The Spider Strikes/Chapter 10
Richard Wentworth walked slowly out of the servants' entrance of the Park Avenue apartment building and turned toward the East-side subway. At the entrance he stooped and picked up a cigarette butt, commenced to place it in his mouth and looked down the subway entrance where smoking is forbidden. Carefully he placed the butt in his pocket and entered the subway... Wentworth was probably as great an artist as the man he was hunting and who was hunting him. One of the two artists would win, and the other would probably meet sudden death.
Considerably down town Wentworth left the subway and entered a small boarding house. He mounted two flights of stairs and knocked upon a door. Sparks of The Evening Standard admitted him.
"Gee, Mr. Wentworth!" exclaimed Sparks. "I didn't expect to see you back so soon. Did your trick work?"
"Perfectly," replied Wentworth. "Did you get me a new collar and tie?"
"I did, and I had your dinner coat and trousers pressed."
"Good! Let's get into them. How is your scoop coming?"
"Front page! It's a pip, Mr. Wentworth, and I sure am grateful to you."
Wentworth changed his clothes rapidly and picked up his opera hat and cane. He snapped the elastic loops in the top of his hat and unconcernedly inserted the small revolver which he took from a pocket of the waiter's clothes.
"Holy smoke!" exclaimed Sparks. "I wondered what those elastic loops were for!"
"Keep the information out of your front-page story and it will be all right with me," commented Wentworth.
"Sure, Mr. Wentworth!" Sparks eyes showed admiration. "I never spill a confidence."
"Is that so?" Wentworth threw himself into a chair and lit a cigarette from a lighter which he regarded contemplatively for a moment before dropping it back into his pocket. "Well, I shall give you something more in confidence, if you will promise me not to use it until I give you permission or — until I am dead."
"It's a bargain!" exclaimed the reporter eagerly.
From a table Wentworth took a sheet of paper, scribbled upon it for a few moments and tossed the sheet to the reporter. "Sparks," he said, "you will notice that I have listed a number of police cases which have occurred during the past two years."
"Uh-huh. I was on most of them and I remember them all."
"Each case involves impersonation or the claim by the accused that impersonation took place."
"Ye-es," agreed the reporter, searching his memory. "By Jove, Mr. Wentworth, that's a fact!"
"The same criminal operated in each case." The reporter whistled. "But," he argued, "in some of these cases the police obtained convictions and sent the accused to Sing Sing."
"They sent innocent men to Sing Sing." Wentworth puffed at his cigarette. "I tried to convince the police of this, but I was unable to give them sufficient evidence to prove my theory."
"Then it is only a theory?"
"The last of those cases," continued Wentworth, ignoring the interruption, "is the case of Jack Selwyn. You will remember that Selwyn was the confidential clerk of a diamond merchant. He was sent with a package of valuable stones to another diamond merchant. In the hall of the office building, a hall not too well lighted, he claimed that his employer rushed after him and took back the package of diamonds."
"Yes, I remember the case very well," Sparks added. "Later in the day his employer denied that he had taken back the diamonds and telephoned for the police. Selwyn, very much alarmed, rushed out into the street and has never been caught."
"Exactly! Well, the Selwyn case was the last of these impersonation cases in New York. But a case involving the same technique cropped up abroad and I went to Paris in search of this criminal. Nearly caught him, and he nearly caught me— on several occasions. Then he doubled back to New York and actually entered my apartment by impersonating me. He stole a valuable piece of Chinese porcelain and killed a New York detective whom he ran into by chance— a strangulation killing, his favorite method.
"So daring and so clever is this man that he actually does these things without fear of detection by the police. I believe that all these crimes, however, are but steps toward a greater crime which he is now planning— a crime so great that it will, if it is perpetrated, dwarf all his other crimes. He is a great actor, a genius. There is no other man like him."
"Yes, there is," said the reporter slowly while he regarded his companion thoughtfully through his cigarette smoke. "You are a great actor, yourself, Mr. Wentworth. You think like lightning and you act while you think. You could do everything that this criminal has done."
"Strangle my victims, for instance?" queried Wentworth, smiling.
Sparks, of The Evening Standard looked uncomfortable, but he did not lower his eyes as he continued to regard his companion through the smoke. "Yes, Mr. Wentworth," he said, "I think you could— if you thought the cause justified such an act."
Wentworth laughed, pleasantly and frankly. "You are a good man, Sparks, and— you are right. Your newspaper training has taught you to read character. Are you, by any chance, suggesting that I am this criminal?"
"Oh, no!" Sparks was emphatic. "If I thought you were, I would be out the door and into the nearest speakeasy to drown my fright before you could tip your opera hat."
"Liar!" The epithet, spoken with good humor, completely won the reporter's heart.
"But I don't understand why you are telling me all this, Mr. Wentworth," said Sparks, pleased by the implied compliments to his courage.
"You witnessed the attack upon me in the park," Wentworth continued, ignoring the remark. "I escaped from it and reached my destination where I met this Pompé woman and frustrated another attack upon my life. I telephoned to you about Madame Pompé. You gave me her address and told me that she had dropped out of radio singing two years ago without any apparent cause.
"Two years ago these impersonating crimes commenced in New York— some brilliant mind went wrong and took to crime. Madame Pompé is connected with the man who owns that brilliant mind." Wentworth's eyes twinkled as he paused. "Have you seen her?"
"Uh-huh. She's an eyeful."
Wentworth chuckled as if he were remembering something. "Such a woman can only have one relation for any man. Madame Pompé is our criminal's 'good time girl,' and that is the reason that I am telling you all this, Sparks."
"Eh? What have I got to do with this seductive radio artist?"
"Not a thing, for your sake, I hope," replied Wentworth, smiling. "But I want you to find out something about her boy friends, or more exactly,
about her boyfriend, for I do not think our criminal would tolerate any rival."
"I am beginning to get you."
"I believe that a brilliant man, probably a professional man, took to crime and dropped out of society two years ago, at the same time that Madame Pompé dropped out of radio. Today Madame Pompé is connected with the criminal I am hunting. Sparks, I want you to discover for me the name of the man who took this woman away from her radio singing. Think you can do it?"
"Uh-huh, if there is such a man. It's in line with a reporter's work. What a story for the front page — if I ever get a chance to spread it."
"You will get the chance if I live. If I don't live you can do what you like about it."
Richard Wentworth rose from his chair and placed his hat upon his head at the very slight angle which was so effective. He regarded his cane for a moment, then tossed it upon the reporter's bed.
"Rapier stick," he explained. "Excellent steel from Toledo. Used it once tonight, and my enemy might expect me to use it again. Never do what I am expected to do. Run it through the gizzard of anybody who attacks you."
Wentworth picked a telephone from the table and began dialing while Sparks gingerly examined the rapier stick. "Oh, Jenkins, connect me with Miss Van Sloan."
"It sure is a honey!" muttered Sparks as he drew the slender blade from its sheath. "Holy Smoke! It's got blood on it." He gazed in awe at the man at the telephone. "What a man!" he breathed reverently.
Wentworth spoke again over the wire. "Nita? How is your head?"
"It's aching, Dick, but it's getting better."
"I can't tell you how sorry I am, Nita. There are probably a dozen silly detectives listening to our conversation. How is little Dorothy?"
"Asleep. I gave her half a pint of champagne and tucked her into bed."
"Good! And how is the Commissioner?"
"You would be surprised."
"Yes? What has he been doing?"
"Indulging in mild flirtation."
"Oh, come, Nita!" protested Wentworth. "Explain yourself."
"I have been sitting by his bed, holding his hand. He seems to like it."
Wentworth chuckled. "You don't need to work on him, my dear. What about the other policemen? Are they bothering you at all?"
Nita laughed a little. "Not while I am holding the Commissioner's hand. Besides, I have the dining room table all cluttered up with beer, onions and limburger cheese sandwiches. The New York Police Department would go through fire and water for me."
"I might have known it," Wentworth commented. "You can meet any situation that life holds." And then very rapidly in French: "Did Professor Brownlee arrive?"
And in swift, staccato French the reply came: "Yes. With package. I took it. Gave it to Ram Singh."
"Excellent!" Wentworth reverted to English. "You always do the right thing, Nita. Tell Ram Singh I may need him tonight. Now go to bed and get some sleep."
As Wentworth hung up the telephone and turned toward the door, Sparks came toward him, a question on his face.
"Isn't there anything else I can do?" he asked.
"Well," said Wentworth, "you might go down to West 96th Street and have a look at the Molly Ann, tied up to a rotting dock. If you notice any activity I would like to know about it. Don't go on board the ship, however, if you value your life."
"I sure will do that little thing," Sparks agreed emphatically. "Where are you going now, Mr. Wentworth?"
"Off to see Madame Pompé. I believe the lady has become the human bait which is supposed to lure me to my death."
Wentworth was smiling when he moved across the room and passed out into the narrow hall.