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The Spider Strain/Chapter 9

AGAIN, John Warwick darted forward, Togo close behind. Warwick was in a rage now. He did not believe in using violence toward women. He always had prided himself on avoiding the use of it whenever the orders of The Spider compelled him to deal with those of the gentler sex. And he did not intend to let four thugs assault a woman in that manner, chloroform her, and steal something that he himself wished to get into his possession.

He stopped behind a tree. The four men were at the curb, mumbling among themselves. It was evident that they were waiting for a motor car, and that the driver had missed his calculations.

“Let us get at them, sar,” Togo whispered.

Warwick was just angry enough to agree. He gave the signal and, with Togo, rushed forward.

They hurled themselves upon the four like twin hurricanes. John Warwick went into action like a battleship, showering blows on all sides, but he worked silently, conserving his breath and strength as well as he could.

Togo sprang for the throat of the nearest man, and had him stretched unconscious on the ground in an instant. Then he reached for the second. But the others were putting up a fight, now that the first shock of surprise was over. Warwick and Togo found that the three of them were a match, a little more than a match. With his back against a tree, Warwick fought as well as he could, and Togo tried in vain to clutch one of his antagonists by the throat and put him out of the combat.

Warwick sent a second man lurching to the ground with a well-directed blow. The odds were even now. Togo screeched once and hurled himself at one of the thugs, and the man turned and ran. Warwick made short work of the other.

It took Warwick only a few seconds to search the three men on the ground—and he did not find the locket. Lights were blazing up in the house again, and male guests were rushing toward him. They crowded about him, demanding to know what had happened.

Warwick explained in a few words. Some men had attacked Mrs. Burton Barker on the veranda as the lights went out. She was beside the clump of brush now, unconscious from chloroform. He had taken after the men. Here were three of them—and another had got away. Togo, the Japanese valet, was after that fourth man.

The male guests made short work of the three on the ground. They were picked up and taken to the house, to be held there until the polite could be called. Mrs. Burton Barker was carried inside, too, where the frantic guests were huddling together and talking in whispers of what had occurred. They supposed it was an attempt at robbery; they felt of their necklaces and rings, to be sure that they had not suffered loss.

Warwick remained on the lawn for a quarter of an hour, and at the end of that time Togo returned.

“He got away from me, sar,” Togo reported.

“Well, it can’t be helped, old chap.”

“They—they got it, sar?”

“I imagine that they did, Togo, honorable chap. That was the scheme of course. The man who escaped evidently had it.”

“And now, sar—”

“Now, old top, I shall be compelled, for the first time in my life, to report to The Spider that I have failed. And he was particular to tell me, too, that he didn’t care to have me fail in this case. He will rave and roar, I doubt not—almost have a fit, and all that sort of thing.”

“You are not going to give up, sar?”

“I am not, honorable Jap. Marlowe is the head of this gang, and you can wager that Marlowe remains in the house so that nobody will suspect him. Sooner or later, Marlowe will get that locket from the man who has it.”

“Then we watch this Marlowe, sar?”

“We do,” Warwick said. “I have to go into the house now, of course. You may remain outside, Togo, and use your own judgment.”

“I understand, sar.”

“Never heard of such a fuss—all this row over a silly locket! Wonder what the thing is, anyway!”

“I feared there would be trouble, sar,”

“Spider told me as much, but I scarcely believed him,” Warwick said. “Imagine I look a pretty specimen now. One of those beggars caught me a clip under the eye—be black in the morning. I’ll go into the house now, old top!”

Warwick made his way to the veranda. He discovered that he was a hero. The male guests had told their fair companions that John Warwick had followed the four men who had assaulted and robbed Mrs. Button Barker and accounted for three of them.

Warwick pushed his way to the stairs and up them to the second floor. Servants rushed to his aid. In a bathroom he inspected himself. There was a cut beneath one eye. His collar was torn, his tie soiled, and there was dust on his clothes.

“Pretty sight!” he complained as he bathed his bruised knuckles. “My word, yes! A bit of a row, and all that, but one of the chaps got away!”

Burton Barker rushed into the room, bubbling his thanks and reporting that his wife was all right again—and would descend and order the dance continued.

Then Marlowe stepped into the room.

“Good boy, Warwick!” he said, grinning. “You certainly handled those fellows!”

“Where were you?” Warwick asked nastily.

“It happened so quickly, I didn’t realize what was taking place,” Marlowe lied. “One of the fellows hurled me back along the railing, and by the time I could get to my feet, they were gone with Mrs. Barker—and you were gone, too. Miss Rodney was nervous—I escorted her inside as soon as the lights came on again.”

“Very kind of you—thanks,” Warwick said.

“You certainly battered up those three prisoners. They are saying that half a dozen men jumped on them.”

“Silly asses! Ought to go to jail!” Warwick said.

“They’ll go to jail, all right!” Barker declared.

A servant pushed in and called him, and Barker hurried away. The others could hear a woman wailing in one of the other rooms—Mrs. Burton Barker had discovered that her locket was missing. They could hear her shriek that it must be recovered, could hear Barker giving orders to his servants.

Warwick dismissed the servants who had been helping him, and began putting on a fresh collar one of them had brought. The cut beneath his eye had been bathed and court-plaster applied, but Warwick knew that it would be a bad sight in the morning. He turned from the mirror and saw Marlowe watching him.

“Well?” Marlowe asked.

“Three of your men are going to jail,” Warwick said in a low tone.

“That’s their fault.”

“They are liable to talk, aren’t they?”

“I’m not a bit afraid of that,” Marlowe said. “They’ll take their medicine, and they’ll be paid for doing it. They did their work well, you know.”

“I suppose so.”

“You didn’t have a chance, Warwick! It was a good fight while it lasted, but it didn’t last long. It might have been different if you had been given plenty of help. I don’t understand why The Spider didn’t give you help.”

“There goes that Spider stuff again!”

“Oh, stop the bluff, Warwick! I’m wise, and you know that I am wise! I say it is a wonder that he didn’t give you help.”

Warwick stepped close to him. “Very well—since you know so much!” he said. “If I am working for some chap you call The Spider, let it be known that I never need much help!”

“This was the time you needed it, Warwick!”

“Got three of your men, at any rate!”

“But one got away, eh? And so you didn’t get the locket!” Marlowe laughed, sneered, and turned toward the door.

“Lots of time yet to get that,” Warwick hurled after him.

“Not a chance, Warwick—not a chance in the world! You’ve had your last look at that little trinket. And what you’ll get from that boss of yours will be plenty—don’t forget that for a moment. He could not have taken you into his confidence, or you’d have made a better attempt to win out. This was a mighty important deal.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m sure!” Warwick said.

“Well, you’ve lost, Warwick!”

“Game isn’t over yet!” John Warwick observed. “Seen lots of them won in the last half of the ninth inning, you know. Rally—all that sort of thing!”

He passed Marlowe and went down the stairs. He intended to keep his eyes on Marlowe, even if he had to send Silvia Rodney home in the limousine alone. Marlowe, he knew, would get possession of that locket sometime. He would find Togo out on the lawn and tell him to hold the taxicab in readiness.

But Togo had disappeared for the time being. Servants with electric torches were searching the lawn for Mrs. Burton Barker’s locket. That lady was trying to force herself to believe that it had been torn from her while she was being carried across the lawn—when, in reality, she knew that the assault had been for the purpose of getting the locket.

Mrs. Barker was on the veranda herself, almost hysterical, directing the search, refusing to go to her room. Some of the guests were taking their departure. The orchestra was still playing, and some of the couples were dancing as if nothing had happened. It was a tribute to their hostess.

Warwick went down among the others and pretended to join in the search. For the first time since he had joined The Spider’s band, he felt a dread of the supercriminal. He almost feared the interview that he knew he would be forced to hold with him. The Spider did not countenance failure. He had instructed Warwick to get that locket, and he expected success.

It would be like The Spider to refuse to release him from the band and allow him to marry Silvia, and Warwick told himself that he never would marry her unless he was released. He would get the locket yet, he told himself. He would follow Marlowe day and night, with only Togo to help him—he’d get that locket if he was forced to use violence against Marlowe and his men, if he had to turn burglar or highwayman! He never had failed The Spider before, and he did not intend to fail now!

The search came to an end—and the locket had not been found. Warwick went back into the house, and received thanks from a pale Mrs. Burton Barker. He saw that she was making a brave fight to retain her composure, and he wondered again what the locket meant to her, what it meant to others. Locket of Tragedy, Togo had called it, but John Warwick didn’t see any sense in that.

He met Silvia in the hall, and they stepped to one side.

“You’ll be a handsome man in the morning,” she said, laughing a little.

“Do not rub it in, dear lady!” Warwick told her.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, getting into a brawl while acting as my escort?”

“It is a serious matter!” Warwick whispered. “Dear lady, I have failed for the time being—they got away with the locket.”

“How did it happen, John?”

“Marlowe—that chap you danced with—is at the bottom of it. He got Mrs. Barker to the veranda purposely. Those chaps sprang over the railing when the lights went out, grasped her and chloroformed her, rushed across the lawn with her, took the locket and left her there. My luck, I suppose, that the man who had the locket in his possession escaped.

“Then there is no chance of getting it, John?”

“I haven’t quite given up yet. Going to watch this Marlowe chap. Old Togo’s about, ready to help. Have to get the thing, or your jolly old uncle will be furious. Might force me to remain in—er—his employ, and all that.”

“Perhaps it will all come out right, John.”

“Let us hope so!” Warwick said.

Marlowe stepped up to them. “Pardon me, but I believe that I have this dance with Miss Rodney,” he said pleasantly. “Our hostess wishes the ball to continue, despite the annoyance she has experienced. As a compliment to her—”

“Of course! Naturally!” Warwick said.

He surrendered Silvia and watched them as they started dancing. He felt a twinge of jealousy, but told himself it was because Marlowe was the man and because Marlowe had bested him for the time being.

He could not help admiring Marlowe’s courage. The fellow was carrying it off well. He was an excellent foe, John Warwick thought. And he became more determined to get the locket, if it took him weeks!