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The Spider: Robot Titans of Gotham
By Norvell W. Page
Baen Publishing EnterprisesCopyright © 2007 Argosy Communications, Inc.
All right reserved.
The Masked Man
THE MAN WAS A WATCHMAN, wearing the uniform of a private police agency, and he walked with his head bowed into the bitter winter wind that whimpered through Sutton Place. He moved swiftly, yet it was not the cold that he fled. Ever and again, he looked back the dark way he had come.
He was looking the wrong way, for, half a block ahead of him, the shadows of a doorway concealed a curious figure. There was nothing furtive about the broad shoulders, superbly set off by the tailoring of a Chesterfield coat that covered evening dress; nor about the arrogant carriage of the head beneath the gleaming silk hat. He seemed a gentleman of leisure about to take a bed-time stroll, except for two things. The upper half of his face was hidden by a silk mask; and in his white-gloved hand there lay an automatic pistol, its snub nose brutal as a rattlesnake's head!
The eyes of the masked man were riveted on the approaching watchman, whom he intended to kidnap, but all his senses were preternaturally alert, as became a man who must fight both the police and the Underworld through every waking and sleeping hour ... as became Richard Wentworth, who, in another life, was that lone wolf of justice known as the Spider!
None but Wentworth's ears would have caught the distant, slowly authoritative tread of feet coming from the opposite direction. Nor did he need to look that way to know that a policeman-a municipal cop-too, had entered Sutton Place! Beneath the black mask, Wentworth's lips drew bitterly thin. The officer's presence would make the Spider's task more difficult, but it could not swerve him from his purpose. More than personal safety was at stake. Four men had died this night, butchered with a brutality that had shocked to fury even the death-hardened Homicide Squad. And this watchman, whom the police had exonerated, held the key!
The watchman did not see Wentworth, did not hear him until he had passed the shadowed doorway that hid terror-then a thin voice reached out and froze him in his tracks!
"Hands down!" it whispered harshly. "Turn the corner left, and keep your head front, mug-or you won't have no head!"
On the lips of the masked man there was a slight smile. His friends along Fifth Avenue, in the exclusive clubs to which his name and wealth gained him easy access, would have been shocked to hear such accents from Richard Wentworth! The tones were crude, but the watchman recognized something else in that voice-and he obeyed! It was not an empty title that had been given the Spider, that of Master of Men!
The watchman moved stiffly toward the corner and, when he could no longer see the shadowed doorway even out of the tail of his eye, Wentworth stepped casually to the pavement. His movements were easy, his pace a careless stroll, although he covered ground with deceptive speed. The gun was ready in his fist. His eyes probed ahead to the approaching policeman!
At a distance of two blocks, the cop could see no details of the two men on Sutton Place. His back was to the wind and it pressed his heavy coat against his calves, sliced coldly about his wool-clad ankles. His eyes ached with the cold.... That watchman was hurrying to his warm bed, off-duty, the lucky stiff! And a gentleman out for a bedtime stroll. Imagine a guy that didn't have to, going out in the cold on a night like this! The cop frowned a little then. Funny, both those guys turning toward the river where the wind was coldest; funny, both of them turning into a dead-end street! The cop shook his head, cursing the cold, and his eyes lingered on the dark entrance to the dead- end street. His pace quickened a little....
* * *
Just turning that corner, Wentworth detected the quickened stride and swore softly under his breath. He needed no more than that quickened step to tell him the policeman was an old-timer, and already suspicious. That would make his deception more difficult- but he was still determined to take the watchman a prisoner. It did not matter whether the man would talk or not; it would become known that he was a prisoner. Wentworth intended to let the man's criminal pals know who was responsible so that they would come for him-and walk into the Spider's trap!
A long stride brought him close to the watchman, and he jammed the muzzle of the automatic against the man's ear.
"Don't try no funny business!" Wentworth said hoarsely. "This is a stick-up!"
His left hand ran deftly over the pockets of his prisoner, filched gun and a few crumpled dollar bills. In that swift moment, his plan was fully formed. He would rob the man, knock him out-and then play good Samaritan for the benefit of the policeman, and the watchman! It should not be too difficult to start for a hospital, and finish up somewhere else where the watchman could be held prisoner! But he wished the wind were not so loud in the narrow canyon of the street. It rattled the skeletal boughs of stunted trees ... and drowned out the footfalls of the cop!
"Listen, guy," Wentworth's prisoner whined. "Listen, you don't want to do this to me! It ain't healthy!"
Wentworth's eyes narrowed. It had been no part of his plan to question this man now, but if he would talk ... and the policeman did not arrive too soon!
"Why not?" Wentworth demanded, and put a quaver in his voice. "I need the money more'n you! You gotta job!"
"I got friends!" the watchman said arrogantly. "You give me that money back, and-"
"What friends?" Wentworth snapped, hopefully.
The watchman made a sudden sideways lurch, started to whirl and grapple with Wentworth. It was the one thing that Wentworth could not permit. If the man glimpsed him, there would be no chance to kidnap him under the policeman's nose. Instead, Wentworth's arrest was certain ... arrest and disgrace! Wentworth's blow was off-balance, but fiercely positive. It slammed under the man's ear and checked his turn. Before the man could recover, Wentworth struck again-and caught the watchman before he could slump to the pavement.
For an instant, Wentworth stood rigid, listening. He caught the tread of the policeman faintly. The cop was running toward the dead-end street! Wentworth swore raggedly, and his eyes flicked over the narrow cul de sac in which he stood. There was no place of concealment, no place to which he could flee, for the end, too, was sealed by a high wall. His eyes flicked toward the man whose unconscious body he held in his arms and Wentworth's eyes widened in amazement.
He had not known when he trailed this watchman just which private agency the man served, but the name was plain on the badge which gleamed on his chest: The Drexler Protective Agency. Wentworth shook his head incredulously. He knew the chief of the agency, Frank Drexler; knew him well. He was an honest and courageous ex-cop. It was incredible that Frank Drexler could be involved in such horror as had taken place this night, and ... Wentworth jerked the thought from his brain. That would have to wait. Unless he could escape from this trap, which a running policeman was rapidly closing, the investigation of this horror would be impossible for Richard Wentworth. He would be locked up in a cell!
A grim smile touched Wentworth's lips. There was just a chance.... Without further delay, he heaved the unconscious watchman of the Drexler agency to his shoulder and broke into a staggering run- straight toward the policeman who at this instant rounded the corner from Sutton Place!
"Help! Wentworth shouted as he ran. "Help! Police!" And he remembered then to slip the black mask from his eyes....
* * *
The policeman jerked to a halt beneath the corner street light, and a finger of illumination glanced from a revolver in his right hand. It showed the bitter thrust of his cold-reddened jaw, the aggressive forward roll of his shoulders.
"Thank God!" Wentworth gasped, and staggered against the wall with his burden. "Get that man, officer! I think he killed this watchman!"
Wentworth sagged to his knees with the unconscious man, let him slump to the pavement. With his left hand, he ripped aside the watchman's loosened coat, gripped his shirt and tore it so that his fingers rested against the man's flesh. His voice sounded exhausted, and he felt the officer standing tautly over him. But Wentworth did not check his purpose. His left hand slid to a vest pocket and slipped out a cigarette lighter, thumbed open the base.
Wentworth twisted his face up toward the policeman, meeting the narrow suspicious glare of the eyes beneath the visor. "A man was lying in wait for this watchman!" Wentworth gasped. "A man in a long black cape, with a black hat low over his eyes. He looked like he was hunch-backed or something...."
"What?" the cop gasped. "Say that again.... A hunch-back in a cape! Good God, man, do you mean ... the Spider!" Wentworth said, blankly, "Spider?" He staggered to his feet. In the street-light glare, his face seemed pale. Certainly, his eyes were stretched very wide. "God," he whispered. "Do you mean I was fighting ... the Spider? I saw this man in the cape knock this watchman down, and stoop over him. He ripped open the man's shirt, and seemed to search him" ... Wentworth turned then, and stared down at his victim. The cop gasped hoarsely.
Suddenly, the beam of his flashlight reached out and laid its dazzling circle upon the watchman's exposed chest. That chest was curiously marked. On it had been tattooed a strange and awful design. It seemed to represent a gruesome face sketched upon a modern steel helmet ... but it was not that which the policeman indicated with a shaking finger. He pointed to a figure etched in blood-red vermillion, a thing that seemed a living creature of hairy legs and poison fangs!
"Jeez, oh jeez!" he gasped. "You was right! See ... the seal of the Spider!"
Wentworth's lips moved in a secret smile and his fingers touched absently the slim cigarette lighter in his pocket with which he had imprinted that seal. He had taken the only way to convince the policeman that there had been another man in the dead-end street ... for the street ended in high walls. The cop would never have believed a third man could vanish from that trap; any man except the Spider! But that other design on the victim's chest proved that a Drexler man was involved.
"Listen," Wentworth said in nervous tones. "I want to get away from here. My car will be here in a moment.... There it is now! Suppose I take this man to the hospital and call for help for you. You can stay here and stand guard!"
The cop was staring back up the length of the short dead-end street, toward the big limousine to which Wentworth had pointed. It rolled almost silently to a halt beside the curb. Its powerful motor made only a faint whispering beneath the long sleek hood. Wentworth gestured with a hidden hand to the man behind the wheel, indicating the unconscious body on the pavement. He needed to do no more than that, for the man behind me wheel was Jackson, his faithful comrade-at-arms who had fought through a hundred battles beside him. But even as Jackson stepped out of the car, the cop whipped about-and his revolver was pointed straight at Wentworth!
"Just a minute!" The cop's face was drawn and white. "Just a minute, now. I don't like this. I don't like it at all. That car comes up too pat, and how do I know...." The cop swallowed noisily. "How do I know ... you ain't the Spider!"
Nothing of the tension that jerked all his nerves taut showed on Wentworth's face. But the cop could have no genuine suspicion, of course, and there was no proof unless ... unless the cop searched him! He would find no proof that Wentworth was the Spider even then, but he would find the gun taken from the watchman, and he would find a silken mask! Easy enough, of course, to knock out the cop despite the leveled gun, but the policeman's trained memory would not be so easily overcome. The cop had seen his face!
Wentworth put exasperation into his voice. "Really! Of all the stupidity!" he said shortly. "No wonder there is need for such a man as the Spider! I've been warned that the police were even harder on witnesses than on criminals, and I was only trying to help a fellow human being!"
The cop had his shoulders against the wall and did not waver. He was close to the watchman, who was lying strangely quiet. Wentworth had used his fists too often not to know the efficacy of each blow he struck, and he knew that the watchman should be conscious now; should have been several minutes ago. He glanced covertly at the man's face and hid a smile as he saw that the eyes were too tightly closed. The man was shamming!
"You can say what you like, mister," the cop said doggedly, "but you ain't going nowhere until I can get the chief here!"
Wentworth shrugged slightly. "This is very easily settled," he said easily. "I saw this man here meet the Spider, and he's got the Spider's seal on his chest. They met on a dead-end street. It looks to me like this watchman is one of the Spider's assistants and they met by appointment, and had a disagreement over something. I'm entirely willing to go with you to headquarters. We will give that story out to the newspapers, and see what happens."
Wentworth's eyes were closely on the watchman's face while he spoke, and he saw the eyes open a fraction, saw fright begin to draw taut the lines about the man's mouth.... If he could frighten the crook into striking the cop, and fleeing, it would be easy enough for Jackson to follow and take him prisoner. And the officer then would have no evidence and no complainant....
"If he's the Spider's man," Wentworth continued softly, "the Spider will come to free him. If he isn't the Spider's man, then he's a crook, for otherwise the Spider would not have attacked him. The newspaper story will make his crook pals think he's been two-timing them with the Spider ... and they'll come after him, a different way! How does the plan strike you, officer?"
The cop shook his head, "Listen, I don't get what you're driving at, but if it's some plan to trap the Spider ..."
Wentworth saw determination clench the watchman's jaw, and behind him, Wentworth motioned Jackson not to interfere. Then the watchman flung himself into action! His foot struck upward hard against the cop's gun wrist. The revolver sailed high through the air and, the next instant, the watchman was on his feet and racing for the mouth of the dead-end street and Sutton Place!
The cop clutched his wrist in an agony of pain. "Catch him!" he gasped. "Catch that dirty louse and I'll crucify him!"
Wentworth turned casually to Jackson, "You might see what you can do," he murmured, and he winked deliberately!
Jackson needed no more than that for instructions. He snapped his hand up in salute, like the soldier he had been, and still was ... though it was in the service of the Spider that he had enlisted now! As Jackson sprinted up the short street in pursuit of the fleeing watchman, Wentworth moved toward his car. The policeman was reaching for his revolver with his left hand, but Wentworth had no fears that he would be able to drop the fugitive. Jackson would overtake and capture him. This skirmish was won ... and the story the policeman would give headquarters would help to notify the criminals behind these ghastly murders concerning the whereabouts of their vanished watchman! Meantime, Wentworth thought a call on Frank Drexler was indicated!
Wentworth reached in through the window of his car and flicked on the radio-and in the same instant, he heard a man scream!
Wentworth twisted about beside the car and stared toward the mouth of the street. The watchman had vanished around the corner into Sutton Place; he it must have been, who uttered that tearing scream.
As Wentworth stared, Jackson flung himself at the corner and then-Jackson seemed to go mad!
The whole scene was painfully clear in the bright pool of illumination beneath that corner street light. One instant, Jackson was hurling himself confidently forward in pursuit-the next, he was striving frantically to check his forward dash! He managed to grab the iron standard of the traffic light with his right hand, jerk to a standstill.
Excerpted from The Spider: Robot Titans of Gotham by Norvell W. Page Copyright © 2007 by Argosy Communications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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