The Spider Strikes/Chapter 4
This time Nita did not tremble or sink to the floor. She looked away, as was natural, from so horrible a sight and walked slowly back into the hall, thinking very hard. She was concerned not with the dead man upon the floor but about the man at the front door. Had it really been her Dick? Was it possible for him to look like the devil she had seen? Had he really telephoned her from a ship at sea? Who had so vilely murdered the man in the music room?
Apollo stood beside her in the hall. Having shown her what he had found, he was careless of what lay behind him in the music room. She looked down at him and wished he had seen the face at the door. He would have known. Then she was ashamed of herself. Dick Wentworth could never express such cruelty as she had seen, could never be connected with anything so horrible as the thing in the music room. It was the one fear which had held her back. She took up a telephone.
"Give me the Police Department, please." Her voice was cool and her hand did not shake as she held the telephone. There was a very brief wait. "There has been a murder at the apartment of Richard Wentworth." She heard a voice ordering radio cars to the address on Park Avenue almost as she gave it.
"Who are you?" a voice demanded. Concealment was impossible; she could never escape the investigation which must follow. "Miss Nita van Sloan,'" she answered calmly.
"What are you doing at Mr. Wentworth's apartment at this time of night?"
Nita hung up the telephone. She would have to answer questions sooner or later, but she wanted time to think. What would she say? What could she say?
With Apollo closely accompanying her she walked into Wentworth's bedroom and looked at the framed picture of herself which hung upon the wall at the foot of his bed. As she turned to leave she noticed some wrapping paper and twine in disorderly array upon the counterpane.
In a remarkably few minutes the first radio car arrived and two uniformed men ascended to the Wentworth apartment. A single look at the dead man was enough to cause one of the men to jump for the telephone. The murdered man had been a plainclothesman, one of the smartest detectives of the New York Police Department.
The two policemen turned on Nita with harsh, swift, penetrating questions.
Nita remained silent. The policemen put their questions more brutally and in louder voices. Apollo growled savagely and crouched for a spring. The policemen drew their night sticks. Nita threw her arms around the Great Dane's neck and held him back just as the telephone rang.
A few words over the telephone worked a miracle in the attitude of the policemen. The one at the telephone whispered to his companion before approaching Nita and apologized to her. Would she forgive them? They had only been trying to do their duty. Mr. Stanley Kirkpatrick, the Commissioner of Police himself, had telephoned her his compliments, together with his hopes that she would be kind enough to wait until he arrived so that he could relieve her of any unpleasantness.
Nita settled herself in a comfortable chair and Apollo stretched himself at her feet at her command. She knew that Kirkpatrick was almost as astute as Wentworth himself, and she realized that she was waiting for an exceedingly searching examination, no matter how politely the Commissioner might conduct himself.
More uniformed men arrived. Plainclothesmen came. Finger-print men and photographers brought their apparatus. The rooms soon became filled with men at work upon their cunning profession. Two lieutenants arrived and finally a captain came and took charge. Yet not one of them bothered Nita or asked her any questions, except the captain, who wanted to know if she was quite comfortable.
Then the Commissioner of Police arrived with an inspector.
Nita knew Stanley Kirkpatrick, the Commissioner of Police, personally. He was one of New York's few society commissioners but, notwithstanding, was one of the shrewdest men ever to command the Police Force.
In the dining room, alone with Kirkpatrick, Nita told her story very simply. She told him everything except about her telephone conversation with Wentworth and about the face she had seen at the door.
"I knew that the telegram was not genuine," she explained, "but Dick Wentworth and I are such old friends that I felt it my duty to see if anything was wrong at his apartment."
"Rather dangerous, wasn't it?"
"There was Apollo."
"Ah, yes, of course!" The Commissioner stroked the dog's head for a moment. "Miss Van Sloan, I shall just get a report from my men, and then I shall have something to tell you. After that, if you will be so good as to permit me, I shall drive you home."
"Then you are not going to arrest Apollo and me and do all kinds of horrid things to us?" she asked smiling.
The Commissioner laughed pleasantly. "Neither one of you is capable of strangling one of my best detectives, and Dick Wentworth would never forgive me if I permitted you to be annoyed."
When he returned to the dining room he asked her quickly if she had seen anybody else in the apartment before the first policeman had arrived.
She shook her head, not willing to speak of the resemblance between Wentworth and the man she had seen at the door for the brief second. But his keen eyes were watching her, and she knew that she had not deceived him.
"Very well," he continued as if it did not matter. "Now let me tell you something. Wentworth has been in Europe in search of one of the cleverest and most ruthless of criminals, a strangler who escaped from New York after completely baffling my entire force. The strength of this criminal lies in his astounding ability to impersonate other people."
"Impersonate other people!" exclaimed Nita. "Yes," said the Commissioner. "You saw him here tonight, but you were afraid to tell me, fearing that it might actually be Dick Wentworth himself."
Nita controlled her face wonderfully. But she knew that her sudden relief did not escape her astute companion. However, her heart was singing again and she was ready, or thought she was ready, for anything that might follow.
"This great criminal," continued Kirkpatrick, "escaped from Wentworth and returned to New York ahead of him. Tonight he actually impersonated Richard Wentworth before the hall servants and came up to this apartment where he met one of my detectives and murdered him. Why he came here I do not know."
"But what was your detective doing here?" asked Nita.
"That has to do with another great criminal, the Spider."
"The Spider?" she asked and appeared very puzzled.
"Dick Wentworth," he said, "is returning to New York on a ship which the notorious Spider has just made another killing."
"Well?" she questioned.
"Most of my detective force," the Commissioner continued, "is at work upon the Spider case and is preparing to meet the ship when it arrives." He paused and looked at her as if a little undecided. "Up to the present moment I know of only one man on that ship who was present in New York when the other Spider crimes took place. That man is Dick Wentworth."
Nita fought to quiet the quickened beating of her heart. "And Dick's friend could think of that?" she asked with every appearance of disdain.
This time she felt certain that he did not penetrate her thoughts. He moved a trifle uncomfortably and looked down under the disdain in her eyes.
"It is just because I am his friend," he insisted, "and because I knew what he would have done in my place that I had to prove him innocent to my own satisfaction. Dick Wentworth is the cleverest man I know, and I want to work with him again as I have in the past even if he does sometimes make my force seem ridiculous when we blunder. I must know him to be innocent or— " He paused and then looked straight into her eyes. "Have you ever noticed that the Spider has never harmed a decent man?"
There was still some disdain in her eyes, although it had softened. "And have you proved him innocent?" she asked.
She looked her question. "I knew you to be Dick Wentworth's closest friend," he continued, "and I had one of my detectives send you the bogus radiogram while he hid in this apartment to see if you would reveal the hiding place of anything incriminating. He succeeded in discovering the greatest of all secrets— death."
Some of the disdain crept back into her eyes. "And is that all that you have done?"
The Commissioner shook his head. "I have done more," he continued. "I sent a radiogram to the captain of the ship asking him to subject Wentworth and all his belongings to a minute inspection in search of the tiny Spider seal which is used to mark all of the 'Spider's' work. It is a British ship, and a very good Scotland Yard man is on board. A very rigid inspection was made."
Her question came almost saucily. "Well, did you find any spiders?"
"Not a spider."
"However, I have had a very long radiogram from the Scotland Yard Man," the Commissioner continued, "and I find that there was a slight carelessness in the search which he made. When Wentworth was told that he was to be searched he asked for his cigarettes and cigarette lighter and did not seem in the least worried. That cigarette lighter was the only article in Wentworth's possession which was not examined, and it is quite large enough to contain the seal of the Spider."
Nita laughed and took cigarettes and cigarette lighter from her handbag. "Like to examine my lighter?" she asked as she delicately lighted a cigarette. "It happens to be a duplicate of the one which Dick Wentworth carries."
Commissioner Kirkpatrick waved the lighter aside. "There is one more test to which I am going to subject Richard Wentworth," he said.
"And that is?"
"I dare not radio back to the ship to have his lighter examined," the Commissioner replied. "If he is guilty, he is too clever to be caught twice in the same way."
"It seems to me that you haven't caught him the first time yet," Nita retorted, smiling through her cigarette smoke.
"True!" admitted Kirkpatrick emphatically. "And I sincerely hope that he is innocent and cannot be caught at all. However, I am going to take him unawares once again. He is flying ashore with the mails and will reach this apartment tomorrow afternoon."
There was an indifferent "Yes?" to this statement.
"In the meantime," he continued, "I have made it impossible for you to communicate with him by the courtesy of a British captain to an American Police Commissioner. I want you to meet him in the hall of this apartment as soon as he comes through the front door."
Nita sat up rather straight in her chair, surprised. "Why?" she shot at him quickly.
"As soon as he comes through the door," he explained, "I want you to tell him that the police are here and ask him to give you his cigarette lighter so that you can get rid of it. Speak to him in as low a voice as possible. I shall be where I can see, and a very sensitive microphone will carry the slightest sound to me."
She was gripping an arm of her chair under a fold of her dress, but she laughed. "And if I refuse?"
"In that case," he said, "I shall know what I am trying to discover."
She laughed again and asked: "Why don't you ask for his lighter yourself?"
Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick stood up and looked gravely down at her before earnestly stating: "Because Richard Wentworth is so damned clever that I am afraid of him. Because you are the only person in the world who can deceive him."
She laughed again, but her finger nails were biting into the palm of her clenched hand and there was blood on her tiny handkerchief when the Commissioner drove her home to Riverside Mansions, as the mists were lifting from the Hudson River at break of day.