Pulp Heroes - The Spider # 1 - THE SPIDER STRIKES, Chapter 17
THE SPIDER STRIKES
First The Spider-Novel
(Published in The Spider # 1, October 1933)
Chapter 17 - Sparks' Last Story
Of course Wentworth could call the police if he could reach the telephone in the library. But even to do that, he would have to leave Selwyn too far behind for the safety of that young man. To carry or support the sick man into the library would be to expose him to a bullet in passing through the lighted doorway.
The telephone for the moment was out of the question and, in any case, Wentworth did not want the police. He liked to fight his own battles, sometimes in ways that the police could not tolerate.
Wentworth made up his mind. Darkness and secrecy were no longer of value. He felt his way to the head of the stairs, found the electric hall switch and flooded the hall with light. The light showed no one in the hall, but there were doors through which his enemy might appear at any moment. He passed quickly from door to door, reaching for the key on the inside and locking the door on the outside. Then he returned to the laboratory and found Selwyn leaning unsteadily in the doorway. Together they walked slowly to the library.
"Sit here and watch the stairs," said Wentworth, directing Selwyn to take a chair at the entrance of the library...
At first Wentworth thought Sparks was dead. The reporter was lying upon the floor beside the Gladstone bag in front of the draped safe. But the wounded man moved his head a trifle to look up, and in his eyes was sudden pleasure at sight of Wentworth. He tried to smile.
Wentworth knelt beside the wounded reporter, and unbuttoned his vest and felt the warm blood surging through the front of his shirt. Richard Wentworth knew wounds and he realized that Sparks would never interview anyone again, drunk or sober. He crumpled the shirt and pressed it against the wound in the chest to stop the flow of blood as much as possible. But he knew it was useless.
"Glad to see me?" asked Sparks in a weak voice, much sobered by the shock of his wound.
"It's bully!" Wentworth's voice was warm. There was a few moments of silence while Wentworth supported the reporter's head with his left arm.
"I think I'll telephone for an ambulance and get you patched up," Wentworth said at last.
"It's no use, Mr. Wentworth," Sparks replied. "I'm going. It was pretty hard sledding before you came in, but it's kind of easy going with you beside me."
"Nonsense!" protested Wentworth. "We'll patch you up and run down many a good story together in days to come."
"You do something for me?"
"I certainly shall."
"What time is it?"
Wentworth glanced at his wrist watch. "It's ten o'clock."
"Will you dial my newspaper and give me the telephone?" The voice was becoming a little weaker. "I got a job to do."
Wentworth did as he was requested, reaching up to the table for the telephone. When he had dialed he held the telephone so that the reporter could speak into it.
"This is Sparks," he said, trying to increase the strength of his voice. "Give me the city desk and make it snappy ... Hello! City desk? ... This is Sparks. I've got a hot story and it's exclusive. It's short. Ready? ... A reporter named Sparks of The Evening Standard was murdered this morning by Dr. Sylvester Quornelle. During an interview Dr. Quornelle, without any warning, shot the reporter through the chest. The reporter died a few minutes after ten. That's all. Do I get a by line? ... I'm drunk and I'm fired? I guess you're right, Mr. City Editor. I'm fired all right. Perhaps I'll get a by line in the next town."
The voice, very weak, trailed to an end, and Sparks' head rolled sideways upon Wentworth's supporting arm.
Wentworth lifted the telephone to his own ear. "This is Richard Wentworth," he barked. "The story you just heard was authentic. Your reporter has this minute died in my arms. He did the most courageous piece of reporting that I ever heard of. If you don't give him a by line, I'll see to it personally that you lose your job and are run out of journalism!"
Wentworth replaced the receiver abruptly and lowered Sparks' head gently to the floor. He looked at the freshly bloodied hand for a moment, then turned to Jack Selwyn who sat by the library door very much shocked.
"By God, Selwyn," he said, "that's the way to die!"
Wentworth stepped over the body of Sparks and threw the drapery back from the iron safe.
"Now then, Selwyn," he said, "I must work quickly. The newspaper will report the murder of Sparks to the police and they will be here in a very few minutes. We must be gone before they arrive. Move out into the hall a little and watch the stairs carefully."
Before he had quite finished speaking, he had pressed an ear against the safe and his expert fingers had commenced to manipulate the dial of the combination. A minute passed and he seemed satisfied. From the table drawer, where Dr. Quornelle had placed it, he took the gas mask and donned it. Turning back to the safe, a single tug on the handle swung the heavy door open.
The first object which met Wentworth's gaze brought him great satisfaction. Standing in a large open compartment of the big safe was the old Ming vase of reticulated porcelain which had been stolen from his apartment. Wentworth could not refrain from feeling the smooth surface of its aubergine enamel with his finger tips. He removed it lovingly from the safe and placed it upon the floor beside him. Then he searched pigeonholes and drawers with great rapidity.
There were many securities, bonds and stock certificates, and there were some packages of high-denomination bills. These he returned to their receptacles but, in a small drawer, he found something which interested him very much, a package of glittering diamonds. In all probability they were the diamonds which Jack Selwyn was accused of stealing. He dropped them quickly into a pocket of his coat.
At the bottom of the safe was a dish containing what was probably an acid and which was very likely the means of creating the deadly poison gas after the safe was last closed. Wentworth had no time to examine it closely. He hurriedly changed the combination of the safe, then closed and locked the door. If Dr. Quornelle should attempt to open his safe before the arrival of the police, he would find considerable difficulty in doing so.
Wrapping the Chinese vase in the drapery from the safe, Wentworth tucked it under his arm and joined Jack Selwyn in the hall.
"Strong enough to negotiate the stairs?" Wentworth asked.
"Yes," Selwyn replied with assurance. "I am even beginning to feel a little bit hungry."
"Good man! Keep a lookout behind while I go ahead. This fiend may still be in the house. It's impossible to be sure of anything about him. That's what makes him interesting."
Slowly they descended the stairs to the main floor. There was no person in sight, and the house was quite silent. Wentworth found the electric switch and flooded the hall of the main floor with light, watching keenly for any sudden attack from one of the surrounding doorways. Nothing happened.
They passed through the hall and descended slowly to the basement, and again Wentworth switched on the electric light. Still there was no sign of anybody, and silence surrounded them. Wentworth unlocked the door for tradespeople, through which he entered the house, and they passed out into daylight.
The basement of Dr. Quornelle's house was below the level of the street, and stone steps led up to the sidewalk from the tradesman's entrance. Seated upon the top step was an old man who appeared to be resting while he smoked a pipe with bowed head. Beside him was a broom with which he had evidently been sweeping the steps. He wore neither coat nor vest and his long brown neck protruded from a shirt unadorned by a collar. The old man showed no surprise at the sight of two men issuing from the door below him.
On the sidewalk, while they waited for a taxi, Wentworth stood directly behind the old man who continued to sit very still where he smoked with bowed head.
"Do you work here, my man?" asked Wentworth.
"No speeka da Eenglish," the old man answered in a quavering voice without turning around.
Wentworth placed the drapery-wrapped vase carefully on the sidewalk and addressed the old man in Italian, while he extracted a cigarette from his case.
The old man answered in Greek, which Wentworth recognized but could not understand.
"I guess the police will be too late to catch the murderer," Jack Selwyn remarked, leaning back wearily in the taxi as they drove away. He had gone through a tremendous ordeal and he was far from strong.
"Perhaps," was the dubious reply.
"You think the criminal is still there?'"
"Maybe." Again the reply was dubious, but suddenly Wentworth snapped into life. "Drive back to the house where you picked us up," he sharply addressed the taxi driver.
The taxi turned abruptly and returned to the house with the boarded windows. Wentworth sprang to the sidewalk and looked down the steps to the servants' entrance. The old man had disappeared. Chagrined, he returned to the taxi and they drove away once more, just as a radio police car swooped around a corner, passed them and drew up at the house which they had left.
"Why did you look for the old man again?" asked Selwyn.
"Because the old man was Dr. Sylvester Quornelle."
"Are you sure?" Selwyn was amazed. "Quite!" returned Wentworth. "He was the same height and weight as Dr. Quornelle. He kept his left hand in his right pocket as he sat on the steps, and Dr. Quornelle has some difficulty in concealing the identifying defect in the little finger of his left hand. The old man on the steps kept his left leg straight out before him as if it were a bit stiff, and Dr. Quornelle's left leg is a trifle lame, probably because of a puncture I gave it with a rapier. There is no doubt about the identity of the old man on the steps."
From the sidewalk a newsboy shouted an extra.
"Ship docks with Spider on board. All passengers detained for search."