The Spider Strikes/Chapter 1
"I believe that the Spider is on this ship," remarked a pompous little man, waving a bundle of newspaper clippings.
In the smoke-room of the trans-Atlantic liner conversation lowered at mention of the mysterious New York criminal who sealed his deeds with the tiny design of a particularly hideous Spider.
"And what makes you think that the Spider is on board?" somebody asked.
"These newspaper clippings," the little man exclaimed importantly. "A great criminal likes to keep a record of his crimes. I tell you that we might be murdered in our beds any night."
"Where did you find the clippings?" somebody else asked.
"Under a deck chair."
A young woman tittered as she raised her third before-dinner cocktail. "You shouldn't go poking under deck chairs," she remarked. "You might find things."
There were some smiles, but most faces were serious. The presence of the Spider was a most uncomfortable thought.
Richard Wentworth raised his well-built, lithe form from a chair and held out his hand. "The clippings are mine," he said quietly.
"And—and may I ask why you are so interested in the Spider?" the little man demanded, trying to maintain his importance amid his surprise.
"That is a little matter between the Spider and myself," explained Wentworth unconcernedly as he took the newspaper clippings and passed out to the deck for a constitutional before dressing for dinner. . .
Two days from New York on the great ocean liner, surrounded by all the comforts and luxury which human ingenuity could devise, a man stood aft on the promenade deck where the glass partition ended. He leaned against the railing and gazed blankly down at the angry swirling waters.
Darkness was falling, and the passengers had left the deck rather deserted. There was a touch of melancholy in the absence of laughter and conversation, in the departing daylight and in the droop of the man's shoulders as he leaned a little dangerously over the railing.
Circling the deck for the last time, Richard Wentworth came to a sudden halt as he rounded a corner and caught sight of the passenger who stood by the railing. Tall and strongly built, Wentworth's athletic stride ended with such abruptness as to indicate a man whose mind and body worked in perfect unison. Quite motionless, he stood and watched the man at the railing as though he read a message in the drooping shoulders— a message which might have to be answered very quickly.
The man at the railing leaned farther over the sea. He knew nothing of the one who watched him, and only a numbing anticipation of cold waters dwelt in his mind. He did not even feel the pressure of the palms of his hands upon the railing as he raised himself from the deck.
At that last critical second the silent watcher moved with lightning speed across the intervening deck. He grasped the would be suicide by the collar and jerked him roughly back upon his feet. There was no witness to the rescue.
Ram Singh, Richard Wentworth's Hindu servant, inserted a tiny cornflower in the lapel of his absent master's dinner coat. He performed the small act with a reverence which would almost indicate a ritual. The florist of every ocean liner carried a supply of these blue flowers when Wentworth crossed.
Ram Singh, expressionless except that his eyes were keen and glittering, surveyed the evening clothes upon the white bed. Everything was in place.
But Wentworth was a little late.
Ram Singh, bare footed and turbanned, in full Eastern dress, entered the sitting room of the two-room suite and inspected the bucket of ice which the steward always brought before dinner. The ice must be cracked to the right size so that it could be placed in the cocktail shaker at the last moment and a perfect drink produced as the crowning act of dressing his master.
A moment later Richard Wentworth entered with a companion. Ram Singh, inscrutable, stood to one side and noted that his master's companion seemed rather pale and that his collar was torn open in front as though it had been jerked very roughly from behind. At a few words in Hindustani from Wentworth, the servant vanished into the bedroom, leaving the two men alone in the sitting room.
Wentworth turned to the cocktail shaker and began to manipulate the ice and ingredients. "You might tell me about it, Parsons," he said with his back turned.
Parsons threw himself weakly into a chair and hesitated. Then he blurted out the whole story in a very few words. He seemed to be a decent enough man of middle age, but with a chin that was a trifle weak. He was the private secretary of a very wealthy passenger and he had lost, at cards during the voyage, a thousand dollars of his employer's money. Nothing remained for him to do except to go down into the sea and end it all.
"Married?" asked Wentworth, turning suddenly and extending a cocktail.
The wretched man nodded and accepted the glass in a trembling hand, while Wentworth raised his own glass and regarded the color of the liquid with the eyes of a connoisseur. There was a moment's silence.
"Picture?" The question came sharply from Wentworth and seemed to carry its full meaning by the actual power of thought.
Parsons took out his pocketbook and extracted a photograph which he handed to Wentworth. It was a snapshot of a sweet-faced woman who stood upon a lawn holding a small terrier in her arms.
Suddenly Wentworth looked more closely at the snapshot. "Hello!" he exclaimed. "What's the matter with the dog's leg?"
"Rather a bad cut," explained Parsons in surprise.
"And did a vet place the bandage?"
"No. As a matter of fact I put the bandage on the dog's leg."
Wentworth sipped his drink, placed it upon a table and the trace of a smile flashed upon his lean but rather handsome face as he gazed again at the terrier in the arms of the woman. "You made a pretty good job of it," he commented. "I think I shall repay the dog's debt to you by giving you back your thousand dollars."
"I— I don't understand."
"Dogs are my weakness. You helped a dog; I'll help you."
"You would actually give me a thousand dollars of your money because I placed a bandage on a dog's leg?" asked Parsons in amazement.
"Certainly not," was the quick reply, "but I shall find considerable pleasure in taking your thousand dollars away from the man who looked you."
Parsons was despondent. "It was fair play."
"No, it was not," contradicted Wentworth. "Not much happens on board a ship that I do not see. You were playing with a very large man named Blunton. He is an expert trans-Atlantic card-sharp. I have studied criminals for years and I know many who are unknown to the police. You had no more chance with Blunton than a child would have if it attempted to strangle a gorilla."
"What a fool I have been!" exclaimed Parsons in a low voice after a pause.
"Any man is a fool who plays cards with strangers," was the dry reply.
"But how can you get my money back?" asked Parsons dubiously. "After all, this man may not have cheated. I really think he won by superior play. You cannot prove that he cheated. How can you get my money back?"
Richard Wentworth's eyes became a little tense, and the pupils contracted slightly. There was a touch of exultation upon his face and a fleeting hint of animal ferocity before he spoke. "By right of might," he said in a low voice as if speaking more to himself than to Parsons. "It is a game I love."
He returned the photograph and rang the bell.
"Steward," Wentworth said, when the bell was answered, "give Mr. Blunton my compliments and tell him that I would like to see him."
"Very good, sir."
"This man, Blunton," said Wentworth to Parsons when the steward had left, "is one of the scourges of society. During his career he has undoubtedly wrecked the happiness of hundreds of families. Because of him, in all probability, a number of men have committed the act which you attempted. The ordinary man has no chance against him."
In a few minutes the steward returned. "Mr. Blunten says, sir, that he would be glad to see you if you will step over to his stateroom."
"Go back to Mr. Blunton," directed Wentworth, "and tell him that I shall wait here for ten minutes. If he does not arrive in that time, I shall telephone New York, ship to shore service, and discuss his case with the Commissioner of Police."
"Yes, sir," replied the steward, too well trained to show any surprise at the unusual message.
"But have you any legal evidence against the man?" asked Parsons nervously when the steward had departed for the second time.
"Not a shred of evidence," admitted Wentworth with complete indifference. "You see, my dear fellow, I am just making contact with the enemy, pushing a patrol up to his first line to feel him out. I shall come to grips with him a little later."
The steward was a trifle embarrassed when he returned and hesitated in the doorway.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but it's a little awkward."
Wentworth smiled. "Just what is awkward, steward?"
"The message, sir. I don't like to deliver it to you."
Wentworth's smile broadened. "Go ahead, steward. I can stand it if you can."
"Well, sir, Mr. Blunton says that you can go to hell."
"Thank you, steward. That will be all."
Wentworth rose and went into the bedroom, closing the door behind him. Ram Singh, sensing action, stood alert and waiting. Without any words he interpreted a gesture from his master and swiftly dragged forth a riding boot from where it stood beside its mate in a large wardrobe trunk.
"There is plenty of time, Ram Singh," said Wentworth quietly. "We have all night."
But Ram Singh was too earnest to slow his movements. Rapidly he extracted the boot-tree from the shining boot. His nimble fingers sought certain spots, and suddenly the wooden tree fell apart, exposing a considerable cavity. Another moment, and the Hindu picked a peculiar pistol from that cavity and handed it to his master.
Wentworth examined the pistol to make certain that the mechanism was in order. It was one of the most powerful and deadly air pistols that could be constructed and had been especially created for Wentworth by an exceedingly clever engineer— a master mechanic who owed his life to the strange man who now dropped the pistol into his right-hand coat pocket.
On top of the pistol Wentworth placed a handkerchief, allowing one corner to protrude slightly from the pocket.
Ram Singh followed his master back into the sitting room and stood beside Parsons.
There was cold determination in Wentworth's simple words before he stepped out into the passage. "I shall expect you both to wait until I return," he said.
Then he was gone.