Pulp Heroes - The Spider # 1 - THE SPIDER STRIKES, Chapter 8
First The Spider-Novel
Published in The Spider # 1, October 1933)
Chapter 8 - The Molly Ann
Evening clothes and opera hats are not the usual attire in which to investigate New York water fronts. But Richard Wentworth was accustomed to doing things in ways that were different, and his audacity usually won him success. So it was that he bought a new collar to replace the one which had been ruined by the strangler's cord and took the West-side subway to 96th Street.
Leaving the subway station on Broadway, Wentworth sauntered the two blocks which brought him to the entrance of several dilapidated piers jutting out into the Hudson River.
The piers were unlighted and, in the dark, seemed to be quite deserted. Crossing the tracks of the New York Central Railroad, where a dim light shone through a watchman's dingy window, Wentworth accustomed his eyes to the gloom and finally discerned that the pier immediately in front of him was occupied by some coal barges waiting to deliver their cargo when work commenced in the morning. To his right, two piers were unoccupied. To his left, at the most dilapidated pier, there loomed a small tramp steamer, which showed no light at all and appeared to be quite deserted. That steamer, he decided might bear the name of Molly Ann. Wentworth did not know, but he advanced to find out.
Riverside Drive, with its miles of shady walks among trees and shrubs, is cut off from the Hudson River by the tracks of the New York Central Railroad. Between the tracks and the river the ground is used for dumping by the city and is a desolate waste of rocks and refuse. Here and there, at the water's edge, homeless men have squatted and built themselves little shacks . There are miles of this sordid territory, relieved only here and there by docks as at 96th street.
Wentworth did not immediately walk out upon a pier but turned downstream and picked his way in the dark over the rough ground until he came to the steep, rocky bank of the Hudson River. Fifty yards upstream could be seen the black outline of the tramp steamer where it was made fast to the rotting pier. Not a vestige of light shone from it. He could discern no stir of movement, no slightest sound of any activity.
Slowly and quietly Wentworth picked his way among the big boulders toward the pier with the black and silent steamer. But had taken only a few steps when he halted and drew back. A light had suddenly shown in his face. It came from an oil lamp in the window of one of the little squatter shacks which nestled between two huge boulders, seeking shelter from the wind. If Wentworth had taken a few more steps he might have stepped off the next boulder upon the roof of the flimsy little structure.
As he hesitated, the door of the shack opened and a man emerged. There was just enough light to make it plain that the man was carrying another man, apparently dead.
Wentworth stepped swiftly forward into the light from the window of the shack. The man dropped his burden and sprang away, trying to escape toward the railroad tracks. But Wentworth, moving with incredible speed, caught him by an arm and jerked him back. He was a large man and a rough man, but poor food and squalid existence had left him no match for Wentworth, who pulled him into the little shack and threw him down upon a filthy mattress which was spread over one half of the floor.
Confident that the man was cowed, Wentworth stood in the doorway and played his flashlight upon the body which the man had dropped in his fright. It was a gruesome sight. There was a face ghastly in death, the face of one of those undernourished creatures who have wandered the earth without work longer than the spirit can survive. There were two articles of clothing, both soggy with water and blood, an undershirt and a pair of pants. So frail was the clothing that it did not conceal what had been done. The man had practically been disemboweled.
Wentworth turned back into the shack and looked at the wreck of a man still lying upon the mattress which was the only thing with which the shack was furnished except for a box upon which stood an oil lamp.
"I didn't do it, mister!" whined the terrified man. "I didn't do it!"
"No," replied Wentworth, "I don't think you have enough guts to do such a thing." He tossed the man a cigarette and watched him while he tremblingly lit it from the heat at the top of the lamp chimney. "You might tell me about it."
Half crying and nervously shaking from physical exhaustion, the man told his story haltingly. He was beginning to be soothed a little by the calm man who stood by the door, the only exit, lazily smoking while he listened.
It was Joe who told the story. That was the name he gave himself. The dead man was just Bill. Joe and Bill had been pals for the last few months of their miserable and sordid lives. This evening after dark they had climbed on board the old tramp steamer, looking for firewood, a piece of old tarpaulin, a broken chair or anything to add to their comfort. No doubt it was stealing, but it was not stealing of a vicious nature.
The old tramp steamer had appeared dark and deserted ever since they had built their tiny shack between the two big boulders on the bank of the Hudson. Neither Joe nor Bill had the slightest suspicion that anybody was aboard the old hulk. They had climbed up a mooring line and dropped down into the forward well beneath the bridge. At least Bill had dropped off the gunwale to the deck. Joe had hesitated, which probably saved his life.
For Bill's feet had scarcely touched the deck when a huge and ferocious man as Joe described him darted down the companionway from the deckhouse and rushed at Bill. Bill tried to run away, but the big man shot out an arm on the end of which was a great, sharp hook. Joe said it was like an immense fish hook only that it had no barb.
"A one-armed man or at least a man who had lost one of his hands," commented Wentworth, tossing another cigarette to the man on the mattress.
Joe nodded. He told how the ugly hook had entered Bill's stomach, through the thin undershirt, and how it had cruelly been jerked so that it tore downward through the wretched man's bowels. He told how the murderer had lifted the bleeding, dying man and tossed him over the bulwark into the water.
Bill's body had scarcely splashed into the water before Joe had slid back to the pier on the mooring line and had dropped quickly into the water to try to rescue his pal. He had found the inert body and towed it ashore and carried it into the little shack. But Bill was quite dead and Joe, afraid that he would be blamed by the police, was about to throw the body back into the Hudson when Wentworth had discovered him.
"Do you think that the man with the hook saw you, Joe?" asked Wentworth.
"No, mister, he didn't see me at all."
"And do you know the name of that tramp steamer, Joe?"
"Sure, mister! It's the Molly Ann."
Wentworth took out his cigarette case and placed half of his cigarettes on the box beside the lamp. On top of the cigarettes he placed a twenty-dollar bill. Then he passed out of the wretched shack and out of Joe's life, stepping carefully around the horrid sight which lay, bloody, by the door.
He had found the name of the old tramp steamer at the scene of the attack upon himself. Even before he reached it, murder had been committed upon it. There seemed little doubt in his mind that this old ship was in some way connected with the criminal he was trying to destroy. Slowly and carefully he made his way along the boulder-strewn riverbank until he came to the entrance of the old and rotting pier to which was moored the lightless and apparently lifeless ship.
He walked slowly and silently down the middle of the pier. As he passed the old ship with its patches of red lead, just visible in the starlight, he thought that he saw a head above the bulwark of the forward well, but he could not be sure. He knew that he was far more visible to anybody on the ship than such a person would be visible from the pier.
The ship had its stern out into the stream and he passed on until he came opposite the aft well. Here again he thought that he caught a glimpse of a man peering at him over the bulwark. He paused, and after a few moments he was certain of it.
Since he was being watched, Wentworth decided that nothing was to be gained by any kind of concealment. He seated himself upon the pier and lit a cigarette while he considered the situation. The ship was attached to the dock by a bow line and a stern line and, there being no gangplank down, there was no way of reaching the deck except by climbing one of those lines. It would be impossible, he decided, to gain the deck in such a way against a murderous man who wished to bar the way.
What, then, was to be done? It was easy enough for Wentworth to think of a number of schemes of attack upon the vessel. But these schemes involved launches and lines, or rope ladders with hooks, and the assistance of others, or at least with the assistance of the faithful Ram Singh. Such preparations required time and Wentworth had other things to do. Yet he refused to depart without making some kind of investigation or striking some blow.
The brutal murder had infuriated him, and he wanted nothing better than to meet the one- armed man with the iron hook.
He decided, finally, that it might be possible to make somebody, the man with the hook preferably, come off the ship. The ship was on the upstream side of the dock and the tide, going out, was pressing it against the dock. In consequence the mooring lines were loose.
Wentworth walked across to the aft mooring line and lifted the heavy hawser from its mooring pin, dropping it upon the dock. Then he went back to the opposite side of the pier and sat down to finish his cigarette. Had his act been seen? When the tide turned the stern of the ship would drift away from the dock, if someone did not descend and replace the hawser. He hoped that he would not have to wait so long, and he did not hope in vain.
A dark figure mounted upon the forward bulwark, reached for the mooring line and slid down it to the dock like an arrow. Certainly the man was athletic, and he seemed to be unusually large. Reaching the dock at the bow of the ship, he had cut Wentworth off from the land. If the man proved to be in a fighting mood there would be no way to escape him except by jumping into the water. Wentworth sat smoking and watching.
Down the center of the pier came the figure of the big man. He came fast and he came straight toward Wentworth who rose and tossed his cigarette into the water. The oncoming man paused at a distance of about ten feet and stared at Wentworth, puzzled at the sight of a man in evening clothes upon such a lonely dock at such a time.
"What the hell did you cast that line off for?" he demanded.
It was then that Wentworth saw the long and devilish, iron hook protruding from the partly empty sleeve of the man's right arm.
"I thought that I should like to meet the fellow who rips out men's guts," returned Wentworth quietly.
The man stopped, staring, then flung up his maimed arm with the hook and sprang at Wentworth. But he sprang at nothing, for when he landed, Wentworth was not there.
A sharp pain in his left arm warned him that something had happened to him. Surprised, he saw that Wentworth had sprung backward with the agility of a fencer and was standing, right foot forward, with a slender, gleaming blade in his hand. Astonished, he felt his left arm by pressing it against his face, having no right hand, and realized that it was this blade which had pricked him.
More cautiously now the man advanced again upon Wentworth, sweeping the air before him with the great hook to ward off the snake-like, circling blade. But the blade darted here and there and could not be stopped. It pierced his thigh, drew blood from his cheek, nicked his chest.
The one-armed man hesitated and drew back a little. Toughened by many a seaport brawl, he was not to be beaten by pin pricks administered by a toy-like, glittering blade. Never before had he encountered a man in evening clothes who fought with a rapier. A cutlass would have been more to his understanding, but even cutlasses had almost vanished from seafaring life.
He advanced still more cautiously with the long, iron hook extended at the end of his reach. If he could catch that dancing blade in his hook he could snap it, or wrench the weapon from his antagonist. There was not fear in his heart, only rage and the wish to kill.
Wentworth knew the danger of permitting his blade to be caught by the hook. The light was poor for both fighters. But the man with the hook had his back to the rising ground, which almost shrouded him; while Wentworth had his back to the water, which caught some of the starlight and exposed him to his antagonist. Slowly he gave way, backing toward the end of the pier, watching for an opportunity to lunge. It was vitally necessary for him to find that opportunity before he reached the spot from which, with only water behind him, he could retreat no farther.
In the faint starlight the duel continued. Blood dripped from the one-armed man, but he had fought many a bloodier battle and he pressed on cautiously. At last Wentworth had his back close to the water. One more step in retreat would take him into the river. He had to end the fight at once or lose the battle.
At the last moment, as the fencer stood upon the very end of the pier, there was the clash of metal upon metal. The rapier was caught in the iron hook! Infuriated and cursing, the one- armed man wrenched back to disarm his antagonist. It seemed as though the slender rapier had been rendered useless.
But Wentworth's mind worked with the speed of his own blade. He could not dislodge his weapon and he could not resist the backward pull of the heavy man he was fighting. Therefore he pressed forward lunged! The blade, unable to retire, found it easy to advance, sliding through the iron hook until it had entered the chest and protruded from the back of the man who had so brutally murdered the humble squatter called Bill!
The greater ruffian, with his ugly hook, sank backward and lay upon the old, rotting dock with sightless eyes directed toward the stars which they could not see. Very methodically Wentworth wiped the blade upon the man's coat and returned it to its walking-stick sheath. He knelt beside the ugly, lifeless face and pressed the little Spider seal upon the coarse forehead.
Rapidly Wentworth climbed the forward mooring line and sat upon the bulwark, looking down into the forward well of the Molly Ann. In the dim light he could see great, metal cylinders ranged side by side. They were unusual objects to be seen upon such a tramp steamer, and he was about to climb down for a closer inspection when a beam of light flashed over the steamer and warned him of a new danger for a man who sometimes took the law into his own hands.
The beam of light came from the river. It left the old tramp steamer and played upon the rotting pier. Nosing up to the dock, upon inquisitive inspection, was a police boat. There was just time for Wentworth to slide down the mooring line and to retreat into the shallows at the pier entrance, before a shout came from one of the river police from the boat. Their light had played upon the dead man.
It was only a matter of a few minutes before the police would know that the man was neither asleep nor drunk. In a very short time word would be flashed to Police Headquarters that the Spider had made another killing.
Reluctantly Wentworth gave up all idea of further investigation of the Molly Ann that night.