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Chapter Two
When Bullets Fail

DEATH WAS VERY CLOSE TO RICHARD WENTWORTH in that moment. There seemed a weight in limbs and brain, stupefaction over this thing his eyes saw, but his mind could not quite believe. It is certain that any other man would have been caught by that steel club and died miserably in his tracks. Wentworth managed somehow to wrench his frozen muscles into action. He shrank aside by a hair's breadth and the wind of the missile's passage whipped his silk hat from his head, fluttered the tails of his Chesterfield.

The policeman stood motionless, a paralyzed pigmy in the path of the steel monster. His gun was in his fist, his head wrenched back crazily to peer up at that travesty of a face. The watchman ducked behind Wentworth and crouched like a cowed dog and Jackson had his back flattened against the wall; automatic ready in his fist again.

"This way, officer!" Wentworth's voice cracked like a whip and, even in that paralysis of fear which gripped the man, the cop heard the accent of command and discipline stirred within him. He jerked up his revolver and fired at the monster.

"Retreat, man!" Wentworth shouted. "Come to me!"

Wentworth whipped up his own automatic and took careful aim. He knew without further trial that the steel body would be impervious to bullets. Jackson's shrewd lead already had searched that out. One shot, Wentworth squeezed off. He knew that his lead flew true, caught the monster in one of its glass eyes—and nothing happened! The monster stood within a few yards of the policeman and slowly bent his head to stare down at the puny thing at its feet. A steel hand lifted casually. . . .

With an oath, Wentworth leaped toward the Daimler. The policeman was fleeing in crazy, scrambling terror, and the monster was walking . . . slowly, ponderously. The tremor of that tread came through the pavement, seemed to vibrate in Wentworth's very bones.

"Keep away from it!" Wentworth shouted. "It can't move fast! Keep out of its way! Dodge!"

He flung himself behind the wheel of the Daimler, and wrenched it into gear, whipped it in a U-turn. The car was too long for that narrow street and he had to wrench it backward again while aching moments passed; while death moved with ponderous ease and on feet of steel. He glimpsed the giant, saw it lift a hand and point a finger like an accusation at the crouching watchman. The man's scream rose terribly, and then—fire spurted from that pointing finger! The scream cut off. The watchman was a twitching, dying huddle upon the ground!

Wentworth fought to hammer sane thoughts through his own brain. This thing of steel could be no living monster, of course. It must be a robot, though marvelously under control. A robot that could point a finger made into a gun barrel and kill with perfect aim! Wentworth jerked his head, struggling against the daze of incredulity that still gripped him. A robot was only a machine, an intricate and necessarily delicate machine. A profound blow, such an impact as would knock the thing to the ground, undoubtedly would disarrange its mechanism. It was simple, really. Whoever was master of this monster of steel had calculated on the terror its mere appearance would generate to prevent rational attack. He had not counted on meeting the Spider face-to-face!

Wentworth had whipped the heavy limousine about now, so that its nose was toward the robot. He swiftly flung it backward until its rear bumper nudged the wall at the street's end. He would need all the momentum he could generate in this short dead-end street to upset that creature! He jerked loose the half-cushion beside him, and wedged it between his chest and the steering wheel, jerked the gear into second. . . .

* * *

Even as his foot hovered over the accelerator, the radio emitted a faint click . . . and suddenly a voice sounded in the car. That voice was disguised, but Wentworth recognized it at once. He would always know that voice, in whatever circumstances he heard it, for it was that of Nita van Sloan, the woman he loved! He had been at an after-theatre party with Nita when word had come of the tragedy which had called the Spider to action—and he had sent Nita to keep watch on police headquarters while he flung himself into battle! That was terribly necessary now since, on every hand, the police hounded the Spider. Her speech now could mean only one thing: the police were on his trail again!

Nita spoke softly, as if she would whisper those words into his ear, and her words would make no sense to others.

"The big blue cat," said Nita, "is going to the mouse's home to retrieve some stolen cheese!"

The words ran like an electric shock along Wentworth's nerves. The big blue cat. . . . That meant Stanley Kirkpatrick, commissioner of police, who was at once Wentworth's friend and the Spider's enemy. And the mouse was Wentworth himself. Stolen cheese. . . . Even as Wentworth jammed down the accelerator and drove the heavy Daimler toward the steel monster, the truth of that broadcast struck him, and shook him. It could mean only one thing: Kirkpatrick was going to Wentworth's home on a tip-off that he would find some stolen goods there!

Nor did Wentworth even need to speculate on the nature of that loot, or whether he would find it! The loot would be there, and it would be loot from those three homes that had been rifled this night! By God, the enemy moved swiftly! Already, they had spotted Wentworth's interest in the case and moved to checkmate him—by planting in his home the evidence that he had been responsible for those lootings and awful murders! Strangely, Wentworth smiled. At least it proved human agency behind this robot!

Wentworth wrenched his mind to the battle at hand, but the delay had proved costly! The robot had closed up some of the previous distance Wentworth had gained, thus lessening the momentum which the car could build up. As Wentworth stared, and started the car leaping forward, the robot bent forward and plucked up the policeman from the earth! He grasped the screaming man by one ankle and, casually as a child might whirl a stick about its head, the robot spun the policeman! Two, three times he circled the helpless, doomed man . . . then flung the dangling thing that remained headlong toward the charging car!

A sickened horror surged through Wentworth. He tired to wrench the big car aside, but was too late. Headlong, against the bullet-proof glass of the windshield, the policeman hurtled, then slithered off to one side!

Wentworth's lips drew thin and bitter across his face and pallor crept into his cheeks. He leaned forward and flicked on the windshield wiper . . . shuddering involuntarily.

He needed to see very clearly to drive straight at this monster in steel who could perpetrate such horror. His anger seemed to lift the heavy car and hurl it forward, wringing the last ounce of power from the engine. His knuckles shone white as he gripped the wheel.

* * *

He saw the robot take a stride forward, and swing a foot like a football player about to kick off! And that foot was aimed at the radiator of the Daimler! In that horror-sodden instant, Wentworth knew that even this mighty attack would fail against the robot! On the moment, he batted open the door beside him and, as the Daimler surged toward the steel monster, he hurled himself toward the pavement!

Wentworth struck the pavement rolling in the same instant the robot crashed its foot against the radiator of the Daimler! He saw what happened then in flashing glimpses as he spun dizzily toward the curb and reeled to his feet. The thing was timed as beautifully as a dropkick. The smashing impact of the robot's foot, whose tread could crack the concrete of the walks, caught the Daimler just at the front axle!

Fenders and headlights leaped from the limousine, and glass flew like a shattering grenade! The front of the car lifted, while the powerful drive to those rear wheels urged it on—and the whole machine spun dizzily aside, turned over and slammed against the wall of the house to the right! For an instant, the robot tottered. An outflung arm reached to the wall of the house, and the bricks crashed inward. A rubble of broken masonry clattered to the earth and plaster dust lifted around the monster of steel like battle-smoke. But it was only an instant, and then the robot's head revolved slowly and the blankly awful eyes picked out Wentworth where he reeled, dazed from his heavy fall, against the opposite building wall. Jackson was beside him. His gun was spitting lead hysterically, but he might as well have been throwing pebbles at a seventy-ton tank.

Slowly, the right arm of the monster lifted . . . and Wentworth remembered that its forefinger could spurt lead and death! He flung himself sideways toward Jackson, carried the hysterically cursing man to the pavement . . . but there was no crash of a shot from the robot. Evidently the impact had partly disabled the monster! The thing was no longer braced against the wall but as it stepped toward where Wentworth fought to get Jackson to his feet, to retreat, he saw the left leg drag curiously. The Spider's charge had achieved something then! The monster was not working perfectly!

Wentworth reeled to his feet. There was no gun in his hand, for a gun would be useless. He stood slowly erect and watched the monster take another dragging step toward him . . . then the robot stopped. The great head bent slowly and the blank emptiness of those eyes of glass peered down where the Spider stood, a pigmy in the path of Juggernaut. A moment passed, a long dragging moment while the two confronted each other, monster of steel, and he who was known as the Master of Men. And in that moment a queer doubt shook Wentworth. He had termed the thing a robot, as surely it must be, but there was a human mind here . . . a human mind whose evil reached out to touch him through those blank staring eyes! Wentworth felt the impact, as genuine as a bullet blow, and more dreadful; and he knew what horror it promised for himself, for the humanity which, as the Spider, he selflessly served!

Wentworth felt the coldness of his anger mount within him, and while his eyes still gazed at the soulless blank depths of that steel helmet, he spoke in tones of quiet command to Jackson.

"Quickly, Jackson," he snapped. "The First Avenue garage is only a block away. Hurry there and get the heaviest car you can find. This thing is damaged and can't get away very fast! Hurry, Jackson!"

Jackson scrambled to his feet, the gun in a shaking hand, but Wentworth knew now that it was anger at his own helplessness that made brave Jackson's hand tremble like that.

"You go, Major," Jackson said hoarsely. "Let me keep watch over this damned thing! You're hurt, and—"

"It is a command, Jackson," Wentworth said quietly.

 

Jackson flinched as if from a blow, stiffened to attention. "Yes, Major!" he acknowledged. He saluted and whirled to sprint along the street.

Still, Wentworth stared into the blank eyes of the creature of steel. He found an instant then to wonder that there had been no alarm, but he realized the cause instantly. Actually, only a few seconds had elapsed. He was in a neighborhood of wealthy homes whose owners had deserted them for warmer climates at this period of the year. There would be no one here to give an alarm, save guards—and this dead Drexler watchman who lay a score of feet away belonged to the Iron Man!

Curiously, Wentworth became aware of Nita's whisper in that silence. Somehow, the Daimler's radio had escaped being wrecked in the crash, and the voice of the woman he loved came to him softly.

"The big blue cat travels fast!" she said, "and takes many kittens with him!"

Wentworth's grey-blue eyes tightened to hardness. The police were already on the way to his home, and they would be swift and thorough. Commissioner Kirkpatrick was his friend, but for that very reason would be the more stern in his execution of justice. Kirkpatrick was a man who served the law with all his strength and keenness—and with all the integrity of his upright soul. If there was stolen loot in his home—and Wentworth had no doubt that it was there—Kirkpatrick would have but one course. Useless to plead that it was a frame-up by criminal foes.

Wentworth shook his head sharply. Damn it, he could not afford to be imprisoned now! Though eventually he might clear himself, those lost hours would mean that he would be out of the war against this monster and his criminal servants—and yet he would not abandon this fight now when he felt it was so nearly won! Let him but charge a car once more against this monster's legs. . . . It was typical of the Spider that he did not even hesitate in his choice. Personal safety, as always, must make way for the demands of the selfless service to which he was pledged!

Abruptly, the robot was in motion. Wentworth stood alertly, waiting for an attack, but the monster ignored him now. Resolutely, the robot turned . . . toward the wall at the end of the dead-end street! It moved a little awkwardly, and the left leg squeaked a little at every movement. Light slid in glittering contours across the smooth metal back, and it came to Wentworth suddenly that the creature was retreating! But where did it seek to go, when walls lifted on every side?

Wentworth swore and his eyes quested sharply about. Was there nothing he could do to stay the thing's flight? He whipped out his automatic and aimed at the creaking knee joint, pumped out a swift and careful drum-roll of bullets. He could trace the silvery streaks where the bullets struck. They whined off into the night . . . and the robot did not even turn its head! Fiercely, Wentworth ran toward the shattered traffic standard which had been hurled at him. With a heave of his powerful shoulders he lifted it, and balanced it across straining biceps.

The Spider's face was grimly twisted, for he knew what risk he ran. He had not the strength to hurl this weapon. His only chance was to run with it, like a battering ram. If he missed, if the robot turned at the last moment . . . Wentworth brushed those considerations from his mind, and began to run, straight toward the monster! At first, his pace was no more than a lumbering trot, but as he gained momentum, his stride lengthened. Finally, he was sprinting at fierce speed with his awkward weapon laid in rest like a spear!

When he was still a dozen feet away, the robot reached the wall at the end of the street. A hand rested against that wall, and there was a muffled concussion! Under the touch of that steel palm, the bricks and mortar fell apart . . . and the robot stepped through! An instant later, Wentworth crashed his battering ram against the robot's knee, saw a steel hand swoop toward him! Somehow, Wentworth flung himself backward from the path of that careless blow. The robot's hand caught the iron standard, and plucked it from his grip, sent it tumbling like a stick of kindling across the street . . . and then the robot walked on into darkness!

At the gap in the wall, Wentworth leaned while the breath whistled through his distended nostrils. He was gazing down upon the black, rippling waters of the East River, gazing at the retreating back of the robot. Even as he watched, the monster of steel stepped into the margin of the water . . . and an instant later, the black flood swallowed it entirely! There was left only a widening ripple in the waters breaking the streaks of reflected light from the stars, from the calm cold moon!

Not suicide, no. The robot had been merely beating a strategic retreat. Wentworth choked down a wild impulse to laughter. Suicide, for a monster of steel? But there was a human brain within it, an inhuman brain . . . and Kirkpatrick was hurrying toward Wentworth's home to gather up evidence which other servitors of the Iron Man had planted there. By the heavens, this Iron Man moved swiftly and terribly! And it had a sure and safe retreat beneath the waters of New York harbor!

Wentworth took long steps, that at first were uncertain, along that shattered dead-end street. A moment he stared, and then keenness came into his eyes. If Jackson returned, if he moved swiftly, there might still be a way to defeat the Iron Man's trap and disarm Kirkpatrick's suspicions. Then he could assume the offensive once more, track down these killers. . . .

Grimly, Wentworth bent over the body of the slain watchman. His lips twisted with distaste, but there was no help for the thing he must do. He leaned the man's body against the side of his overturned car, backed away across the street—and fired a single shot! The corpse jerked to the impact of lead, and there was no longer a Spider seal upon his chest! Instead, another wound gaped there beside the one that already had drained his life. An instant later, an auto swerved into the street and Jackson leaped to the pavement.

His voice rang out to Wentworth hoarsely, "Where is it, sir?" he asked.

Wentworth shook his head. "No time for that!" he snapped. "Help me with this body!"

Jackson ran the car to Wentworth's side and, within moments, the body had been placed in the tonneau of the small sedan Jackson had rented. At a word from Wentworth, the car leaped forward, speeding toward his home. This would have to be terribly fast; Kirkpatrick already had been on the way for a couple of minutes and only the fact that Wentworth was nearer his own home than Kirkpatrick gave him any chance at all.

"What's up, sir?" Jackson asked quietly, but there was still strain in his voice, and the muscles made white ridges along his jaw. "God, I hope I never see another thing like that!"

Wentworth's lips parted in a harsh smile. "We're apt to see many more—and battle many more—before this criminal uprising is crushed!" he said swiftly. "I don't know the motive behind this business yet, but it's plain enough that that robot or another like it committed the crimes on Sutton Place! If you could have seen those murdered men . . ."

"Another like it!" Jackson echoed. "Good God, more of them!"

Wentworth made no answer, but his thoughts raced ahead. The dilemma at his home now was a matter of speed. His plans were partly laid, but he had left trouble behind him in the side-street off Sutton Place. The Daimler was wrecked past any removal, and he would have to explain plenty to Kirkpatrick. God in heaven, how could a man explain that monster of steel! But there was a dead policeman back there in the street, and Wentworth's wrecked car . . .

 

Jackson said grimly, "I'll double back and . . . remove that dead cop. Mr. Kirkpatrick won't believe what happened."

Wentworth glanced at Jackson with a smile. As always, Jackson's thoughts were first of the man he served, never of himself. Of what might happen to him if he were caught in his self-assigned task of removing the body of a murdered policeman he made no mention. Wentworth felt a warmth creep through the coldness that had been his heart. By the heavens, with men like this to serve him, he was an ingrate to despair! He would down these robots. . . .

Jackson cried out softly as the car whipped into the side street that flanked Wentworth's Fifth Avenue apartment house, and Wentworth saw the reason why. A long black limousine was just sliding past the street's end, slowing to a halt before the main door—and that limousine had blood-red headlights! It was the car of Stanley Kirkpatrick!

"The private elevator!" Wentworth snapped, and as he spoke, he was stripping off his overcoat, wadding it around his silk hat. "Take this body to the apartment—"

"But the police will come there, sir!"

"Orders, Jackson!" Wentworth snapped. "Listen to me! Take this body to the apartment. In one of the rooms, probably the music room, you will find some objects of art that don't belong there. You will put the fingerprints of this body on several of them, then lay it face down beside the doors of the terrace, or window, with a gun in its hand. Here's his own gun. Fire that gun a couple of times, and let the bullet marks show on the wall, but muffle the shots with a wet cloth. Watch fingerprints! Now, hurry! I'll delay Kirkpatrick!"

As he spoke, he was out of the car, sprinting toward the side entrance of the apartment building. He raced down the hallway to the main lobby which led past the public elevators to the front of the building. Through the main doors, closed against the biting cold of the night, he saw the lean, dapper figure of Kirkpatrick. He was gesturing men into positions about the building! Heaven grant that Jackson already had the body inside the elevator! Kirkpatrick wheeled then and strode toward the main doors, and Wentworth ran. He staggered a little, slipping on the smooth tiled floor, and leaned hard across the information desk. He shouted toward the man at the telephone switchboard.

"Why in the devil didn't you answer my signal!" he cried. "Get an ambulance! Get a policeman! Don't sit there staring at me, call a policeman!"

Wentworth heard the swinging of the outer doors, felt the gust of cold air that came in with the opening. He pushed himself back from the counter, whipped out a handkerchief and mopped his forehead.

"Will you hurry?" he demanded of the still-gaping operator. "I must have a policeman right away!"

Beside him, Kirkpatrick spoke and there was a harder ring than usual to his metallic voice. "Won't I do, Dick?"

Wentworth started violently, then whirled toward his friend and put a smile on his lips. "This is lucky, Kirk," he said energetically. "I—wait a minute. Never mind that call to the police, operator."

The operator shrugged slowly, "What about the ambulance, Mr. Wentworth?" he asked.

 

Wentworth stared at him as if he did not understand the man. As he figured it, Jackson could not possibly be more than half way to his penthouse by now. And he had to make the full arrangements before Kirkpatrick reached his apartment. He had to! Anything he could do to delay their arrival. . . . "What ambulance?" he asked the operator blankly.

The operator stared in bewilderment and started to explain, but Kirkpatrick cut in sharply. "Dick, I'm waiting for an explanation!"

Wentworth wheeled to face his friend. There was a frown on Kirkpatrick's saturnine countenance, and the mouth beneath the spiked mustache was a harsh line. Wentworth knew he must be careful not to overdo the delay. Kirkpatrick had seen him in too many emergencies for him to believe in any extreme befuddlement.

Wentworth said quietly, "Certainly, Kirk. I'm afraid I'll have to submit to arrest. Technical of course. I just killed a man in my apartment, but—" He massaged his temples. "God, I never saw such a night! First, one of your policemen is killed—"

Kirkpatrick seized him by the arm, "Snap out of it, Dick!" he said fiercely. "What in the devil are you talking about? You've killed a man . . . Surely, not a policeman!"

Wentworth said, "No, no, I only thought that at first. The man has on a private police agency's uniform. But there is one of your men killed."

Kirkpatrick said violently, "Will you talk sense, Dick? I demand that you give me the whole truth at once! It isn't just luck that I'm here, you know!"

Wentworth said slowly, "Do you want to have someone take down this statement?"

Kirkpatrick started to gesture toward a plainclothesman who had followed him through the doors, then he stared at Wentworth with suddenly narrowed eyes. "We'll take the statement in your apartment," he said sharply. "Come along!"

Wentworth looked at him while his mind raced desperately. Kirkpatrick had seen through his stall, or at least had become suspicious of delay . . . and Jackson had not yet had time to arrange matters as he had ordered. He shrugged heavily.

"Oh, all right," he said and started toward the elevator, then turned toward the telephone operator. "By the way, if Miss van Sloan should call—"

"Disregard that!" Kirkpatrick snapped at the operator. "By God, Dick, if you're trying any hocus-pocus on me! Why should you come down here to call a policeman? You have two private lines into your home in addition to the one through the switchboard!"

Wentworth faced Kirkpatrick, and there was no smile on his face. "The way you have been behaving lately Kirk," he said shortly, "with your suspicions and persecution of me, I find it expedient to have witnesses for every movement of mine."

Kirkpatrick did not quail under the direct gaze of Wentworth's grey-blue eyes, but a small frown knifed between his brows. "I warn you, Dick," he said quietly, "that every second of delay increases my suspicions of you! I told you it was not luck that I had come here! I have a tip that—"

"That what?" Wentworth demanded as Kirkpatrick broke off.

"That will come later," Kirkpatrick said shortly. "Into the elevator at once, or I'll go up without you!"

Wentworth nodded and stepped into the cage. The uniformed man and Kirkpatrick's secretary followed and the elevator sped upward. Wentworth said, wearily, "I suppose I'll have to put up with these suspicions of yours, Kirk, but I warn you they're wearing hard on my liking for you. After all, friendship is based on mutual respect, and really—"

"I'll ask you to account for your movements, Dick," Kirkpatrick interrupted sharply, "from seven o'clock tonight onward!"

"Under the circumstances, perhaps I'd better call my lawyer first," Wentworth snapped, "though I fail to see why I should fall under suspicion for having killed a burglar in my own home! A burglar I tried to capture, and who fired on me twice before I returned a shot!"

"So that's what happened, is it?" Kirkpatrick asked. His voice was utterly without expression.

"Would it be asking too much?" Wentworth went on bitterly, "to demand the reason for your presence, since you would hardly bring your secretary and other officers on a friendly call?"

 

The elevator sighed to a halt, and Kirkpatrick strode out of the cage without reply, jabbed hard at the bell beside Wentworth's door. Wentworth stood idly aside. He had done what he could to delay the police. If Jackson were not ready now, he would have to make a break for it! He peered covertly toward the two men who accompanied Kirkpatrick. Sergeant Reams, the officer in uniform, was not a man who needed orders, otherwise he would not have been Kirkpatrick's bodyguard. He stood by the elevator with a revolver ready in his fist!

The door of Wentworth's penthouse opened on the safety chain, and through the opening Wentworth saw the dark bearded face and turbaned head of his other confidential servitor, Ram Singh.

"Open the door," Kirkpatrick ordered brusquely.

Ram Singh's dark eyes regarded Kirkpatrick impassively. "Pardon, Kirkpatrick sahib," he said in the deep rumble of his voice, "but do you come in friendship or as the police? If you come as the police . . ."

Kirkpatrick's anger flushed into his cheekbones, but he checked the angry retort that sprang to his lips. "Confound it, Dick!" he snapped, "there is a reason for these delays!"

"Quite," Wentworth murmured, and his smooth black eyebrows arched in mockery. "The reason lies in your own anger and impatience, for as the Hindus say . . ." he lapsed into the Hindustani which Ram Singh understood. "If all is well, open the door, my comrade. Otherwise, have trouble with the lock. Which means, Kirk, that the angry man maketh his own impediments."

"Will you order this stubborn Sikh—" Kirkpatrick began, but cut off as the door swung smoothly open.

Ram Singh bowed low, and hid the mockery in his dark gaze. "A thousand pardons, Kirkpatrick sahib," he rumbled. "My turban is in the dust! I did not know that my master accompanied his friend!"

Kirkpatrick strode past him with an oath, and from inside the apartment, Jackson's voice called out calmly, "You came quickly, sir! The body is in here!"

Wentworth followed the angry strides of Kirkpatrick across the drawing room toward the arch that gave into the music chamber beyond, and his quick eyes flashed over the chaste simplicity of the furnishings. He smothered an oath. The body was stretched out as he had ordered upon the floor, and there were bullet scars obviously from the gun in the man's hand . . . but Wentworth's eyes were fixed on a number of objects placed about the room. They were cleverly disposed, so that they seemed a part of the furnishings, yet Wentworth knew that they were stolen property!

On the grand piano, there was an exquisitely carved Ming vase of moonlight jade, and on the mantel a small antique clock of French fame caught glittering lights with the swing of a pendulum encrusted with precious stones! Surely, the Iron Man, or whoever directed the robot's movements, did not stint for money when he planned a frame-up! Those articles had a value in hundreds of thousands, and their possession might well tempt even a Richard Wentworth to robbery!

Kirkpatrick was standing over the body of the dead man. He reached down to lift the head by the hair, swore softly as he let it fall.

"Your burglar," he said acidly, "is a trusted agent of a private protection agency famed for its integrity. The Drexler agency! But I don't need to tell you that. You know Frank Drexler! Nor do I see that he has stolen anything!"

Wentworth said slowly, "You are quite right, Kirk. It is apparent that this is a most peculiar burglar. He came bearing gifts!" He strolled across the room toward the Ming vase, made a slow business of reaching out for it. "This vase, as I happen to know, being something of a connoisseur in such matters, belongs to one Aaron Smedley, whose house was robbed tonight, and—"

"Don't touch that vase!" Kirkpatrick snapped.

 

Wentworth let his hand freeze in mid-air, while he turned with lifted brows toward Kirkpatrick. "What have I done now?" he demanded.

Kirkpatrick was standing on braced legs, and his hands were clasped hard behind him. "I do not want your fingerprints on that vase, Dick," he said quietly. "Unless they are already there!"

Wentworth shrugged irritably, "Really, Kirk, you're going too far!" He turned angrily across the room. "I insist on an immediate fingerprint test. I have materials here. . . . And would it be asking too much if you also fingerprint the corpse? Or is it a criminal offense for me to make the suggestion?" He continued to fume while he jerked open the drawer of the desk, caught out envelopes of powder, a sufflator, ink pad and papers. "Apparently, you suspect me of robbery! Well, I've confessed homicide. That should satisfy you."

He flung the articles on the desk and Kirkpatrick took them quickly, but Wentworth stood staring down into the drawer. It was only an instant's pause that did not catch the commissioner's attention, but the discovery he made set Wentworth's heart to racing painfully. He had, perhaps, escaped one trap that had been set for him by the fiendish ingenuity of these criminals. It was unlikely Kirkpatrick could contradict the testimony of those fingerprints on the loot. He had hoped to get rid of Kirk now, race on with his investigation—and he had only discovered a second trap! The Iron Man had not been content with planting loot here and tipping the police. The same man who had placed the evidence here had, at the same time, set another snare!

In that drawer, Wentworth habitually kept an automatic registered in his name, and licensed to him. And that gun was gone!

Wentworth had no doubt as to the whereabouts of that gun, or what had been the purpose of the theft. As surely as death itself, that gun was planted now in one of the looted houses; and equally certain, too, was the fact that a bullet would have been fired from it into the mutilated corpse of one of the guards!

A slow and bitter smile disturbed Wentworth's lips. Truly, the Iron Man planned well! Somehow now, he must elude the police, and get to the murder scene before that incriminating gun was found!

Kirkpatrick's voice came to his ears with an accent of relief, but with a reserve that puzzled Wentworth.

"The fingerprints on the vase and clock are undoubtedly those of the dead man," Kirkpatrick said quietly. "Now, Dick, I must ask you to accompany me."

Wentworth turned slowly, and his face was expressionless, but he felt that he knew the answer to this invitation even while he phrased the query, "That's always a pleasure, Kirk," he said, "though I'm a bit weary just now. Would it be impertinent to ask where it is you wish to go?"

Kirkpatrick was unsmiling, too. "I want you to go with me," he said quietly, "to the home of Aaron Smedley."

Wentworth felt the shock of those words and knew that his suspicions were correct. Not only had the gun been planted as he feared— but Kirkpatrick had been tipped off about that, too!

Now there was no chance at all of evading Kirkpatrick, of getting there first. He must be with the commissioner when the police found the gun which would pin upon him one of the most atrocious murders the city had known! Against that evidence, the trickery played here would not stand up an instant! Kirkpatrick's keen mind would tell him how he had been tricked. But, damn it, the Spider could not allow himself to be imprisoned! The lives of many of the city's people would be crushed like ants beneath the iron tread of those grim robots, unless the Spider remained at liberty!

Something close to panic goaded Wentworth then, not a fear for himself, but the certainty of the fate that threatened the people he loved and served. Panic. . . .

Wentworth shrugged and, by a violent effort, made his voice easy. "Certainly, Kirk," he agreed. "I will go wearily with you to the home of Aaron Smedley. After that, I hope you will allow me an opportunity to sleep!"

Kirkpatrick's frown refused to lift. "Yes, Dick," he said. "I only hope that you will be allowed to sleep comfortably in your own bed, and not—"

"Not in one of your private guest chambers," Wentworth interrupted with enforced gaiety. "The ones with bars and tool-steel doors!"

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