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Chapter Six
Waters Of Doom

WENTWORTH'S FACE was grimly set as he raced to the battle against the poisonous bats. If only he had begun earlier his attempt to persuade Harrington! But it was useless to reproach himself. He had acted immediately after the discovery of what impended. Only one thing to do now: attempt to save the lives of these trapped banqueters.

He fled headlong for the outer door and as he reached the curb, the long, low form of his Daimler rolled forward, jerked to a halt. He snapped open the back door, reached inside and snatched out a large drum-like object of glittering chromium. As he started back for the door of the hotel again, the driver sprang to the street and reached his side in long strides.

"Stay here, Ram Singh," Wentworth ordered. "Throw the switch as soon as I get inside."

The turbaned Hindu scowled at being barred from the battle, but there was no hesitation in his movements. He leaped back into the car. Wentworth shouldered open the doors of the hotel and instantly a wide beam of light blazed out from the drum-like object he carried. He hurried with it to the door of the banquet hall and its powerful ray illuminated the entire room.

The air was filled with the fluttering small messengers of death and streams of them poured upward through traps opened in the floor. Wentworth cursed. He should have seen that method of attack. The wharf floor had been preserved in its original form. "Atmosphere" for the hotel. The Bat Man had merely opened the trap doors that once had been used by workmen and released his hordes of killers. Wentworth thanked the gods for his foresight in putting the powerful searchlight into the car. He had not expected this attack tonight, but had prepared for future frays. Now the blazing white beam was blinding the bats. Many of them were fluttering back into the pits from which they rose, while others swung blindly about the room in their heavy, laborious flight. Two score of men and women lay upon the floor, dead from the bites of the starved vampires—but the light had saved a hundred others!

Wentworth did not delay on the scene after placing the light. A single glance had pictured the hall indelibly upon his mind, then he turned and raced for the outer doors again. It would be impossible, he knew, to attack from here the men who had brought the bats. It would be certain death to attempt to descend through those bat-crowded trap-doors. But there was another way. . . .

As he sprang to the street he saw Ram Singh's knife glittering in the air. Four men were trying to slice the cable that fed current to the searchlight. Wentworth's twin automatics flew to his hands. He shot twice. Ram Singh's blade had disposed of the other two. His teeth flashed white in a smile as he faced his master.

"My knife is thirsty, master," he cried in Hindustani. "It has but sipped a drop or two . . . !"

Wentworth had not paused while he shot. Now he thrust his guns back into their holsters and, with a gesture to the Hindu, raced for a wharf from which he could reach the river. Ram Singh loped along beside him. He was chanting under his breath, a war song in which the exploits of his wonderful knife figured large.

A high board fence bordered the wharf. Wentworth sprang upward and seized its top. Instantly, Ram Singh caught his feet and helped him. Straddling the top, Wentworth reached down a hand to the Hindu. Below him the water was black with wavering white shadows of lights upon its surface. Under the piles which supported the dining room of the Early Quaker were only shadows. . . .

Wentworth stripped off coat and shoes. He thrust his automatics into Ram Singh's hands.

"Thy knife, warrior!" he ordered.

 

Ram Singh wiped the blade across his thigh and Wentworth gripped it between his teeth, dived into the black water. There was scarcely a splash to mark his smooth entrance. Ripples spread quietly and lapped against the piles, making zig-zags of the light's reflections. But Wentworth's head did not break the surface again. Under water, he stroked for the darkness beneath the Quaker wharf. Under there somewhere were the men of the Bat Master, loosing new killers upon the people above.

When he rose to the surface, it was with his fingers against the barnacle-studded base of a pile. His head lifted without a sound and he peered, narrow-eyed, through the darkness. Rays of light escaped from the banquet hall overhead. By that faint illumination, Wentworth made out the shadows of four boats. In each a man crouched beside a high cage from which the bats had been released. Even as he spotted them, the boats began to ease away from the trapdoors.

Noiselessly, Wentworth stroked toward the nearest. As he approached, the man in it slid over the side and vanished into the black water. Wentworth whipped the knife from between his teeth and dived. It was not the kind of weapon he liked, but this was no time for niceties. This man in the water was a knife at his back, a threat of death. What Wentworth sought was a live prisoner, but this swimming assassin. . . .

There could be no vision under this black surface, but Wentworth had marked the other's course and his knife fist groped before him. He touched living flesh, felt it flinch away and stroked mightily forward at the same time lunging with the knife as with a sword. Its keen point bit deep. He wrenched free and struck twice more, then swept backwards. There was a great, kicking commotion that made the water boil. The dying man's head breached and Wentworth heard a gasped cry in a language he did not recognize. Instantly the other three men took to water. . . . diving toward the Spider!

Wentworth stroked softly away from the spot where his victim had sunk. He must fight this out in the water for the air was filled with a soft fluttering of bats, and their hungry squeaking. He glimpsed one against the faint light from above and dodged beneath the surface as it fluttered toward him. His lips shut in a thin line, his eyes narrowed against the darkness. Death above from the fangs of a myriad bats; and in the water, death at the hands of three men whose companion he had killed. If only he had his automatics, dry and ready for action! But he had only Ram Singh's knife. A round head broke water within a yard of his face. . . .

On the instant, Wentworth flung himself toward it, his knife flashing in a cutting swing. The head flinched back out of range and instantly disappeared. But not before Wentworth had caught a glimpse of a knife between its teeth, a knife that now would be reaching for his groin!

Useless to try to flounder backward out of range. The knife-man would have the speed of a dive behind him. Wentworth did the only possible thing. He plunged forward and to one side at the same time. He had a glimpse of two other men moving toward him, then he pivoted to strike at his immediate assailant. The man's knife broke water first, thrusting toward the spot where a moment before Wentworth had been.

 

Wentworth did not wait for the whole man to show, but dived with the knife pointed for the body behind that arm. This time he felt his knife bite home. He did not attempt a second stroke, but swept on past the man, dragging his knife with him. Deadly blind work, this fighting in black water beneath a black, wooden roof. No telling where the knife had struck but no death flurry threshed the water above his head. . . .

Wentworth stroked cautiously beneath the water, knife hand feeling ahead for obstructions. He touched the shell-roughened surface of a pile, circled it and allowed himself to drift upward. His lungs were bursting, there was a heavy heart-pound in his ears. But when his head eased above the surface, he dared not let the air escape rapidly. Behind his post, he waited, listening as the humming in his ears subsided.

Not a sound broke the silence save the squeaking of the bats. Up there in the banquet hall was silence, too. But Wentworth did not push out into the open. Probably the two, or possibly three, men left were doing as he was, clinging to piles and waiting for the enemy to betray himself. Well, the Spider still had a stratagem in reserve. Without a sound, he submerged and swam toward the spot where he had entered under the wharf.

It was laborious work. He dared not dive, lest the splashing betray him. He must waste precious time submerging, pushing off from the base of a pile and groping ahead lest he ram head-on into another. Twice he submerged before, in the dimness, he could detect open space ahead of him. Then he exhaled loudly, began to swim with small, secret splashings, deliberately making noise. Behind him all was silence.

He swam on, not too swiftly. He gasped out words in Hindustani that sounded like curses of despair to his pursuers. He ordered Ram Singh to shoot when the men appeared, yet spare one. When he had gone fifty yards from the edge of the wharf, he peered behind him. With the speed of fish, two men were swimming after him. He began to flounder, as if helpless with fatigue. The knives in the mouths of his pursuers were visible now, glints of steel. But only two. . . . Well, then, his knife thrust had gone home.

From the top of the fence, Ram Singh's automatic spat red flame. There was a thin, inarticulate cry and one of the heads vanished. They had been very close to Wentworth and with the shot and cry, he spun about and sped in a racing trudgeon toward the remaining man. The knife-man paused uncertainly, turned and began to swim back toward the wharf but at a pace that was markedly slow and burdened. Triumph shot through Wentworth. He changed to a powerful overhand so that he could watch his victim . . . and his sense of triumph lessened. Seconds before the man had been swimming swiftly, easily. Even fear could not so quickly destroy his speed. . . .

The thought had only half-formed in Wentworth's mind when he dived to one side, stroking with all his strength. He felt the faint concussion of Ram Singh's second shot and burst above the surface to find a second knife man beating up the water in a death-flurry. The original swimmer was making better time now for the wharf. It was obvious that, even as Wentworth's glancing thought had told him, the fellow's floundering was part of a trap. He had led Wentworth on until his companion could dive under water and knife Wentworth from behind. Only the Spider's keen powers of observation and split-second action had saved him. His face was set, hard. He raced on after the man whose antics had so nearly trapped him. . . .

The man's efforts were feeble again, a great deal of splashing and small progress. Wentworth overtook him speedily, but delayed just out of his reach. The man turned and hit out impotently with his knife. With a quick grab, Wentworth had his wrist. A wrench and the weapon was sinking to the bottom. But the battle was not so soon over. He did not wish to kill the man, nor to die himself. The other seemed too determined to drag him down, even at the cost of his own life.

As he lunged, Wentworth had a first clear glimpse of his features. He frowned in bewilderment even as the man reached out to seize him. The man was obviously an Indian, short of stature with a flattish face and black, heavy hair. But he had no time for speculation, for the Indian fastened upon him with arms and legs and they instantly sank below the surface.

Black water closed over them and they drifted lower and lower toward the bottom. Wentworth struggled desperately to free himself, to free even one arm, but the Indian clung with the strength of a madman, arms and legs wrapped about him, head buried under Wentworth's chin. Already, the Spider's lungs seemed squeezed with iron torture bands—already his blood was humming in his ears. Hope of capturing the man alive fled from him. It seemed possible now that he himself would not escape from this fight alive!

Colored lights danced in the blackness of the water and he knew that they signified approaching unconsciousness. But unconsciousness here meant death for the Spider—destruction for many thousands of others from the onslaughts of the Indians and their murdering bats! The Indian's arms seemed to lock more tightly about him. . . .

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Framed