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The Spider Strain/Chapter 8

JOHN WARWICK stepped back silently, walked around the bank of foliage and bloom, and confronted them.

“Pardon,” he said, “but I believe I have a dance with our charming hostess.”

Marlowe already was upon his feet, his eyes bulging, regarding Warwick as he might have looked at a man from the grave. Warwick smiled at him peculiarly.

“Must not monopolize Mrs. Barker,” he said “My word! Haven’t danced with her for quite some time! Pleasure I cannot miss this evening—what? Must assert my rights, and all that sort of thing!”

“Of course I’ll dance with you, John,” Mrs. Barker said.

“My word! You’ve lost your precious locket!” Warwick exclaimed.

Mrs. Burton Barker gave a gasp of dismay and felt at the end of the chain. Instantly, she was in a panic.

“Oh! I must find it!” she cried. “See—the chain is broken!”

“Probably caught it against something and snapped it,” Warwick said lightly.

But he gave Marlowe another look, and Marlowe realized that Warwick knew what had happened.

“Imagine you’ll find it without much difficulty,” Warwick went on to his hostess. “Saw you come in here—and you had the locket on the chain then.”

“You’re sure?”

“Absolutely!” Warwick replied. “Probably dropped it around here some place. Easy to find, what? Just close the conservatory door—and then we know the locket is somewhere inside.”

Marlowe glared at him, and Warwick chuckled. Mrs. Burton Barker was looking around the floor, her hands clasped before her.

“I must find it—must find it!” she repeated.

“Good-luck locket—what?”

“Yes—a talisman,” the woman replied. “Why don’t you help me find it?”

“No doubt it’ll be found almost instantly,” John Warwick observed, meeting Marlowe’s eyes again. “Locket can’t run away—what? My word, no! Have to be right around here some place! Let’s look!”

They pretended to search. Warwick watched Marlowe closely horn the corners of his eyes. He saw Marlowe drop the locket against the bank of flowers and then pretend to stoop and recover it.

“Here it is, Mrs. Barker,” he announced.

“Oh, thank you!”

“Chain probably worn through,” Warwick observed. “Fine gold, you know—little jerk would break it. Better have it repaired, dear lady—what?”

“I shall have it repaired in the morning,” she said.

A servant approached with the intelligence that some guest wished to see the hostess, and Mrs. Burton Barker, promising to dance with Warwick later, took her leave. The two men were left alone.

Warwick stood before Marlowe, his hands upon his hips, and chuckled at the other man, whose face depicted his rage.

“Coarse work, what?” Warwick said.

“Think you’re smart, don’t you?”

“Why didn’t you bluff it out, old chap? Didn’t have the nerve? My word! I was standing behind the plants, you know, and saw you snip the thing.”

“This isn’t the end, Warwick!”

“Trying to threaten me now? Oh, I say! Doesn’t ruffle a single feather of mine, really! My word, no! Calm in the face of danger, and all that sort of thing. By the way, better engage a new crowd of thugs. Those you have at present aren’t quite up to the standard. Managed to get away from them, you see.”

“I see!” Marlowe exclaimed. “May I ask how you did it?”

“Quite simple. Friend of mine saw me being abducted, followed, got into the cottage, overpowered the chaps, and rescued me.”

“That damned Jap, I suppose.”

“Wouldn’t curse him, if I were you!”

Warwick warned. “He’s quite the man, you know—been no end of help to me on several occasions. Don’t like to hear him spoken of in that tone.”

“Suppose we just put aside this high-falutin’ talk,” Marlowe said. “We understand each other—it’s war between us. We’re both after that locket. And I’m going to get it!”

“You had it a moment since and didn’t retain it,” Warwick reminded him. “My turn now, what?”

“Not if I know it! If you get that locket, Warwick, you’ll be a very clever man!”

“Oh, I say! Not that, surely! Well, can’t stand here talking to you all evening. Have to toddle along!”

“And I’ll toddle right along in your wake,” Marlowe informed him, angrily.

“Still following and watching me—what?”

“You can bet that I am!”

“And a lot of good it will do you!” John Warwick said. “Making a regular ass of yourself—you are! Have to toddle! ‘Bye!”

He whirled around, walked through the conservatory and entered the wide hall. He saw Mrs. Burton Barker at the foot of the stairs, talking to a couple of guests forced to take leave early, and went toward her.

“Sure you have your locket?” he asked, when the others had gone.

“I have it in my hand,” she answered. “It gave me quite a start to find it missing. I’m glad that you noticed it, John.”

“You make quite a fuss over that locket, what?”

“It—it is a good-luck thing, John. I’m a bit superstitious, you know—always was, in fact.”

“Don’t seem to remember anything of the sort,” Warwick told her. “Always regarded you as an ultramodern young woman who didn’t believe in rot.”

“It is just a fad of mine,” she said.

“Let’s see the locket a moment—maybe I can fix it.”

“I’ll have it repaired in the morning, John; you needn’t bother now.”

“You’ll be dropping it somewhere, and then you surely will lose it,” he told her. “Better let me tie it on the end of the chain.”

He lifted the chain and looked at it closely. She handed the locket to him, and he started fastening it to the end of the chain. He knew that was the only way. If she took the locket upstairs, she probably would hide it some place where it could not be found easily. There was a chance of getting it while she was wearing it.

Silvia Rodney approached at that moment with a man with whom she had been dancing, and stopped to speak to Mrs. Burton Barker.

“Dear hostess almost lost a locket,” Warwick said. “Found it again, however. Trying to fasten it to the chain again.”

His eyes met Silvia’s for an instant, and the girl smiled at him. Marlowe approached and joined the group.

Warwick finished attaching the locket to the chain, and stood back. Mrs. Barker was making an attempt to show that she was not agitated, that she had almost forgotten about the locket. But she was watching it closely, Warwick knew. Her fingers played with the chain continually, and now and then ran down it and touched the locket at the bottom.

“Shall we dance?” Warwick asked.

They entered the ballroom and danced. He had no chance to get the locket. He wished he might detach it in such a manner that he could kick it into a corner and pick it up afterward. But he knew that he would have to wait until Mrs. Burton Barker’s mind was centered on something else. It might be disastrous to make an attempt to get the locket now.

They finished the dance, and walked into the wide hall again. Marlowe was talking to Silvia and the man who had been dancing with her, and Warwick led Mrs. Barker toward them.

“Why not the veranda and smokes?” Marlowe asked lightly.

Warwick flashed a look at him, but agreed. They all moved out to the veranda, walked toward one end of it where there were easy chairs. They seated themselves and lighted cigarettes, and indulged in some more small talk. Warwick and Marlowe were watching each other carefully, each fearing that the other would make an unexpected move.

Warwick began wondering how the thing was to be accomplished. It had seemed so simple compared to some things he had done—merely snipping a locket from a chain and getting away with it without arousing suspicion. He began to tell himself that he must be slowing up, to let such a man as Marlowe prevent him from carrying out the orders of The Spider. He would have to be doubly careful about it now. He wasn’t quite sure that Mrs. Barker believed the locket had been lost accidentally in the conservatory. He couldn’t afford to run any grave risk, when his future happiness and that of Silvia Rodney depended upon his success.

Mrs. Barker addressed a remark to him, and he bent forward to reply. At that instant, the lights in the house went out.

There came a chorus of exclamations from the ballroom. Chairs scraped on the veranda as guests got to their feet. Mrs. Burton Barker started to say something, and the sentence was broken off in the middle.

John Warwick sprang to his feet, for he suspected a trap of some sort. It would be like Marlowe to have a confederate snap off the lights so that he could work in the dark.

Then there came a sudden rush of men over the railing. Warwick felt himself hurled to one side. He heard an exclamation of fear, and Marlowe’s whispered commands.

Warwick realized what was taking place, then. They were kidnapping Mrs. Burton Barker. They probably would carry her a short distance across the lawn, tear the locket from the chain and get away with it. Marlowe would remain behind, and probably take part in the search for the assailants, thus freeing himself of any suspicion.

It all occurred in a short space of time. Warwick sensed that Marlowe would have him attended to, also. And so he darted noiselessly to the railing and vaulted over it to the ground. He brushed against another man, who instantly grappled with him. Warwick started to fight. He felt his throat gripped, felt a peculiar pressure—

“Togo!” he whispered hoarsely.

“That you, sar? I thought it was one of the others,” Togo gasped. “Did I hurt you, sar?”

“No! Silence, old top! Let’s see what’s going on here!”

Those inside the house were crying for lights. Servants were calling to one another, and Warwick heard something said about a fuse burning out.

He crouched at the end of the veranda with Togo He realized that Mrs. Burton Barker was being lifted over the railing, and a whiff of chloroform came to his nostrils. Marlowe was talking loudly now, as if to cover the confusion. Warwick heard Silvia’s voice, asking what had happened.

And then he gripped Togo by the arm and led the way around the end of the veranda. He knew that Marlowe’s men were ahead of them. He watched and saw them cross a space between two dark spots—four of them carrying a woman.

He darted forward again, with Togo at his heels, whispering explanations and orders.

“Taxi still at corner, sar,” Togo whispered in reply.

Across the lawn they followed the men, careful to avoid being seen. The odds were great, and Warwick did not care to attempt a combat and come from it vanquished. The men ahead were running now. They dropped the unconscious form of Mrs. Burton Barker beside a clump of brush.

Warwick stopped there just an instant. It was as he had expected—the locket was gone.