The Spider Strikes/Chapter 6
The brains of the New York Police Department concentrated upon the great Park Avenue apartment house, concentrated in all its strength and with astonishing celerity.
Seldom had that department been so agitated. Radio cars wove their way inquisitively through traffic in the vicinity. Scores of police, in uniform and in plain clothes, infested the neighborhood for blocks around the building.
Inside the apartment of Richard Wentworth more detectives swarmed. Inspectors almost lost their calm demeanor as they barked sharp orders and, with serious countenances, listened to the reports of experts of ballistics who examined the bullet hole in the window and gazed toward distant roofs and windows, trying to determine the point from which the bullet must have been fired.
Police surgeons came, their sirens screaming a path through New York traffic. They hurried to a bedroom where Stanley Kirkpatrick, Commissioner of Police, lay unconscious, critically ill, probably dying. Shortly they came out to order complete silence in the apartment, to telephone for day and night nurses, for oxygen tanks and for many other things. A great specialist in head wounds was summoned. He came, examined the patient and shook his head. There was a fighting chance for life, he said— provided the patient was not moved from the apartment.
Richard Wentworth sat beside Nita on the lounge in the music room, talking to her in a low voice as calmly as if no such tense excitement surrounded them. In that crowded apartment, large as it was, there was no place in which they could be alone together. As the great specialist was leaving, Wentworth beckoned to him and pointed to Nita's head.
The specialist made a swift examination. "A painful scalp wound," he stated. "I can stitch it under a local anesthetic in a few minutes."
"If you will clear some policemen out of a bedroom," Wentworth suggested, "she can lie down and be comfortable while you do it." He seemed to fumble for a match to light a cigarette as Nita rose. "Lend me your lighter, Nita?" he asked. "You won't be needing it for a few minutes."
The doctor did not see, nor did anybody else notice the flash of fear which came into the girl's blue eyes as she unclenched a hand and handed a cigarette lighter to Wentworth.
As Nita left the music room with the specialist, Wentworth snapped the lighter into action and lit his cigarette. He held the lighter high before his face and examined it critically before extinguishing the light. Near its base, scarcely discernible, was the faint line of demarcation, the secret junction wrought so cunningly by the master mechanic.
Suddenly Wentworth turned to a nearby inspector and emphasized his words by tapping that inspector on the shoulder with the lighter which he held in his hand. "The man who shot the Commissioner," he said, "is the man I was hunting in Paris, the man who eluded me and returned to New York ahead of me, the man who strangled your detective here last night."
"But why did he come here last night?" questioned the inspector. "What was his motive?"
"Theft of what?"
"Do you see that pair of mazzarine blues, decorated in famille rose enamel?"
The inspector followed Wentworth's gaze. "You mean the two Chinese jars on the mantelpiece?"
Wentworth nodded and returned the lighter to his pocket. "Between those two jars you will probably discover that the surface of the mantelpiece shows the faint outline of a ring, indicating that a third vase once stood there."
The inspector examined the surface of the mantelpiece and confirmed what Wentworth had suggested.
"The missing vase," Wentworth continued, "is a very rare piece of reticulated porcelain from the Ming period. I believe that the thief, impersonating a waiter in a Paris hotel, overheard me speak to my native servant regarding certain evidence against him which I had left in that vase— a bit of his hair and the imprint of his front teeth on an apple. He beat me back to New York and destroyed that evidence, stealing the vase out of pure hatred for me. It's quite simple, my dear inspector."
"Simple!" exclaimed the inspector. "Who is the thief? Where is he? Why did he shoot the Commissioner of Police after he got away with the jar?"
"I do not know where the thief is," replied Wentworth, "but he impersonated me and therefore must be a man of about my height, weight and color of eyes."
"Yes," said the inspector, looking into Wentworth's gray-blue eyes and mentally noting his height as five feet eleven inches and his weight as a hundred and seventy pounds, "but why did the criminal hang around and shoot the Commissioner?"
"He didn't intend to shoot the Commissioner?"
"He thought that he was shooting me. You will notice that I was wearing a suit of clothes which is very similar in color and design to that which was worn by the Commissioner when he was shot. You will also remember that the Commissioner was standing with his back to the window when he was shot."
"Oh!" The inspector paused thoughtfully. "And why is this master criminal so intent upon snuffing you out?"
"He knows," answered Wentworth, "that he must kill me in order to go on living himself, that sooner or later I shall get him if he does not get me. I believe that he is planning a stupendous crime and that he is afraid I shall block it if he does not kill me."
"What kind of a crime? demanded the inspector eagerly.
Wentworth shook his head. "My information is so vague at present," he returned, "that you could not appreciate its significance. But I believe that this criminal must be captured or killed if the whole world is not to stand aghast."
A telephone mechanic was busy bringing in a trunk line for police use, and Wentworth picked up his own telephone which, for the moment, was silent. He called a very select employment agency. "Send me a chef," he said, "a butler and enough maids for a fifteen-room apartment." Then he added: "All the servants must have brown eyes "
"Not taking any chance of this fiend coming up here as one of your servants and sticking a knife into you, eh?" remarked the inspector.
"No," said Wentworth. "I scarcely think that this man can change his eyes to brown."
"And the maids? Surely you don't have to be careful about women!"
"You would be surprised!" Wentworth grinned. "He makes up as a woman so well that you could never guess it in a close up."
Ram Singh, silent upon bare feet and with great turban gleaming white, came to Wentworth's side and spoke in a low voice. "Professor sahib!" he said. "Him wait in library. No like police. Not talk."
Old Professor Brownlee was sitting quietly in the library when Wentworth entered. His eyes lighted up with affection at sight of the younger man, and the grasp of his hand was very warm as they sat down together, alone in the room for the moment.
Years before, when Wentworth was a young man and little more than a boy at college, Professor Brownlee, at that time a professor of physics, had made the great and only mistake of his life. He had misused funds which were in his hands for safe-keeping. Wentworth had come to his assistance and, by a clever subterfuge, had saved the professor from criminal proceedings, though he had been unable to prevent him from losing his professorship. The friendship between the two had developed as the years passed.
Fifty miles up the Hudson River, near Cold Spring, Professor Brownlee now maintained a small private laboratory where he experimented and where he performed some miracles of science for Richard Wentworth.
"I got your telegram," the Professor said, "and came as fast as I could."
"It's another air pistol," Wentworth said. "I had to discard the one I had, and I must have another as soon as possible."
"Will tonight do?" Professor Brownlee asked. "I have one already made and I can bring it to you before midnight."
"Good man!" exclaimed Wentworth. In low voices they continued to talk, and Wentworth exposed his real reason for sending for the Professor. He wanted a new cigarette lighter that would utterly prevent the dangerous seal from being discovered, even if the lighter were taken away from him or lost. Wentworth was determined not to give up the identifying mark which was so dangerous to him. He would, in the meantime, not even cease the use of the lighter which had so nearly destroyed him.
It seemed that he loved the hazard of battling with his wits against the wits of almost all the world, good and bad. In addition, of course, the continuous use of the identical mark permitted him to strike terror into the hearts of his enemies.
"It is a case of the time element," the professor stated. "I could make you a contrivance which would destroy the seal if it fell into anybody else's hands, but it might not do so quickly enough to render detection impossible."
"It must destroy the seal instantaneously," insisted Wentworth, "and the contrivance must be such that it will give no indication that the seal had ever been contained by it."
"That, my friend, is a hard problem and I shall have to sleep over it," Professor Brownlee remarked gravely.
Outside the library there was a slight disturbance, unusual in that place of subdued voices and muffled footfalls. The disturbance increased, and Ram Singh burst into the room, followed by two policemen who were trying to detain him without causing so much noise as to be dangerous to the Commissioner.
Ram Singh fled to his master, an envelope in his hand.
"Sahib!" exclaimed Ram Singh. "Messenger boy came with chit. Police wallahs try take chit. No can do!"
Wentworth took the envelope from the Hindu and looked at the inspector who had entered behind the policemen and with whom he had been talking a few minutes previously.
"If the police interfere with my private life too much," Wentworth remarked a bit acidly, "I shall ask them to go and find some other quarters."
"I am sorry," the inspector apologized. "This is a very serious case and we are all on our toes."
"Toes can be stepped on," said Wentworth sharply and smiled, instantly changing to his very attractive self. "Come over here, inspector, and let's see what the messenger boy has brought me. It looks like a note from a lady."
Wentworth tore the envelope open, read the message and handed it to the inspector with an expressionless face.
The note was addressed to Richard Wentworth and read:
I have potassium cyanide tablets beside me and intend to take them at ten o'clock tonight if you do not come to my assistance before then. You are the one man in all the world who might be able to help me though I do not know how you can do it. Please do not send a policeman as I shall swallow the tablets if one comes near me. If you come to see me, bring a pistol for your own protection.
At the bottom of the note was the signature, or what appeared to be the signature, of Dorothy Canfield. The handwriting was well formed and indicated a person who was alert and strong minded.
"What do you think of it?" asked Wentworth as the inspector finished reading.
"Judged by the handwriting," the inspector replied, "the writer is in earnest. The address is a side street on the west side of Manhattan. Shall I send a couple of men over to see what it's all about?"
"Better let me go alone," Wentworth disagreed. "She doesn't seem very fond of the police."
"We are mixed up with a very dangerous criminal," said the inspector. "Considering what you have told me about him, don't you think that this message might be a plant— to rub you out?"
"Yes, I have thought of that," said Wentworth. But there was no trace of concern in face or manner as he began the simple preparations for his departure.