Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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A ragged, redheaded little urchin whispered a few dread words to Doc Turner after a Morris Street bambino had been spirited away. And when Doc found the kid's body with a stiletto piercing the dead lips, he vowed to stamp out the hidden terror—though his own life was forfeit!
FEAR brooded over Morris Street; creeping fear that painted a gray film over olive-tinged, leathery faces, fear that lurked in dark eyes where ordinarily the glint of their owners' native sun laughed at hardship and unceasing labor. A shadow lay along Morris Street that was blacker, more ominous, than the shadow of the elevated snaking between the grimy facades of its tenements.
And Doc Turner's face, as he stood in the open doorway of his ancient drugstore, seemed more deeply lined than ever with age and tiredness. The thin lips under his bushy white mustache smiled wearily in response to the many greetings called to him by the shambling, stoop-shouldered passersby. These were his people, these shirt-sleeved men, dark-skinned or bearded, these beshawled, wrinkled women in whose countenances still dwelt uncomprehending bewilderment at the cruel strangeness of the Promised Land whither they had migrated with high hopes only to meet with defeat and despair. Only in the old druggist had they found sympathy and understanding, only in Andrew Turner had they found a protector against human wolves spawned in this new country and rapacious man-beasts pursuing from the lands they had fled.
Now once more Doc sensed a need for him, and his weary thoughts played with temptation. Mario Pellegrino, Battista Marone, Antonio Lansino and the others of their dark-skinned ilk had said nothing to him of their trouble; he had read it only in the expression of their faces, in their furtive avoidance of his questionings, and—in the hunger-lines that for weeks had more and more tautened the wee faces of the Beppos and Angelinos and Francescas who scuttered tonight, half-naked to the heat, between the legs of their chattering forebears. The bambini, usually so well-fed even when their elders must deny themselves, were starving. Something, someone, was sucking the last hard-won cent from the slim purses of the Italians on Morris Street. But they had not come to him for help. Why should he offer it? He was tired, so tired...
"Meester Toiner," a voice shrilled in his ears. "Ah customer Meester Toiner."
Turner jerked out of his absorption, blinked dazedly, and turned. His dim-lit store was apparently empty save for the under-sized, black-haired and hook-nosed errand boy at his elbow. "What—what is it, Abie. Where's the customer?"
"Right dere," the urchin pointed a finger whose nail was black-edged. "Right dere by de counter."
Doc was aware of movement far back in the recesses of the shop, peered more carefully and made out a tot whose one nondescript garment displayed squirming, dimpled arms and bowed legs encrusted with dirt. "Oh, there you are, Peppina! How did you get past me without my seeing you?"
The three-year-old slid a sticky thumb into a round mouth, and fastened on him great lustrous eyes that were black jewels in the face of a cherub—a very dark, very dirty cherub.
"So you want your mother's prescription do you? Well, well. It's all ready for you. Did mamma send the money?"
Peppina did not trouble to attempt verbal reply, but shook her head in sign of negation. Doc sighed. "No mon, hey." He went around the edge of the sales counter, picked up a three-ounce bottle in which a milky syrup moved viscously. "Do you expect to get anything in a store without money?" A horrific scowl distorted his countenance, but Peppina, undeceived, held out a plump and grubby hand. "Oh you do, do you?" The old druggist's eyes twinkled. He ripped a sheet of paper from the ready roll and dexterously wrapped the bottle. "Well, here you are, then."
The tot snatched up the package, gigantic to her tiny fingers, and turned away. "Hey, wait a minute!" Doc roared gruffly. Peppina came around, her upper lip quivering with fright. The fright vanished instantly as she saw the three brightly-colored jelly-beans the pharmacist had rolled out on the counter. They disappeared instantly in the wet paw, and the little one pattered out of the store on bare feet, running as if she feared Doc would demand return of his largesse.
"Ain't it she's cute," Abie ventured, "like ah peecture."
His employer nodded agreement, tenderness softening the crow's-feet at his eye-corners. "A picture by Raphael," he answered, "that's been in a cellar for—Good Lord! What's that?"
A shriek from outside, the sound of smashing glass, signaled disaster to Peppina and the bottle she had just secured. Abie whirled and started for the door, but quickly as he moved Doc passed him. The shriek came again; there was a burst of angry sound, polyglot shouts. As Turner burst into the open he saw people running toward his corner like swarming bees, saw splintered glass on the sidewalk, a dark pool of liquid—and no Peppina!
No Peppina! The druggist was suddenly cold all over. It was not two seconds since the crash of the dropped bottle had putted him out into the street. The tot could not possibly have gotten far enough to be out of sight.
A stout man was staring up the street, burning black eyes bulging from their covert of fat-rolls. Doc whirled to him. "Connito!" he snapped. "What happened out here? Where's the little one?"
The man made no sign that he had heard, but Turner saw that his lips were moving in a mumbled prayer, that the second and third fingers of one fat hand were bent inward over its thumb, leaving the two other digits extended to form a pair of horns pointing in the direction that he stared. It was the immemorial sign of defense against the evil eye! "Dominic!" Doc rasped again and got his own long-fingered, almost transparent hand on the other's enormous shoulder. "Dominic! You were standing right here. What did you see?"
Connito jumped as if the druggist's touch had been a hot iron. He rolled around to face Doc, and in the instant a veil of non-comprehension dropped over his eyes, expression fled his round moon-face. His ludicrously small mouth worked, a high-pitched voice issued from it, quivering, "I no see not', Docator. Wacha you mean?"
The pharmacist's hand dropped from the other's shoulder, and he stepped back, frustration, hopelessness flooding him. Useless, he knew, to question further, to persist. He was up against the inbred secretiveness of the Italian peasant, the instinctive silence enjoined upon them by centuries of living in fear of marauding bands who maintained spies in every village market place. But by that very silence he had learned one thing; whatever had happened to Peppina was a racial matter; the cause of her disappearance had roots in the Boot of Europe.
He turned slowly on his heel, scanning the faces that had magically ringed around him in the seconds since he had catapulted out of the store. A curious hush had fallen over the group, a hush in which there was an undertone of murmuring, furtive voices in an alien tongue.
As he looked from one scared visage to another, eyes slid away from his questioning ones, and lips tightened grimly. No hope of gaining information from any of these, he thought hopelessly; the spell was holding them all close-mouthed.
The rank stench of unwashed bodies was fetid in his nostrils, and through it, sweetly pungent, a familiar odor threaded. He sniffed, and by professional habitude he put a name to the odor. "Anise. Liquor Ammoniae Anisatis."
He glanced down at the little pool a scant inch from his toes. "Mrs. Maliano's medicine," Doc thought. A little trail of droplets wandered from the splintered glass and wet wrapping paper, disappeared under broken, shabby shoes toward the curb. "It must have splashed up on the kid. Wonder if she was cut by glass?"
Speculation slid away as someone plucked at his sleeve. It was Abie, his black eyes glowing. "Meester Toiner," the boy whispered. "Leesten to dees guy." The errand boy's other hand gripped the scrawny arm of a freckle-faced urchin of ten, with hair and eyebrows so pale that they seemed nonexistent. "He's mein friendt Mickey." The lad's face was eager; excited.
Doc forced a smile, "Well, young man, what have you to say for yourself?"
The youngster's mouth opened, but for an instant no sound came out. Then, "I—I s-s-seen—" His features twisted with effort, a muscle in his cheek twitched.
"Now take it easy, Mickey." The druggist's tone was calming. "First think of what you want to say, then say it slowly. I've told you that often enough—can't you remember it?"
The boy's eyes were grateful. "Yes sir. I seen what happened, D-D-Doc Toiner. I wuz just comin' out de candy store an' I seen it."
"That's good. What was it you saw?"
"I seen de little goil come out yer store an dere's t-t-two guys in a Blanton six right outside. S-s-soon's they sees her one g-g-gink hops out an' grabs her. She lets de description drop and hollers, but he sticks his hand over her mout' an' hops back in ag'in wid her. De Blanton's already movin' an' it shoots away like a drive from Babe Rut's bat."
"Good boy! Did you get the car's number?"
"No sir. D-d-dis big bozo got in de way. But it was a b-b-blue sedan wid a white paint streak on its front, an' de guy what hops out is a t'in guinea wid one o' dem b-b-black mustaches dat comes down like dis." His hands graphically portrayed a huge drooping mustache. "I seen him aroun' here a couple times de last mont', an' he's got a mean eye. Awful mean."
"You would know him again if you saw him, wouldn't you? Him and the car?"
"Sure t'ing. I—"
A cry cut him short, the wailing cry of a man in intolerable anguish. The crowd split and a short, weazened man in tattered overalls and earth-smeared boots hurtled through. His swarthy, hatchet face was contorted with agony, his leathery hands were clawed as they thrust away those in his path. "Peppina!" he screamed. "Mia Peppina, la mia bambina piccola! Madre di Dio!" He won to the little open space in the center of the throng, halted and stared at the druggist with blazing eyes. "Docator Toiner, dey do wach dey say, taka la mia bambina!"
The druggist snapped around to the frantic father. "Who took her, Tony?" he barked. "Who threatened to take her?"
A sharp hiss cut across Maliano's response, a reptilian hiss from somewhere in the crowd. It came again, sharp, virulent. And terror flared in the man's face, flared instantaneously, fled, and left his dark countenance a marble visage. Only his eyes remained alive, in them a hell of torture, of fear, of utter despair.
"Who was it, Maliano? Tell me." Doc's voice was demanding, urging, but he knew it was futile. The warning had been given, had been heard. Even in the parent's frenzy it had taken effect. Tony would say no more.
But he couldn't let it drop at that. The white-haired pharmacist glanced around and saw little ones peering, frightened-eyed, from between the legs of their elders, and knew that whatever fate had overtaken Peppina threatened them also. The shadow of ancient fears held their natural guardians helpless; he and he only could save them from that fate.
"Come inside," he grumbled, clutching Tony's elbow. "Come inside—I want to talk to you."
The man seemed dazed by the conflict of tearing emotions that shook his slight, wiry body as with an ague, but he yielded to Doc's pressure, went with him willingly enough. Abie snuffled as he followed them and Turner twisted to him. "Wipe your nose, Abie, and then clean up that mess," he ordered. "Don't let anybody come in; tell them the store is closed for the night."
"Shoor," the little fellow responded. "Shoor. Right avay. Und should I put it de Nastin's Coughex de vinder een?"
The old man's face went bleak. "No use, son. No use signaling Jack Ransom. He's away on his vacation. I'll have to work this out alone." Somehow the reminder that the stalwart, grinning young man who had fought at his side in so many battles against the underworld could not now respond to the signal emphasized Doc's feeling of futility in this new combat. What could he do alone against the force that was terrorizing a whole community, against men who had dared to snatch a child from a crowded sidewalk, secure in the knowledge that fear of them would silence the tongues of every witness?
Every witness but the freckle-faced little chap whose story Tony's advent had interrupted! At the thought Doc groaned suddenly, and fear stabbed him sharply. The druggist pulled open the door. "Abie," he snapped. "Abie. Get hold of Mickey. Tell him to go straight home and stay there till he hears from me. Hustle!"
Comprehension blanched Abie's grimy cheeks. "Ai," he splurted. "Ai. De keedneppers..."
The druggist pushed home a bolt and watched Abie squirm through the dissolving crowd. A black cat sped across the boy's path, its eyes glinting greenly. Doc turned toward Tony Maliano, who was standing in the center of the floor, his grubby fingers working, his glazed eyes motionless, unfocused.
"Let's go in back," Turner said quietly. "Where no one can see us."
The Italian's glance sought Doc's face. "My Mariutch," he mumbled, "she'sa 'lone. I gotta go home."
"Never mind your Mariutch just now. She is a sick woman and needs her medicine. I'll make up a duplicate of her prescription while we talk. Come on." The pharmacist still spoke calmly, but there was a ring of command in his voice that overrode any further objections Tony might have, that brought him obediently behind Doc as he went around the end of the sales counter and through a curtained doorway with a fly-specked sign, Prescription Department.
Doc nodded to a battered swivel chair before a paper-cluttered desk. "Sit down over there." His tone was elaborately casual, and his movements as apparently unconcerned while he took two graduates and a glass rod from the shelf over the sink in one corner. Tony perched himself on the very edge of the indicated seat and held his battered felt, shield-like, in front of his breast with two shaking hands.
The druggist's back was to the man; he busied himself measuring liquids into the larger cylinder. "We're all alone, Tony," he said, "and no one can hear anything we say. I promise you I won't repeat your words to the police or anyone else."
"I donch know not', boss. I donch know."
In the gleaming nickeled side of his prescription scales, Doc saw that while Maliano's lips scarcely moved his face was working with agony. "I don't believe that," the pharmacist said. "You were just about to tell me something when someone hissed out there. Look here, Tony, you know that I'm to be trusted. Why don't you tell me the truth and let me help you and all those others? Let me try to get Peppina back before—" He swung around, and pointed the dripping glass rod at the father—"before it's too late."
Tony rose to his feet, his hands spread wide and his shoulders shrugging. "Excoosa, Docator. Excoosa me. I donch know. Mebbe itsa her unc' taka her for ride. Mebbe itsa—" Suddenly the man's voice broke into shrillness. "I no can tella you. Madre di Dio! I no dare!"
Turner's face was grim. "So that's it," he growled, advancing toward Maliano. "You're scared, too scared to do anything to save your daughter. You're a coward, a dirty yellow coward. Get out of here." He pointed to the doorway. "Get out of here and never let me see you around again. I thought you were a man, but you're nothing but a thing in pants. Mussolini threw you out of Italy because he didn't want any yellow curs there. Well, we don't want any either. Get out!"
Tony backed away, but his face purpled and suddenly he straightened. He banged himself on the chest. "Coward!" he squealed. "I no coward. I fighta four year in wop army, wound' tree times." Turner knew this, had played upon it. "I gotta medallo. I no 'fraid nobod'!"
"That's all talk!" Doc snapped. "You bought that medal in a pawnshop. If you had any guts you wouldn't sit there shaking because some damn fool hissed at you, you'd tell me what you know. You're a yellow dog, that's all. You ought to be dressed in skirts."
The Italian was livid, his eyes black flame. "I tella," he shrieked. "I tella you. I no 'fraid."
The druggist smiled and thrust out his hand. "Shake, Tony. That's spoken like a man. This isn't Sicily, it's America; and no one can hurt you here unless you let them. Now spit it out. Why was Peppina stolen?"
"Because I no paya watch he ask. Because I tella heem go to hell." The Italian spat viciously. "The peeg-dog."
"Extortion, eh? But Good Lord, Tony, you're a laborer; you make hardly enough to get along. How much could they get out of you?"
"Five, doll' week. Thach what."
"Five dollars a week. Jumping Jehosaphat! It must have cost them that much for gas for the kidnapping."
Maliano shook his head impatiently. "Doncha see? I not only one. Two, three hundred wops around here. Five doll' week each one is lotsa mon."
Doc whistled. "I understand. They've been collecting a thousand or more a week from these poor fellows! If you got away with your refusal others would too and their game would be up. They're making an example of you to keep the others in line."
Tony nodded violently. "Si. Si. Thatch eet. An' now they tella me I gotcha pay ten doll' or Peppina be kill." His arms jerked up, his fingers clutched at his hair. "Oh Madonna," he wailed. "How I can pay ten doll' week wen I catch only feefteena? How I canna?"
"Wait, old man. Wait. Keep your head." Doc's voice was quietly sympathetic. "We'll try to get the little one back without paying anything. We have to try, because this thing can't go on. If the children aren't killed by the extortioners they'll starve to death. Go on, tell me all you know. Tell me who it is that's doing this."
The Italian's hands came down slowly from his hair. "Everbod' know," he said. "Eet's—"
Something thumped against the bolted back door, that bisected the rear shelving of Doc's rear room. Both men wheeled to the sound. It came again, a thud as if some bulky but soft mass had been thrown urgently against the barrier. They stared at the ominous noise—and Tony stabbed a sudden finger at the bottom edge of the door.
"Looka," he choked. "Looka!"
Turner's head thrust forward, his face fish-belly gray. A dark liquid oozed through the crack between door and threshold, a dark liquid that glinted red as it caught the light. Doc sniffed; the unmistakable odor of blood was manifest. He leaped to the door. His hands jerked at its bolts, pulled it open. Hot night-air swept in from the dark alley—and something tumbled inward, bumped against the old man, toppled sidewise to the floor.
"Good—God!" Turner groaned, staring at the little form that lay back toward him, on his floor. "Merciful Lord!" He bent to it, slipped a shaking hand inside the tattered jacket of—Mickey! The boy's chest was sticky with blood, but there was no heartbeat beneath it. Doc jerked his hand away. It came out dripping, and the sudden movement pulled the corpse over so that its face was upturned. Tony shrieked again.
The child's blouse was dyed red with his life-blood that still oozed from a gaping wound in his chest. But this was not what brought quivering horror into the back room, not what held Doc in a nightmare rigidity. The lad's lips were pulled out in a grisly simulacrum of a kiss, and through them a slender stiletto was driven, skewering them tight shut! The message was plain—freckle-faced Mickey had died because he had talked!
Nor was that all. Impaled on the end of the needle-like knife so that it made a gruesome appendage to his chin was a tiny finger, dirt smudged, a little finger with a red of a jelly-bean still smearing one side! This brought a message too, a message not to Doc Turner but to Peppina's father. "Pay, or she also dies; dies not as the boy, swiftly, cleanly, but little by little. Little by little..."
A thud behind him startled Doc out of his paralysis. He whirled to it, saw that Tony had fallen, that his lips, his fingertips, were blue, the cold blue of death. It flashed on the druggist that if he did not act quickly there would be two corpses in his back room; the shock had been too much for Maliano, had nearly stopped his heart. Turner twisted again, to his poison-chest, jerked it open, pulled out a hypodermic syringe, and a small box in which were tiny bottles of fragile glass, their ends drawn out to fine points.
He pulled one out, thrusting the rest into the pocket of his alpaca coat, and snapped off the threadlike tip. Then he plunged the needle of the syringe into the colorless fluid within the ampoule, pulled the plunger to suck the solution into the barrel. He knelt, and pulling back Tony's sleeve, inserted the needle and again depressed the plunger to shoot the stimulant into his veins. "That ought to do it," Doc muttered. "Digitalin will bring him around!"
Fingers on the man's wrist, he watched the blue of Maliano's lips fade, become tinged with the red of returning circulation. Satisfied with his emergency measure Turner rose wearily to his feet.
At that instant a yowl vibrated from out front, the pain-yowl of a cat. Somehow it jerked Doc into a run, pulled him out of the front of the store, to the glass-paneled front door. He looked out, saw a black cat dragging itself across the sidewalk toward a tall man whose face was in the shadow of the elevated structure. The cat reached the man's leg, painfully lifted its head and licked the hem of the man's trouser. The fellow yelled something, his foot lashed out and the feline sailed through the air in a spread-footed arch. It landed, twisted lithely, and started toward its tormentor once again.
The man spat obscenity at the animal, turned and strode away. Slunk, rather. He was keeping to the shadows, apparently anxious to escape observation.
"Hell," Doc exclaimed. "That's it. That must be it!" Energy surged back into his frail body. He rattled back the door-bolt, whipped out. Now he too was hurrying down Morris Street, he too was searching out every shadow, every bit of covert. And his faded old eyes were fixed on the hurrying stranger!
It was not yet midnight, early for this back-eddy of a great city when its teeming warrens were piled hot-boxes and their occupants bathed in the sweltering agony of sleeplessness. But the narrow avenue, gloomy under its trestled railway, was almost deserted tonight. The gaunt specter of fear had swept Morris Street clear of its gray-faced denizens, had sent them shuddering to their dreary dwellings. Swept it clear, save for the flitting shadow that was the spear-point of that fear and the frail, aged little man whose fighting heart was driving him to solitary combat with the brooding terror that had sent him its horrible challenge.
The man arrived opposite a corner and glanced warily about him. The old druggist was a flattened shadow merged with an elevated pillar, invisible. His quarry darted into the side- street, and Doc's pipe-stem legs pumped in a noiseless run as he gasped in fear that he had evaded him.
He reached the corner, poked a cautious head around the angle of a vacant store. No, there he was, a lank silhouette, strolling nonchalantly now along the side-street toward the waterfront. Turner's trembling hand held onto the window-frame for a moment's support, fighting sudden weakness. Then he had pushed himself away and was following again, a silent, implacable nemesis on the trail of evil.
Doc was weaponless, alone. He had no plan, no means of forming any plan. But rage was icy within him, and in his bleak, set face his old eyes burned with cold flame. Where the one ahead led he would follow, though the trail ended in hell itself. Somewhere here the solemn-eyed, cherubic Peppina was being held captive. He would find her, would take her from them in spite of the devil himself!
The man paused, angled across the slimy asphalt. Turner, diving for cover alongside a high stoop, saw that he was making for the entrance of a three-storied frame house across whose dilapidated front white letters were still legible despite their scabrous, peeling paint—Whileaway Hall. And a little warmth came back into his blood. He knew the interior of that house well, had good cause to know it. Long ago, when Fanston Alley had been a flower-bordered road, he had often visited there. Of late the old mansion had been dark, deserted—shunned by even the homeless vagrants to whom it might have afforded shelter. Now again, it seemed, it was the abode of evil. At least he would be familiar with the battle-ground of the coming struggle.
The cat-kicker disappeared within the house's embrasure, a door squeaked open. A flash of light streaked out, vanished as wood thudded against wood. The grating of a key was loud in the quiet street. The place was dark again, apparently unoccupied. But Doc knew what it was he had to do.
He flitted across the few remaining yards to a black alley alongside the erstwhile dance hall, dived into it. Broken flagstones were slippery with garbage under his feet, a reeking miasma made his head reel with its fetor. Doc tiptoed soundlessly to the rear. Somewhere here was another entrance, once the kitchen door.
Here it was. The prowler groped for its knob, turned, and pressed. It was locked, immovable! The old druggist felt in his pocket for a knife. His hand encountered the box of ampoules, the syringe he must have thrust there as he left the store. He grunted softly, fumbled the articles out. Working by feel he filled the hypo again. But the liquid in its barrel was not digitalin this time!
God, but it was quiet here! Even the roar of the teeming city was somehow deadened by the towering tenement behind him. Far away a street-car bell tinkled. Then silence again, as Doc searched his pockets for the blade that would cut the soft and rotted wood from the lock barring him from Whileaway Hall. Where was it? Good Lord! Suddenly the old druggist remembered—he had used it to trim the cork on Mrs. Maliano's prescription, had left it on the counter! He swore softly.
The windows! Doc stepped back looked up at them. Black against blackness, they were too high for him to reach. He groaned.
Something scraped down the alley. Doc whirled to it, his blood curdling. Had he been observed? Was one of the killers coming after him? Against the paleness of the alley entrance a shadowy form bulked, creeping toward him. The druggist crouched, his spine needling. He was not afraid for himself, but if they got him what would become of Peppina—of all the poverty- stricken ones on whom these fiends were preying?
The fellow was coming closer, closer. The druggist's fingers reached into his pocket, pulled out the hypodermic syringe. A poor weapon, but better than none. A lucky jab, perhaps...
Sudden sound rippled in the silence, a snuffle! A snuffle—Jumping Jehosophat!
"Abie," Doc whispered with relief. "Abie, wipe your nose."
"Ai!" The lad's exclamation was muted. "Ai. Eet's you, Meester Toiner? I vass scared."
"Come here Abie, closer," the druggist breathed. "So I can talk to you."
The urchin's shadowy form was clearer now, close beside him. "How did you get here?" Doc asked.
"Ai, I vass lookink for Mickie, like you said it, und someone said it he came een here mit a man, baht ven I tried to get een vass no enswer. So I heng aroundt. Choost now I go down to Eastern Avenoo for a drink from malted before Shapiro should close ahp!"
"You brat! You should have come right back and told me. But now that you're here, you can help me. I want to get into that house and I don't want to be heard. Do you think you can get on my shoulders, get through that window and open the door? It may be dangerous; are you afraid?"
"Me afraid. You ferget it, Meester Toiner, dot Abie de boy detecatiff ees I am. Come on, let's go it."
"All right, take off your shoes and hop up. But be quiet, do you hear, quiet as a ghost."
As Doc felt the boy's soft feet leave his shoulders and heard the rustle of fabric against wood through the aperture above him, he quivered inwardly. He had sent the urchin into deadly peril. Discovery meant death. But Peppina was inside, in the hands of fiends, Peppina and all she implied. The terror that held Morris Street prostrate lurked within that house and if he were to quash it he must gain entrance. It was a choice between Abie's safety and...
What right had he to choose? If Abie died...
The doorknob in front of him grated softly and the opening door was black against black. "Meester Toiner," Abie's whisper came to him, "dere's a baby crying someveres eensite."
Then the child was still alive!
"Come out here Abie," Doc said, "and stay here. If you don't hear from me in fifteen minutes go for the police." Doc hadn't dared call in their aid before; their first clumsy-footed attack would have meant the little girl's instant death. But after a quarter hour—well, it would be too late then to save her, or him, probably—too late for anything, save vengeance. "Fifteen minutes, remember."
"Shoor, Meester Toiner. Shoor. De boy detecatiff never fails."
The white-haired pharmacist pulled the door shut, slowly, till he heard the soft click of its spring lock. Open, it might have furnished him with a badly needed getaway, but then the daring youngster might follow him, might not escape so easily the second time.
Tar-barrel darkness was about Turner, musty smell of a long vacant structure. But from somewhere above came the muffled sob of a pain-racked, frightened babe.
Doc's brows knitted as he strove to remember the plan of the hall. This lower floor contained the entrance-lobby. From here a narrow stairs lifted past the big ballroom on the second story to small rooms that lined a corridor on the upper floor. That, undoubtedly, was where Peppina had been hidden, probably where her captors were...
The blackness was redolent with danger as Turner flitted upward, ghostlike. A rumble of voices came to him, gruff voices in a foreign tongue, and the clink of silver. They must be counting their collections, pitiful small change of the poor. He reached the door that closed off the top of the staircase, got an ear against its rough wood. The babe's whimpering was clearer now, but the other voices, the noises, had ceased suddenly.
Too suddenly. Had something given warning of his presence? Were the fiends who had skewered a bright-eyed lad's lips waiting on the other side of this door, waiting to dispatch him, too, with their silent daggers?
He seemed to hear heavy breathing, near at hand. His scalp tightened. The soft slither of a cautious foot sounded just below him. Someone was coming up the stairs, stealthily. Doc pulled himself into a corner of the wall, crouched, his old heart pounding. They were trying to surprise him, to take him between two fires.
Suddenly blacker black loomed before him, a whiff of garlic affronted his nostrils. "Sacramento Santo!" a voice crashed about his ears. "Where isa da door? Hey, Ange, show a light."
A light! Doc's hand darted forward, the hypodermic in it. He felt the needle encounter flesh, sink in. The man shrieked, above him, and Turner's hand squeezed, his palm driving the plunger home. A prayer streaked through his brain that the heavy dose of morphine had found a vein, an artery.
His victim twisted, the syringe pulling out of Doc's grip, and a lashing foot thudded against the wall where the druggist had been crouched.
"Ange! Ange!" the man screamed. "Someone ees here. Someone ees stabba in—" the words choked in his throat. He crashed down as the narcotic took effect, crashed down against the druggist, slamming him against the farther door. Footsteps pounded beyond it, reverberant.
Doc pulled himself free of his unconscious antagonist, whirled to where the door must be. But the coming footfalls stopped short of it, rusty hinges squeaked, the druggist jerked the portal open, saw a dim-lit hall, saw a tall form vanish through a doorway. A child shrilled terror and Turner whisked into the corridor, darted to the room door whence that scream had come.
The murk within revealed a black figure stooping over a bed, showed a hand sweeping downward, light-glint on dagger steel making an arc in the gloom. Doc vented an inarticulate cry, exploded from his feet, catapulted through the air. His hand, flailing before him in that wild lunge, found and clutched a wrist, the knife-wrist of the baby-killer, jerked it away from the screaming little form on the bed. Doc's body crashed into the tall man, the momentum of his dive knocking both to the floor.
A wild melee whirled on that splintered floor. A fist pounded at Doc's old frame, and a bestial growl sounded in his ear. The druggist's grip on the knife-wrist tightened, he bowed his head and took the hammer blows of his antagonist on his white skull. A jabbing knee pounded into his groin and agony shot through him. The wrist to which he clung jerked away, pulling him over on his back.
He saw a distorted, snarling face just above him, drooping black mustachios making it walrus-like. A thin stiletto plunged down at him. Peppina screamed.
Doc heaved, rolled, his sudden motion taking him out from under the darting dagger. His arm struck a chair leg, he clutched it, and hurled. It thudded against the form of his antagonist. Leaping after him, Doc sprang erect, galvanized to new energy by his peril, by the screams of the infant whose life depended on his victory.
His hand flashed into his pocket, came out with a fistful of thin glass ampoules and smashed them into the face, the eyes, of the other. They splintered, cut Doc's fingers, cut into the delicate retina of his antagonist. The man shrieked, the stiletto clanked to the floor and his hands came up to his eyes, clawed at them. "Blind!" the fellow shrieked. "I blind!"
Doc staggered away, snatched at the little girl on the bed, slung her to his shoulder and whirled out, slamming the door behind him. He heard the fellow tumbling about within, fumbling for an exit, heard his agonized yells. Feet pounded below...
"Meester Toiner," Abie's faraway voice shrilled. "Meester Toiner, vere are you?"
"Up here Abie," Doc called. "Up here." He reeled against a wall, slid down along it. He was tired, tired. But Peppina was safe in his arms, Morris Street was safe. He sat there, cradling the little girl, hushing her cries.
A flashlight beam split the darkness, found him. "Dere you are," Abie sobbed, whipping out in front of the light-bearer. "Dere you are." He knelt to his employer. "Oi, Meester Toiner. Ven I heard it de noises ahp here I couldn't vait if de feefteen meenutes. I called de cops right avay. Undt here dey are."
There were more lights, dancing in the hallway. Doc saw blue uniforms, brass buttons. "There's a stiff out here on the back stairs, Sarge," a deep voice called. "An' a guy with his eyes all sliced up in this room."
Turner smiled wistfully. "The little children can eat again, Peppina. Do you hear, the little children can eat again."
The child reached a grubby hand to pull at Doc's bushy mustache, a hand from which one finger was missing. "Jelly- beans," she said. "More jelly-beans."
"Baht Meester Toiner," Abie asked, breathlessly. "How did you know it dey hadt her here?"
"A black cat told me who was the man that stole Peppina, Abie. A black cat."
"Ai! De enimals he talks mit alreddy. De kets!"
"No, son. I don't talk with them. But the cat told me anyway. You see, some of the medicine spilled on the man's legs when he kidnapped Peppina. It contained anise. And cats are crazier for anise than they are for catnip. So when I saw a black cat keep coming back to lick at the fellow's trousers in spite of the way he kicked it away, I knew that he must be the right one. I followed him and he led me to the little girl."
Abie gestured to the crowding policemen. "Look at heem," he shrilled. "Look at my boss. Smart like Solomon he ees. Und ah fighter! Oi! I betcha Maxie Baer he could lick alreddy yet."
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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