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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

DOC TURNER'S BOTTLE TRAP

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A DOC TURNER STORY



First published in The Spider, January 1936

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version Date: 2017-12-22
Produced by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

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The Spider, January 1936, with "Doc Turner's Bottle Trap"



They were two old fools, most people agreed. Old Doc Turner, the druggist, and Old Doc Reid, the physician. But they believed that the teeming humanity on Morris Street had certain sacred rights, and they were willing to die to defend their people...



DR. ROBERT REID straightened, his gaunt, raw-boned frame unfolding until, even though the shoulders from which his frayed coat loosely hung were wearily age-stooped, his silver-thatched head towered high above the man and woman who watched him. His faded eyes rested on his small patient for a moment, then wandered somehow covertly around the room.

The baby whined weakly; very tiny, very pathetic on the great double bed whose once-white iron posts were stippled by flyspecks. The flush on the infant's chubby cheeks, the gray patch around his wee, heat-cracked lips, betrayed a fever that robbed him of strength to more than whine in petulant, incessant protest against uncomprehended discomfort.

The splintered, unscrubbed floor had no covering. The rumpled bed and a rickety, paint-peeled kitchen chair summed up the chamber's furnishings. Despite a window open on a narrow, dusk-filled airshaft, the atmosphere was heavy with the rancid odor peculiar to penniless habitations, and even the light from a single un-shaded bulb was grimy and starved. In Morris Street's teeming slum warrens, the long years had shown Reid numberless such rooms—which was exactly why certain otherwise small incongruities fairly shouted at him a warning that something besides illness menaced the fretting, helpless babe.

"Well, Doc?" the woman asked. Her lips moved very slightly, as though she feared to crack the enamel of rouge and powder that made of her countenance a bedizened false-face. "What's wrong with the brat?" The artificial yellow glitter of her hair was no harder than the agate hardness of her eyes. "Nothing much, is there?" There was anxiety in her tone, but the aged physician sensed that it concerned not so much the child as some secret, selfish interest of her own.

"Nothing much," he agreed, his gaze going back to the infant. The fine-textured flannel of his nightie, its precise, delicate hand-stitching, were as utterly out of tune with the surroundings as a diamond tiara would have been on the head of one of the women tending the Morris Street pushcarts on a Saturday night. "Only an upset stomach. You've changed his diet recently, haven't you? His water?"

"What the hell's that to you?" the man growled. "You just tell us what to do for him and don't ask too damn' many questions." His wizened, undersized body had tensed, and his sharp-featured, fox-like face was darkened with inexplicable resentment. "No call for you to get nosy."

Dr. Reid shrugged. "Cut his formula in half and boil all his water. Give him an enema," his fingers slid into a side-pocket, "and—"

"Hey!" the man's ejaculation cut across the physician's voice. "What the...?" His own hand slid under the lapel of his coat, remained there as the woman grabbed his elbow.

"Joe," she snapped. "You fool! He's only—"

"—give him five drops of this in his bottle every three hours," Reid finished, as even-toned as though he had not noticed the byplay. He had produced a prescription pad, and now he was inditing the cabalistic symbols of his profession. "He will be all right in the morning, Mr.—?"

He paused, inquiringly.

"Jones," the man supplied. "Joe Jones." Ominously, he made no effort to conceal the fact that he was lying.


THE doctor ripped the slip from the pad, handed it to him. "If he's not over it, you can call me again in the morning." He buttoned his coat, picked up his black bag and hat from the foot of the bed. "Take the prescription to Turner's, on Morris Street." He sighed, wearily. "I'll be going home now."

"No, you won't!" An evil grin pulled Jones' thin lips apart to display yellow, crowded teeth. "Not home." Magically a blue-barreled automatic was in his hand, was snouting point-blank at the physician's midriff. "Not anywhere you can use a phone to the cops."

The room froze to brittle silence. Dr. Reid's glance flickered to the crying infant, came back to fasten on the vulpine visage confronting him. The woman's gaze clung to his still, emotionless face, and oddly there was something like fear in her veiled eyes.

The gun-wielder was the first to speak. "You wasn't foolin' me none. I see what you was thinkin'." He grinned again, humorlessly, with pride in his shrewd cunning. "You tumbled to somethin' queer the minute you come in. But it ain't goin' to do you no good."

"If I don't return shortly, my wife will get worried and notify the police. I always tell her where I am going when I have a night call."

A mocking smile licked Jones' fleshless mouth. "That's baloney no matter how you slice it. You ain't got no wife, and there's nobody else lives with you. That's why I picked on you. You won't be missed before tomorrow, an' we'll be in another hideout. We'd be there now, if the kid hadn't took sick."

The white-haired old man was not yet defeated. "You don't dare shoot me. The sound will be heard and..."

"Hell. This is the top floor. Time anyone gets the door down, we'll be up the fire escape an' over the roofs."

"It's freezing cold outside, and the child will undoubtedly get pneumonia and die on your hands. You don't want that, or you would never have called me."

"Oh, yeah? Mame got chicken-hearted an' I took a chance, but I'm not takin' any more. If there's trouble, he gets a knife across his neck and goes down a sewer."

There was no slightest possibility of doubt that Jones meant just what he said. Some vestige of feminine pity had impelled the woman to seek relief for the fevered infant but in a showdown greed would overbalance that—greed and the certainty of capture. Reid shrugged again.

"It seems to be a Hobson's choice of both our deaths or mine alone. All right. What do you want me to do?"

"Walk downstairs with me, nice an' quiet. Then we'll take a little ride—from which you won't come back." Jones moved aside for the doctor to pass him. "But this gat'll be in my pocket, an' it'll be nosin' right at you. If you get any notions, remember the kid gets a knife across his gullet, first sign o' trouble."

The physician moved steadily to the door. Just before going out he paused. There was no tremor in his voice as he said to Mame, "I lied to you about how sick the child is. If he doesn't get the medicine, he probably will not live till morning." The child was still whining, and his silky brown hair lay in small, tight curls, damp-flattened on his pain-puckered little forehead.


ANDREW TURNER straightened a card advertising cold cures that stood near the cash register on the sales counter of his pharmacy. He was tired after a busy day. He was always tired now.

The years since he had first come to this corner were a long, dim vista like the narrowing, tall poplars he had once seen in a painting, marching along the borders of a misty road in France. He would like to have seen the pictured scene with his own eyes. He would like to have seen many things. But they had needed him here, the bewildered-eyed, poverty-stricken aliens of Morris Street.

He had been their only friend, their guide in the strange ways of a strange land, their protector against the slavering-lipped coyotes who prey on the ignorant and the helpless. Many times that self-imposed task had taken him out of his drowsy drugstore into wild adventures that seemed utterly foreign to his slight, frail figure, to his mild blue eyes and filmy crown of snowy hair.

There were those behind prison bars who had learned to their cost that it did not pay to trifle with Doc Turner's people, and there were others to whom that lesson, or any other, meant nothing forevermore.

After a while the word had whispered through the underworld, and a warning barrier had been erected around Morris Street and the sleazy blocks stemming from it. A deadline the coyotes dared not cross. Doc Turner's Deadline. For months, now, he had not heard the call to battle.

Perhaps that was why he was feeling so old tonight—so futile—like a superannuated war-horse fretting in his green and peaceful pasture. Doc's gnarled, acid-stained fingers tugged at his drooping mustache. If...

The opening store door cut across his meditations. Turner didn't know the man who came in, his runted frame enveloped in a thick ulster, his pulled-down hat brim shadowing a pointed, fox-like face. But the old man's nostrils flared a bit as might those of the metaphoric war-horse at the rumble of distant gunfire.

The man's hand came out of his coat pocket to thrust a prescription at Doc Turner. "How long'll it take you to make this up?"

"Just a minute," the druggist answered, "and I'll see." He was an old fool. Just because he had never seen a customer before it did not mean that he was a crook. He recognized Robert Reid's cramped chirography. They had come to Morris Street the same month, young and hopeful. Now they had a bet on, a bottle of Napoleon brandy older than either, as to which would leave Morris Street first. Bob always chuckled that he should give Andrew odds, flirting with gunman's lead as the pharmacist always was, while the physician plodded on his dreary, uneventful round...

This prescription called for Dr. Reid's usual baby's stomach mixture—something tightened inside Doc Turner's skull, but his face did not change. "About half an hour," he said tonelessly. "Shall I send it?"

"I'll wait, but snap it up." The fellow glanced at a watch on his wrist. "I'm in a hurry."

"I'll get at it right away, but I have to send out something first." Turner raised his voice calling: "Abe!"

"Vot ees, Meester Toiner?" A dirt-stiff curtain across the back-room doorway jerked aside, and a knickerbockered, swarthy youngster emerged. "I vas choost goink home." His kinky hair was a bushy, stygian cap for his head, his nose a bold, hooked promontory.

"Wrap up a bottle of Nastin's Coughex and deliver it to Mrs. Ferrone. It's paid for, and you needn't come back."

"Oi!" Abe's shrewd, black eyes darted to the stranger and back again to Doc as though signaling secret comprehension. "Fahr shoor. Vy not?" He trotted to a shelf, reached down a faded blue carton, and Doc went back to his prescription counter, satisfied that his message would be safely carried.


FOR it was a message—not to a mythical Italian housewife but to a barrel-bodied, carrot-topped young auto mechanic in the garage around the corner. Jack Ransom would know something was up when he received it, would know that again Doc Turner was starting out on some foray and was calling for his help.

The obsolete cough mixture was a message—and this prescription was a message, too. A message—Doc felt gelid fingers squeezed his heart—from the dead!

He read it again: Paregoric—one dram, Tincture Ginger—twenty drops, Syrup Raspberry—enough to make three ounces. So far, an ordinary compound for an infant's disturbed digestion. But where the directions should have appeared were words in clumsy Latin, such words as never in all the long history of pharmacy had been written after the heiroglyphic Sig:

"Infans in periculo est," the scrawled writing ran. "Cave. Sp. fruct. mihi buveris timeo. Reid, M. D."

Andrew Turner's seamed countenance was a bleak mask as he translated the startling screed. "The infant is in danger. Look out. I fear you will drink the brandy to me."

The brandy—it was the stake of Doc's wager with kindly old Robert! I fear I am about to die, was what Bob meant. If that fear had not been realized, Reid would have somehow gotten word to him of his safety. There was no such word.

Mechanically, Turner assembled graduate and glass stirring rod, the various bottles called for by Doctor Reid's last prescription. The clink of glass against glass was intended to reassure the man outside.

From outside, there was the drumming of impatient fingers on showcase glass and then the sound of someone entering. The pharmacist glanced through a peephole in the back-room partitions, saw that the stranger had jerked around, that his right hand had slipped within his coat's lapel, saw Jack Ransom's squat powerful form coming toward the rear.

A grimace of exasperation crossed Turner's face, and he called out: "Just a minute, sir. I'll be right out."

Jack halted, looked fumblingly around the store. "I just wanted a telephone, mister."

He had understood the warning! "The booth's in front, near the door," Doc responded. Ransom turned, went to the cubicle as if intent only on making a call, shutting the door on himself. There was the ping of a nickel dropping into the slot. The other man relaxed, but Doc sensed an aura of furtive wariness about him, the sly vigilance of a hunted but vicious rat.

Doc looked along the row of shelf-bottles before him, reached down another container, let a single drop of clear liquid fall from it into the almost finished mixture, and gave it a final twirl with the stirring rod. This too was peculiar. To add an uncalled-for ingredient to a prescription violated every canon of his ancient profession.


HE strained the compound into a three-ounce bottle, extracted a cork from a drawer. Then he did a third strange thing. Before inserting the stopper into the bottleneck, he cut a tiny furrow in the cork's side with a razor-edged knife. A minuscule trough that would be unnoticeable to anyone not looking definitely for such a flaw. And he did not tie the usual parchment cap over it.

He worked quickly now, inditing the usual directions: five drops in water or milk every three hours; pasting on the label. Ransom's stay in the phone booth must not be suspiciously prolonged.

It was finished. "I got through more quickly than I expected," Turner said evenly as he returned to the front of the store. "Is there anything else?"

"No!" the man said, and he was gone in an instant. Starter-burr came muffled through the door, and Turner's peering eyes saw a small black coupe slide away from the curb.

"What's up?" Ransom was out of the booth, coming toward him.

"Jack! You've bungled things this time—but I can't blame you. I had no way of letting you know to stay outside and follow him when he left."

The red-headed chap grinned. "Don't worry. While the guy was watchin' me with his fingers on the butt of his armpit gun, Abie was sliding into the trunk on his car. We'll soon know where he went. What's wrong?"

"Dr. Reid has been killed, and that fellow is his murderer!"

Ransom's freckles were startling blotches against the colorless background of his cheeks, and his great hands fisted. "Good Lord! And you let him get away?"

"I had to. To save another life. A baby's, Jack. Come in here now." The youth followed Turner into the backroom, stared in puzzlement at the white slip the aged pharmacist shoved at him. "Look at this!"

"I—it's Greek to me, Doc."


"LATIN, Jack, not Greek. The baby is in danger, is what it says. Beware. Reid wrote that right under the eyes of those who threaten the child, right under their guns I have no doubt."

"But—but it sounds screwy to me. If they were going to kill the kid, why did they call a doctor for it?"

"Because they don't want it to die unless its remaining alive threatens them."

"By Jove, I've got it! The kid's been snatched. But there isn't anything in the papers about—"

"Naturally. Despite all the urging of the police and the government, parents aren't gambling with the life of their child against possible capture of its kidnappers. They've been told to keep quiet, and they're keeping quiet.

"But something may happen at any minute to scare them into killing the babe. It's up to us, Jack, once more, and this is the most ticklish proposition we've ever been up against."

"Gosh, Doc, I—"

Ransom never finished his sentence. The slam of the store door cut him off, and a boyish, shrill voice shouted, "Meester Toiner! Jeck!"

Doc's fingers dug into the Abe's arm. "Well? Where did he go?"

"Two fordty Hogbund Place. Vot you t'eenk Jeck?"

"Come on, Doc." Ransom didn't wait to let Abe finish. "Let's go. I've got the flivver ready!"


THE rattletrap machine bucked along under the trestle of the "El," whose shadow netted the rubbish-strewn gutter of Morris Street, then nosed around a corner into the tenement walled, garbage-odored narrow ravine of Hogbund Place. "Two-forty's in the next block, Doc. I used to live there, and I know every inch of the house."

"I know. Run past it without stopping." Turner's tone was slow, musing. "I wish Abe had spotted the right flat."

"What the hell? A couple questions will locate it for us. Then we'll barge in and..."

"Find a baby with its throat cut and the birds flown. It's not as simple as that and—good Lord!" The ejaculation was a groan. "Look at that."

"What's the matter?" Jack did not have to be told not to turn his head as they clattered past the broken-stepped stone stoop of the decrepit tenement that was their objective, but he managed to get a look at it from the corner of his eyes. "Jimminy! A lookout!"

The sweatered fellow leaning against the post of that stoop was no different from other idlers along the sleepless slum thoroughfare. But the instinct of long experience told both the flivver's occupants what he was.

"Gosh, Doc, we've got to get in there. Maybe he won't spot us if we walk in like we knew just where we were going."

"And take the risk of the baby's death, if he does? We don't have to. Jack, there's some way we can get into that house without passing him, isn't there?"

"Sure. Through the house at the end of the block, over the back fences and into the cellar. But what good'll that do us? There's two flats to a floor and five floors. We've got to ask someone..."

"Leave that to me. Just let's get into the house."

Clotheslines, overhead, were peopled by pale, flapping ghosts. The younger man had to help the old druggist over fence after fence, but the two were silent phantoms flitting through the malodorous rear yards behind the tenements. Then they were in a dank basement, climbing ladderlike steps, and soon they had reached the dim-lit first floor of Two-forty Hogbund Place.

"What now?" Jack whispered.

Doc sniffed, for all the world like a hound searching for a scent. "Come on," he said, abruptly. "I've got it."

Jack looked puzzled, but long ago he had learned to obey his aged leader implicitly. They were climbing again soundlessly, up stair steps covered by frayed, napless carpeting, past landing after landing on which paint-peeled doors were closed and mysterious. Up and up, following some mystical trail perceptible only to the frail, silvery-haired old man. The murky well through which they ascended was musty with the smells of unwashed bodies, of yesterday's cabbage and onions, of the community toilets in the halls. But out of that welter of odors, Andrew Turner seemed to be picking some infinitesimal trace that was leading him straight to his quarry.

Or was he? There was only one flight more, and still the old man kept going. The back of Jack's neck prickled with the terrible thought that Doc was breaking up, that the years were taking their toll and senility had overtaken his keen mind at last. This was—insane—the way he was sniffing, sniffing like a dog...! The nerve-shaking speculation cut off, midway of that last flight, as Doc stopped, crouching.

"Listen," he breathed.


FROM above, from the top floor of that tenement, came the door-muffled faint whine of a sick child. Of a sick—good Lord!—of the child they sought!

The youth's doubts fell away from him, and he crouched too, listening. "It's the rear flat," he whispered. "There's only two rooms. The kitchen-living room and a bedroom. The baby sounds far away, must be in the bedroom."

"Where's the fire escape."

"At the window of the bigger room. The other one looks out on an airshaft."

For the space of a heartbeat, Turner was silent. Then: "No good. We've got to make sure the child's safe before we start anything. There's only one way. I'll have to get in there and do my best to hold them off while you go for the police. The lookout won't expect anyone to come at him from behind, and you can dispose of him easily. Get going."

"But Doc..." Doc wasn't there to hear Jack's protest. He was already on the upper landing, was knocking at the door of the flat where death hovered over a little child.

"Who's there?" The gruff voice from inside was that of the man who had been in his store. "Whaddya want?"

"Turner, the druggist. Open up, quick." The old man's voice was high-pitched, thin with excitement. "For God's sake!"

The door opened, and Doc was inside. "Have you given the child the medicine?" he blurted, snatching at the man's arm. "Have you given it?" His eyes were dilated, his lips trembling. He looked like one in the grip of fright and horror.

"Yes." The woman, Mame, popped out of an inner doorway. "Just did. What's the matter?"

Turner's arm flung away from his sides, in a gesture of despair. "Oh, God! He's poisoned. I've poisoned him. I made a mistake—first one in twenty years."

Jones slammed the door shut. His face was livid. "You old fool...!"

"I know. I'm all that." The pharmacist threw himself across the room. "But there's no time for calling names now. We've got to save him. Mustard. Have you got mustard?" He snatched at the closet door, pulled it open. There was nothing within it; the shelves were dust-covered, bare. "We've got to make an emetic, bring it up." He whirled away, started for the door where the woman stood, her face paling under its mask of cosmetics. "Where is he? In here?"

"Yes," she gasped. "In..." As he reached the doorway he was jubilant. He was getting away with it. He could stretch this out till Jack...

"Hold up, you!" The man's command was a sudden, savage bark. "Go in there, and I'll plug you."

Doc twisted around to see a flat, blued automatic aiming at him point-blank. "What... what's the idea?" he blurted.

"The baby—"

"Damn the baby!" Jones' snarl was feral, vindictive. "The baby's no more poisoned than I am."


CHILL prickles scampered up and down Doc's spine. He had made a mistake, somehow he had made a fatal mistake. There wasn't time for Jack to have gotten the reinforcements he sought, not nearly enough time. He must keep them in play longer, much longer.

"But I tell you I put too much opium in the prescription. He'll pass out if we don't do something quick."

"Go on, wise guy. It's a good line. But you'll have to make it better before I fall for it. As to how, for one, you found us so quick—? There wasn't no name or address on the prescription. I made sure of that."

Was that all? That was easy. "Why, I phoned Dr. Reid's office and..."

"Oh, yeah? You phoned the doc's office, an' his wife what he ain't got told you where he went. Listen, mister, he tried that one, too, and it didn't go down. Guess I'll have to put you where he is."

"Joe!" Mame exclaimed. "He ain't workin' this alone. He must of tipped the cops, an' if you try to take him out—"

"Hell. Then we won't take him out. We'll leave him here. Back up, mister."

"But...?"

"Back into that room, I said, or I'll let you have it here, in the guts. Mame—get busy. Your knife."


THERE was nothing for Doc but to obey. He backed slowly, trying even now to stretch time out, to win time enough for help to come.

"Step on it, Mame," the man with the gun lipped. "We've got to slide out pronto." A sadistic, humorless grin twisted his features. "Let him see what he's done."

"Joe, I can't!"

"You can't, huh? Maybe you'd like some lead in your own belly, too? It's all the same to me, one less way to split."

"All right. If I got to... Good Lord!" She wasn't coming towards Doc with that knife. She was gliding across to the baby.

"No!" Doc screamed, and he was off his feet, diving for the murderess.

Orange-blue flame lashed from the man's automatic. Red agony stabbed Doc's hip, slammed him to the floor. The staggering woman was back at the bedside. She blocked the gunner's aim, but she still had her knife. It arced up—

Then glass smashed, and a form leaped in from the window, catapulted onto the bed, slammed into Mame.

The gat spoke again, ploughing up a long splinter from the floor. The woman and—and Jack!—were a tossing, inextricable heap across the bed, her screams mingling with the infant's terrified wails, and the gunman was dancing around trying to get a clear shot at Jack or the babe. Doc rolled, got hands on the thug's ankles, pulled at them. The man toppled heavily down on the little druggist. The gun sounded again, its bark curiously muffled.

And the body weighing Doc down was curiously inert, curiously flaccid. The druggist pushed it from him, achingly, pain stabbing him from the wound in his hip, swamping him with a minute's vertigo.

"Shot himself, by jingo," Jack's voice said over him. "Right in the head with the bullet he meant for me! Doc, are you all right?"

The pharmacist put his hand to his side, brought it away wet and gory. "Nothing much." He smiled wanly. "Just a flesh wound. Might have been—lots worse. You got here just in time, Jack."

The youth's face lit up. "I figured you'd need help quicker than I could slough down the lookout, find some cops, and get them up five flights of stairs. So I went up to the roof instead and swung myself down from the cornice. Just managed to get a toe-hold on the window sill, but I did manage it."

"If you had slipped!" Doc shuddered. "You shouldn't take chances like that, my boy."

"No?" Ransom grinned, looking meaningfully from the old man to the automatic still clutched in the kidnapper's dead hand.

"I shouldn't take chances! But there's someone knocking at the door, if I'm not mistaken."


KNOCKING was a mild word for it. The flat door was being battered down. "Hold it," Jack shouted and strode across the kitchen to open it and admit a white-faced janitor, a policeman with drawn pistol, and Abe. "Come in," he said. "But you're a little late for the show."

Then he was shouting down a clamor of questions, splurting half-understood explanations. In the midst of them, Doc appeared in the bedroom doorway, white-faced and swaying, with the baby in a crooked and tender arm.

"We've got to find out who he is," he ventured. "There's a weeping mother somewhere..."

"On Garden Avenoo," Abe broke in. "Dot's vat I vanted to tell you, Jeck, ven you run out undt vouldn't let me feenish. I hoid on Goldberg's Music Store radeeo dot de Gorgan baby vas keednapped dees morneeng..."

"Old J. P. Gorgan's grandson!" Jack exploded. "Gosh. Lemme touch him. Maybe I'll rub off some of the gold. Hey, Doc, that reminds me. What the hell was you smellin' in the hall out there."

Turner smiled faintly, and there was an amused twinkle in his eyes. "Anise, Jack. I put a drop of oil of anise in the bottle of medicine and fixed the cork so that it would leak a little and get on the wrapping paper. If you were a druggist as long as I, you'd be able to follow that smell through all the odors from the Morris Street pushcarts on Saturday night. The fellow in there had two old fools to deal with. But one tricked him into carrying a message, and the other into making the trail that licked him." He broke off. "Listen!"

There was a moment's silence. Then Jack said, "I didn't hear anything except the baby."

Doc Turner smiled again, somehow wistfully. "Maybe not. But I thought I heard a chuckle, like old Bob Reid's chortle at one of his own sly jokes."


THE END


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