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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

FORMULA FOR FEAR

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A DOC TURNER STORY



First published in The Spider, May 1936

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-01-24
Produced by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

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The Spider, May 1936, with "Formula for Fear"



For more years than he cared to remember, Doc Turner, the druggist, had battled slinking crime on Morris Street—the crime which preys on the hopeless poor. But it took a fat witch and her crippled, halfwit son to teach him a ghastly—formula for fear!



THE "EL" trestle cast its flat and heavy shadow on the debris strewn gutter. The sidewalk in front of the old pharmacy on Morris Street was filmed with an oil grime to which clung the odor of the slums; an invisible miasma of decayed pushcart refuse, of unwashed feet and toil-sweaty bodies, of the diseases that breed where there is too little sun—and too little food.

Furtive beneath these, wan and secret as toadstools under dank forest greenery, lay the fusty smell of those slinking crimes with which poverty seeks to assuage its gnawing, hopeless hunger.

For more dreary years than he cared to recall, Andrew Turner had breathed that stench, and fruitlessly, had striven to dissipate it. But, white-haired and stooped and fragile in the doorway of his drugstore, it was not now present to his consciousness. His eyes of faded blue peered eagerly into the tunnel like gloom of the bustling avenue, and under his bushy, nicotine stained mustache a faint sank of anticipation softened the thin austerity of his pale lips.

There they came, the two for whom he was waiting. They brought a burst of sunshine into the murk, a breath of life's springtime "Doc" Turner had thought never to know again. Ann Fawley, granddaughter of his lost love, was slim, and petite and elfin faced—to match his nostalgic memory of the time when Morris Street was an elm shaded suburban thoroughfare and he and the world were young. At her side, Daphne Papolos skipped, the little orphaned girl for whom childhood's crowded, happy days had already obliterated recollection of the tragedy that had made her Ann's ward, the nightmare of torture and murder from which the aged pharmacist had rescued her.


THEY crossed the street. Daphne plunged away from the older girl. Her schoolbag swinging, her black hair streaming back from a pinched, white face, she darted across the pavement and into the old man's arms.

"Gran'pa Turner!" she bubbled. "I got 'A' on my report card. I'm goin' to be on the honor roll."

"Isn't that wonderful?" Ann's lilting, sweet voice sparkled with pride. "Miss Raynor told me in the teacher's room today that Daphne's improvement has been remarkable. Her arithmetic especially is..."

"Look!" Daphne wrenched away from the old druggist, zipped her bag open on her knee, fumbled inside it. "I got a hundred on this week's test." Her hand came out with a yellow paper—a book spilled to the ground, and something vividly green struck her toe and rolled against the door jamb with a clink of glass. "Here it is!"

"You've dropped..." Turner, bending to pick up the book and the other thing, was abruptly silent. When he rose his face was grave.

"Where did you get this, Daphne?" He held a small, cylindrical green vial, which was capless, out to her. "Who gave it to you?" Tiny white crystals clung to the inside of the glass. The vial gave off a faint, acrid odor, unfamiliar to anyone but the aged pharmacist. To him it—was the smell of certain... Death!

Sarah, the child responded, carelessly. "Her medicine was all used up and she was going to throw it out, but it was pretty and I asked her for it. See, gran'pa, how hard these examples...?"

"Who is Sarah?"

"The drudge at the flat where we room," Ann answered Doc's question. "She's a—" She checked herself, but her red lips formed the words: halfwit.

"Sarah's nice," Daphne prattled. "But she's always tired. An' she has terrible pains in her head and her tummy. She wants to go to the clinic but Mrs. Falk says this medicine will make her better."

"I don't wonder she's tired." Indignation replaced the smile in Ann Fawley's hazel eyes. "Sarah does all the bed making, the dusting, the floor scrubbing and whatnot, for a cot in the kitchen and scraps to eat. Mary Falk does nothing at all but wait on her crippled son and scream at the poor old woman. And boast of how good and kind she is to give Sarah a home."

"But Ann, she pays a man money for her too; the man that comes around every Saturday morning." Her elder's interest in the servant was inexplicable to the youngster, but if that was the way to bring their attention back to herself, she would talk about Sarah too. "You're always still asleep when he comes and everyone else is out to work. Even Sarah doesn't know about him because Mrs. Falk always tells her to keep on cleaning the stove when he rings. But I peek through our door and see her give him a quarter for herself and forty-five cents for Sarah. He writes it down in two little books she has. He's from the Pru—Pru—... the Prudensh..."

"The Prudential Insurance Company! That's very int—" Doc broke off. "Daphne. On my desk in the prescription room is something I bought for you this morning. Go see what it is."

"Oh, gran'pa! You're so good to me!" She scampered into the store, between dusty old counters, vanished through a dark, dirt stiff curtain.

"What was in that little bottle, Doc?" Ann quavered with her eyes big, dark, and scared. "What is it?"


THE old pharmacist lifted the vial to his nose, sniffed again of the tell-tale odor. Then he spoke, slowly, grimly, his seamed countenance bleak and expressionless.

"Chloral hydrate. Not a deadly poison in small doses—but eventually fatal if long continued. It evaporates at body temperatures, so that an autopsy will not discover its presence unless performed immediately after death."

"What does it mean? What does it all mean?"

Doc shrugged. "A friendless, weak-minded woman is slowly being poisoned; an insurance policy on her life unknown to her. What can it mean?"

"Oh!" The exclamation was a breath bated, low whisper. "Horrible! We must get her out of there at once. We must..."

"Hush!" Doc hissed a quick, sibilant warning and then he was speaking over Ann's shoulder. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Falk. You look worried. Is anything the matter?"

"Matter enough!" Dough-yellow flesh bulged expansively out of the woman's sleazy gingham Mother Hubbard. Pendulous chins and pillow-like breasts jittered with the slap, slap of her down-at-heel slippers. "I got to call the morgue."

Ann whirled to her. "The morgue?"

"For Sarah. She lay down this mornin', right after you an' Daphne left for school, complainin' she was dizzy an' faint like. I tried to wake her up just now an' when I touched her she was cold as ice an' stiff as a board. I'm all over gooseflesh thinkin' that while Tommy an me was eatin' noon lunch there in the kitchen she must of been a corpse layin' right long side of us. It's all I can do not to give the kippers back thinkin' of it."

"You...!" Docs gnarled fingers dug into her arm to stifle Ann's exclamation.

"She's been lying dead three hours at least, without your knowing it?" His tone was very even. "No wonder you are upset. But why do you want to telephone the morgue? They'll bury her in Potter's Field."

"An' why not? If funerals was sellin' for a dime a dozen she wouldn't have enough to buy a coffin nail. Ain't I been feedin' an' sleepin' her for a year now out o my charity? Takin' the vittles for her right out o' my Tommy's mouth whose leg stumps achin' him so bad this minute he's cryin' with the pain of it."

"Are you sure she has no insurance?"

"Insurance!" Mary Falk's beady, fat drowned eyes darted to Turner's face for a brittle instant, found only bland, impersonal concern there. "Has an alley cat got insurance? That's what she was, an alley cat livin' out o garbage cans when I took her in."

"Ann!" Daphne's gay laugh trilled from the rear of the store. She was running toward them. "Isn't this monkey funny, Ann dear?" A stick jiggled in her small hands, and down it a furry puppet tumbled head over heels in ludicrous simulation of simian antics. "I'm going to call him..." The child reached them and was abruptly silent.


THE obese woman sniffed, slipped into the telephone booth. "You were rude to Mrs. Falk," Ann rebuked, stiff lipped. "You didn't say good afternoon to her." The responsibility of foster motherhood lay heavy on her small shoulders.

"I don't care." Daphne's tiny body shuddered. "She gives me the creeps. She's like the fat white slugs under the rocks in the park. She's—she's horrible."

"You're a naughty girl to say things like that. But I'll discuss it with you later. You play out on the sidewalk for a while, Grandpa Turner and I have something to talk about."

"May I go around the corner and see what Jack's doing in the garage?"

"Yes, I'll call for you there." Ann turned back to the old druggist. "What will we do? It's murder. We can't let her get away with it."

"We can't help ourselves. She's covered her traces too well. The medical examiner will find nothing, and if we question her being beneficiary of the policy she will claim that Sarah owed her more than its face value. But..."

The booth door rumbled open. "Don't you worry about havin' your room cleaned up, Miss Fawley," the subject of their interest called. "I'll do it myself this evenin' an' by tomorrow mornin' I'll have someone else to help. Lucky I know where I can get one just like Sarah, maybe better. You won't know the difference. Hello...?" The door closed again.

"Another! Oh God! She plans to do it again."

"She'll try again. Let her. We'll give her rope enough to hang herself. But you and Daphne must move. If she suspects you of..."

"We'll stay there." The girls little chin thrust forward. "I'll stay there and I'll catch her. You aren't the only one who can fight crime on Morris Street."

"But...!"

"It won't do you any good to argue. Tell me what I ought to do."

They whispered for a while, that oddly assorted couple, and then the girl with the elfin face was gone. Doc Turner watched her vanish around the corner, and for the first time in his life he was afraid. Not for himself...


"I WONDER what's keeping Ann?" Jack Ransom glanced impatiently at his wrist watch, about a month after Sarah's death, and fiddled with a pile of Sulphur and Cream of Tartar Lozenge boxes on Doc Turner's sales counter. The yellow rectangles toppled, Jack started to build them up again.

"She's all of five minutes late!" Doc smiled, teasingly. "An eternity—to a man in love." His eyes twinkled, examining the barrel-chested young mechanic who was his good right hand in his forays against the crooks who preyed on the helpless poor of Morris Street. Jack's carrot hued hair was plastered tight to his scalp, his good-humored face shone from vigorous polishing that had not succeeded in eradicating the freckles sprayed across the bridge of his nose. A white, starched collar pinched his columnar neck and his blue suit had been pressed till it was shiny.

"All right," Ransom growled. "I'm in love. So what?"

"So God bless you both." Andrew Turner probed the counter edge with an acid stained thumb. "Why don't you marry her, son, and get her out of that place?"

"I would in a minute. But she says she had to stay there to save Jane Carter's life. Can you tie that Doc? She's pushing off our happiness because she's got an idea that old imbecile is in danger. Maybe you two are right about the way Sarah died, but the Falk woman wouldn't chance it again. She got away with it once and..."

"I've been doing a little quiet investigating, Jack. There's five hundred dollars insurance on Jane's life in the John Hancock. There's no medical examination on those small weekly policies, you know, and not much to-do about proof of death. Five hundred dollars, with Mary Falk the beneficiary."

"Five hundred dollars," Jack repeated, "for murder?"

"For murder," Doc nodded, quietly. "But it's not coming off so easily this time. Jane has the same sort of headaches as Maggie had, and her mistress is giving her the same sort of medicine. But Ann is substituting for it a harmless compound I've given her. After awhile, Mary Falk is going to become impatient and try something else. That's when we'll get her red-handed and..."

"Ann's what?" The pyramid he had erected crashed down again under a convulsive outfling of the youth's hand. "Doc! If that fat witch catches her...!" He spun to the opening sound of the store door. It wasn't Ann who came in; it was Abie, Doc's swarthy, hook-nosed errand boy. The urchin's bright black eyes looked worried.

"Jeck," he piped. "Ain't eet you got a date weeth Mees Fawley to go to a dence?"

"Yes. Of course. That's why I sent you up with those flowers for her."

"Hmmm! Dot's funny."

Jack's heavy foot pounded on the floor, and he had hold of Abe's scrawny shoulder. "What's funny, you brat? What are you blathering about?"

"Tommy Falk took eet de flowers from me. I said I should geeve dem to her poisonally und he said she was asleep alretty; she had to be een school early tomorrow fahr a teechers meeting. Den I said I never hoid from a teacher's meeting before school opened und he made a pess at me weeth hees crutch und slemmed de door."

"Do you hear that, Doc?" Jack flung Abe headlong from him, and there was no longer any good nature in his countenance. "It's happened!" The youth strode toward the entrance.

"Wait, Jack!" Doc swept around the end of the sales counter. "Wait for me." He caught up with the youth on the sidewalk, threw a hurried, "Lock up, Abe," over his shoulder. Then the two were trotting through the polyglot clamor of Morris Street, an incongruous couple made one by a common, tearing anxiety.

"Go easy, my boy," Andrew Turner panted. "Charging in there like a bull might do her more harm than good."

"The hell with going easy!" the other snarled. "I'm going in to get her, and the devil help anyone who tries to stop me." He lurched away from Doc, lunged up chipped brownstone steps to a high stoop between two store fronts. The dimness of a furtive vestibule swallowed him. Taking the inside stairs two at a time, Jack was not aware of the fact that for once the old man was hanging back, was aware of nothing but the paint-peeled, drab door in the murk of a pinpoint gas flame on the first landing.

His knuckles battered against that door. "Open up!" he bellowed. "Open up!"


THERE wasn't any answer. There was dead silence behind the blistered wood. Jack rattled the knob. The door wasn't locked! It swung inward to his thrust. Warm, fetid air gusted out of revealed darkness.

"Ann?" Ransom roared. "Ann!"

Badly hung, the door shut itself behind him. The darkness was velvety, thumbing his eyes. Fabric rasped against wallpaper, behind him. Jack whirled...

Something whizzed by his head, struck his shoulder a numbing blow. It would have crunched his skull like an eggshell had he not heard that slither of warning and started to turn. Someone breathed heavily. A blacker bulk was formless in the blackness. The thing struck again. Jack caught it on the palm of his left hand, his right was powerless, felt its shape before it was wrenched from his fingers. Round, and cold and hard. A stick. No, there had been rubber at its end, spread rubber such as crutches are tipped with. The rubber was in his hand.

It was a crutch. It stabbed at him, drove agonizingly into his stomach. It was Tommy Falk's crutch! Tommy Falk was propped somehow, on his one leg, and was battering at Jack in the stygian lightlessness. The crutch end gashed Ransom's cheek. The thing was a murderous weapon, now that its metal ferrule was bared, a club and a spear combined. He who wielded it was a cripple, but Jack couldn't get near him, couldn't get hands on him, because that whirring, stabbing crutch filled the space between with whizzing death.

Tommy was holding him there, was playing with him, while God alone knew what was happening to Ann. But if Jack turned to search for her the crutch would find its mark.

Blinding rage at his own futility was a red blaze in Jack Ransom's brain, seeped away again. If he couldn't see his antagonist, he realized, the other couldn't see him. He spatted the palm of his good hand against the wall, high up, and dropped, silent as he could manage, to his knees. He lurched forward, under the sough of the flailing crutch, flinging his arm out ahead of him. His groping fingers found a shoe, clutched an ankle. He tugged. A meaty thud pounded the floor, the clatter of a stick. Jack felt a body thresh against him, felt fists batter blindly against his arm.

White-hot pain seared his right shoulder as he hunched forward, bone rasped against broken bone. But his left hand had found a sinewy throat. Its fingers tightened, crushing voice box gristle. Breath whistled from laboring lungs, cut off.

"Got you!" Jack grunted through teeth gritted against the torture in his shoulder. "Got...!"

A ton weight crashed against the back of his head, crashed blackness; whirling, vertiginous blackness; into his brain...


JACK RANSOM'S head was a balloon filled with pain and an acid tipped auger bored into his shoulder. "Gee maw," a voice whined somewhere in the weltering tide of agony on which he floated. "Me troat still hoits where he had hold of it. Lemme hand him one fer dat."

"Wait till he wakes up, Tommy. It wouldn't be no satisfaction 'less he knew." Buttery, fat quenched tones. "Wasn't for your wantin' to get even with him, I'd finish him up now, while he's asleep. But we'll wait."

"Gee, maw. You hit him an awful sock..."

"What are you going to do to us?" Ann Fawley's accents were icy prongs, stabbing into Jack's brain. "What...?"

"Ann!" Ransom shouted—tried to shout. His mouth was full of a cottony something that buried the sound and his arms, his legs, held him down against the explosion of his muscles that tried to lift him. But his eyes could open...

Ann lay bound on a bed across the room from where he lay on the floor, and between them, Mary Falk loomed, mountainous and evil. A man, one-legged but bull bodied, was propped on crutches, yellow save where one was blood smeared.

"He's awake, maw." Tommy whined. "Now kin I do it? Now?"

"Wait, Tommy. I'd like her to know what's goin' to happen, the snoopy, meddlin' thing. An' him too, bustin' in my door like as if there was no privacy anywheres." Mrs. Falk turned to Ann. "You want to know what's goin' to happen, don't you, dearie? You asked."

"I asked." Assent squeezed through the girls tight, colorless lips. "I should like to know how vile a murderess—"

"Murderess, is it?" A ham like hand slapped across the girl's white cheek, left it an angry red. "That'll teach you to call names."

"I said murderess." Ann's voice was low, defiant. "Do you deny you smothered that poor thing with a pillow?" Arms eyes shifted to a corner.


DAPHNE! The thought lightninged through Jack's mind, was discarded as he remembered the girl was to spend the night with a friend. Who then? He squirmed, and saw a crumpled, cadaverous heap under the windowsill, straggly, sparse hair veiling a gaunt face. Jane Carter...!

"Sure I did," Mary Falk was replying. "An' I did for Sarah too. But you won't tell nobody about it." She leaped forward, as quick as an enormous catamount, muffled Ann's scream with a hand like a blob of chalky clay. When she straightened, the girl was gagged too. "Your mouth'll be shut, an we'll have a nice story to tell the cops. Listen to this, Tommy. You've got to remember it."

"Yes maw, I'm listenin'. But when kin I start in on him?"

"Soon now, my son. Listen, honey, to your lovin' mother. Here's what happened tonight. We was a settin' in the kitchen when we heard a funny kind o' noise inside. I tell Jane to go in and see what it is. She goes out an after awhile we think she's been gone too long. So you come in to see what's what.

"You knock on the door o this room an' there's no answer. You knock again, an' still there's no answer. So you open it. This man's just climbin' out the fire-escape window. You holler and he comes in, jumps at you. You fight him off with your crutch. He's banged up enough for that to look likely. But there'll be another mark on him, in his eye. The end of your crutch went into his eye, you understand, an' killed him. When I come runnin' in you're a layin' on the floor, an Jane's a layin' in the corner, like she is, an' this spyin' school teacher is a layin' on the bed, an everybody but you looks dead."

"Dead?" The cripple gasped. "Gee! But how did they get that way? That is—I know how she did," he jerked a thumb at the window, "an' how he's goin' to, but she...?"

"No, you don't know yet how anyone passed out exceptin' the red-head. We figger it out for ourselves while were a hollerin' for the cops. Jane must have found them in bed together. He wants to give her money to keep quiet, but she was too dumb to take it so he drags her in an' starts smotherin' her with the pillow. His sweetheart tries to drag him off, without makin' no noise, an' he fetches her a sock an knocks her out."

"Knocks her...? Then she ain't goin' to be dead?"


"NO. Death's too good for the likes o' her. She'll be a shame and a disgrace in the eyes of all Morris Street, an nobody'll believe anythin' she says about us. Her, naked in bed with a man, an' her key in his pocket. The nerve o' her, sendin' word by the boy that brings her flowers that she's goin' to be in bed! Teachin' little children!" She snickered, leeringly. "Can you imagine...!"

"Naked?" The cripple's tongue licked his thick lips. "Gee, maw...!"

"Never mind that. I'll attend to that. You know what you got to do and you been a whinin' for me to let you do it."

"All right. Watch me an' see I do it right." He started moving, gross, grotesque, gargoylesque in his deformity. His crutches thumped on the floor.

Jack rolled, throwing himself away from that thumping death. He could go no further than the wall...

Mary Falk laughed, and the crutches came on relentlessly. Something soft stopped Jack's roll, something soft and clammy and chill. Jane Carter's body! Thump. Thump. Thump. The cripple stood right above him, and the ferrule of the crutch glinted, driving at his face.

The corpse against which Jack had rolled stirred behind him, as if shocked back to gruesome life by the horror about to occur. The gleaming metal of the crutch ferrule expanded, stabbing at his eye, blotted out all vision. Ransom screamed against his gag and rolled the other way. His hands were miraculously free, were snatching at the single foot, the single crutch planted on the floor. Tommy yowled and crashed down on top of him. Jack was mixed up in a heaving tangle of wood and human flesh, and in the whirling chaos he caught sight of the fat murderess, suddenly immobile over Ann, her banana like fingers checked in their ripping of cloth from the girls ivory skin.

He glimpsed, as in a delirium, Doc Turner's pallid countenance floating toward the bed. There seemed to be a knife in the old man's hand...

Rancid smelling bulk blotted out the impossible vision, and a knee dug excruciatingly into Jack's belly, pinning him down. Red rimmed eyes glared down at him and fingers loathsomely soft with idleness clamped on his throat.

Jack Ransom battered with his one good fist at an arm rigid and unyielding as steel. His struggles were feebler. He couldn't breathe. Black spots danced on Tommy's slavering mouthed, contorted countenance. A scream that was a scarlet obscenity flickered through the haze. Tommy giggled, like Daphne playing with her monkey-on-a-stick. Knives sliced the gasping anguish inside Jack's chest, a purple darkness blanketed him...

He didn't feel—the strangling fingers—any longer. A dull peace descended on him—that was banished by the agony of air pulling into collapsed lungs. Doc's voice came flatly out of the purple, pulsing haze: "Jack! Jack! You're all right!" A sob in the age thinned voice. "You're all right, Jack?"

It couldn't be Doc! It was delirium only, hallucination of a mind sinking into final dissolution. "Jack!" Hands were tugging at him. "Wake up, Jack!"

He got his eyes open, somehow. Doc Turner's anxious countenance bent over him. But the old man was grotesque in a grimy, loose woman's garment of some kind that fluttered about his emaciated form. Beyond him, Tommy Falk lay sprawled on the floor and further away the mountainous bulk of his fiendish mother was horribly still. Ann, still bound, sat on the edge of the bed, her soul in her eyes.

A scraping sound pulled Jack's eyes back to the window. Someone was climbing in through it, from the fire escape outside. A sunken cheeked, straggly haired face jutted out of its collar, as a turtles head projects from its shell. The face of Jane Carter!


ANN sat beside Jack Ransom's hospital bed. At its foot, Daphne Papalos jiggled a furred puppet ludicrously down a stick. Jack clung tenaciously to Ann's hand but his eyes were fastened on Doc Turner's face, seamed, and old, and very tired.

"While you rushed up those stairs like a wild bull, I climbed the fire escape to Ann's room," the old man was explaining. "She was on the bed, tied up, and you were pounding on the door. She told me quickly what she suspected, she hadn't seen enough to make sure of convicting the Falk's of anything but attacking her, and her evidence as to that would be unsupported. I got Jane Carter's dress off, rolled her out on the fire escape and took her place on the floor. I was bent over so that only the top of my head could be seen and I tousled my hair to make it look like hers.

"Meantime, all hell broke loose in the hall. I was just about to abandon my plan and go to help you when everything was quiet again—and before I could move, Mary Falk came in, lugging you. I saw that you were only unconscious, determined to wait and let them convict themselves with their own words. Then you rolled against me, I cut your hands free, jumped up to help Ann."

"Gosh, Doc!" the youth exclaimed. "I thought you'd got scared and run out on me. You—the guy what was never afraid in his life."

"I was afraid last night, Jack. Deathly afraid. I don't know why."

"I do." Ann Fawley's tone was very soft, very gentle. "You were afraid because someone you love very much was in danger. Because you love me."

"Because I love you? Yes, my dear. I'm an old, old man and it has been many, many years since I had anyone to love."

"Hey!" Jack protested. "I'm getting jealous. And talking about love, Ann—how about us getting married soon as they let me up out of here?"

"I don't know, Jack." The hazel eyes were starry in the sweetness of the girl's elfin face. "I said that I would not till I had saved Jane Carter, but I did not say that I would then. I shall have to think it over."

"Don't think, Ann. Take your happiness while you may." A glow, as from tiny candles, flickered in the back of Doc's faded, weary eyes. "Don't play with it or it may be snatched from you."

"My monkey wants to go to a wedding, Ann!" Daphne held the toy out. The wee, furry arms were extended in a gesture of appeal. "See, my monkey is begging you to invite him to a wedding?"


THE END


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