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The Spider Strain/Chapter 5

MRS. BURTON BARKER smiled a welcome as John Warwick approached, for she always had admired him, but Warwick was not certain at the present time whether the welcome was sincere. The man standing beside her glared at Warwick for an instant, and then quickly regained his composure and got a blank expression into his countenance. Mrs. Burton Barker introduced him to Warwick as Mr. Marlowe, and the two men bowed coldly.

“This world is a queer old place—what?” Warwick said. “For instance, Mr. Marlowe is almost the exact image of a chap with whom I had a peculiar controversy today.”

“Why, how was that, John?” Mrs. Barker asked.

“I was out motoring with Miss Rodney,” Warwick explained. “A chap seemed to be following us. I managed to get a good look at him. And this evening, just before I started here, I caught the same chap watching the place where I live. Made me a bit angry, don’t you know—went across the street and protested to him about it. Chap talked to me like a silly ass!”

“But why on Earth should he have been watching you, of all persons?” Mrs. Barker asked.

“Don’t know, I’m sure.”

“And you say that I resemble him?” Marlowe queried, a smile twitching his lips.

“Enough to be a twin of his,” John Warwick replied. “I refer to looks, of course—face and form and all that. Voice somewhat similar, too.”

“Of course it wasn’t Mr. Marlowe?” Mrs. Barker said.

“My word! Never said that it was!” John Warwick protested. “I meant that it is peculiar how you’ll meet a chap and think how much he looks like somebody else you have met. Only a certain number of types in the world, I fancy! Deuced peculiar, isn’t it? Always seeing somebody who looks like somebody else!”

John Warwick grinned, and for an instant his eyes met those of Marlowe squarely.

Mrs. Burton Barker turned away then, to greet some of her other guests, and Warwick and Marlowe stepped to one side, and started walking toward the den that had been set aside as a lounging and smoking room for the male guests. There happened to be nobody in the den when they reached it.

“So you followed me here!” Warwick said, in a low voice, as soon as they were alone. “I’ll have to ask you for some sort of an explanation, I fancy!”

“It happens that I am here as an invited guest,” Marlowe told him. “Are you the social censor hereabouts?”

“My word, no!” Warwick exclaimed. “It is nothing in my life what sort of person Mrs. Barker wishes to invite to her residence. But you followed me—that’s the point!”

“And why should I follow you?”

“That is precisely what I am eager to know,” Warwick told him. “There’s no confounded sense in it! It annoys me, really! I can’t be having it, you know.”

“And just how are you going to stop it?” Marlowe asked.

“Why, confound it, I’ll simply handle you, if this thing continues! Don’t you think you’d better give me some sort of an explanation?” Warwick said.

“Explanations are not necessary,” replied Marlowe. “They’d be a waste of time and breath. I guess we understand each other, all right. Yes, I guess we do!”

“You are a very poor guesser,” Warwick told him. “My word! Follow a chap around all day, and then refuse to tell him the reason for it! It isn’t done, you know! It isn’t right at all!”

“Stop trying to throw a bluff, Warwick! I happen to be wise, you know.”

“I know nothing of the sort! You may be old man Wisdom himself, for all I know—or merely a silly ass! Come, now—give me an explanation. I think that I am entitled to it.”

“Why not ask The Spider what you want to know?”

“There is some more of that Spider stuff!” said Warwick. “What on Earth does that mean? Are you dippy, and all that sort of thing? Bats in the belfry—what? My word!”

Marlowe stepped nearer to him and spoke in a lower voice. “Suppose, Mr. Warwick, that we walk out on the veranda, or around the lawn, where it will be possible for us to talk without running a chance of being overheard,” he said. “We may be able to arrive at an understanding of some sort.”

“Very well,” Warwick replied. “I certainly must have some sort of an explanation!”

They made their way through the corridor and to the veranda, where there were several couples sitting around in the semi-gloom between dances, and Marlowe went slowly down the steps to the lawn and started following a walk that curved around the house toward the flower gardens at the back.

Warwick, smiling faintly, followed at his heels. Streaks of light came through the branches of the trees here and there, and yet there were plenty of dark and shadowy places where an assault could be staged without much trouble. John Warwick was alert and cautious. He did not intend to have this fellow, Marlowe, catch him off guard and eliminate him for the time being.

“Well, talk!” he said, after a time. “I fancy that we’ll not be overheard around here—what?”

“Warwick, as I said, I am wise to you,” Marlowe began. “I happen to know that you are The Spider’s trusted right-hand man. Don’t take the trouble to deny it—for I know! And I know, also, that you are under orders right now.”

“Orders? My word!”

“Orders to get possession of a certain something that is at present in the residence of Mrs. Burton Barker.”

“Oh, I say!”

“That is attached to the person of Mrs. Burton Barker. I’ll go as far as to specify. So you see, I understand the affair perfectly, Warwick. I happen to be connected with certain persons who do not care to have you succeed in your little undertaking. In fact, it is my particular business to see that you do not succeed. Now you understand fully why I have been following and watching you.”

“My word!” Warwick gasped. “I never heard such utter piffle in all my life before. Cannot understand it at all! Quite beyond me, and all that sort of thing!”

“Yeah? Well, that kind of talk doesn’t fool me a bit, Warwick!” Marlowe told him. “You might as well save your breath. And you might as well give up all intention of trying to do as you have been ordered. For you are not going to succeed this time, Warwick, though you have done some clever things before.”

John Warwick threw back his head and laughed.

“Most remarkable conversation!” he said. “It’s all utter rot, of course; but allow me to tell you that, any time I set out to do a thing, that thing is done! I always succeed, old chap! Understand? There’s no such word as failure in my personal vocabulary. My word, no! However, I am glad that you have told me this interesting little tale.”

“Are you going to keep on trying to throw that bluff?” Marlowe demanded. “Maybe you think that I don’t know a thing or two. The best thing for you to do is to forget your orders. You’ll run into trouble if you try to carry them out!”

John Warwick laughed again, softly, as if at an excellent jest, and then turned back toward the house.

“I fancy that this conversation has been quite a waste of time,” he said. “I might have been dancing, and all that sort of thing. Silly ass to listen to you—what?”

“You’ll be a silly ass if you don’t take the advice I gave you,” Marlowe said. “You may not think that you are up against a tough game, but you are!”

Now they were passing a clump of brush that grew close to the walk and threw a deep shadow over it. Warwick had noticed it as they passed it before, had watched it searchingly for a moment or so, but had seen nothing that looked suspicious. He glanced at Marlowe now, but Marlowe was walking half a pace ahead of him and seemed to be giving the brush no attention at all.

“Well, Warwick, are you going to give it up?” Marlowe asked. “Are you going to take my advice?”

“Advice is something I rarely accept from a chance acquaintance,” Warwick replied.

He chuckled again. And suddenly two men sprang from the dark near the clump of brush, and launched themselves upon him. At the same instant, Marlowe whirled around and sprang.

Warwick darted backward, and his chuckle died in his throat. He had been half expecting such an attack at first, but had grown to think that it would not materialize. Now he found himself fighting against overwhelming odds. He had an automatic in his pocket, but he had no chance to draw it, and, furthermore, he did not care to fire. He wanted publicity no more than these other men.

One of the men was throttling him now, preventing an outcry; another was trying to trip him and hurl him to the ground; Marlowe was gripping one of his arms, and also watching the walk ahead. Two more men came from the darkness and joined in the fray.

Warwick, his back against the clump of brush, fought as well as he could. He tried to hold off his antagonists, to clear a space through which he could dart to the walk and run down it toward the veranda. But he found that they were too many for him.

“Quiet as possible, men!” he heard Marlowe command. “We don’t want a row that will attract any of the guests! Do your work quickly! Clever, is he? He walked right into the trap!”

The pungent odor of chloroform assailed Warwick’s nostrils. He tried to fight furiously, to hold off unconsciousness, to keep from being a prisoner in the hands of these men, but they held him in such manner that he scarcely could put up a struggle.

Their voices seemed to come to him from a great distance. He felt his senses going, tried to strike and kick. He called himself a fool for not guarding against surprise better while taking that walk with Marlowe, when he might have known there would be some sort of a trap.

And then the drug had its way, and Warwick ceased to call himself anything.

  • * * *

As the limp form dropped to the ground, Marlowe issued his orders quickly and in a low voice.

“Get him across the lawn and into the machine! Take him away as quickly as you can—and for Heaven’s sake, don’t make any mistakes! Watch him carefully! I’ll let you know when to release him—when my work is done!”

One of the men grunted in reply, and then two of them picked up the unconscious Warwick and carried him across the Barker lawn, from shadow to shadow, dark spot to dark spot, careful not to be observed. Close to the curb, on the side street, a limousine was waiting, its curtains drawn, its engine purring, a chauffeur sitting behind the wheel.

John Warwick was tossed into the limousine, and it left the curb and ran down the street, gathering speed. Two of the men had entered it with Warwick; the two others hurried down the street in the opposite direction.

And Marlowe, grinning like a fiend, walked slowly through the grounds and approached the veranda from the opposite direction. He went along the railing, tossed away a half-smoked cigarette, and passed through the open front door. Ten minutes later he was being introduced to a certain young woman guest and was asking her to dance with him.

The young woman was Silvia Rodney.