpatrick, his suspicions put at rest, had apologized.

And now the Commissioner was actually present at the time and place of another Spider killing. If that killing were discovered, Kirkpatrick's suspicions would certainly be centered again upon Wentworth. The Commissioner was very astute and, in the line of duty, cared neither for friend nor foe. It might well be very awkward, even perilous for Wentworth.

But Wentworth advanced smilingly, with Nita upon his arm, to greet the Commissioner. Mortimer Mack turned as they came up, and Wentworth was certain that he started slightly upon seeing Nita.

Mortimer Mack, however, had full control of himself. He smiled at Wentworth and the girl and waved his hand to them.

"The Commissioner," said Mack lightly, "won't dance and doesn't care for the game of dominos."

"Dominos nothing!" retorted Kirkpatrick dryly. "You forgot to place some guests in the croupiers' chairs in the center of the table. I know a roulette table when I see one, even if it is camouflaged before I enter the room."

Nita, who knew the Commissioner almost as well as did Wentworth, placed a hand upon his shoulder. "Just one dance?" she suggested. "The orchestra is still playing in the other room and the floor is excellent."

"Sorry," returned Kirkpatrick, "but I'm here on serious business. Somebody sent me an anonymous message that the Spider would be here tonight and could be identified by the pistol which did one of the killings at Grogan's Restaurant yesterday. I didn't pay much attention to it until another message reached Headquarters anonymously that the politician, Buckley, had been killed here tonight. The two messages set me thinking and I thought I would look into the matter myself."

"I am sorry to disappoint you about Buckley," said Mack, smiling. "I believe that he left here about an hour ago."

"I telephoned his home ten minutes ago," returned the Commissioner, "and he had not yet reached it."

Mortimer Mack shrugged his shoulders and changed the subject. "As for the Spider," he said, looking straight at Wentworth, "I might be able to help you."

"What do you mean?" barked the Commissioner and his manner showed that he did not care a great deal for the little man who gave such elaborate entertainments. "Explain that remark, please."

"He means that I am the Spider."

To the astonishment of both Nita and Mortimer Mack the cool remark came from Richard Wentworth himself. He spoke indifferently, but with no show of facetiousness. Casually he took from his vest pocket the little lighter and leisurely lit a cigarette.

Stanley Kirkpatrick, unlike Mortimer Mack, showed no astonishment upon hearing Wentworth's startling remark. His face was expressionless, but his shrewd eyes gazed penetratingly at the man who toyed for a moment with his lighter before tucking it back into his vest pocket.

"I— I— " began Mortimer Mack and hesitated. "Well, you what?" demanded the Commissioner. "I want to get to the bottom of this."

"I, too, received an anonymous message," continued Mack, regaining his fluency. "Somebody telephoned me that my guest, Mr. Richard Wentworth, was really the much-wanted Spider, the deadly killer of New York!"

The Commissioner frowned. "What evidence did he offer, Mr. Mack?" he snapped abruptly.

"He said that he had a witness to prove that Mr. Wentworth was in Grogan's Restaurant at the time of the double killing."

"In the meantime, before you put me under arrest, Mr. Commissioner," interrupted Wentworth smilingly as he began to fight back, "I would like to ask you if you came up here by means of the trick elevator which has so many strange secrets."

"Mr. Kirkpatrick entered this floor through the regular door which opens into the apartment house," volunteered Mack quickly.

"So?" from Wentworth. "Then Mr. Kirkpatrick will be interested in knowing that you have a very ingenious elevator which connects this floor with three more floors."

"Two!" shot back Mortimer Mack abruptly. "Two!" Wentworth looked doubtful. "I thought I counted three other floors."

Wentworth's verbal attack was taking effect. Mortimer Mack was unable to conceal his uneasiness. He shifted a little from one foot to the other before speaking, and he shot a nervous glance at the Commissioner, who remained silent while his keen eyes saw much more of the hidden drama than would have been seen by the average man.

"This is ridiculous!" exclaimed Mack after a pause. "It has nothing to do with what brought the Commissioner here this evening."

"Suppose I explain the mechanism of the elevator to the Commissioner," suggested Wentworth, "and let him be the judge as to whether or not it is ridiculous."

"I should like to see this trick elevator," agreed Commissioner Kirkpatrick quickly. "Surely, Mr. Mack can have no objections."

There was a slight interruption. "Good night, Mr. Mack. I think I shall be going home." It was old David Bannister, the great publisher of newspapers, who had spoken. Not even Wentworth had heard him approach their little group in the center of the room. He seemed to shamble away again without waiting for any reply, but Wentworth noticed that he went toward the side entrance which opened into the passage that led to the study.

Mortimer Mack, a little hesitatingly, admitted that he had no objection to an inspection of his elevator. He suggested, however, that the Commissioner might like some refreshment before seeing it. Commissioner Kirkpatrick shook his head and, under Wentworth's guidance, moved toward the entrance hall where the red fires burned so dramatically. Behind them followed Nita with Mortimer Mack.

"Do me a favor?" asked Wentworth as they were crossing the room.

"What is it?" asked the Commissioner sharply, and Wentworth knew by his tone that he was again suspicious of him.

"If anything happens to me, take Nita safely home from here," said Wentworth in a voice so low that only the Commissioner could hear.

The Commissioner agreed readily enough to this request, and Wentworth knew that he could be depended upon. In the event of disaster to himself, Nita would be guarded by the most powerful man in New York City.

Several guests were waiting for the elevator amid the twelve red fires. Commissioner Kirkpatrick stood in the middle of the room and regarded the hundreds of reflections, red fires and female forms, without showing any surprise or emotion. He turned directly toward the gilded woman and looked at her as he would have gazed at a statue. Strange female forms did not mean any more to him than they did to Richard Wentworth.

"Mr. Mack," he said dryly to the little man who was standing nervously beside him, "those women will die if they keep their pores covered with that stuff too long. Since there is no paid admission here, I won't interfere with you if you have'em leave it off."

One of the waiting guests rapped on the door of the elevator. They were becoming very impatient and seemed to think that something had gone wrong with the car. They had never had to wait so long before.

Then the car arrived, and the door opened. Two ladies stepped in together. There were piercing screams and they staggered out again, clutching at each other for support. One of them slipped to the floor in a dead faint. A man peered into the elevator and drew back with a look of horror upon his face.

Commissioner Kirkpatrick strode forward and looked into the car. Upon its floor he saw a dead man. One eye had been shot out and on the cheek, beneath the ruined eye, was the vermilion outline of a tiny spider.

Commissioner Kirkpatrick held the elevator door open and barred the entrance with his arm. His face was cold and stern. A man, unnoticed before and evidently a plainclothesman, came quickly to his side.

"Case of homicide," rapped out the Commissioner. "Another Spider killing. Telephone Headquarters and have the usual detail sent up." As the detective hurried away to obey the order, the Commissioner spoke again, still authoritatively. "Everybody will leave this room with the exception of Miss Van Sloan, Mr. Mack and Mr. Wentworth."

"Nita?" asked Wentworth. "You want her?"

"By your special request," returned the Commissioner, "she is under my personal protection."

"Oh! Then you think that something has happened to me?"

Commissioner Kirkpatrick looked steadily into Wentworth's eyes before replying. "Mr. Richard Wentworth has too often been in the vicinity of the Spider killing for it to be a mere coincidence," he said at last. "It will be necessary for you to be searched, and I intend to perform that act myself."

The guests and the female attendants had left the room as ordered, and the four of them were alone. Mortimer Mack fidgeted nervously, not knowing what to expect. Nita was tense but controlling herself. Wentworth, with a display of perfect indifference, took out his cigarette lighter and lit another cigarette. He held the little implement idly between his thumb and forefinger while he smiled at Mortimer Mack.

"I think that the Commissioner has found your elevator very interesting, Mr. Mack," he said quietly.

At sight of the cigarette lighter Nita had moved nearer to Wentworth, and he knew that she was maneuvering into a position where she could make some desperate attempt to relieve him of that incriminating article. Kirkpatrick, too, saw Nita's move and suspected her intention. A dead man in the elevator was forgotten for the moment by all save Mortimer Mack, who must have been sorely puzzled to know how the man's death had come about.

Commissioner Kirkpatrick held out his hand. "Let me have a look at that cigarette lighter, Wentworth," he said.

Wentworth seemed to be very much surprised at the request. But when the look of surprise died from his face, he demurred, while he continued to hold the lighter. Nita moved still nearer, and Kirkpatrick made his request for the lighter again, speaking more sharply.

Still Wentworth hesitated. He knew that the secret of the lighter was based upon a very delicate invention of the old professor, the dissipating of a fine film by contact with the air after the varnished junction had been broken. He continued to delay while he waited for something that nobody else had thought about.

Then the Commissioner of Police demanded and Wentworth could delay no longer. Shrugging his shoulders, indifferently, and with a trace of resignation upon his face, he handed over the lighter while Nita bit her lip and her heart beat fast.

There was some sorrow as well as sternness upon the Commissioner's face as he examined the junction which unscrewed to reveal the secret cavity. He had always liked Wentworth although he had suspected him upon several occasions. Into the palm of his hand he dropped the tiny seal from the cavity and seized it between thumb and forefinger, preparatory to making a print from it for examination.

It was then that the thing happened for which Wentworth had been waiting, the thing which the others had not expected. The elevator, with the front door open, began to descend. Under the influence of the master control, operated by an unseen hand, it began its descent in defiance of the ordinary control system.

Commissioner Kirkpatrick, preoccupied with the little seal, did not notice that the elevator had started until Wentworth unexpectedly brushed by him and stepped in. Then he saw that the car was in motion. Wentworth was fast disappearing.

The Spider was escaping! Desperately the Commissioner of Police reached for a gun in his pocket. But before he could draw it the elevator had vanished and Wentworth was gone with a dead man for his companion.

"How do you stop this thing?" demanded the Commissioner of Mortimer Mack, vainly trying to stop the car by pressing the button beside the open door.

"It— it must be out of order," lied the little man with every expression of truth upon his nervous face.

The Commissioner of Police had lost his composure for a few seconds. But he calmed himself very quickly and gently pressed the tiny seal upon the back of his own hand.

There, under his eyes a red print appeared... But it was not the outline of a spider. He rubbed his eyes with his other hand and looked again. What he saw was a Line of four capital letters— NYPD. Old Professor Brownlee's delicate invention had worked.

"The initials of the New York Police Department," muttered the Commissioner to himself. "Well, I'll be damned!"