Wings of the Black Death/Chapter 2

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Five minutes later a passerby might have seen a black shadow slip into the entrance of a shabby tenement. Within the building dim gas light scarcely dissipated the darkness through which the Spider slipped.

Wentworth went on soundless feet through the halls and out of a door that opened on a yard cluttered with cans and refuse. He crossed it at an angle, muscled himself to the top of a fence and vaulted over, then crouched, waiting.

From nearby tenements voices gabbled. A cheap radio dinned into the blackness, and a sick infant wailed. Wentworth glanced at the luminous dial of his watch. Five minutes had elapsed since he had left the limousine. In twelve more Ram Singh's voice would summon the police. He crept forward.

Never was there rest for the Spider. He had been back from Europe but one day, but already this injustice, this hint of impending horror called him forth.

Wentworth's smile was slightly mocking. Yes, injustice angered him. He flew to the protection of its victims with such anger as a man feels when he sees a dog kicked viciously, or a dray horse beaten senseless as it struggles against a heavy load.

His mind flicked back to the case in hand. Forgery of bonds—well, the Spider knew where that pointed. John Harper prospered by that racket. And John Harper's pawnshop lay just ahead of him, its back windows barred and forbidding, its heavy iron door a veritable Gibraltar.

The thin smile that the Spider perpetually wore in battle twisted his lips and he slipped forward across the shadow-blackened yard, threading a soundless way among tin cans and crates.

Before the iron door he paused a second, drew from the kit of chrome steel tools against his side a long, slender blade and ran this rapidly around the edge of the door until his sensitive fingers felt it contact the plates of the burglar alarm. Holding the metal grounded against that plate and the brick side of the building, he rapidly picked the lock and opened the door.

The Spider knew the secret of burglar alarms, knew that it was the break in the circuit formed by the plate on the door and the plate on the door-jamb—their separation by the doors opening—that caused the alarm to ring. So long as the connection was completed, grounded by that metal tool against the brick, it would not ring.

Swiftly the Spider slid into the blackness within and shut the door silently behind him. The tools went back into the kit against his side, and he drew from it a black silk mask that, fitting tightly across his eyes, hung limply down from there and concealed all of his face.

His left hand now held a small but powerful flashlight; his right the automatic.

Like his namesake, silently, the Spider drifted up old stairs that would have creaked aloud in protest against less able feet.

Beneath a door at their top a thread of light gleamed, but the Spider did not go directly to that door. Instead he moved silently along the hall, exploring it and the rooms that opened off it, and not until he found that they were empty did he glide back to the door where the light showed.

The flashlight vanished in his pocket, and with the gun held in his hand, he twisted the knob and thrust in the door.

There was a small squeak from the man who crouched behind the velvet-topped table, a tiny gasp of alarm, then silence. And the Spider, with the door kicked shut behind him, stood silently, his lips bitterly thin beneath the mask, and looked at John Harper.

The only light in the room was a lowswung greenshaded globe that focused straight down on the black velvet top of the table behind which the pawnbroker sat, shone queerly upon the man's prematurely bald head. A double handful of jewels glittered upon the velvet, and John Harper's fat fingers clutched them. His smooth, pink-cheeked face showed a mingling of greed and fear.

One of his hands moved slowly, slid along the velvet to the right.

“Keep your hand away from that button, Harper,” Wentworth bit out.

Once more the quavering cry issued from the man, and he jerked his hand away from the spot toward which it had been traveling.

Wentworth's lip lifted in contempt. This man was a fence and a forger, to the Spider the lowest forms of all criminal life. He stood and stared at the man through the slits of his black silk mask. The edge of the light fell squarely on his hand, glittered on the leveled gun, and the two men were frozen into hostile statues.

Wentworth let the silence go on until it rang in his ears. He had time—ten minutes, perhaps. His eyes flickered to the huge safe at Harper's elbow. It was closed, locked, but such a safe would take only a few minutes for the Spider's sensitive fingers to open.

He waited and finally Harper, gathering all his courage, squeaked out, “What do you want? You know you can't do this to me. I am John Harper. When they find out about this they will make you pay!”

A short, sharp laugh came from the Spider's concealed lips. Pay! They had been trying to make him pay for years now, and the Spider still lived, still nullified their cleverest plots, snatched from them their richest loot.

Wentworth took three short steps so that he stood only a yard from the table's edge.

“Listen to me,” he said. “The bonds that were stolen from MacDonald Pugh's office, the ones for which you made forged copies. I want them.”

Bewildered, embattled fear filled the fat sly face above the table. The high bald head wrinkled as John Harper strove to solve the puzzle as to why a crook with a gun should ask for bonds, when jewels sparkled beneath the bright electric light. But he dissembled swiftly.

“I don't know what you mean,” he quavered. Wentworth's body crouched forward, the gun advanced an inch, and his masked face lowered slowly into the puddle of light.

“Don't lie to me, Harper,” he said slowly.

“But I'm not lying,” the man said rapidly. “Honest, I ain't got 'em.”

“Don't lie, Harper,” Wentworth repeated in the same voice. “Don't lie to the Spider.”

At those two words, “The Spider,” the pigjowled pawnbroker's eyes widened until the white showed completely around their evasive blue irises. His mouth opened and he swallowed audibly. But no sound came from his dry lips. He touched his tongue furtively to them, swallowed again.

“My God!”

There was grim amusement in Wentworth's voice. “Let me have those bonds—at once.”

“But I haven't got them, I haven't!” the man cried.

The Spider allowed his eyes to flick to the safe, and the pawnbroker sprang into action, with an agility surprising for one of his weight. His fist shot into view with the ugly snout of a bulldog revolver. But even as he squeezed the trigger, the Spider flung himself aside and his own gun spat spitefully.

The crash of the pawnbroker's heavy revolver was deafening. Lead whined past Wentworth's ear and lodged futilely in the wall. But the Spider's bullet had sped true. A round blue hole gaped in the forehead of John Harper.

For an instant he sat straight up in his chair, a surprised look upon his face. Then he slumped forward, his head spilling blood on the stolen jewels over which he had gloated. His life of greedy crime was ended.

The Spider whirled swiftly to the door, jerked it open. Outside all was deep, dark silence. No police whistles skirled in the streets; no sirens smote his ears; no one shouted. The acrid odor of gun powder drifted past his nostrils, and the Spider glanced swiftly at his watch.

He still had four minutes before Ram Singh would call the police. Four minutes before a radio alarm flashed out and swift two-seated cars sped through the crooked east side to seize John Harper with his stolen jewels.

A swift smile crossed the Spider's lips. No one would ever arrest John Harper now.

He closed the door and went swiftly to the safe, drawing on a pair of thin gray silk gloves. Then, with ear closepressed against the face of the safe, he began to twirI the dial.

It took the Spider one minute to open the antiquated safe. It took him three more to ransack the compartments.

Dozens of documents were there that the police would be eager to see, but to the Spider they were unimportant. He skimmed rapidly through them, swiftly restoring to its place each document as he scanned it. He found no trace of the stolen bonds, but far down in a compartment in the lower left-hand corner of the safe, he came upon that which made his blood like ice in his veins. It was a glass vial upon the tiny label of which were printed two words,

“Hopkins' Solution.”

The vial in his fist, Wentworth stared at the corpse of John Harper with eyes that held both fury and horror. Hopkins solution was the only efficient antitoxin for the Black Death!

He had been right. This man was involved in the framing of Virginia Doeg. Her dog had died of the Black Death, and in this man's possession was the plague serum. In Heaven's name what diabolical crime was being hatched here?

Swiftly the Spider stooped again and reached more deeply into the compartment. Other tubes of the stuff were there, and also there was a card on which were two names—Virginia Doeg and that of another woman, Mrs. Henry Gainsborough, of Roslyn, Long Island.

Rapidly Wentworth slid the card into his pocket, glanced at his watch.

One minute left. Time for the Spider to go. Swiftly he drew out his cigarette lighter. Swiftly he detached its bottom and pressed the seal against the safe door, leaned over and pressed again on the arching dome of John Harper's head. And where he had pressed, the outline of an ugly Spider showed in rich vermilion!

The seal of the Spider, his calling card! For a moment the Spider stared with his thin smile at the seals, then swiftly replaced the cigarette lighter in his pocket. A slight sound behind him whirled him swift as thought. A voice drawled into the tense silence of the room:

“Just keep your hands like that, Mr. Spider.” In the doorway stood a tall heavy man, whose face, too, was covered with a black mask. In his right hand was a heavy gun, and its muzzle was pointed straight at the Spider's heart!