Pulp Heroes - The Spider # 1 - THE SPIDER STRIKES, Chapter 7
First The Spider-Novel
Published in The Spider # 1, October 1933)
Chapter 7 - The Man in the Mask
Wentworth knew his New York very well and he leaned back lazily, watching the lights and street numbers carelessly as the taxi zigzagged over to Fifth Avenue and turned into the rather gloomy passage at 86th Street, which affords quick transit through the huge park to the west side of Manhattan. Once or twice he glanced back and, half way through the cutting, he stopped the taxi close to the narrow sidewalk which skirted the stone wall.
"There is a taxi following me," he told the driver. "Just wait a minute till we see what happens. And you had better take this five dollar bill in case I leave you suddenly."
The driver took the five dollar bill. His face was expressionless, but he felt for the length of lead pipe which lay at his feet. He, too, knew his New York, where anything may happen. It was just as well to be prepared, and a lead pipe is good preparation.
The following cab hesitated and stopped some twenty feet in the rear, the driver turning his head to talk with a single passenger who seemed to be a young man. Wentworth stepped out upon the narrow sidewalk, upon which there were no other pedestrians in sight, and nonchalantly strolled back to the other taxi.
"Interested in me?" he asked, suddenly opening the door of the young man's taxi.
The young man tried to cover his confusion by blowing cigarette smoke through his nose in what he intended to be an extremely worldly-wise manner.
"Newspaper reporter, eh?" remarked Wentworth interrogatively.
"Holy smoke!" gasped the young man. "How did you know that?"
"What else could you be? You're not a crook and you're not a policeman. I can tell that by looking at you."
A third car drew up about twenty feet behind the second one. In it were several men, although their faces could not be distinguished by the poor lighting of the narrow road between the stone walls. Few cars were passing and nobody was using the sidewalk.
Wentworth glanced at the third car and realized that it probably held great danger for him. It was not his nature to run away from danger, but he had serious work ahead of him which could not be delayed.
"There is no use trying to fool you, Mr. Wentworth," said the reporter rather humbly. "I'm Sparks of The Evening Standard and I'm assigned to get a story from you about the murders at your apartment."
"Story, eh?" Wentworth shot another quick glance at the third taxi. "Well, I think I shall give you one."
"Will it be exclusive, Mr. Wentworth?" asked the reporter eagerly.
"Absolutely!" Wentworth assured him. "Got a notebook? Good! Get ready to write."
As he spoke, Wentworth placed a foot on the running board and his hands upon the top of the taxi. With the agility of a wild animal he vaulted to the taxi's roof, crouched for a second and sprang easily, slender cane in one hand, and opera hat firm upon his head, to the top of the stone wall. Three shots rang out from the third taxi in rapid succession, even as he leaped into the shelter of the trees and bushes of Central Park.
A little later Richard Wentworth, striding rapidly, emerged from Central Park somewhat farther uptown and turned his course westward. It was not a fashionable part of town. Evening clothes were mostly worn by waiters, and opera hats were curiosities seldom seen. Children stopped and stared, passing remarks. Women nudged their escorts and pretended that they disapproved. Through it all Wentworth walked swiftly and unconcernedly, yet with eyes that watched, until he came to a house between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway. So far as he could discern, he was not followed.
It was a brownstone house into which Wentworth finally turned, ascending the high steps quite as if it were his home. Inside the front door he found a small hall containing dilapidated letter boxes, indicating that the old residence had been converted to a rooming house. One of the letter boxes bore the name of Dorothy Canfield and showed that she lived on the top floor at the back.
The inner vestibule door was locked, but Wentworth did not press the button above her letter box to announce his arrival. Instead, he took out a bunch of slender keys, selected one and turned it deftly in the lock. The door opened.
Inside the door a weak electric light revealed the usual narrow stairs with a worn carpet. A very dim light burned upstairs at the first landing. Everything indicated the drab, economical life which must be lived by people who reside in such a place. Nowhere was evident any sign of vice or crime.
Quietly and quite unseen Wentworth ascended the narrow stairs to the first landing. Doors were closed and showed no lights from within. He ascended the next flight of stairs and came to the bottom of the third flight which was still narrower and bare of carpet. Beside him no lights showed beneath the doors and all was quiet. The landing above him seemed to be in darkness.
Slowly he ascended, but with some slight sound because of the bare steps, and stood upon the top landing. There was just enough light to make two doors distinguishable. The rear door, which should be that of Dorothy Canfield, showed no light. But a faint streak of light could be seen beneath the other door.
Wishing to reconnoiter his surroundings, Wentworth stepped softly to the door of the lighted room and listened. Regular, deep breathing could be heard. Very gently he turned the knob and found the door unlocked. He pushed it open a bit and looked into the room. On a bed lay a man with his face to the wall, snoring regularly. His left arm hung drunkenly over his side allowing his hand to dangle behind his back. On a table was a whisky bottle and a glass partly filled. The scene seemed to tell a story of poverty and the attempt to drown sorrow in strong drink.
And yet, just as Wentworth was closing the door, his eye noticed the dangling hand. Upon the little finger was a very large ring, marquise in shape and apparently antique. He hesitated. The ring was unquestionably a valuable one, and the incongruity of its presence on the finger of such a man seemed to amuse Wentworth. He was smiling as he backed silently out of the room, and closed the door behind him with no tell-tale sound from the clicking latch.
Dorothy Canfield's door was also unlocked, and only faint light from a single window entered the room. With the hand which opened the door, Wentworth felt behind it with the light cane which he carried. There was nobody standing there. He stepped quickly into the room and stood with his back to the wall close to the open door, while his eyes became accustomed to the faint light.
The room was sparsely furnished. A small bed loomed against the wall, and a cheap chest of drawers with a small mirror stood by the single window. One electric light bulb hung from the center of the ceiling and on the floor, beneath it, a chair seemed to be overturned. There was complete silence.
Finding no wall switch Wentworth stepped out into the room and turned on the electric light bulb. The light revealed very little more to him than he had seen in the semi-darkness. There was one exception. A closet door stood at the foot of the bed, something he had failed to notice because he had been standing with his back to the wall which contained the door. On examination he found the closet to be locked, with the key on the outside.
Deciding to examine the room minutely before exploring the closet, Wentworth closed the bedroom door and locked it on the inside. The lock was frail, but it would be sufficient to guard him against surprise.
The bed seemed clean and was neatly made. On the bureau were some simple toilet articles and, although inexpensive, they were in good taste. He pulled open some of the bureau drawers and coolly examined some of the intimate things which a woman wears. All were inexpensive. Some handkerchiefs were marked with the letter D, and Wentworth thought of the name of the girl who had sent for him, Dorothy Canfield.
Then the searcher received a surprise. Just as he was closing a top drawer, he noticed a newspaper clipping. It was a cutting from a rotogravure section and he found himself looking at a picture of himself. It was from a photograph which had been taken of him in polo costume just after a game which he had played on Long Island two years back. He whistled softly, then spun sharply on his feet as he thought he heard a sound.
Crossing to the bedroom door he unlocked it quietly and flung it swiftly open with his left hand, his cane raised as if to lunge. But there appeared to be nobody in the hall. Frowning, he closed the door and locked it again.
Then it was that he received another surprise. A wire ran along the footboard of the wall against which the bed stood. He looked quickly under the bed, where the wire led, and discovered a telephone. It stood upon the floor where the occupant of the bed could easily reach down beside the wall and lift the receiver to her ear. But why a telephone? How could the occupant of such a room afford to have one?
Wentworth took off his hat and placed it upon the bureau out of respect to his theatrical friends who held the superstition that a hat upon a bed was bad luck. He cared nothing for superstitions himself, but he accustomed himself to humoring his friends. His face showed pleasure. The case was presenting interesting signs. Finally he leaned across the bed, picked up the telephone and called his own apartment.
Shortly he was speaking to his friend the inspector who was in charge for the night.
"I am at the Canfield girl's room," Wentworth said, speaking in a voice so low that nobody listening at the door could distinguish his words, if they heard at all. "She seems to have departed for parts unknown. It's nine o'clock now. If you don't hear from me again before ten, put some good men on her trail and dig her up."
"Right!" agreed the inspector. "What about yourself, Mr. Wentworth?"
"I expect that the man I want will strike at me here," explained Wentworth. "At any rate I intend to wait here for him, or anybody else who may be interested in me, until ten o'clock. Don't bother about me. Get a little sleep. Remember that the boat with the Spider docks tomorrow and you will need to be fresh if you catch that gentleman."
"As if we didn't have enough trouble without the Spider coming to town!" grumbled the inspector as the telephone conversation ended.
As Wentworth, leaning over the bed, replaced the telephone upon the floor, he suddenly became tense. The strange sound occurred again. This time there could be no doubt. It seemed like a shuffling or kicking, and it appeared to be coming from the locked closet!
Wentworth slipped soundlessly from the bed to his feet and approached the closet door, cane in hand. His eyes showed his keen interest and even his pleasure. The case was becoming more and more puzzling. Little things, but strange things, were adding themselves to it. Big things and direful things might be upon him at any moment. Such situations were to him as wine to other men. Again the sound occurred. Something alive was behind the locked door.
Gently he unlocked the door and swung it outward, standing to one side with cane raised as if to poke inquisitively or to lunge as the occasion might require. He did neither.
Some clothes were hanging in the closet, and below them was exposed the lower half of a silk-clad leg. The article was exquisite, and the contour of the calf was perfect.
The leg kicked a little, and Wentworth swept the hanging clothes to one side with his cane. On the floor of the closet a woman lay crumpled. Her hands were tied behind her by means of a stocking, and a man's large handkerchief was an effective gag which stopped her speech. She was a young woman, magnificently and femininely formed as was plainly shown by the clinging and expensive evening gown which she wore. Her face was marred by the gag, but her eyes blazed fury under a great mass of golden hair.
If this was a trap, Wentworth could not believe it. He tossed his cane upon the bed and picked the woman from the closet floor, carrying her to the bed as easily as if she had been a child. Seating her upon the bed, he deftly removed her bindings and stood off in the center of the room to observe what he had found. Her face, with the gag removed, was a trifle hard even as her fury died away. Yet it was a face that would be considered very attractive by most men.
She did not speak at first, nor did Wentworth. Rapidly she opened a handbag which hung upon her arm and took out a vanity mirror, shooting quick glances at the man before her as she began to doctor her complexion.
While she worked upon her face, Wentworth picked up his cane and used it to fish a small shoe out of the closet. He carelessly poked the shoe across the floor until it lay beside the woman's foot, where it was quite apparent that it was much too small to be worn by her.
"Evidently you are not Miss Dorothy Canfield," remarked Wentworth indifferently.
"No," she returned quite calmly. "I got into this room by mistake. Some man jumped on me from behind and tied me up before I knew what was happening. I was looking for a sick friend in the profession."
"Oh! Then you are theatrical?"
She nodded and spoke languidly while she worked at her lips. "Uh-huh. Radio. Resting just now."
Wentworth knew that "resting" probably meant that she was out of a job or that she had taken up something easier and more lucrative.
"Radio accounts for my not having seen you," he remarked. "Certainly I could have never forgotten so beautiful a face and figure."
She looked pleased at the compliment. "I am Madame Pompé," she said. "I put on the 'pom-pom' radio songs."
"Ah yes," replied Wentworth, dimly remembering the silly pom-pom songs which had crazed Broadway a few years earlier. "Permit me to give you my card."
He sat on the bed beside her and took out his pocket-book. As he extracted a card he exposed a rather large roll of bills of high denominations. For a moment she stopped working upon her face as her eyes glimpsed so much money, something he noted as he handed her his card.
"Mr. Richard Wentworth," she read, and she was either a superb actress or she really did not know him. Her eyes became dreamy as she regarded him over the card she held in her hand. "You know, Mr. Wentworth, you are frightfully strong."
"The easy way you carried me to the over here."
He laughed pleasantly, and as if he were a little embarrassed. "I thought you were too angry to know what was happening to you," he replied, "when I carried you to the over here." It seemed as though it was going to be easier than he had expected.
He turned toward her, his back to the bedroom door, and looked into her eyes. Behind them the key began to turn noiselessly in the lock, caught by delicate pliers from the outside!
She was smiling her prettiest when the door behind him slowly opened and a masked man stood on the threshold. Then her eyes caught the standing figure vaguely, and fear sprang into them as she looked up.
It was the fear in her eyes which warned Wentworth and caused him to dart one hopeless glance at his opera hat upon the bureau across the room. The distance was too great for him to cover if his danger was imminent. With the cane in his hand he sprang to his feet and whirled, animal-like, to face the door.
The masked man threw out his hand, and a silken cord shot over Wentworth's head and circled his neck.
Wentworth saw the flying loop but could only draw in his chin in an endeavor to protect the front of his throat. There was a strong jerk upon the cord as the noose went snug. He fell to his knees, lunging out with the light cane in his hand as everything began to go black before his eyes.
The cane seemed a futile thing in such an encounter. The sinister strangler, fully as tall and powerful a man as Wentworth, seized the cane roughly in his free hand.
Wentworth, upon his knees and seeing very little, pulled back weakly upon the cane. He pulled weakly, but out from the wooden sheathing slid a slender, gleaming rapier. Again he lunged, desperately, almost blindly. The sharp pointed rapier met the thigh of his antagonist and pierced it, just missing the bone.
There was a cry of rage and pain as the masked man sprang backward into the hall, cursing.
Almost choking for breath, Wentworth managed to kick the door closed and, rapier in hand, lay upon the floor with his feet against it while he tore at the silken cord still circling his neck.
The cord came free, and he struggled into a sitting position with his feet still against the door. Over his shoulder he looked for the woman. The room was empty. Madame Pompe, if that were really her name, must have fled into the hall while his eyes were half-blinded by the choking.
He rose to his feet, stretched himself and smiled grimly. He secured his hat, reassembled his rapier stick and opened the bedroom door. The upper hall was empty and, as he expected, the front bedroom was also empty. The drunken man, with the big ring upon the little finger of his left hand, had vanished, leaving behind him the whisky bottle and the partly filled glass.
Wentworth was about to depart when his eye caught a small slip of paper which lay upon the floor almost under his foot. He picked it up and found a few words scrawled upon it in pencil. They read: "Molly Ann, 96th St., pier."