Wings of the Black Death/Chapter 1
Richard Wentworth, immaculate in evening attire, wandered with swift, deceptive carelessness among the night blackened shrubs, stealing away from the Police Commissioner's stately mansion. Behind him rang the gay laughter of society at play, but in Wentworth's eyes was only grimness and an alert watchfulness.
If those revelers knew as he did the fearful skeleton that leered at their feast, their laughter would turn to screams of horror!
Suddenly Wentworth checked his advance, halted behind the spire of an arborvitae. He merged with its shadow, quick hands turning up satin lapels to hide the white glimmer of his shirt. Just beyond the tree loomed the pacing figure of a policeman swinging a nightstick. But without pause, or glance toward the arborvitae, the bluecoat plodded on with heavy, heedless feet.... He would never know the Spider had passed in the night.
A wry smile twisted Wentworth's mouth as he catfooted on. This man was a guardian of the law. Because justice must wait on such men, Wentworth tonight had turned his back upon gayety; leaving the side of the woman he loved, to grope through the vicious underworld in hopes of grappling with that mocking skeleton at the feast; risking his life once more that the tentacles of crime might be kept from the throat of the city. Because of this, Wentworth tonight again became the Spider!
Silently as his namesake, the Spider sped on. A four foot wall of stone blocked his path. He rested his hands lightly on it and vaulted clear. A moment later he appeared beside a Lancia limousine parked at the curb. The chauffeur turned a turbaned head, and white teeth flashed in a dark face.
"Sahib," he murmured.
"To the address that you know, Ram Singh," Wentworth ordered and sprang into the back.
The auto muttered smoothly away, and, drawing the curtain, Wentworth fingered a button under the left side of the seat. The entire section— cushioned back, seat and all— swung forward. The back revolved and a neatly hung rack of clothes was disclosed by a small shielded light.
Wentworth's movements were deft. Off came the tail coat, stiffly exact shirt, collar, tie. He quickly donned a dark tweed suit, set jauntily on his black hair a dark fedora whose brim shadowed his eyes. He strapped beneath his arm a compact kit of chrome steel tools. At another touch of the button, the seat swung back into place, and the Spider was ready.
Wentworth caught the speaking tube and spoke precisely in Hindustani to Ram Singh.
"It is now," said Wentworth, glancing at his watch, "half past ten. At exactly ten minutes of eleven, Ram Singh, phone the police and tell them that the jewels stolen in the Racine case are in the possession of John Harper, the pawnbroker. Tell them then that the back door will be unlocked when they get there and that without a search warrant they may invade his office and catch him with the stolen goods."
Jewels. They had led many to their doom.
But Wentworth had scant concern with them tonight. His wide information had brought him this knowledge, that Harper had the stolen goods. That bit of knowledge would serve to bring to justice a smooth criminal— and to prevent pursuit when the Spider had paid his visit.
Wentworth dropped the tube, seeing through the bullet proof glass that separated him and the Hindu, the slow single nod of the turbaned head. That was sufficient. Wentworth knew that Ram Singh would perform his task with time-clock precision. He relaxed into the cushioned luxury of the Lancia, drew out a cigarette and snapped flame to a lighter. He smiled thinly at its gleaming platinum sides.
Who would suspect that in this expensive toy reposed the seals of the Spider? Yet in a secret chamber in its base were those vermilion calling cards that had given him his name, that made the underworld cringe, and the police rage in futile anger. Well, tonight he would need them again, would need once more to set police and criminals on his trail, united in their hatred of this master of men who set at naught the underworld's shrewdest plots; who snatched the criminal where police dared not go and left behind, to tell them he had struck, his mocking challenge— the seal of the Spider.
Wentworth snuffed the lighter, dropped it into his vest pocket and sat staring ahead with narrowed, burning eyes. Tonight was typical. In a bizarre combination of events too trivial for police to notice, the Spider had sensed the first outcreeping tentacle of a crime he scarcely dared to name, a crime that would blight city and nation for years to come. And because of that he went out quietly, with a smile, to battle with death.
It was the harder since the city, after drab years of depression, was just beginning to shrug its powdered shoulders free of the dreary cloak of poverty, beginning to laugh again and to sing. That night the police Commissioner, Stanley Kirkpatrick, had given the first really big, joyous ball of many seasons, never guessing the loathsome black wings of death that the Spider alone detected on the horizon.
On the surface, the crime which the Spider went tonight to rectify was a minor one. Virginia Doeg had been arrested for substituting forged bonds for genuine in the office of MacDonald Pugh, a Wall Street broker. She had cried out that she was innocent, that she had been framed. The Spider's first casual investigation motivated by the fresh innocence of the girl's face, which showed even through the crude photographs of the newspapers, had convinced him this was so.
Ordinarily, as Richard Wentworth, an amateur in criminology, he would have gone to Stanley Kirkpatrick with his information, set in motion the girl's release; but— there on the horizon were those sinister black wings which none but he had seen.
Three days before the girl's arrest, he had noticed a small story on the front pages of the newspapers. It stated that a dog had died of the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, which in years past had killed its hundreds of thousands— killed them horribly with screams of pain and awful strangling, and blood gushing from their throats.
And that dog had belonged to Virginia Doeg, the same girl who now was accused of forgery!
Individually the two items meant nothing; together they might mean— Wentworth's hand clutched into a cold fist upon his knee.
He flashed a look ahead, leaned forward and tapped sharply on the glass. The Lancia snubbed down its nose at the curb. Wentworth touched the automatic that weighted his pocket, unfolded his lean height to the sidewalk, and— the shadows swallowed the Spider.