The Spider Strikes/Chapter 19
Richard Wentworth was again upon his way to visit the Molly Ann at the foot of West 96th Street. This time he meant to penetrate to the very heart of that iniquitous ship and to come to grips, if possible with the criminals who manned it. It was a dangerous undertaking — one which would have been undertaken by the police only in large numbers. Yet Wentworth took with him only Ram Singh, that devoted Oriental who had been with him upon so many adventures.
Ram Singh sat silently upon one of the little chairs before his master in the tonneau of the taxi. Although there was a bond of unselfish affection between them, the native would never think of sitting upon the same seat with his master unless some clever stratagem or serious necessity required it. Ram Singh lost none of his self respect by looking upon the world and realizing that all men were not equal — and he increased his self-respect by the conviction that he served a master whom surpassed all men. Once when he had been wounded Wentworth had carried him in his arms like a baby while he rode a swaying camel for five hours over the Sind Desert. There was no lack of sympathy between master and servant.
West 96th Street drops steeply toward the Hudson River and lights grow dimmer as Broadway is left behind. The street dips below a causeway which carries the famous Riverside Drive and merges for a short block to end at the railroad tracks upon the other side of which the rickety piers are usually shrouded in darkness at night.
Wentworth dismissed the taxi at the tracks and walked slowly with Ram Singh into the darkness upon the other side. But on this night there were some lights to be seen amid the darkness, and those lights came from the Molly Ann. At the entrance to the pier they halted for a few minutes in the deep shadows.
The lights on the Molly Ann were dim, but that was to be expected from such an old tramp steamer. Yet they seemed dimmer and fewer than many an old tub might exhibit. From the single black funnel of the ship a dark plume of smoke was rising against the blue of the night sky. Undoubtedly steam was being raised in preparation for sailing.
But the few dim lights and the silence did not seem natural. A feeling of evil and of danger was about the place.
The two silent figures advanced slowly upon the pier. Through the darkness ahead of them there became visible a steeply inclined gangway which gave access to the ship from the low dock. Nobody seemed to be using the gangway, and the ship seemed dead except for the dim lights and the black smoke mounting from the funnel.
Slowly the two men continued to advance. They reached the gangway and Wentworth led the way up its steep ascent. Not a word had been spoken since they left the taxi. Neither knew what was going to happen, but they understood each other so well that words were scarcely necessary.
At the top of the gangway a man stepped out of some shadows and barred the way. He seemed to be the only man around, and in his hand he carried a marlinespike which can become a very ugly weapon when wielded by a seafaring man.
Wentworth halted, "I would like to see the captain," he said.
"No visitors allowed!" the man answered in a surly manner, peering at the indolent stranger who had addressed him.
"What cargo are you carrying?" Wentworth asked indifferently.
Instead of answering, the man raised the marlinespike to strike. But Wentworth shot a fist into his face with such suddenness and with such strength that the iron tool thumped upon the deck and the man went over backward. He struck his head upon a stanchion in his fall and lay quite still. Wentworth rubbed his knuckles, and, followed closely by Ram Singh, stepped over the fallen man and ascended the companionway to the main deck.
The deck was not lighted, and it was almost necessary for them to feel their way forward. Darkness and silence surrounded them. Not a man was to be seen, but it was impossible to believe that the man with the marlinespike was the only one on board. At least there must be men in the engine room, where a dynamo gave life to the few dim lights which were to be seen.
Under the bridge Wentworth found the captain's cabin and peered inside. It was unlighted and empty. He looked down into the forward well where he had seen the rows of metal cylinders. The cylinders were no longer there, and he guessed that they had been stowed out of sight in the hold.
Only from the bridge, above them, did there seem to be any indication of life. A faint light shone down the companionway which led to that seat of control. Very cautiously Wentworth ascended the steps. Quite as cautiously and very closely Ram Singh followed him. So quietly did the two reach the bridge that a man, leaning against the starboard rail and looking down the river, did not hear them.
"Are you the captain?" Wentworth asked behind the man's back.
"Mate," the man answered, wheeling about in the dim light. "Who the hell are you?"
"Gas inspector," retorted Wentworth glibly. "The chief sent me aboard to test the cylinders."
The mate may have been a good navigator, but he was none too bright otherwise. His mouth opened in amazement. "Did Dr. Quornelle tell you what was in those cylinders?" he asked incredulously.
"Sure!" Wentworth laughed. "Poison gas."
"Are you one of us?" the mate demanded. "Do you get a cut of the big haul when we make it?"
Before Wentworth could reply, the mate caught sight of Ram Singh standing motionless at the head of the companionway. His suspicions aroused at last, he went into action much faster than he had been capable of thinking. From his pocket he jerked a pistol and fired at Wentworth as quickly as he raised it.
Wentworth, however, saw the pistol as it was raised and, in the dim light, ducked just before the shot. From his own pocket he drew forth something which produced a husky, coughing sound — and the man slid silently to the deck of the bridge.
Once more the powerful air pistol had quietly done its work and had ended the career of a man who had been willing to assist in the murdering of a thousand people on board a great liner.
Leisurely, Wentworth knelt and took out his cigarette lighter, the old lighter, which contained the seal that would make many impressions. Carefully and with great satisfaction he pressed the design of the spider upon the mate's forehead.
But the mate's pistol shot had been heard. The sound of heavy footsteps came from the deck below. The footsteps drew near and halted beneath the bridge. A man began to ascend the companionway. He halted half way and called up to the mate. Receiving no answer, there came the sound of voices in consultation, followed by a brief moment of silence.
Wentworth motioned to Ram Singh, and the two of them stepped into the empty chart house behind the bridge. Apparently it was to be a fight with the odds against them. They could only wait and, when the time came, think fast and shoot straight. Wentworth was sorry about the mate's pistol shot. His air-pistol was quiet. But ordinary shooting would soon call the police, which might add a great danger to the situation he faced.
As they waited in the chart house, one of the men, unseen by Wentworth, raised his head above the deck of the bridge and caught a glimpse of the mates body lying beside the wheel.
There were whispered words and the scurrying of feet.
After a considerable pause a voice called from the deck below and was clearly heard through the open window of the chart house.
"Who are you up there?"
"Send the captain up," Wentworth called back.
"Captain's not aboard," the voice returned. "Then come up yourself," Wentworth answered.
There was more silence and then: "Come down or we'll turn on some of the gas."
This was a contingency which Wentworth had not anticipated. Even so, it gave him satisfaction because he now knew that the entire crew were aware of the murderous contents of the cylinders. It had not been his wish to injure innocent members of the frightful expedition which Dr. Quornelle was planning. All compunction left him upon hearing the threat to turn on some of the gas. They were all equally guilty of the intention to commit murder.
"If you turn on the gas, you will kill yourselves," he called back in answer to their threat.
There was a hoarse laugh and the voice replied: "We got gas masks."
"So have I," lied Wentworth without a moment of hesitation.
More silence followed and then, unexpectedly, a shot crashed through the floor of the chart house, fired from the captain's cabin directly beneath. Another bullet came through the chart house roof, fired from the crow's nest. Neither bullet did any harm, but more would follow. And, in the end one of them would find its intended mark. In the end, too the shooting would probably be reported to the police by the watchman at the railroad crossing.
The man in the crow's nest proved easy to handle. Wentworth stepped out upon the bridge and took careful aim before firing with his silent pistol. The man, who was leaning far out, slipped forward and fell to the deck with an ugly thump. There were no more shots through the roof of the chart house.
But more were being fired now through the flooring from the captain's cabin. It was becoming dangerous in the chart house and Wentworth called Ram Singh to join him on the bridge. As he did so, a police whistle sounded in the distance. In the end, of course, Wentworth wanted the police to come and take charge of the ship with its murderous cargo of poison gas, but he hoped to get away before they arrived.
The men on the deck below, however, had also heard the police whistle and ceased firing in consequence. They wished for the presence of the police even less than did Wentworth. They could not, however, allow their antagonistic visitors to remain alive upon the bridge. Up from the engine room and out from the forecastle they came and assembled at the foot of the ladder leading to the bridge. They were desperate because they knew that failure of their enterprise would probably mean life imprisonment for them, if not death in the electric chair.
Wentworth and Ram Singh were also in a desperate situation. A police emergency car could now be heard in the distance. They were between the police and the criminals whom they had sought to destroy.
"Ram Singh," said Wentworth, "can you dive off the bridge, swim under the ship and come up beneath the pier where you can hide?"
The Hindu nodded and was about to speak when there was a violent scuffling of feet upon the companionway leading to the bridge. A concerted attack was being made. It came swiftly, savagely, and it was made by desperate men who had been toughened and coarsened in the free-for-alls of seafaring life.
Such an attack was not easily repulsed. Wentworth shot the first man who reached the bridge, and Ram Singh met the second man with his knife. But the third and fourth men sprang over the bodies of their comrades and were upon them.
Others followed. It became a terrific hand-to-hand conflict, Ram Singh fighting with his knife and Wentworth with a marlinespike which he wrenched from the hand of an assailant. Only the narrowness of the bridge saved them by preventing too many of their attackers from reaching them at the same time. As it was, they were forced back to the end of the bridge which overhung the pier.
Suddenly, amid the grunts and curses of the meleé, what was literally a bellow burst upon the air.
"All hands off the bridge!" the words were roared.
The fighting seamen; some wounded, disengaged themselves, scrambled to the companionway and almost flung themselves to the deck below. Wentworth leaned back against the rail and found himself facing one of the largest men he had ever seen. The captain of the Molly Ann had come aboard his ship.
At first the captain thought that Wentworth was one of his fighting crew who had failed to obey his command. He sprang forward with a hand like a ham lifted to strike. But he saw his mistake and stopped his hand just as the emergency police car screamed its way out upon the old pier below them.
"Are you a policeman, a detective?" the captain growled. "Damn you!"
Without waiting for a reply the huge man rushed at Wentworth. It seemed as though the smaller man could have no chance at all. But, at the last moment, Wentworth bent suddenly down and slipped his head and shoulders between the big man's legs. Then his muscles tautened as he heaved upward, and the towering captain rose above the side rail of the bridge to be carried on by his own impetuous rush into a curving fall which ended in a crash upon the rotten planking far below on the old pier.
Flood lights shot from the emergency car of the police and began to play on the Molly Ann. It was only a matter of moments before the police would be swarming upon the ship, before they would round up its crew and begin a thorough investigation regarding the business and cargo of that ship... The Molly Ann would never carry out its great crime upon the high seas.
But Richard Wentworth might also have his career ended if he did not succeed in escaping both from the police and from the criminal with whom he had interfered. Swiftly he dragged Ram Singh to the other end of the bridge, the end which overhung the water.
"Jump!" he commanded.
Ram Singh hesitated, not liking to leave his master. Wentworth frowned. Ram Singh salaamed slowly in resignation, then sprang over the rail and struck the water in a perfect dive, leaving behind him only a short gurgle and some bubbles.
Richard Wentworth, alone upon the bridge of the Molly Ann, looked up at the dark blue of the sky and down at the three still forms upon the deck of the bridge at his feet. He shrugged his shoulders as if impressed by the futility of man in the midst of the universe.
There was a rush of policemen to the gangway from the pier. Shouts were heard and orders.
Methodically Wentworth pressed the seal of the spider upon the forehead of the man who had headed the rush from the deck below. He looked at the man who had fought with Ram Singh and saw that there was a little life, but that it would last only for a few minutes or seconds.
On this man's forehead he left no imprint. Instead he unbent the clutching fingers and left within them, for the police to find, the little cigarette lighter containing the seal of the Spider, New York's great uncaught killer. Would the police believe that they had, at last, caught their man - even if dead or dying? At least it would puzzle them.
And then Wentworth, almost at the last moment before the police reached the bridge, threw his legs over the rail and dropped, feet first, almost silently, into the water — to swim under the Molly Ann and join Ram Singh among the piles between the old pier.