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The Spider Strain/Chapter 10

SILVIA RODNEY danced the encore with Marlowe, while Warwick walked up and down the hall and now and then stopped to speak to some acquaintance and dodge hero worship.

Warwick was wondering just who Marlowe might be and how Mrs. Burton Barker had become acquainted with him. He intended to get a line on Marlowe and keep in touch with the man. He simply had to get the locket! Everything depended upon it—his future standing with The Spider, his own happiness, and that of Silvia.

He wondered why Silvia was dancing with Marlowe so much, since she knew now that Marlowe was a foe to them all. Her face was radiant when Marlowe returned with her and handed her over to Warwick.

“Now I’ll dance with you, John, and then, I think, we’d better go,” Silvia said.

Warwick could do nothing but go out upon the floor with her, but he managed a whisper.

“Please make it short, Silvia. I want to watch Marlowe and follow him. A great deal depends on it, you know. Simply must get that locket, what? He’ll lead me to it, and all that sort of thing. Have to triumph in the end, or your jolly old uncle will walk around my collar. My word, yes!”

“Aren’t you going to take me home, John?”

“Will it make you very angry if I send you alone?” Warwick asked.

“Of course!”

“But, in such a case—”

“I’ll be angry, nevertheless. And how will it look to the others, John? Will they not suspect something?”

“Have to cover it up in some manner,” Warwick said. “Might get out at the first corner and return.”

“Oh, let the old locket go!”

“Dear girl! Your jolly old uncle will be enraged.”

“I’ll smooth it over for you, John.”

“Afraid it would be a difficult task in such a case. Uncle seemed very keen on getting the thing, remember. Some sort of a secret connected with it, and all that. Appears to be vastly important, though for the life of me I cannot understand why.”

“Well, you let it go and take me home!”

“Just as you say, dear girl, but I fear that we are making a mistake,” Warwick told her, sighing. “Take all the blame myself, of course, and all that. My word! Jolly old uncle probably will roar like a lion. May refuse to—well, you know, dear girl!”

“You leave it to me, John. You’ve never failed before, have you?”

“Never!”

“Well, uncle cannot raise so very much of a row, then.”

“Can’t he? I’ve seen him angry!” Warwick said. “Rather face a tiger unarmed. My word!”

They finished the dance and went toward the hall. Marlowe was just taking leave of Mrs. Burton Barker, and he grinned at John Warwick as he approached. Silvia went for her wraps, and Warwick stepped out on the veranda for an instant.

He walked along the railing, until there came to him from the darkness a peculiar hiss that he recognized.

“That you, Togo?” he asked.

“Yes, sar.”

“Follow our man when he leaves—I cannot.”

“Yes, sar.”

Warwick walked back to the doorway, entered, and continued along the hall toward the stairs.

“Better luck next time,” Marlowe whispered as he passed.

“Hope so!” Warwick growled.

“Should have had help, you know. You were up against a tough proposition.”

“A proposition of toughs, you mean.”

Marlowe’s face flushed. “Bad loser, are you?” he sneered.

“Haven’t lost yet, you know,” Warwick retorted.

“You haven’t? Don’t fool yourself!”

“Lots of time yet—game’s young.”

“Not this particular game!” Marlowe said.

“May find out different,” Warwick told him. “Rally, you know—all that sort of thing. Seen it lots of times. Advise you to keep your eyes and ears open.”

“Oh, I’ll be watching out for you!”

“That’s an excellent idea,” Warwick observed.

He went on up the stairs for his things. He met Silvia; they spoke to Mrs. Burton Barker, and went out to the limousine. Soon they were speeding down the avenue and across the city.

“Oh, cheer up, John!” the girl said.

“Don’t feel like it, dear lady. Not used to failure—what? Rather gets me, you know, and all that. My word, yes!”

“It will be all right, John.”

“Not so sure about that. Have to report to your jolly old uncle as soon as we reach the house, I suppose, and take what is coming to me.”

“Why not put it off?” she asked.

“Never do in the world. Make a full report, and maybe he can get the silly locket by sending somebody else after it—somebody who is not a bungler,”

“But you were fighting against odds!”

“Makes no difference,” he declared, “Always fought against odds before and won. Makes no difference at all!”

They rode for a time in silence, Silvia snuggling close to his side.

“When we get home,” she said presently, “you wait until I talk to uncle.”

“Afraid it’ll do no good,” Warwick replied.

“Nevertheless, John Warwick, you wait until I have talked to him, and then you can go up and—er—take what is coming to you.”

“Very well. Put off the evil hour a few minutes, at any rate,” he said. “Imagine I’ll get an awful wigging! My word, yes! Probably be told I’m a worthless beggar, and all that sort of thing. First time I’ve failed, you know—not used to it!”

“Perhaps there’ll be a chance yet.”

“A slight one,” Warwick admitted. “I gave Togo orders to follow that Marlowe chap. By the way, you seemed to like to dance with him.”

“John Warwick, are you jealous?”

“My word—no! Just remarked it!” Warwick said.

“Well, you’d better not be jealous, sir! That is something I’ll not endure! Here we are at home!”

Warwick told the chauffeur to wait and escorted Silvia inside the house. She left him in the big living room and went up the stairs to The Spider’s den. She knew that he would not have retired, that he would wait to tell her good-night.

John Warwick spent a bad quarter of an hour. He paced back and forth across the room, fearful one moment, defiant the next, wondering what he could say to The Spider to justify himself. He decided that he could only explain and ask the supercriminal to be merciful.

And then Silvia came back down the stairs.

“How did he take it?” Warwick asked.

“Oh, I scarcely think he will have you shot John.”

“Angry, I suppose?”

“You’ll find out soon enough—you are to go right up and see him,” she replied.

“Hope the old chap isn’t too hard on me,” Warwick said. “Can’t dare to think of losing you, little lady.”

He held her in his arms for an instant, kissed her, and then started slowly up the stairs.

Outside the door of the supercriminal’s den, he paused for a moment to gather his courage. Warwick was a man who did not like to confess failure. He knew that The Spider probably had spoken kindly to Silvia, but he would not let that affect the manner in which he received John Warwick.

Finally, he opened the door, entered, closed and bolted it behind him as was the custom, and then whirled around to find The Spider in his usual place behind the big mahogany desk.

“Sit down, Warwick!” The Spider said. “And give me your close attention while I explain something about that locket.”

“I regret—”

“Silence—and listen! It is getting late, and I am a tired man. I just want to tell you, Warwick, of the importance of that locket. Several years ago, the woman you know as Mrs. Burton Barker was spending her first season abroad. Her mother was with her. In a peculiar manner, the girl saw a crime committed. She was young and romantic, and she took a fancy to the man who committed it—one of my men.”

“I understand, sir.”

“Without her mother’s knowledge, she kept engagements with this man. He saw in her only a foolish and romantic girl, and he kept up the acquaintance to get information. Her mother was rich, as you know. This man of mine intended to get all the information he could and probably lift the mother’s jewels,”

“I understand.”

“He let the girl know that he belonged to a famous band of criminals. He let her know too much. The Locket of Tragedy was the property of a famous Parisian, and this man of mine got it one night while looting an apartment. It was called that because it had been owned by persons who met violent ends. It had quite a history, and many a collector stood ready to pay a handsome price for it.

“I see,” said Warwick.

“A queen who poisoned herself owned it once, and then a famous courtesan who was tried for murder and executed. Almost every owner of the locket met with violence. My man got it as I have said, and he showed some of the loot to the girl who now is Mrs. Barker. She wanted the locket, and he let her have it, thinking he could steal it from her later. He didn’t dare refuse at the time, for he needed more information before attempting to rob her mother of a fortune in jewels.

“Before he could regain the locket her mother took a sudden notion to return to the States, bringing her daughter with her, of course. The night before they departed, this slip of a girl got possession of a bit of tissue paper. That paper is still in existence, and is enough to send me to prison for the rest of my life, and to send other men there. The authorities of Paris would pay a fortune for it.

“She returned to the States, and I sent my man after her with instructions to get the locket and the paper, which she kept in it. He failed, and returned, and I sent two other men. She did not wear the locket in those days—she had it hidden somewhere. I sent her word that, unless she returned the locket and the bit of tissue, I’d have her criminal sweetheart slain. She had spunk—replied that if I did she would hand the paper over to the police.

“She had us there—understand? She threatened to hand the things over the first month she did not receive a letter from this man she admired. We were safe as long as he wrote those letters—and I saw that he did write them.

“Then she got married, and began wearing the locket. It had grown to be a sort of duel between us by that time. She did not surrender the things even after being married, I tried a score of times to get the locket and what it contained, and I failed. I let the thing slide, as the saying is, let her hold the sword over my head.

“Last month, Warwick, she got no communication, for the simple reason that this man of mine had died. I ascertained that she was making investigation—she thought that I had made away with him, understand? She was ready to hand that locket to the police and tell her story.”

“And the others—” Warwick asked.

“Members of a band antagonistic to me. They learned of the locket and its secret. They wanted to get it and send it to the authorities of Paris themselves—wanted to see me and some others sent to prison. Do you understand what that locket meant to me, Warwick? If those others got it, if Mrs. Barker retained it, I was doomed. That is how important that locket was to me!”

Warwick gave an exclamation of horror. So he, by his failure, had doomed The Spider—and perhaps himself. For, if an investigation were made, it might lead to Warwick and other new members of the band, too. And, as for Silvia—why, her life would be ruined! She would be pointed out as the niece of a supercriminal.

“It would be a case of chickens coming home to roost!” The Spider continued. “My crimes the last few years, since that accident that made me a cripple, have not been what the world would call extra bad. I have reformed to an extent, as you know. But in the old days, I did many things for which I still could be punished.”

“Sir, I—” Warwick began.

The Spider silenced him with a gesture.

“So you can see the importance of that locket,” the supercriminal went on, “And when you sent it to me just now, by Silvia—”

“Sir?” Warwick gasped.

“It was a great relief to me. It meant everything. It meant that I shall not have to spend my last days in some prison. And I am so thankful, Warwick, that I am going to quit. I have one thing more to do, and then I am going to disband my people. That one thing is good instead of evil—I’ll explain it to you later. And I’m going to give my ill-gotten gains to certain charities and retain just enough to live on. Silvia will marry you—and be happy. Go to her now, John Warwick, and leave me alone with my happiness.”

Warwick unbolted the door and hurried out. He almost rushed down the stairs, to where Silvia was waiting for him in the big living room. She laughed as she saw the expression in his face.

“Was it all right?” she asked saucily.

“Dear lady, suppose that you give me some sort of an explanation,” he said.

“Regarding what?”

“Your jolly old uncle has just told me that I sent the locket up to him by you—thanked me for it. Knew nothing about it, I assure you! Imagined that thug fellow had it—sent Togo chasing after Marlowe to watch the chap—”

Silvia’s laugh interrupted him.

“I told you that perhaps I could help, John,” she said.

“My word! Can’t understand it at all!”

“Why, John Warwick! When the lights went out and those men came over the railing, I suspected that it was a trick to get the locket. I slipped to one side and finally got right behind that man Marlowe I heard him whispering to the other men as they were using the chloroform. He took the locket himself, John, at that moment. There was a hit of light from the arc on the corner, and I could see by crouching against the wall. He took the locket and slipped it into his waistcoat pocket.”

“But that was dangerous—”

“Silly! If there had been a search, he would have pretended that he had just picked it up.”

“I suppose so. But how did you get the locket?”

“I got it while I was dancing with him, John—picked his pocket, you see.”

“My word!” Warwick gasped. “You picked a chap’s pocket?”

“Yes. It wasn’t at all difficult, John. Remember, you foolish boy, I have a strain of The Spider’s blood in my veins. It was that Spider strain that called upon me to do it. I wanted to help you—and it was a sort of adventure—”

“See here!” Warwick exclaimed. “You were deuced lucky, and you must never do such a thing again. Suppose he had felt in his pocket afterward and found the thing gone? He would have suspected you at once.”

“Oh, he did feel in his pocket!”

“But—”

“But, you see, John, when I took the locket. I slipped in its place a small portiere ring that I had taken from the draperies in the hall. He merely felt the ring and thought that it was the locket. See?”

“My word!”

“And then, John—”

But she did not finish the sentence. She could not with his lips pressed against hers.