The Spider Strikes/Chapter 12
The last second of light had presented a particularly dramatic scene. The great criminal, sinisterly masked, appeared to be collapsing in agony upon the floor. Behind him the huge Hindu stood with knife poised, ready to throw or to spring. To one side, still leaning against the mantelpiece, Richard Wentworth regarded the scene calmly, master of the situation up to the moment. Madame Pompé forgot to smoke, forgot to pose for masculine eyes, stared in admiration at the man by the mantelpiece.
Then came the pistol shot and darkness. There was the thud of steel striking wood and, in the very dim light from the open window, the figure of Ram Singh could be seen bounding forward.
Swiftly Wentworth drew a flashlight from his pocket and shot a beam of light to the spot upon which the mysterious Mr. X had stood. There, with point deeply imbedded in the polished floor, was the Hindu's second knife and Ram Singh, himself, crouched above it in the attitude of seizing something which was no longer there.
Mr. X had vanished.
Even while Wentworth pointed the flashlight at the knife in the floor, he snapped his lighter with the other hand and ignited several ornamental candles which stood upon the mantelpiece. In the soft light the black portieres swayed and bulged into the room a little.
Ram Singh, noticing the movement of the portieres, sprang into them with arms outstretched to seize what stood behind. His weight tore one of the portieres from its rings and he went to the floor with it. There was a muffled scream, and the Hindu staggered back into the room, carrying something which wriggled within the portiere.
From one end of his bundle a black- stockinged leg protruded. From the other end could be seen the tousled head of Mimi. He brought what he had found to Wentworth, like a dog bringing something to his master. But the look on his face was one of disgust when only Mimi emerged.
Wentworth picked up his revolver from the floor, where Mr. X had brazenly allowed it to remain, and left Ram Singh with the two women while he rapidly searched the penthouse. He did not expect to find his man. But when dealing with such an audacious person he felt that precautions were necessary. Undoubtedly Mr. X had escaped by the emergency stairs, there having been no time to call an elevator to the top of the building.
To follow him would have been difficult and Wentworth had something else in view.
Ram Singh was squatting on the floor when his master returned to the front room. In his hand the native held the great knife which he had drawn out of the floor. Mimi, restless and nervous, stood beside her mistress. Madame Pompé smoked with apparent indifference.
"That will be all, Mimi," said Wentworth. "You may go to bed."
"Mais Madame?" queried the girl, surprised and looking toward her mistress.
"You heard me, Mimi!" Wentworth said sharply. "I am sorry for the little accident at the portieres. Please accept my apology. Now get out!"
The apology was a $20 bill which Wentworth took from his pocketbook, allowing that pocketbook to fall open so that much more money could be seen by both maid and mistress.
"Merci, Monsieur!" exclaimed the maid enthusiastically and withdrew with a question to her mistress over her shoulder. "Madame will ring for her bath in the morning?"
The question was really a statement of what Mimi expected would happen. She did not understand the situation, but she saw that her mistress did not wish her to remain.
To Ram Singh, Wentworth spoke again in Hindustani, and that very earnest servant disappeared once more through the open window, taking his great knife with him.
Madame Pompé's eyes were half closed, dreamy and thoughtful, as she watched her very unusual companion for a moment or two after they were alone. The candle light robbed her of the slight hardness which strong light made visible on her face. She was certainly very beautiful, a beautiful animal perhaps. And she had nerve, plenty of it.
Wentworth filled the two glasses with champagne again and handed one of them to her. He raised his own glass.
"I shall give you a toast," he said. "To Mr. X, the cleverest criminal I have ever met. May we meet again very soon!"
"I hate him!" she exclaimed, glancing toward the hall a little fearfully.
"You need not be afraid," he said. "My boy is on guard outside and he can see into the hall through the open window."
"What do you want?" she asked flatly. Wentworth went to the little table without replying and took the remaining bottle of wine from the basket which Ram Singh had brought.
He felt its temperature thoughtfully and placed it upon the table, unopened.
"I shall tell you what I want, Corinne," he said, resuming his seat beside her.
"Yes?" she inquired impatiently as he paused. "What?"
"I want you to tell me the real name of Mr. X."
She shivered. "I couldn't!" she exclaimed. "You might fail, and then he would cut my heart out!"
"Then you do know who he really is," Wentworth commented significantly. "I was a little bit afraid that you might not know his real name."
"I didn't say I did," retorted Madame Pompé very quickly. "He uses several names. How do I know which one is his real one?"
"You know it very well, my dear Corinne," he returned. "I can read women as easily as you can read men. You are going to tell me the real name of Mr. X."
"No!" she protested. "I am afraid. I would have left him long ago if I had not been terrified of him. I dare not do it."
"There is nothing to be afraid of. The police will lock him up in no time."
"No! No! No! No lawyer could convict him. If he did, the police could never hold such a man."
"But I could kill him."
She looked at him, her eyes large, and nodded her head as if afraid to speak the thought aloud.
"Then tell me his name."
"I will on one condition and on one condition only," she returned emphatically.
"I will tell you his name in Europe after you take me there safely," she answered. "After that you can return to New York and do what you like with him."
"Thank you, Corinne," said Wentworth; reaching to the table and carefully placing the wicker wine basket upon his knees. "That would be very kind of you, but, unfortunately, I must have the name in 24 hours."
She shook her head violently. "Impossible! I would rather die!"
"Then my dear lady, you will have to die," said Wentworth quietly.
Madame Pompé looked at him sharply, startled. "What do you mean?" she asked, her voice not quite steady.
"In the bottom half of this wicker basket," he explained, "there is a voice-recording apparatus. It is a very beautiful piece of mechanical construction. The motor runs in oil and is quite soundless. I started the motor when I took the second bottle out of the basket, and our last conversation is completely recorded. Just a minute... I shall have the little machine reproduce it for you."
Wentworth replaced the basket upon the table and watched her with the unemotional interest that a scientist might have for the contents of a test tube.
Madame Pompé leaned back in her chair, clutching its arms and trying to remember exactly what she had said.
There was some silence, then the little machine spoke:
"You know it very well, my dear Corinne. I can read women as easily as you can read men. You are going to tell me the real name of Mr. X." ... "No! I am afraid. I would have left him long ago if I had not been terrified of him. I dare not do it."
Madame Pompé heard her own rich voice, mingled with that of Wentworth, as the machine began to retrace the recent conversation. She sat motionless and silent while her face became more and more strained.
The conversation continued: "Then tell me his name." ... "I will on one condition and on one condition only." ... "The condition?" ... "I will tell you his name in Europe after you take me there safely. After that you can return to New York and do what you like with him."
"Well?" asked Wentworth, reaching into the basket and stopping the motor abruptly. "Shall I take steps to see that Mr. X receives this record of our conversation? I rather think that he would be interested in your offer to betray him."
Madame Pompé sprang to her feet, aflame with rage and fear. Furious and trembling she stood before him, at a loss for words, while he remained calmly seated.
"Of course you need have no fear, Corinne," he said, "if you give me the name."
Suddenly she lifted her handbag. And he saw that in her right hand pressed against the bag's side and shielded by it from view through the open window, was the little pistol which she had shown him earlier that evening. The deadly weapon was leveled straight at Wentworth's heart, and her finger was tightening slowly about the trigger!
Wentworth reached to the table and took up his glass of wine. He raised it and smiled at her over its brim. "A charming picture," he said.
"Give me the record, or I shoot," she warned, in a voice too low to be heard through the open window.
"Think twice," he warned indifferently. "An ugly knife will tear through your charming breast before I strike the floor."
She was woman to the last. "Is it charming?" she asked, hesitating.
"My dear," he answered, sipping his wine, "it is superb."
"If you really thought so you would not make me kill you," she retorted in the same low voice. "I've got to do it. I could not stand the torture that he would put me through before I died."
Wentworth continued to sip the wine. It was distinctly a novel situation to face a woman intent upon killing him. He continued to smile slightly at her over his glass.
As in the case of most women, her eyes partly closed as she pulled the trigger. There was a harmless click, and Madame Pompé collapsed into her chair.
"My dear Corinne," Wentworth said as he picked up her wine glass and offered it to her, "you should really be more observant. I removed the cartridges from the magazine of your pistol before I handed it back to you."
Madame Pompé took the glass and drained it. She leaned back in her chair and looked at him. There was fear in her eyes, and anger— and admiration.
Very firmly and with cold finality Wentworth assured her that Mr. X would receive the record of her voice, if she did not divulge that mysterious man's real name. He convinced her that, sooner or later, he must meet his enemy again and that, upon that occasion, he would make it his first business to give the evidence of her contemplated treachery to the man she feared. On the other hand he promised her full protection if she did as he wished.
Finally Madame Pompé, in apparent desperation, agreed to divulge the name at Wentworth's apartment on the following night, provided he would take her under his protection until Mr. X was captured.
It was then that the telephone bell sounded. Wentworth picked up the instrument and answered before Madame Pompé could move.
The cold, sardonic voice of Mr. X came to him over the wire. Mr. X expressed himself as being delighted that Mr. Wentworth was still visiting with the charming lady but wondered if there might not be another lady whom he was neglecting.
Wentworth, uneasy at the mention of another lady and his mind immediately reverting to Nita, forced himself to reply indifferently that there were many ladies who possessed great attraction and that he could not be with them all at the same time.
From the other end of the wire the cold, cutting voice continued. Wentworth was informed that he would feel the power of Mr. X in a very few minutes.
"It was only necessary for me to be quite certain of your exact location, my dear Mr. Wentworth, before I struck," Mr. X stated.
"Unless you can strike over the telephone, I am afraid that you have not the courage to strike at all," was Wentworth's quiet taunt.
"I shall have much pleasure in striking both over the telephone and in person," replied Mr. X. "I should advise you not to forget the other lady while you wait the few minutes that will be required for me to arrive."
The telephone connection was broken at the other end before Wentworth could reply. He looked at Madame Pompé. She was nervously smoking. A light breeze came through the open window, causing the candles on the mantelpiece to flicker. An electric light in the hall, unharmed by the fuse which had been blown, threw some of its steady light into the front room because of the portiere which had been torn down.
Everything seemed quiet and without any sign of danger. Yet Wentworth felt certain that Mr. X would not weaken his reputation by means of a senseless bluff. Something was going to happen and happen quickly.
Abruptly Wentworth picked up the telephone again and dialed his own number. The mention of another woman had hinted a danger far greater than any personal threat to himself could possibly be.
The sleepy voice of a maid on duty came to him after a short wait.
"This is Mr. Wentworth speaking. Awaken Miss Van Sloan and ask her to take the phone."
"Miss Van Sloan has gone out, sir," the sleepy voice of the maid replied.
"Gone out?" The query was shot over the wire like a bullet. His hand gripped the telephone until the knuckles went white. "Where did she go?"
"I don't know, sir. She went out a few minutes after you telephoned. I think she said she was going to meet you, sir."
"I telephoned? But I didn't telephone."
"Excuse me, sir, but you did. I answered the telephone, and you asked for Miss Van Sloan just like you did now, sir. I recognized your voice at once."
This blow, and it came to him over the telephone, was greater than any Richard Wentworth had ever received. That Nita had been decoyed from his apartment could not be doubted. In that fraction of a second the room swayed before the eyes of the mentally anguished man at the telephone. Had his passion for excitement and danger brought disaster to the one woman he really loved?
Then his mind cleared. He saw Madame Pompé watching him intently, smoking mechanically. Through the open window came a strangled cry, a cry of warning or a cry for help.
Wentworth crashed the telephone upon the table and sprang to the window, peering out while his flashlight shot here and there among the potted plants. The beam fell upon Ram Singh, lying upon the roof.
Reckless of hidden danger among the potted plants, Wentworth leaped through the window and knelt beside his servant, supporting the turbanned head on his arm while he spoke urgently in Hindustani in an endeavor to bring the man back to full consciousness.
It was the great turban which had saved Ram Singh from death. He had been struck on top of the head by some person who had crept up behind him while he stood on guard at the window.
In two or three minutes the servant was able to sit up. He adjusted his turban and assured his master that he was all right and quite ready to stick his knife into his enemy if he could only find him.
Wentworth turned to the open window. The candles on the mantelpiece had been extinguished, and the light in the hall was no longer burning. The penthouse was in complete darkness.
Under ordinary circumstances, circumstances which did not bring danger to the woman he loved, Wentworth would have used subtlety. He would have moved slowly and with great cunning. But with Nita in danger, he was forced to cast all caution aside.
Followed by Ram Singh, he went through the window in a rush, his flashlight circling the room as he entered. The room was empty. Madame Pompé was gone, and she had taken with her the wicker wine basket containing the incriminating evidence of her spoken words. It seemed as though Mr. X was striking back successfully at Wentworth, defeating him, driving him into a corner.
Almost desperate, Wentworth decided instantly that it was necessary for him to run away. For Nita's sake he could not remain to continue the fight any longer.
With Ram Singh he darted into the hall and found the electric switch. He turned it. There was no light. He came to the front door which opened upon the elevator. The elevator hall was also dark, and no light came up the elevator shaft. He pressed the bell to call the car. No car responded. Faint sounds of confusion ascended to him through the empty shaft. It seemed as though the electric current, both for power and light, had been cut off from the entire building.
For Wentworth to gain the street it would be necessary to descend twenty flights of stairs through a pitch black building. On every landing a man might be lurking behind a partly opened door, waiting with pistol raised or with strangling cord looped. Yet Wentworth did not consider the risk to himself, but only the risk to Nita if he failed to reach the street alive.
He threw open the door to the stairs and was about to begin the perilous descent when he faintly heard the ringing of the telephone in the front room of the penthouse. Instantly he rushed back and picked up the receiver — just as Madame Pompé, emerging from a bedroom, was about to take it.
The whole world changed for Richard Wentworth as he held the telephone to his ear. He was no longer troubled by thoughts of sudden death. He could laugh at all people and all things once more.
It was Nita's voice, and she was laughing. She told him that she had heard his voice on the telephone, at least that she thought that it was his voice, asking her to meet him alone in Central Park at once. She had responded of course, but she had taken Apollo with her.
In the park she had been seized by a strange man. But her attacker had not expected Apollo. He was, she said, probably still running, minus half a sleeve which Apollo had insisted upon bringing back to the apartment.
Wentworth laughed in pure joy at the knowledge of her safety. "But how did you get my telephone number?" he asked.
"The police had your last call traced," she answered.
"Good old New York police!" he exclaimed. "I am coming home as soon as they get the elevator running again in this building."
"What are you doing in a lady's penthouse at this hour of the morning?"
"Tell you later," he replied with a chuckle, and hung up.