Spider Pete by Claude Stewart

STEWART Spider Pete

Sometime in 1946, Mitre Press published a 32-page (plus wraps) single-stapled booklet containing a selection of short stories by author Claude Stewart. I genuinely doubt that they are original to this publication. Most (if not all) of the Mitre collections of reprinted stories from a variety of sources: magazines, newspapers, journals, pulps, etc.

The cover features a young lady at her dressing table, putting on her facial makeup and screaming in absolute terror as a huge, hairy-legged spider tangles from the ceiling, about to pounce on her, while a creepy fellow lurks in the background.

Intrigued? Well, it was enough to hook me. I wanted to know.

Spider Pete leads off the collection, beginning on page 1 and ending on page 8. The story opens with Charlie Collins, Chief of Police to Wallington City, bored of his occupation and thankful that his contract was for only five years. Sadly, he was on the wrong side of completing those years. Nothing ever happened in Wallington City, nothing spectacularly out of the normal crimes, that is. Then a mysterious death is laid upon him to solve. A woman is found dead, and seems to show all the symptoms of dying from gas, however, her flat has no gas. He discovers an odd yellowish powdery substance near her, and suspects the powder to be the source of the problem. However, their scientific chemicals department hasn’t a clue what the item is. Yet another death occurs, this time a man. The newspapers carry the usual fanfare, that the police are stumped, murders go unsolved, etc. Collins is later in the week invited to a black tie affair, and while present, is shocked to see an old schoolmate, vastly different in appearance, but realizes it is he, for his mannerisms haven’t changed a bit, etc. This fellow is James P. Mullins, and after the party, they hook up. Drink, talk, the usual. He’s obviously the killer or the next to die, right? Ah, he’s the killer. While leaving the Chief alone in the room, Collins, unable to keep his natural instincts from investigating a covered bird-cage, discovers large spiders inside and…that yellowish powder, too. Mullins re-enters, discovers the game-is-up, explains he discovered these poisonous spiders while in Brazil, and brought them home. He trained them to follow orders and they released their poisonous yellow powders on cue, the gas given off kills the person. Mullins then releases one spider to attack the Chief, when, inexplicably, it turns and goes after Mullins…

Lend-Lease Murder spans pages 9 through three-quarters of page 18. Another typical story about irony. Young man rivals his brother, who is better at everything in life. Goes to war, while he himself is denied as inadequate. Brother obtains everything life can offer, while our fellow is dirt poor and can’t get his shit together. But, that aside, he loves and covets the finer things in life, appreciates them, something his brother does not. Fine art, clothing, drinks, lifestyle, etc., but, he can’t have them! So, we find our unlucky fellow working in a stylish nightclub, surrounded by the elite, when in walks a handful of American airmen. They party hard, get all the hot girls, become drunk…the place eventually closes for the night, and he and another worker are cleaning up the joint when he discovers one of airmen left his leather flight-jacket behind by accident. He keeps the jacket for his own. The two begin talking and he learns the other leads an unscrupulous life, working the black market trade. He wants in, so he can have money. The other agrees, they meet the big boss, and are instructed to hit a warehouse… Fast forward, the visit the warehouse, the night watchman stumbles upon our fellow and he bashes him over the head. They discover the warehouse 100% empty and figure they were played for patsies, and depart. Next day, our boy learns the watchman was found clubbed over the head and had died. Now he is freaking out, and nearly penniless. He figures he can’t return to his job, having practically quit, then spots an ad in the paper. A reward for the return of an American’s flight-jacket! He hates to part with it, but the money is too good to be true, so he brings it in, hands it over, receives the reward, goes to leave, and the cuffs are slapped on his wrists! What? Turns out that the jacket, had he gone through the pockets, contained various special papers, and when he knocked the fellow dead, those papers fell out, leaving the incriminating evidence behind. All the police now needed was for him to confess to the crime.

Overall, the best story in this feature is a scientific-crime thriller entitled Pay or Vanish, spanning the bottom quarter of page 18 through half of page 22. Now while I say “best,” I don’t mind any stretch mean that is a good tale. It has holes in the plot so big a semi-truck could roll through without scraping the edges. Our hero is an English secret agent and while checking in at a pay-phone he sees someone has written a message on the wall: “Rixley 3450.” Believing it to be a secret communication, he dials RIX 3450 and a woman answers. Keeping his voice low, he replies and she believes it is her lover. They meet and he shocks her by not being her lover (of course) but explains he understands she is in a predicament and wants to assist her. Uncannily, instead of thinking he a nutter, but fearful for her life, and needing to trust someone, she explains that they worked for a scientist in a secret laboratory. A special science was discovered, by which means the madman intends to blackmail the world for riches. Her boyfriend was supposed to the scientist and destroy everything, but has never returned. So, these two enter the premises, and our agent thinks the whole thing is a joke but discovers otherwise. The scientist is there, and before his eyes, he destroys the girl. Poof. She vanishes. Nothing left but her silver change and jewelry made of silver, which for some reason does not vanish. Another pile on the floor has more silver coins, and we learn that that is all remains of her boyfriend. The agent fires five bullets into him, but, the scientist hurls the substance out a window into the river. To his horror, people continue to disappear. How? Why? Has the madman already sold the secret to various parties? Or did they drink from the river?

Fatty Gives Evidence begins on lower quarter of page 22 and finishes on mid-28. I always despise the British “fatty” stories. They often turn up in young boys periodicals, making fun of fat kids, etc. Where will this one lead me? Fatty is an ex-model who turned to fat. When she was young and beautiful, she was scooped up by a rich millionaire and she got lazy and ate and ate and he told her she looked great until one day he said otherwise and it was too late to turn back. She was large and couldn’t be a model any longer. She assists a younger, lovely model with her wardrobe and makeup (for a living) now and insists the girl cease dating a particular wealthy man or he’ll steer her wrong. Return the gifts, etc or she might end up in a bad spot. She does. Fatty departs and is offered a ride home by another worker, when he stops, and claims he forgot something. Fatty knows that he is infatuated with the model, but says nothing. He comes running back, and begs her to forget that he ever went back in. She agrees. Next day, she discovers the girl was slain in her dressing room. The evidence points to the fellow, but, she turns the evidence to the suitor instead. The police investigate and learn that he did in fact murder the girl! Later, the innocent man asks why Fatty did this. She explains her past history, and that the suitor was actually HER original suitor. When she is finished, he never calls her Fatty again.

The final tale is The House with the Monkey Puzzle Tree, spanning the bottom quarter page 28 and ending on page 33 (inside rear cover). With such a title, I was hoping for a weird tale, but no luck there. It’s a crime story, of sorts. A woman and her child are roomers in a remote house far from town, and they are sneaking away in the night. The woman seems to have lost her marbles, and the child too young and useless, when they finally make it to town and look for help. A woman listens, then believing something is amiss, gets the police involved, but disregard it as the woman comes across as a mental lunatic. The woman still feels something is wrong and gets another cop to accompany her. The only bit of evidence that came through clearly was the near-whereabouts in which she may have roomed and a peculiar tree. They finally locate it at night, break in, find the place empty. The woman and cop split up, the cop disbelieving he is involved in this investigation, until the lady discovers a corpse. She faints and the story unveils that the place was used by black marketeers to move stolen goods, etc. and if the police had acted her the crazy woman’s ramblings earlier in the day, they would have caught all of them in the act. The irony? The first person the crazy lady came across at an intersection was the cop on traffic detail. She had tried to tell him the story but he dismissed her. Now, he realizes the error he made…

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Spider Pete by Claude Stewart

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