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The Spider Strain/Chapter 4

JOHN WARWICK left the apartment house, stepped out into the street, and then walked briskly across it. He entered the drug store and purchased a package of cigarettes. There was no particular sense in that, since he had an ample supply in his rooms, and even some in his pocket, but it gave him a chance to pass within six feet of the man who had been watching him.

Warwick did not give him as much as a glance as he entered the store. The man moved down the street a dozen feet or so, and stood by the curb. Warwick walked from the drug store, stopped to light one of the cigarettes he had purchased, tossed away the burned match, and then whirled around and stepped up to the man at the curb.

“See here!” he exclaimed, in a low, tense voice. “I’d like very much to be informed just as to why you show such a remarkable and unusual interest in my affairs!”

“What’s that?” the other snarled.

“I fancy that you both heard and understood me,” Warwick said. “You followed me this afternoon, while I was out motoring, and now I find you loitering around the place where I live.”

“Well, what about it?”

“Why, I don’t fancy it at all!” Warwick told him. “I ought to have an explanation, and all that sort of thing. My word! A fellow hates to have somebody prowling around and watching him. It isn’t quite the thing, you know!”

“I’ve no doubt that you do object to being watched,” the other man said.

“Just what do you mean by that?” Warwick demanded.

“None of your business!”

“See here! I am in the habit of being addressed in a respectful manner, confound it!”

“Well, what are you going to do about it?” the other asked, sneering once more.

“Why, confound it, sir, I can break you in two with my bare hands!” Warwick declared. “Do you imagine that I am a weakling just because I happen to be wearing evening clothes? Keep a civil tongue in your head when you are speaking to me!”

“I didn’t say that I wanted to speak to you, did I? You began this conversation, didn’t you?”

“I did—and probably shall end it!” said Warwick. “Why have you been following me, and all that?”

“I didn’t say that I had been.”

“Ah! Trying to evade the question, are you? What? My word! Do you fancy that you can indulge in repartee with me? Answer me straight now!”

“Attend to your own business! I’m getting sick of your talk!” the other told him.

“I have half a notion to hand you over immediately to the police chaps!”

“You try it, and we’ll mix. I think you’re crazy, if anybody wants to know!”

Warwick suddenly stepped closer to the man and grinned at him. Warwick understood now. He could handle this man physically, and with ease and he knew that the other knew it. Why, then, did this man taunt him to combat?

To cause a row, probably, and make it necessary for Warwick to go to police headquarters and settle it, or make charges—to delay John Warwick, in fact, and prevent him getting to the residence of Mrs. Burton Barker on time. The fellow might even hope to mar Warwick’s face early in combat, in such a manner that Warwick would not be presentable and could not go to Mrs. Burton Barker’s at all.

So Warwick grinned, and stepped closer and spoke in a tone somewhat lower.

“Your work, sir, is as coarse as your manners,” he said. “You will observe that there is a patrolman just across the street. He is an old friend of mine. I give him a box of cigars now and then, and always speak to him when we pass in the street. If you start anything with me, sir, I shall knock you down, order him to take you to the station, simply announce that I shall appear in court in the morning—and go on my merry way. Your little plot would not work then, what? You’d fail and look jolly well silly, and all that sort of thing. Make a regular ass of yourself! My word!”

“You think you’re smart, don’t you?”

“Certainly not! Smart? Oh, I am a regular stupid ass!” Warwick said. “I don’t know much of anything—but I can see through your little game!”

“I guess there are a few things that you don’t know, all right!”

“Perhaps—and perhaps not!” Warwick told him. “But I do know this much—if I catch you prowling around me any more, I am going to handle you, and not in a delicate manner, either. And if you happen to have a couple of friends, I’ll handle them, too.”

“Quite a boy, ain’t you?” the other sneered.

“Enough of one to do that,” Warwick answered. “Going to tell me why you have been following me and prowling about?”

“Do you think that you can bluff me just because use happen to belong to The Spider’s gang?”

“Spider’s gang? My word! What on Earth are you talking about?” Warwick asked blankly.

“I suppose you’ve heard of The Spider!”

“Are you once of those nutty fellows, off your feed, bats in the belfry—all that sort of thing?” Warwick demanded. “I never heard such nonsense! Ought to be incarcerated and held for investigation! Liable to run amuck and slay women and children!”

“Oh, I guess we understand each other!” the other said. “That line of talk doesn’t get any too far with me, you want to understand. I’m wise!”

“That is fortunate,” Warwick observed. “There are but few wise men remaining on Earth, and we have desperate need of them all. I am under the impression that I have been wasting valuable time talking to a silly ass. Spider’s gang! My word! Whatever can that mean? However, cease following me around. I can’t have a lunatic trailing me all the time—frighten my friends to death!”

“It probably will frighten some of them, all right!”

“Now you are talking in riddles again!” Warwick declared. “I see that my limousine is waiting, and so I cannot waste any more time on you. Just a friendly tip, my man—if I find you annoying me again, I shall feel compelled to deal with you personally!”

John Warwick’s voice lost its light tone and became menacing as he spoke, and his eyes narrowed and glittered for an instant. The other man recoiled, but regained his composure again almost instantly and stepped nearer Warwick.

“Maybe you’d like to try to do that little thing right now!” he said.

“Ah! You’d like very much to have me, wouldn’t you?” Warwick exclaimed. “But it happens that I have an engagement—a rather important engagement—”

“Yes, I know all about that!”

“You do, eh? It appears to me that you are a bit too much interested in my personal affairs. My word! You seem to know as much as my private secretary would—if I had one. I’d advise you to remember that little tip of mine!”

John Warwick glared at the man, and then hurried across the street to where his limousine was waiting. He told the chauffeur to drive him to the residence on American Boulevard, and there he picked up Silvia, who cuddled up beside him in the big car and seemed to be very happy in so doing.

“Are you going to tell me what you are going to do tonight?” she asked.

“Little girls should not ask too many questions,” Warwick told her. “It isn’t much of a task, really.”

“I think you are mean if you don’t tell me!”

“Promise to keep it a dark secret?”

“Of course!”

“And you must forget it as soon as I have told you, and keep your mind off it. You don’t want me to fail, do you?”

“Certainly not, John!”

“Very well. Mrs. Burton Barker always wears a little locket on the end of a long, gold chain. I am to get that locket. Don’t ask me why, for I do not know. Your jolly old uncle wants it for some purpose, and that is enough for me. Now, you forget it!”

“Very well, I’ll try, only I’m not so sure that I can,” Silvia said. “But I’ll not bother you, John.”

Warwick glanced through the window as the big car speeded toward that section of the city where pretentious residences predominated. The Burton Barkers had an imposing mansion surrounded by lawns that were fringed with big trees.

It was one of the show places of the city. Warwick knew it well, had been in almost every room of it. He often had inspected it while Burton Barker was having it constructed, and afterward he had been a guest there scores of times. That was when he had believed that Barker was his friend.

Barker still thought that he believed it. Barker was not aware that John Warwick knew he had conspired with other men to rob him in business deals. Warwick would not have known it, had not The Spider proved it to him. Warwick had no repugnance, therefore, in committing a crime in Burton Barker’s residence while he was a guest there. He remembered that Barker had robbed him in his own house, while pretending deep friendship.

The limousine turned into the driveway and came to a stop before the house. Warwick helped Silvia out, and they entered. Many guests already had arrived, the orchestra was playing, and the scene was one of wealth and splendor.

They greeted their host and hostess, and for an instant Warwick’s eyes rested on the locket he was to get. It still hung on the end of the long heavy gold chain, and Mrs. Burton Barker was twisting the chain around the fingers of her left hand, as she seemed always to be doing.

John Warwick danced once with Silvia Rodney, and then handed her over to another partner, and walked slowly through the rooms, nodding to his friends and acquaintances, acting as though he were searching for somebody, but, in reality, spotting any strangers who might happen to be present.

If it was to be his lot to face foes, he wanted to know their identities, if possible. From what had been told him, he did not know whether his antagonists would be strangers or persons with whom he was well acquainted.

One thought dominated his mind—that The Spider expected success and would not countenance failure. John Warwick had been ordered to get the locket worn by Mrs. Burton Barker, and the supercriminal expected him to get it.

Warwick passed on through the rooms, went to the veranda, strolled there and smoked a cigarette, and retraced his steps to the house again. Some belated guests were arriving. Warwick wandered toward the foot of the stairs to inspect these late-comers.

And then he almost lost his composure for a moment and stepped quickly aside, where he would not be observed. Greeting the hostess was the man who had followed him in the roadster in the afternoon, and with whom he had talked in the street before the apartment house just before starting for the Barker residence.

The man was in proper evening dress, and he greeted Mrs. Burton Barker in the approved manner.

John Warwick was puzzled to a certain extent. Mrs. Burton Barker was talking to the man as if she had been acquainted with him for some time. Was he in her employ, trying to protect the locket, and did he suspect John Warwick of planning to purloin it? The thought almost made Warwick shudder, especially when he remembered how the man had spoken regarding The Spider, for Warwick lived in continual fear of the day when suspicion would be cast upon him.

Or, was the man talking to Mrs. Burton Barker merely one of those others who were making an attempt to get possession of the locket before The Spider’s people could?

While fussing around and pretending to be bored, Warwick watched the pair closely. To all appearances, the man was merely exchanging polite greetings with his hostess, but John Warwick knew that they might be speaking of important things that had to do with him. Mrs. Burton Barker was a clever woman in a way—she was able to smile and laugh, and at the same time speak of serious affairs and let those near think she was indulging in small talk, and Warwick knew it well. He had been trained in the same social school.

“Have to make sure of my ground—what?” Warwick told himself. “Must use strategy, and all that sort of thing! Can’t be making some silly mistake and getting into trouble at this stage of the game. It wouldn’t do at all! My word, no!”

He wandered down the corridor and approached them from another direction. He watched the man’s face, made an ineffectual attempt to read his lips and ascertain what he was saying, regarded Mrs. Burton Barker carefully, and tried to imagine what she was replying.

Warwick noted that this man spent more time with his hostess than any of the other guests, and that increased his suspicions.

“No use working in the dark—what?” he told himself. “Have to ascertain a few things, I fancy!”

Warwick straightened his shoulders, managed to get a smile on his face, and then started walking directly toward Mrs. Burton Barker and the man with whom she was talking.