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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

THE CONSTRUCTION MURDERS

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A DOC TURNER STORY


First published in The Spider, October 1936

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-02-17
Produced by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

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The Spider, October 1936, with "The Construction Murders"



Like a rat leaving a doomed ship, he slunk away from the construction job on which he worked. Doc Turner, kindly protector of the downtrodden, saw the fear in his eyes, and—guessing at the catastrophe which threatened—went bravely forward to what seemed certain, ghastly death!



ANDREW TURNER’S white eyebrows knitted in a startled frown. He tugged at his bushy, nicotine-browned mustache with the gnarled fingers of the aged, and the faded blue of his eyes darkened with puzzlement.

“Frank!” he called. “Frank Swayne! Come here.”

The old druggist’s thin voice was almost drowned by the rattling roar overhead of a train on the “El” structure that cast its long shadow on the bustle of Morris Street. The stocky man in drab, mortar-splattered overalls pretended not to hear the call but hastened his pace, hoping evidently to lose himself among the shawled women and long-bearded men jostling one another on the debris-strewn sidewalk.

“Frank!” Doc Turner’s cry pierced the clamor, imperatively. “Come here. I want to talk to you.”

A swarthy, collarless pushcart peddler blocked Swayne’s progress. “Hey, you!” he growled. “Dunchyuh not hear Docca Turner calla you?”

“Oh, yeah?” the wizened laborer quavered. “Yeah? I didn’t hear him.” He turned, his lime-whitened face somehow jittery, somehow furtive, reluctance apparent in every line of his stunted body. But the voice of Andrew Turner was the voice of authority on Morris Street. For many weary years the pharmacist had served the aliens and the defeated who swarmed the teeming slum with more, far more than his stock in trade. He was their friend, their adviser, their protector against the slinking crooks who prey on the helpless poor. His frail, feeble-seeming body had taken bullets, knife wounds, in their behalf, and they repaid him with a love and a loyalty that boded ill for any among them who defied him.

Frank Swayne came unwillingly across the pavement to where Doc waited for him in the time-scarred doorway of the ancient drugstore. His big-jointed hands twitched, hanging loosely at his sides, and there was a queer, craven fear in his eyes.

“Jeeze, Doc,” he muttered, standing before the old man almost ludicrously, like a small boy caught playing hookey. “I didn’t hear yuh.”

“Or maybe you didn’t want to hear me. Why are you on your way home, Frank? Why aren’t you on the job?”

Swayne licked dry, quivering lips. “Jeeze, I’m sick. I got a awful belly ache an’ I hadda quit.” He pressed a shaking hand against his middle.

Doc shook his white-maned head. “That won’t wash, Frank. You’re no more sick than I am—the way you were scuttling along, as if you were running away from something. You’re not sick enough to be going home at four o’clock on a Friday, with your week’s pay going to be handed out at four-thirty. It’s a long time since you’ve had a job like that one on River Avenue, and Mary’s waiting for your wages so that she can go marketing. So that she can buy shoes for little Jimmy, and a dress for Molly. She was telling me only this morning how wonderful it would be to dress the youngsters decently again, to eat a meal that wasn’t paid for by the relief dole. You’re afraid of something, Frank. Deadly afraid. What it it?”

“Afraid?” The man tried to laugh, but the sound he made was more like a moan. “What—what would I be afraid of? What...?”

“That’s what I want to know.” Turner’s seamed countenance was frozen now to an expressionless mask. “That’s what I want you to tell me.” It had been pure instinct that had impelled him to stop Swayne and question him, the instinct that warns the shepherd dog of danger to his flock before scent or sound has betrayed the stalking wolf. Now he was sure something was terribly wrong.


THE people of Morris Street had few secrets from Andrew Turner. He knew their trials, their woes, their joys, and shared all these with them. He had been happy with them when, like manna from above, the news had broken that a whole block of ramshackle sheds along the waterfront was to be torn down and a towering apartment house erected in their place. Other slum neighborhoods, further down the River, had been blessed by developments of this nature, sleek homes of the well-to-do incongruously rising among tatterdemalion, tumbledown tenements, but then the depression had set in. This was the first to come to Morris Street. It meant work to the starving artisans of the section. Long deferred hope realized at last of wages for laborers and bricklayers, carpenters and plasterers.

Odd, then, that Frank Swayne should be here and not busily piling bricks on a rising wall. Ominous that he should lie so unconvincingly, that terror should paint his sunken cheeks with pallor and stare darkly from his veiled eyes.

Those eyes were peering furtively around, at the polyglot throng cluttering the sidewalk, and the rushing traffic of trucks and autos in the cobbled gutter...

“Something’s going to happen on River Avenue.” Doc tried again to pierce the shell of fear that was holding the man silent. “And you know what it is. You’re running away from it, but you’ve left the others behind. They’re your neighbors, your friends. They’ve got little children, too, like Jimmy and Molly.” His fingers closed on Swayne’s arm, dug in. “Frank! Listen to me. What’s going to happen? What’s scared you?”

The fellow’s stare twisted back to him. The white lips contorted. “I dropped my trowel down in de cellar, an’ when I went down ter get it I hoid...”

The fellow slumped, his voice a gurgle in his throat. His arm tore from Turner’s grip, and he thudded to the paving. He rolled over, writhing...

A knife-hilt, black, heavy and oddly-formed, jutted from beneath Swayne’s left shoulder-blade. A stain spread, purple on his blue, sweat-darkened shirt!

Doc ripped his eyes from the knife-handle, his store of knowledge gathered through the years telegraphing him the information that it had been given its queer shape so that it might be thrown, unerringly, from a great distance. His gaze stabbed about him, at the crowd on the sidewalk, just turning to the sudden murder, at the lanes of traffic surging past.

“Tony!” he barked at the peddler who had stopped Swayne. “Ike Levy! Anybody! Where did that knife come from? Who threw it?”

He got answers—too many. “Frum behindt me,” Levy squealed, his hands waving in a fluttering, racial gesture. “I seen eet, like lightneeng...”

“You crrazy,” Tony Galupo interrupted. “Froma dissa side it coma...”

“Nerts,” a tatter-clothed urchin razzed. “It come from dat live poultry truck what jest toined de corner. Dere was a guy on top...”

“In other words nobody really saw it.” All color drained from his countenance, Turner finished his survey. There was nobody, near enough, who was not familiar to him. “The killer has gotten away, clean.” They were closing in on him now, ringing him and the feebly flopping form on the ground with sweat-redolent, quivering bodies; with eyes glittering and alive with morbid excitement. Life is cheap on Morris Street, sudden death a pulse-stirring thrill to nerves ennuied by the stodgy routine of impoverished, featureless existence.

“Here’s a nickel, Freckles. Go inside and phone for an ambulance and the cops.”

“Gee,” the youngster exclaimed. He swaggered into the store, big with importance, and Doc dropped to his knees beside the knifed man. There would be no work for the hospital interne, he knew beyond any shadow of a doubt, by the time the ambulance got here.


BUT life was not yet quite extinct in Frank Swayne. Nor consciousness. As the old druggist came down beside him, his head slewed around.

“Get ‘em—out o’ dere, Doc—” The words were a mere breath of sound, whispering from between agonized lips. “Gossake, get ‘em—” Blood gushed out, drowning the tortured speech. A long shudder shook Swayne’s contorted frame—and then it was terribly still. Terribly silent.

Doc Turner leaped up. Frank Swayne was dead. But he had left a cryptic message that must be delivered at once. The druggist thrust frantically through the throng; glimpsed a jeweler’s street-clock across the street, whose hands pointed to four-twenty; knew that whatever was going to happen on River Avenue must occur within ten minutes from now, since at four-thirty the workers would be leaving.

A sleek limousine was slowing near the curb. Doc sprang to its running board.

“River Avenue,” he yelled at the startled chauffeur. “Hurry. It’s life or death.”

The man’s blue jowl thrust at him. “Get the hell off there,” he grunted. “This is no taxi.”

“Get going. Please!” The pharmacist was awfully aware of time sweeping on, of minutes ebbing that meant Heaven knew what horror. “I haven’t time to look for a taxi.”

The chauffeur snatched a wrench from a door pocket beside him. “Get off...”

“Henry!” A new voice—thin, shrill—impacted on Doc’s ears. “Henry! Drop that thing and do what the gentleman says.” A shriveled old woman leaned forward in the limousine’s interior; a boned, black collar tight around her scrawny neck; a black-beaded bonnet perched atop silvery thin hair; tiny eyes bright in a wrinkled face. “Can’t you see that he is in a hurry!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Henry grunted. His wrench dropped on the seat beside him, and the car surged with unleashed power, swept thundering around the corner into the long slope of Hogbund Alley, a tenement-lined canyon sloping down to the River.

“Thank you, madam,” Doc managed, clinging to his perch by main force against the rush of wind. “You—”

“Never mind the thanks,” the ancient beldame snapped. “This is fun. It’s more fun than I’ve had since I sneaked away from Miss Finch’s Finishing School to attend Oscar Hammerstein’s first night at the Victoria. “What...?”

The car jerked to a sudden stop, the burned rubber of its skidding tires acrid in Doc’s nostrils. A huge coal truck angled out from the sidewalk, and a van was trying to get by the fuel wagon’s bonnet, effectively blocking further passage.

The old man thrust himself away from the limousine’s gleaming side. His feet thumped on the sidewalk. He was running, his alpaca store-coat streaming out behind him, his frail legs pumping beneath him. He narrowly avoided colliding with a baby carriage piled high with old wood, grabbed at a rusted fence railing, slewed around the corner into River Avenue.


ACROSS the asphalted thoroughfare the jagged, unfinished wall of the building on which Frank Swayne had been working lifted against a gray sky. White-splotched ladders zigzagged up to a flimsy scaffolding where overalled men were laying down trowels, were calling back and forth to one another in relaxation after a week’s honest labor just completed.

“Down,” Turner yelled. “Everybody down. Everybody out.” They couldn’t hear him. Of course they couldn’t hear him, up there, above the roar and clamor of the traffic that filled River Avenue from curb to curb. He had to get nearer.

He plunged under the nose of a speeding Ford, darted miraculously between a Chrysler and a Buick, reached the opposite sidewalk with the breeze of a Mack truck plucking at his coattails, the hoarse curses of its driver blasting after him. A burly, blunt-jawed man, stepped past the swung-open door of a construction shanty, goggled at him.

“Get your men out of the building,” Doc screamed. “Hurry!”

“What the hell,” the man grunted, “are you squawkin’ about?”

Turner reached him, grabbed at his arm to stop himself. “Get them down,” he spluttered, fighting for breath. “Something’s going to happen... You’ve got to get them...”

The fellow’s bananalike fingers gathered Doc’s shirtfront in a bunch, tightening the linen about the old man’s slender chest, driving breath from his lungs in a whistling wheeze. A puckered scar was white, abruptly, with rage across a florid, unshaven chin.

“Goin’ tuh happen, huh?” thick lips gusted. “Damned right! It’s happenin’ to yuh.” The columnar arm straightened, with the irresistible, driving thrust of a locomotive piston. Doc was in midair. He was flying backward, catapulted by that enormous impulse. His sprawling, slender form arced over a board laid across the tops of two barrels. He was falling into a basement excavation, down—down.

The old man splashed into viscid, stinking mud, deep and soft enough to break the force of that fall, to save his brittle bones, though the impact knocked the breath from him. He floundered, gasping, slid in the slippery slime, was conscious that he had slid under the stone arch of a cellar entrance, mortar oozing, overhead, from between wet, gray stones.

There was a dull sound nearby—pow—as though a giant muffled a cough.

The ground heaved under Doc. Somewhere wood splintered, the riven fibres shrieking protest against the gigantic force that tore them apart. Somewhere a man shrieked in burbling terror.

For an eternally long instant that must have been only the tenth part of a second, an awful silence pulsed about Doc Turner. A rumble commenced, grew with appalling swiftness. Then the universe was only sound; torrential, cataclysmic sound. It had detonated into the devastating thunder of tons upon tons of brick crashing, of beams cracking and tumbling, of iron lolly columns clanging into fragments...

Of human voices screaming a shrill greeting to death.

Darkness smashed down around Doc Turner, a crashing, tumultuous darkness. A darkness thick with choking dust, lethal with pelting shards of stone and brick. Darkness that pounded against him, that blinded and deafened him, that smashed him, at last, into merciful oblivion...


ANDREW TURNER floated on a Stygian, heaving sea of pain. Every bone in his old body, every weary muscle, throbbed with the pulsant ache. A sea of rumbling sound whirred dizzily within his skull.

The sound was not all in his head. Some of it was coming from outside of him. As the roaring in his ears faded he could make those other noises out, could separate them into distinguishable entities.

There were strange rustlings and creakings. There was the drip, drip, of water.

There was a voice, very faint, very feeble, saying over and over again, “Mama mia. Mama mia.” A babbling voice, crying in the darkness: “Mama mia. Mama mia.” It was the voice of a strong man in unendurable agony, crying in his delirium to the mother he had left behind him in a sunnier, fairer land. “Oh, mama!” Crying to the mother who was not there to lift from him the weight that lay across him, crushing out the life she gave him.

There were other voices that made no words. Whimpers they were, and groans from rasped throats, and a throat-rattle that chattered abruptly, high above the others, and cut off, abruptly... never to sound again.

Doc Turner opened his eyes. He might just as well have kept them closed. He could see nothing. The darkness was impenetrable.

He felt about him, every moment a separate agony. He touched broken brick, splintered wood. Touched wet, mud-filmed stone. That he was able to move was a wonder. That he was alive was a miracle.

It was the arch under which he had slid; when the scar-faced man had thrown him over the flimsy board that was propped atop two barrels and into the basement excavation of the doomed building, that had saved him. The arch and two great floor beams that had fallen, slantwise over it, to make a little triangular space of safety for him.

Doc was inescapably trapped. He was still alive, comparatively unhurt, but at any moment the shifting of the still settling mass, the giving way of the overburdened rock and wood, might precipitate ponderous death upon him. Even his tentative fumbling might loosen some small fragment of the shattered building that held the quivering balance of the chaotic jumble in perilous equilibrium, and let the whole vast weight down to crush him.

Andrew Turner lay very still, listening to the moans and the despair about him. There was nothing he could do to release himself from this living tomb. Nothing he could do to help those others dying about him. He must wait for rescue, if it came in time.

It was characteristic of the aged pharmacist that, having once dismissed the possibility of accomplishing his release by his own efforts, his thoughts should slide away from his own dreadful predicament to worry at the events that had led up to it. His own danger he dismissed with a shrug. He had lived his life. If he was to die now, there was nothing to regret—for himself.

It was only of his people he thought, of the bewildered-eyed, poverty-stricken ones of Morris Street. Here was a new threat to them. He had tried to save those who were killed and crippled in this disaster, and had failed. He had done his best. But was there more to come? Was this happening an end in itself, or did those who had done this dreadful thing plan further outrages?


THERE was no doubt in his mind that the collapse of this building was the result of some plot. The evidence was clear.

It had started with that pow of some small explosion, somewhere in the basement. Frank Swayne, dropping his trowel, had come upon the mine, most likely upon the men engaged in setting it.

If they had killed him then, or taken him prisoner, he would have been missed, searched for. They had been forced to let him go. But they had put fear into him, fear that would keep him silent, they had hoped, till their outrage was accomplished. The misery of unemployment, the sapping ache of long hunger, does not conduce to the building up of courage.

Swayne had won free by promising to pretend illness, to go home at once without a word to anyone. They had not trusted him. They had shadowed him. When Doc had stopped him, cross-examined him, they had killed him.

The knife-thrower must have been too distant to hear just what Swayne had said. He had had to scurry away.

Doc’s sudden appearance on the scene, almost at the very moment for which the disaster was scheduled, had been dealt with quickly, efficiently, by the scar-faced man. The fellow had meant the old man to die, was undoubtedly certain that he had died. He thought himself safe. Beyond question the affair had been carefully arranged, so that there would be no trace of its cause. Swayne was dead. Andrew Turner, as far as the conspirators knew, was dead...

But why? In God’s name what could anyone expect to gain from the mass murder that had just been perpetrated?

Turner’s tired brain battered at the problem, temporarily surrendered to it. If ever he were released, alive, from here, he would start after the scar-faced man, would drag the explanation from him. If he were not released, nothing he could figure out would matter.

He was aware now of new sounds. Distant shouts. The howl of sirens and the vague clangor of fire engine bells. The rescuers were gathering. They were at work.

But they would have to work carefully, digging with caution lest they kill those whom they were trying to save. It would be hours before they would dig down as far as this.

Exhaustion welled up, a slow, dark flood in Andrew Turner’s old veins. It welled into his brain. He slept.

Doc came wide-awake, with the smooth, spontaneous suddenness of the aged. He was at once aware of some change in his environment.

Light seeped into the cubicle where he lay, the white light of floodlight beams. He heard the far-off, chanting drone of a priest administering the last rites of the church to a dying soul. He heard a chain rattle, and the hiss of escaping steam.

They were, evidently, using a portable crane to lift away the tangled mass that entombed so many men. They were making more rapid progress than he had expected.

Stones rattled nearby. A footfall thudded. And a hoarse, tired voice said: “I think I can get in here, chief. But there’s only room for one to squirm through. No use anyone else hangin’ around.”

“All right, Jenks,” someone answered. “You can try if you’ve got the guts. The rest of you come over to the other side with me.”


DOC choked off the glad shout that rose in his throat. He rolled over, got to his hands and knees. Crouched against a pillar of the imprisoning arch, waiting, listening to the rasp of wood on stone, to the rattle of bricks and the heavy breathing of someone who was digging through.

The light grew stronger. Shadows moved athwart it, black, distorted shadows of twisted iron, of shattered wood. The scraping progress of the rescuer grew slowly nearer.

Doc could see his surroundings more clearly now. He was taut, quivering, but everything in the small place that was his prison photographed itself clearly on his vision. He would remember every smallest detail of it to his dying day.

He could make out the moving bulk of the oncoming man very clearly now, beyond a thin pile of broken brickbats, could hear his heavy, raucous breathing.

The last obstacle collapsed. A shadowy form squirmed into the space beneath the arch, came upright.

Doc saw broad shoulders, a broad chest. He saw a dust-whitened, brutish face. He saw a puckered scar across a heavy, unshaven chin. Then a flashlight blazed in his face, blinding him.

“I tought so,” Jenks growled. “I saw yuh roll unner de arch, an’ I figgered maybe you wasn’t conked. So I came down ter finish d’job.”

The fellow lunged forward, the heavy head of a sledge-hammer arcing into the light beam. Doc’s thin arm flailed forward, as he dropped in the same motion, rolling under the lethal sweep of the steel mallet. The brick the old man had thrown pounded sickeningly on the killer’s forehead. Jenks pounded down, thudding like a dropped cement bag.

Doc pushed himself erect again. His old eyes were bleak, icy. He fished in the pocket of his alpaca jacket, brought out a cylindrical tin box of adhesive tape that a salesman had given him as a sample, and that he had thrust there, unthinking, when a customer had interrupted.

Jenks was thick-skulled. He came to just as the druggist finished his task of fancy strapping. His pig-like orbs glowered up at Turner.

“You were smart,” Turner said, quietly, looking down at his captive. “But not too smart. The jig’s up, Jenks, or whatever your name is. Maybe you can save yourself from the chair by confessing the whole set-up. You aren’t the one behind this thing. You’re too stupid.”

The fellow’s gross lips twisted. “The hell you say,” he growled. “Yuh got nuttin’ on me. All the buildin’ experts in th’ city’ll never spot the plant, now that it’s worked. I t’rew yuh down here so quick no one saw me do it. Yuh go ravin’ about dis comin’ off on purpose an’ they’ll just say yuh’ve gone nuts.”

The druggist’s white mustache twitched with a sinister smile that was not accompanied by any humor in his eyes. “You’re right.” He was low-toned, suave. “They would never believe me in a thousand years, and I have absolutely no evidence to back up my story. But you’re going to confess. I’m going to write just what the scheme was, and you’re going to sign the statement.”

Jenks’ laugh was a snarl. “Who’s goin’ ter make me?”

“I am,” Doc answered simply. “Look here, Jenks, or whatever your name is—” The old man lifted and pointed a slender, almost transparent finger. “See the way these beams lie against the arch and each other? See this piece of board that’s jammed in between them? What would happen if I pulled out that little board?”


THE prone man stared straight up at the bit of wood to which Turner pointed. His pupils dilated. “De whole t’ing ud come down an’ smash me...” Then he laughed again, shrilly, hysterically. “Hell! It ud smash yuh too. Cripes, yuh had me wingin’...”

“You had better stay ‘winging’—” The old man’s hand closed on the board-end. “Because I’ll pull it unless you do just as I said. It will smash you. It will smash me too, but that doesn’t matter. Listen a minute, Jenks. Listen to those moans, those wails, off there in the darkness. I’ve been listening to them for hours. There were more of them, awhile ago, but they stopped, because there was no more life left in those who made them. Look at me. I’m an old man. I haven’t got much longer to live. Do you think I could live that little while peacefully, with those groans ringing in my ears, knowing that I had the man who caused them in my power and let him go? Look into my eyes, Jenks, and read the truth there. What do they tell you, Jenks? What—do they—tell—you?”

The old man stood, somehow no longer feeble, somehow majestic, in the weird light and shadow of that strange space. His hand was clenched tight around the board, and his knuckles whitened with pressure. He was implacable. Merciless. He was cloaked with a terrible silence in which the agonized whimpers of those he would avenge hung suspended, affecting it not at all.

That silence broke, abruptly, as Jenks screamed, “No! For God’s sake, no! I’ll talk. I’ll spill me guts. Only don’t pull that board.”

There was no emotion at all in Doc’s face, as he let go of the key to death and got out a prescription pad and pencil from his jacket pocket. “Go ahead,” he murmured. “Talk.”


THE story Jenks told was brief, and sordid. With the rejuvenation of building, one of the old rings of racketeers had seen a chance to regain the stranglehold on the industry that they had established in the old days by arson and slugging. They had demanded agreements with the various contracting firms that only certain mechanics should be used—those that paid tribute to the gang.

The old terror of fire and slugging had been forgotten. They had been laughed at for their pains. It was decided that an example must be made of a big job, so terrible an example that only one would be needed.

This building had been selected. “It wuz th’ insurance companies that stood the gaff in th’ old days,” Jenks spat. “Firin’ th’ job wouldn’t do us much good. But if there wuz a couple guys killed on a job, an’ th’ builders was sent up for manslaughter, like they sure would be if a house tumbled down fer no reason at all anyone cud make out, de rest o’ the gang wud come aroun’ like good babies. So we set dis plant...”

The confession was written, and signed. There were names, addresses, of the higher-ups among the racketeers. There was enough detail to send a dozen men to the chair for murder.

“All right.” Doc sighed. “I’ll call them now to get us out of here.”

“Say,” Jenks asked. “Wud yuh really have pulled out dat board if I hadn’t come across? Wud yuh?”

Andrew Turner’s face was stony again. “That, Mr. Jenks, will be something for you to wonder about up there in the Big House. To wonder about, and to go ‘nuts’ over. Because, if you hadn’t believed that I would, maybe you would be crawling out through those tumbled bricks, right now, a free man...

“Or maybe the two of us would be lying under them, crushed, and mangled, and dead.”


THE END