Pulp Heroes - The Spider # 1 - THE SPIDER STRIKES, Chapter 5
First The Spider-Novel
Published in The Spider # 1, October 1933)
5. The Cigarette Lighter
There were no members of the New York Police Department in the hall where she sat and no trace of them. There were, however, a number of detectives and some uniformed men still at work in the interior rooms. And the Police Commissioner, himself, stood in a doorway behind some portiers in such a way that he could see the front door.
A head-clamp held a transmitter to one of his ears a transmitter that was connected with a concealed microphone which would amplify the slightest whisper which might be uttered in the hall where Nita sat.
Nita knew that she could not warn Wentworth by a single, whispered word, without revealing his fatal secret to the listening ear of the Commissioner. She could make no warning sign that his eye would not see. Unbelievably clever as she knew Dick Wentworth to be, she did not think it possible for him, under such conditions, to destroy the convicting evidence which was concealed in the cigarette lighter which he always carried. Before Commissioner Kirkpatrick she had maintained a humorous attitude with just a touch of disdain. Now she nerved herself for one desperate effort at the last moment.
Could she do it? She didn't know. A detective telephoned that Wentworth had left the landing field and was traveling uptown by taxi with his Hindu servant, that he would arrive in about fifteen minutes. The Commissioner of Police took off his head phones and Nita carelessly dropped Apollo's leash at the base of the pedestal upon which stood the Chinese vase.
"Care for a cigarette?" the Commissioner asked, coming into the hall.
Nita took the cigarette but refused his match. "I shall light it with Dick Wentworth's lighter," she said, "after you have apologized to him."
Presently the Commissioner went back behind the portiers and Nita idly picked up the leash. In doing so she reached behind the pedestal and drew the cord around its base before hitching the end about the leg of her heavy chair.
In a few minutes there was the sound of a latch key. The door opened and Richard Wentworth stepped into the hall followed by Ram Singh...
What happened then happened swiftly. Apollo looked up, rose and surged toward the man he loved. The light leash, circling the pedestal, went taut and snapped under his great weight. The pedestal rocked, and the heavy vase slipped from its resting place. Nita half rising from her chair, caught the full weight of the vase on the top of her head as it fell.
Her knees gave way beneath her and she collapsed upon the floor, still and inert, while the chrysanthemum-decorated vase smashed into a hundred fragments beside her.
Wentworth sprang forward and had her in his arms before the fragments of the vase had ceased trembling upon the floor. As her head rested against his shoulder, blood trickled from beneath the rich, brown curls and ran across her pale face.
"Pani lao!" he snapped at Ram Singh. "Juldi kuro!"
While Ram Singh ran to the kitchen for water as ordered, Wentworth carried Nita into the music room and placed her gently upon a lounge. He was touching her bloody face delicately with his handkerchief and testing her pulse with his other hand when Commissioner Kirkpatrick approached him.
"Kirkpatrick," he said after a glance over his shoulder, "for your own sake, I hope you are not responsible for this."
"Really, Wentworth!" Kirkpatrick protested. "I would not have had it happen for anything!"
"Then why the devil did you let it happen?" retorted Wentworth hotly while he gently tried to find the wound under the brown curls.
"You are not quite fair," the Commissioner continued to protest as Ram Singh came running with a basin of water and towels. "There has been a murder in your apartment."
"I read about it in the afternoon papers," remarked Wentworth as he worked on Nita's face and forehead with a damp towel, "and I notice that you haven't caught the murderer."
"We are doing our best and will get him if it takes a year."
The accident to Nita had angered Wentworth as nothing else could have done. He frowned over his shoulder at Commissioner Kirkpatrick. "You and your whole force," he said, "couldn't catch a jack-rabbit in a ten acre field with a wall around it."
"Just a minute, Wentworth!" exclaimed Kirkpatrick, showing anger himself. "You have no right to be furious with me because I had you searched on board ship." He paused as Nita's eyes began to flutter open. "I simply had to take action."
The fluttering of Nita's eyelids seemed to banish all anger from Wentworth. He rose and faced the Commissioner calmly. "It was one of the cleverest things you ever did, but it didn't get you anywhere."
"No, Wentworth, it didn't," Kirkpatrick replied gravely. "There was one thing which the Scotland Yard man failed to examine and that one thing is just big enough to conceal the Spider's seal. Let me have a look at your cigarette lighter, please!"
Richard Wentworth smiled condescendingly at the cleverest Commissioner of Police that New York had ever had. The expression of his face was devoid of all fear as he glanced down again at the lounge where Nita was stirring slightly. But the scar of an old wound began to show as a white line across his right temple. Normally invisible, that scar was the only thing about himself which he could not always control in moments of great stress, moments of anger or adversity.
"Really, Kirkpatrick," he said, thinking and rejecting plan after plan as the seconds fled, "will nothing ever satisfy you?"
"Yes, Wentworth, the cigarette lighter." One last resort came into Wentworth's mind, a poor resort and a humiliating one. He had money in Europe if he could get there. He glanced casually toward the door of the music room. A policeman stood in the doorway. The New York police force was at work under the guidance of a very clever man.
"And if I refuse?" Wentworth grinned amiably, but the scar was still in evidence, although it was not noticed by the Commissioner; who knew nothing of its import.
The Commissioner shrugged his shoulders, his face grave.
"You would use force?"
Again the Commissioner, silent, shrugged his shoulders, looking gravely at the smiling man. It was only a matter of seconds, but Wentworth could think many things in a few seconds. It might be possible, barely possible, for him to fight his way out. But fighting would probably mean killing, and he had never killed a policeman.
And there was Ram Singh to think about. Ram Singh hovering at one side of the room and already suspicious of trouble. Ram Singh would certainly fight if any fighting commenced and, when Ram Singh fought, Ram Singh killed. Wentworth was as loyal to his servant as his servant was to him. He could not send the Hindu to Sing Sing or to the electric chair.
"I am waiting, Wentworth." Commissioner Kirkpatrick looked very obstinate and very uncomfortable.
Slowly Wentworth's fingers dipped into a pocket of his vest. They emerged, cigarette lighter between thumb and forefinger. He handed the lighter to his inquisitor, the smile dying a trifle upon his face.
The Commissioner of Police silently carried the cigarette lighter to a window where he could examine it in a strong light. He stood close to the window scrutinizing the little article intently.
A telephone bell sounded faintly, and Wentworth strolled carelessly to a small cabinet, opened it and picked up the telephone receiver.
"Yes, I am Richard Wentworth," he said in reply to a woman's question, while he watched Kirkpatrick's back at the window. After a pause: "Kill yourself? Oh, I wouldn't do that. How did you know I had returned from Europe?" Another pause. "Didn't you know I had been away?" Pause. "Yes, I worked on that case with the New York police before I went to Europe. In fact I have been working on it indirectly for the last few months."
While Wentworth listened for a few moments Kirkpatrick continued to examine the little lighter very minutely. Ram Singh squatted upon the floor, regarding his master with glittering, questioning eyes.The policeman stood motionless in the doorway.
Wentworth continued at the telephone: "Please be calm and speak slowly, my dear lady, and remember that you have not told me who you are." In the silence, while he listened, he seemed to be as calm as if he had a whole life of activity stretching before him but his eyes never left the Commissioner's back.
"Dorothy Canfield! Of course I remember your name in the case. Your fiancée escaped from the police and has been hunted ever since." Pause. "Tut tut! Don't think of doing such a thing. Come and see me. There is always a way out."
He replaced the telephone. But was there always a way out? Was not the girl's desperate threat his own best remedy, his only remedy?
Suddenly the Police Commissioner turned with his back to the window. He extended the cigarette lighter to Wentworth, looking very uncomfortable but forcing a smile.
Wentworth took the lighter indifferently and examined it with what appeared to be mock seriousness. Although no trace of surprise was shown upon his face he could scarcely believe what he saw. At its base the little cigarette lighter had no secret repository cleverly contrived by a master mechanic.
It was not his lighter!
"What, no spiders today, Mr. Policeman?" demanded Wentworth jocularly.
Cleverly, when it dawned upon him, he covered his surprise with mock surprise.
"Will somebody give me a light, please?" rather a weak voice asked.
Both men turned sharply toward the lounge, Kirkpatrick still standing with his back to the window.
Nita van Sloan was sitting up on the lounge, a rather crumpled cigarette in her hand. Wentworth snapped the lighter in his hand and held it to her cigarette.
It was then that Commissioner Kirkpatrick carried out his promise. "I apologize fully and humbly, Wentworth," he said simply.
"But why?" asked Wentworth indifferently while he looked down at Nita far from indifferently. "I might have half a dozen lighters in various pockets, you know."
"No!" denied the Commissioner confidently. "You only had one lighter on board ship and my men gave you no chance to obtain another after you came ashore. Will you accept my apology?"
There was a sharp crack of breaking glass, and the Police Commissioner swayed away from the window and fell, unconscious to the floor before Wentworth, quick as he was, could catch him!
Through the plate glass of the window a bullet hole showed. In half a minute the room was full of policemen, busy upon what seemed to be another case of murder!
Amid the confusion Richard Wentworth knelt beside the lounge with his lips very close to Nita's ear. "You were never unconscious," he whispered. "You took it out of my pocket and substituted yours while I carried you. You wonderful girl!"
She smiled faintly, dropped her cigarette to the floor and rested her aching head upon a pillow, careless of what he was or what he did so long as he was safe.
Ram Singh, amid the turmoil, solemnly removed his shoes and began to wind a long turban around his head. In New York streets he dressed according to American custom; but, in his master's home, he rendered his master Oriental service.