The Spider Strikes/Chapter 11
At Madame Pompé's penthouse Wentworth was admitted by a French maid, Mimi, who was very trim in black and white.
"Monsieur Wentworth? This way please." He carried his crushed opera hat with him, unnoticed by the maid, and found Madame Pompé lying upon a couch beside a window, from which could be seen the lights of New York City through potted plants which stood, garden-like, around the penthouse upon the roof of the building.
"You will admit nobody else, Mimi," instructed Madame Pompé lazily turning upon the couch and smiling at Wentworth. "You understand?"
"Mais oui, Madame." The maid withdrew. Of course she understood. What French maid would not have understood?
"But my servant is coming," Wentworth said.
"Your servant?" she asked in surprise.
"He is bringing a basket of champagne."
"Oh!" She stood up with a pleased smile. Standing, her ivory gown presented the woman both beautifully and very sensationally. She stood perfectly still; it was poise, not pose. "Like it?" she asked candidly and came into movement again.
"Of course," Wentworth answered quietly. "It is far too good for a woman who twists a little girl's arm in a cheap rooming house."
Madame Pompé frowned. "So you discovered that? Well, I had to do it. I couldn't help it. But I didn't have to invite you here tonight. I am playing now. Can't we be friends?"
She seemed so beautiful as she stood before him that it was difficult to believe her dangerous in a criminal way. Wentworth, however, realized that she was a consummate actress.
She fanned herself and he threw open the window beside the couch, letting in a slight breeze from the warm night. Only faint noises ascended from the streets below and drifted into the room through the potted plants which stood upon the roof outside the window.
Then Ram Singh arrived, carrying a basket, majestic under his turban. Mimi was at first frightened at sight of the Oriental, but decided that he was handsome and asked him to come into the pantry for a glass of wine on his way out.
"Not drink!" refused the Oriental contemptuously. "Drink no good."
Madame Pompé had been even more impressed by Ram Singh than she had been by Wentworth's pocketbook, something Wentworth had been able to detect while he directed the Hindu in the placing of the wine upon a table. The directions, given in Hindustani, had little to do with the wine and much to do with other, more important matters. But Madame Pompé knew no Hindustani and thought only that a man with such a servant must be exceedingly desirable from a worldly point of view.
Wentworth placed his hat carelessly upon a mantelpiece and sat with her beside a small table while they sipped some of the wine from the first of the two bottles which the basket contained.
It was quite evident that Madame Pompé was exercising all her charm, all her physical lure, upon the man who had come to see her.
"Do you know why I invited you to come here tonight?" she asked meaningly.
"Perhaps," Wentworth replied coolly, "you may intend to kill me."
She expressed indignant horror at the thought. And she was clever. She snapped open a small bag which dangled from her wrist and took from it a tiny pistol which she handed to him.
"Would I give you this if I wished to kill you?" she asked quietly.
"You might," he answered casually, accepting the weapon indifferently.
It was a superb piece of workmanship, very small but quite deadly. He examined it with apparent interest, snapping the safety catch off and on. Releasing the little magazine, he dropped it out upon the palm of his hand and ejected the cartridge which lay in the barrel, catching it dexterously and inserting it at the bottom of the magazine.
"You are familiar with pistols," Madame Pompé remarked approvingly.
"Yes," admitted Wentworth. "I have had some little experience with them."
He slid the magazine back into the grip of the pistol and tossed the weapon a full three feet into the air, catching it between his two hands. He opened his hands. The pistol was gone!
"Oh!" she exclaimed in surprise. "That was clever. How did you do it?"
"Just an old magician's trick," he explained. "I practice sleight of hand. It amuses me."
"I don't care," she returned. "You can keep the pistol. I gave it to you to show my good faith."
Suddenly Wentworth shot a hand toward her and appeared to pluck the tiny pistol from her bag where it lay open upon her lap.
"And I return it to you," he said.
"To show your good faith?" she asked, taking the pistol and tucking it into her bag.
"To show you that I have no fear of you," he answered.
"And perhaps you had better take the magazine," he added, holding it out on the palm of his hand. "I slipped it out again when you weren't looking."
This time there was a flash of anger in her eyes. She slid the magazine quickly into its place and drew back the bolt to insert the first cartridge in the barrel. Nor did she throw on the safety catch which might delay a shot for the fraction of a second while it was being cast off.
Wentworth smiled a trifle. "Angry?" he asked.
"A woman never likes to be fooled," she returned. "But I wish we could be friends."
"Give me some reasons for it," he suggested.
Swiftly she rose and went to some black portieres which hung over the entrance to the hall. She swept them aside. As though satisfied that nobody was eavesdropping, she dropped the portieres back into place and returned to her chair.
Their chairs were close together. Slowly she turned sidewise and looked up into his face while she bent forward until her lips were almost touching his. There was slumbering fire in her eyes and a cloying perfume surrounded her head. Her lips parted, invitingly, and she waited.
Wentworth neither advanced his head to the challenge, nor did he withdraw it. He gazed thoughtfully into her upturned face, but he refused the invitation of her lips.
"Come to the point," he said. "What do you want?"'
With all the abandon of a woman versed in the wiles of her sex she pleaded with him. She begged him to take her away from a man who was a monster of evil and from whom she could not escape.
Wentworth rose and stood with his back to the mantelpiece, looking down at her.
She rose and stood close before him. "Take me in your arms again like you did when you found me," she asked, coming still closer to him.
He appeared to be wavering.
Swiftly she slipped her arms around his neck and leaned against him.
"Why do you wait?" she whispered. It was then that the portieres parted and the masked man came into the room, a gun in either hand. His face was completely hidden, but it was obviously the same man who had thrown the silken cord in Dorothy Canfield's room.
He seemed a trifle lame but he came swiftly and so silently that the woman, with her back turned, did not hear.
And Wentworth did not move, although he saw his enemy even as her lips pressed his and he was forced to straighten a little from his leaning position to support her weight.
With the exclamation the man halted, not five feet from the pair at the mantelpiece, his guns raised menacingly.
And at the sound of that voice Madame Pompé jerked her lips from Wentworth's and turned her head with a cry toward the man with the guns. The next second she turned back to Wentworth and was clinging madly to him, apparently terrified.
If she was acting, it was superb artistry. But Wentworth knew suddenly that it was not acting. She was pressed so closely to him that he could feel the wild beating of her heart. In that mad embrace he could only stand quite still. An attempt to reach his opera hat, with the concealed revolver, or to make any other swift move, would only be to invite quick death.
It was Wentworth who spoke first. Cool, careless words came from him, words which seemed to denote utter disregard for the tenseness of the situation.
"My dear chap, you should cough or scrape your feet before coming into a lady's room at so late an hour."
Madame Pompé withdrew her bare arms from around Wentworth's neck and stepped back from him, turning her gaze toward the newcomer. Even in those few seconds she regained control of herself. She surveyed the intruder with a magnificent portrayal of outward calm, but she was exercising control. She appeared to be studying the man with the guns, trying to read his mind through the mask.
Wentworth believed that he was in the presence of the criminal he had sought so long; yet he watched the woman while she watched the man. During those few seconds he noted the slight stiffness of her delicate nostrils and knew that she was acting, that her calm exterior cloaked anxiety. He knew that she had been filled with fear just before she broke away from him and that now she was masterfully controlling it. He wished to know the cause of that fear. He waited.
"My dear, you have done very well, except that it was scarcely necessary for you to embrace him." The man had become quite as cool as Wentworth. "I found that the police had withdrawn from this building, and I thought I would come up and see how you were getting along— not that the police could have kept me away if I had really needed to come."
Wentworth's keen eyes noticed the slight relaxation which came over Madame Pompé as the man finished speaking. She no longer needed to exercise control over herself. She was at her ease, and Wentworth knew what he wanted to know.
His deduction was so quick that it must have been intuitive as well as mental. It was quite obvious that she had relaxed because of the newcomer's friendly speech to her and that she had not been expecting him. There could then have been but one reason for her sudden fear. She had not known how much of her conversation the masked man had overheard, and she had been terrified lest he had heard her suggestion that Wentworth should take her away. Apparently she had been at least partly genuine in the proposition.
"I suppose you know me, Mr. — ah — " commenced Wentworth and stopped.
"Most certainly, my very dear Mr. Richard Wentworth," was the cool and almost drawling rejoinder. "As for me, suppose I choose a nom de guerre, a war name. Suppose that you call me Mr. X during the very few minutes that you have yet to live."
"Merci mille fois, Monsieur X," replied Wentworth suavely. "I give you a thousand thanks for your very great courtesy."
"Il n'y pas de quoi, my very dear Richard Wentworth. It is nothing at all and no thanks are necessary. You are quite a difficult man to kill, and I really think that I should thank you. Most men are so very easy to kill. There is no pleasure in it at all."
"At our last encounter, if I remember correctly," remarked Wentworth calmly, "you did me the honor of running away from me. Perhaps you will do so again— if I let you. By the way, you might do me a very small favor before I— ah— die."
"And what may that be?"
"You might inform me why you are wearing a glove on your left hand, but none on your right."
Mr. X did not reply, but something which sounded like a snarl came from behind his mask.
"Touched you, eh?"
Again the snarl sounded behind the mask, so definitely threatening that Madame Pompé started nervously and dropped her handkerchief.
Wentworth stooped slowly and picked the fallen bit of linen from the floor. He held it idly in his fingers while he leaned upon the mantelpiece and watched the man with the two guns. Although he appeared carelessly calm; he was really studying his opponent minutely to determine the last moment before which he would have to take some kind of action if he were to continue living.
"I am very highly complimented, my very dear Mr. X, that you should consider it necessary to bring two pistols with which to kill me. I fear, however, that you will use neither of them."
"Indeed? Why not?"
Wentworth raised the handkerchief to his nose for a second and dropped the tiny piece of lace upon the mantelpiece with a careless motion. The action brought him a trifle nearer to his opera hat which stood upon the far end of the mantelpiece and which held his small revolver.
"Excellent perfume, my dear Corinne." He indicated the handkerchief on the mantelpiece and took a short step nearer his hat.
Mr. X chuckled behind his mask and knocked the opera hat to the floor with the barrel of one of his pistols. "You are very clever, my dear Richard Wentworth," he remarked smoothly as the little revolver was jarred from its elastic loops and slid out into plain view upon the floor, "but you are not quite a match for me!"
"I think you have come to the end, Mr. Wentworth," said Madame Pompé, shrugging her magnificent shoulders. "If you can get out of this jam, you will go even higher in my estimation."
"Excellent, my dear Corinne," returned Wentworth easily. "I shall show you how the trick can be turned."
"You will have to turn it rather quickly, my friend," remarked Mr. X, commencing to raise the pistol in his right hand. "Nobody will hear this shot, up here on the roof of this apartment building— not even you! The bullet will reach your forehead before the sound reaches your ears."
Madame Pompé turned her eyes away to avoid the sight of what was to happen.
"I wouldn't do that, Mr. X," Wentworth said a trifle quickly, but without any emotion. "You will be dead in another second if you continue."
Wentworth's voice had not been raised in the slightest above normal, but the words were spoken with so much quiet assurance that Mr. X lowered his pistol a little and flashed one swift glance about the room.
"Is bluff the only weapon you have left, my friend?" he asked. "I am afraid that you cannot bluff me."
"Then let me show you something that will surprise you," Wentworth said.
From the mantelpiece the tall and indolent man raised Madame Pompé's tiny handkerchief. He reached upward and tucked a corner of the piece of cambric under the frame of a picture which hung over the mantel, so that the handkerchief was suspended against the wall well above his head. There was a trace of a smile on his lips as he faced Mr. X again.
"A strange proceeding," commented Mr. X, apparently interested.
"Quite! You will find it very strange indeed if you will be so good as to watch closely."
Madame Pompé was watching Wentworth very intently and curiously. Slowly she sank into a chair and assumed a posture for the benefit of the strange man who was doing such an apparently absurd thing with her handkerchief. Madame Pompé never forgot that she was a woman.
"You really must explain yourself a little more intelligently," Mr. X insisted.
"I shall be glad to explain," replied Wentworth. "Since you came into this room, my dear Mr. X, I have always been in a position to kill you instantly. Even if you had tried to shoot me, it is exceedingly doubtful if you could have fired quickly enough. If you had been successful you, yourself, would have been dying before you could have lowered your pistol again."
|Ram Singh stepped through the open window, another knife held by the naked blade...|
Mr. X bent a little toward Wentworth as though trying to scrutinize him through the holes in his mask.
"I shall give you half a minute to prove your words, Wentworth," Mr. X challenged incisively.
"Very well," Wentworth returned with easy assurance. "Come and stand in front of the handkerchief. I want you to watch it closely."
Mr. X moved slowly around Wentworth and faced the handkerchief where it hung upon the wall, its corner pinned by the picture frame. He was wise enough, however, not to come within reach of Wentworth's long arms. A man can be disarmed by an expert, if he comes within striking distance.
"Ready?" asked Wentworth still leaning carelessly against the mantelpiece.
"Yes, I am ready," was the cold reply. "Good!" returned Wentworth. "Now watch me closely. I am going to point my finger at that handkerchief— just as I could have pointed it at you, Mr. X, at any moment since you came into this room."
Slowly Wentworth began to raise his right arm, with fist closed, toward the handkerchief.
Mr. X watched the slow movement of the arm keenly. His eyes darted from Wentworth to the handkerchief and back again to Wentworth. His arms hung loosely, the two pistols pointing downward, triggers slightly pressed and ready for action if necessary.
Madame Pompé struck a match and watched Wentworth intently through the first puff of smoke from her cigarette. She was no longer posing for him. She was admiring him, almost openly, notwithstanding the presence of the masked man who held two pistols ready for action.
Wentworth's ascending arm came into alignment with the handkerchief and halted. From his fist the index finger shot out. Something flashed through the air, directly above the head of Mr. X, and a heavy knife struck the wall, pinning a corner of the handkerchief. Broken plaster spattered upon the mantelpiece, but the knife struck so hard that it remained imbedded in the wall.
The effect was dramatic, far more so than a pistol would have been. It hinted a further outcome which might be horribly tragic.
But the nerve of Mr. X was splendid. He neither started nor attempted to turn his head, although the knife had come through the open window from directly behind him.
Madame Pompé, too, was cool. But she stopped smoking and her eyes showed her admiration as she continued to regard Wentworth.
"If you make any move, my very dear Mr. X," remarked Wentworth, "or if you fail to drop your pistols to the floor, the next knife will strike between your shoulder blades."
From among the potted plants on the roof Ram Singh stepped through the open window. Another knife, held by the naked blade in his upraised hand, was poised to throw.
The pistol in the left hand of Mr. X thudded upon the floor.
"Thank you, my very dear Mr. X," said Wentworth still leaning carelessly against the mantelpiece. "I would like the other pistol, now if you please."
Suddenly the masked man staggered. He clutched at his heart and his knees gave way. Just as he sank, apparently in agony, upon the floor he fired his other pistol — straight into the wall to one side of the mantelpiece!
The room was plunged into darkness. Mr. X had fired into the wall-switch and short circuited the lights!