Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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The twenty-year search for lost Agnes O'Neill swung back at last to Morris Street, burial place of sinister secrets. Bullets cut the three-million-dollar reunion road, and Doc Turner, defender of the weak, groped along it—to a chat with Death.
THE shot's sharp report would have gone unnoticed in the brawl of Morris Street's Saturday sunset if gray lines had not suddenly spider-webbed a black sedan's window.
Andrew Turner, in the doorway of his ancient drugstore, whirled to the sound. He glimpsed a feral snarl of disappointment distorting a predatory dark countenance, the glint of gunmetal slipping underneath a frayed lapel. Swiftly the white-haired druggist leaped across the sidewalk, his age-gnarled fingers clawing to snatch at the assassin's shoulder.
The swarthy, collarless runt saw him coming, slammed a brutal fist into Doc's chest. The blow sent Turner's frail form spinning backward, and before the dull wits of the bystanders quite realized what was happening, the incident was closed by the disappearance of the thug in the pushcart market's swarm.
Turner swayed back to balance. His blue eyes darted to the vehicle that had been the object of the startling attack.
So swiftly had the incident passed that the car was just skidding to a stop. The acrid tang of its friction-scorched tire-rubber cut through slum smells to sting the little pharmacist's wide nostrils. He squeezed between two pushcarts, darted into the garbage-strewn gutter. The sedan's door opened.
"'Tis Doc Turner himself," a high-pitched voice exclaimed. "Whiter a bit, but otherwise the same."
The face backgrounded by the gloom of the car's interior was sallow and wrinkled as a baked apple that has stood too long on a cafeteria's dessert counter. Its eyes were tiny and black as twin raisins, except that no raisins ever shone bright as these. A beaded black bonnet sat atop sparse grey hair, and a high, boned collar clasped a scrawny neck.
"Well, Doc?" the woman snapped. "And what are you gaping at? Have you no word of welcome for an old neighbor?"
"Martha O'Neill!" Doc gasped, dredging twenty years of memory for the name. "What on earth would anyone be...?"
"The youngsters around here are blasted careless with their stone-throwing," another voice interrupted him, from the driver's half of the front seat. "Good thing I've got shatterproof glass."
There was a note of warning in the interruption. Palpably it was a cue to conceal the attack from the old lady! Doc, peering for its source, made out a dapper, derby-hatted young man whose nose was too hawk-like for the watery brown eyes above them and the yellow sprouting of short hairs beneath.
"This is Cecil Parke, Doc," Mrs. O'Neill piped. "My lawyer. Don't judge him by that calf's mask of his. Strange as it might seem, there are brains behind that vapid look."
"Martha!" Turner brought his attention back to the woman. "What brings you to Morris Street after all this time?"
"'Tis a long story and not for the ears of half the world that's crowding behind you. Take me into that dingy hole of yours, and I'll be telling it to you. It's I that have been aching for the aroma of its herbs, and of the valerian that's the devil's stench itself. Come on, Cecil. I promised you the sight of a real drugstore. Come."
For all her rattling tongue, there was a fever of excitement in Martha O'Neill's chatter. Doc felt the quiver of it in the bony, fleshless elbow he grasped to aid her from the car. His eyes, dropping to make sure her tiny feet had reached the cobbles, caught sight of a bit of shiny flattened metal on the running board.
Shatterproof glass! It was bullet-proof. That was a flattened bullet! The door edge was queerly thick. It was of armor plate! This car was armored against attacks, like those the gangsters ride in.
Why should this wizened, bent little old lady be safeguarded by an armored car? Did she know she was? Did she know she had been shot at?
Her funereal garments might be old-fashioned, but they rustled with the crisp luxuriousness of unweighted silk. Nevertheless, as she moved on Doc's arm through the shoving knot of grimy-faced urchins, bearded, collarless men and beshawled, alien-visaged housewives, she seemed somehow to belong among them with the same certainty as the lawyer following her did not.
Parke held a pigskin attache case in one gloved hand, while the other tugged at his blond lip-brush, palpably to conceal his fastidious aversion to the ghetto odors; the miasma of vegetables on the very point of putrescence, of unwashed bodies, of shoddy clothing worn till it was sweat-rotted...
THE oddly assorted trio went into the shadowy dimness of the store in which Andrew Turner had spent more years than he cared to recall, and the closing door muffled the tumult of the slum to a decorous murmur.
"Ah!" The old woman sighed with a tremulous pleasure. " 'Tis not changed at all. Here are the same cluttered shelves that once were painted white, the same showcases with glass scratched till you can scarce see what's inside them, the same fly-specked sign over the same old curtain in that partition doorway. 'Prescription Department—No Admittance.' "
"No, Martha," Doc responded, "it hasn't changed."
"It was like this, just like this, the day Tim O'Neill, the blessed Mary cherish his tired soul, and the colleen I once was gazed wide-eyed at brick houses mountain-high and earth stone-sheathed till it could not breathe. The mud of the Old Sod still caked our brogues, and the strangeness of this strange land was a whirl in our heads that were anyways bemused with dreams of fortune. You wouldn't be remembering the two greenhorns we were, would you, Doctor dear?"
"Indeed I would," Andrew Turner chuckled. "You looked so forlorn, standing out there on the sidewalk. Tim had a great canvas bag on his shoulder, bulging with all your worldly possessions, and you had a wee live bundle in your arms... Oh!" He checked himself at the sudden agony in Martha's eyes, the twitch of an ancient but still poignant grief at the corners of her fleshless lips. "I'm sorry. I did forget for the moment what became of little..."
"Agnes." The name was a sobbed croon. "My lost babe."
"I understand you had a hand in that, Mr. Turner." Parke's tone was crisp, businesslike. "Mrs. O'Neill has told me..."
"That when there was not so much as a crust of bread in the house"—the old woman's seamed countenance had achieved placidity again, with a courage somewhat pathetic—"and Agnes wailed her pitiful hunger at my dry breast, it was Doc Turner who brought salvation to us."
"You arranged, did you not, for the infant's adoption?"
"In a manner of speaking." Doc's acid-stained fingers drummed a tattoo on a counter edge. "But it was Father Ignatius who worked out the details at my suggestion. The O'Neills were too proud to accept charity for themselves, but we prevailed upon them to give up the child. Unfortunately, the foster-parents made it a condition that their identity was to be kept absolutely secret, and the good priest kept faith with them. He did not tell even me who they were, and he made no written record."
"Where is he now?"
"He is dead."
"I told you that, Cecil." Martha O'Neill's chatter was muted now, threaded by old pain. "I told you that when Tim's invention came right at last the lips of him who alone could tell us where to find our babe were already sealed forever. Though fortune was ours, such as our dreams never had dared aspire to, it was ashes in our mouth, and sackcloth on our limbs, because we could not share it with her. We searched for her—recall how we searched, Doc Turner—but to no avail."
This talk, Andrew Turner thought, this ripping open of old wounds, was not without purpose. It was tied up, somehow, with Martha O'Neill's return; with the attempt at her murder and the secretly armored car that had saved her.
"They never gave up that search," the lawyer explained, "even after Timothy O'Neill died. Mrs. O'Neill insisted on my continuing it, though I tried to convince her of its utter hopelessness."
"Hopeless, was it?" the widow sniffed. "Show him, Cecil, what came in the mail a week ago."
"Show it to him! If there is one anywhere who can help me, it is he. And I do not need to ask if he will. 'Tis his life, the helping of those in distress, of those for whom there is otherwise no aid in all the world. If you doubt it, ask those!" Her hand, which was like a bird's claw, pointed to the door and the teeming slum denizens visible through its glass. "Ask those to whom he is the only friend in a strange, bewildering land; as he was our friend, Tim's and mine. Show him the note."
Cecil Parke shrugged, laid his leather envelope on the counter top, zipped it open and fished within. He brought out a sheet of cheap paper, across which penciled words wavered, their letter faintly traced and quavering but still formed with indisputable culture.
"This is the letter to which Mrs. O'Neill refers," the lawyer murmured, handing it to Doc Turner. It began without salutation:
When you read this I shall be dead, but before I pass on I must try to right a grave wrong. Your daughter Agnes is alive and needs you.
That, unfortunately, is almost all I can tell you. I am she to whom you gave her up. About two years ago she was infatuated by a young man of whom I disapproved. I forbade her to see him. We quarreled bitterly, and for the first time I told her I was not her mother. That night she ran away with Sam Tartus.
A year later I received a letter from her. She had been deserted. She was in dire poverty. Would I forgive her and let her come back home?
I tore the letter up. As if in punishment, I fell ill almost at once. Finally I was told I could not recover. I wanted to send for Agnes, but I could remember of her address only that it was somewhere in the Morris Street section of the city. Nor could I recall the name she had said she was using. It was neither Tartus nor my own.
Unknown to you, I have kept track of you through all the years, knew how untiringly you have searched for Agnes. Now that my end is very near I understand what a sin I committed against you, and against her. Perhaps the merciful Almighty will bring you together again.
That was all. There was no signature. There was only a small discoloration where the signature should have been, as though a tear had dropped there and dried.
A MIST veiled Doc Turner's faded old eyes as he looked up. "You got this a week ago?" he asked softly.
"Yes." It was Parke who answered. "I've tried to trace it. I've had a detective agency trying to locate this Sam Tartus. Neither attempt has been in the least successful. Finally Mrs. O'Neill insisted on my coming here with her. She wants to ride up and down the streets, looking for her daughter.
"Looking... Good Lord!" he went on. "Agnes was a year-and-a-half old when Martha last saw her. She's—twenty-two now. She might stand face to face with her, and she wouldn't know her."
"I shall know her." The old voice was very sure. "I shall know my daughter, Andrew Turner, the moment I see her."
There was in her tone the mystic faith of the race that had given her birth. But that which she contemplated was sheer impossibility. There must be some other way to find the long-lost girl. There had to be. It would be a crime against mother love itself to send Martha O'Neill home with aching, empty arms. She...
Doc's thoughts cut off suddenly. Under the nicotine-stained bush of his mustache his lips were suddenly tight, and his gray old visage was bleak.
"I believe you, Martha," he responded, with what seemed unnecessary loudness. "But you won't have to wander through the streets looking for her. I think—I'm almost positive I know where your Agnes is to be found."
"I knew you could help me!" Turner scarcely heard the widow's joyful exclamation, scarcely felt her trembling fingers on his arm. He was watching, furtively, a shadow laid flat on the sidewalk by the lights of his store window, the shadow of someone who lounged close against that window. There was a hole in its frame, he knew, bored there to keep the glass from frosting, and through that hole, he had long ago discovered, voices inside the store could be clearly heard. Someone was listening to their conversation. "Take me to her!"
"You must be patient." Doc had lied, but the lie might make itself become the truth. "I may be mistaken, and before I take you to the girl I believe to be the one you're hunting, I want to make certain of her. You wait in my back room while Mr. Parke and I go to check up."
"Wait! How can I wait? Take me with you."
"No. Please do as I say." His hand again on her arm, the druggist gently but irresistibly forced the old woman back past the end of the sales counter, through the grime-stiffened curtain, into the dim, mysterious confines of the prescription room it screened from the lay gaze. "You know you can trust me to know what is right."
"I trust you, Doctor dear." Martha O'Neill sank into the chair at Turner's cluttered desk. "But hurry. Please hurry. I've waited so long."
Doc was sliding into his shabby overcoat. "I shall be as quick as I can. I want you to stay right here, Martha, On no account go out front." Then he was going out through the curtain again. "Leave your briefcase here and come along, Mr. Parke. We'll use your car."
Something in his voice made the lawyer obey without question, though his brow was wrinkled with puzzlement. Doc went behind a showcase, took a stained blue box from a shelf, slipped it into his overcoat pocket. Then he joined Parke at the store door, was locking it.
"This isn't the first time I've locked up in the early evening." Turner smiled humorlessly. "They're used to it around here."
YES, they were used to it. Times without number Andrew Turner had abandoned the business that was his sole source of livelihood to venture on some foray against the wolves that prey on the helpless poor. But always before he had been certain of at least getting away from the store before danger became imminent. This time he knew death to be hovering very near. If he had not figured right, there might be the crash of a shot in the next instant, lead tearing into his vitals. And he had so little to figure from.
His eyes drifted along the store front. The eavesdropper wasn't in evidence. "We'll use your car. Come on."
The old druggist's spine prickled with something very like fear as he followed the top-coated attorney to the armored sedan. Then he slid into the seat, shut the door with its bulletproof glass, and a sigh of relief brushed his thin lips. The car started moving.
"Where to?" Parke asked.
"There's a garage around the corner to your right. Stop there for gas."
"I don't need any..."
"I said stop there for gas." Again there was the steely note of command in Doc's voice. Cecil Parke shrugged, obeyed.
A barrel-chested, carrot-topped mechanic slouched to the pump. His eyes widened with surprise as he glimpsed the pharmacist; they were immediately veiled at an almost imperceptible shake of Doc's head.
Jack Ransom, companion and good right hand of Andrew Turner in many an expedition against the underworld, busied himself with his sale. Then he came around to the left-hand window.
"She wouldn't take only three gallons," he said. "That'll be fifty-four cents."
Parke fumbled for the change. Doc slammed the door at his right, muttering something about its not having caught right when he got in. The driver burred his starter.
"Where to?" he asked once more.
"Straight ahead, toward the river. And go slowly. I've got to depend on recognizing a certain house."
Tenement facades, drab in the street lamps' wan luminance, glided slowly by. Broken-stepped stoops were tiered seats for big-bosomed slatterns who exchanged gossip while their half-clad offspring shrieked at play in the dangerous gutter. Doc glanced up into the rear-view mirror and smiled grimly as he saw a small delivery truck, a quarter-block behind, that queerly kept just the pace of the armored sedan. He looked at Parke's set face.
"Who," he murmured, "would inherit Mrs. O'Neill's fortune if she were killed before she found her daughter?"
Parke started. "What do you mean?"
"This may be a slum, but it isn't a jungle. We don't take potshots at old ladies just for fun. Would you mind answering my question?"
"There's only one heir. A chap named Frank Reilly. He's a nephew Timothy brought over from Ireland after he struck it rich. But hell! He can't know... Mrs. O'Neill showed the letter only to me until you saw it."
"Then why, Mr. Parke, were you so sure there would be an attempt on your client's life that you bought an armored car to take her riding in? This sedan is brand-new. There's only twenty-five miles run up on its speedometer."
The blond lashes blinked, but there was no change in the attorney's expression. "That has no significance. A friend of mine who practices criminal law took the sedan in lieu of his fee from the newly-made widow of a gangster client, and he let me have it at a bargain. It was sheer luck, Mrs. O'Neill's luck, that it was delivered this morning just as I started out to meet her."
"It was also luck that her window was up, I suppose, on a day as warm as this? Do you really expect me to believe that?"
The lawyer took advantage of the fact that they had come to the river front dead-end to delay his answer. He took a sweeping turn to the left, into the cobbled wide avenue that ran between wooden piers and a row of steel-shuttered warehouses. The delivery truck edged around the corner, dropped further behind. A muscle twitched in Doc's sunken cheek.
"She is an old woman," Parke answered, finally. "She said her blood was chilled."
"That's your story, and you're going to stick to it." Doc sighed, as though defeated. "There's an alley between those two warehouses just ahead. Stop in front of it."
A pulse throbbed in the lawyer's temple, but his face was a set, expressionless mask. He eased the car to the curb, shut off its ignition.
The purr of the motor silenced, the street seemed strangely hushed. There was something almost ominous about the quiet in this place that such a little while ago had been thunderous with the roar of giant trucks, the shouts of sweating longshoremen.
"You don't expect to find Agnes O'Neill in one of those warehouses, do you?" Parke gibed. "Whom are you kidding?"
Doc smiled that odd, humorless smile of his. "Not in a warehouse. Come on." He opened the door, stepped to the sidewalk. "Come with me, and I'll show you something you wouldn't suspect unless you knew this neighborhood as thoroughly as I do."
The lawyer alighted, followed the old man into the alley's dark mouth.
THE narrow gut between towering, whitewashed walls of brick, cluttered by broken crates and rotting jute bags, was redolent with the spicy aroma of coffee, spices, the exotic odors of goods collected from the far places of the world. The strangely assorted pair fumbled their way through the gloom.
Then, quite suddenly, they were out of the alley and in a back yard. Here the dusk still lingered to cloak with its kindly gray the sagging, paintless timbers of a structure that once might have been a mansion sitting lordly at the apex of a lawn sloping velvet-soft to a quiet river.
"This old house still has its uses," Doc murmured. "Even if its windows are boarded up and its timbers almost ready to collapse. Come around to the back quietly."
Parke's expression of puzzlement deepened as he tiptoed after Doc around the leaning, drab clapboards. There was a leafless tree behind, the trunk twisted into an odd S-curve. Doc glanced at that, climbed to the decrepit back porch of the abandoned dwelling.
"You might not believe it," he said, smiling bleakly, "but I was once young and in love. She lived here, and I still remember the secret of how to open this back door without a key."
He had learned that secret in the dim, dead days, but he had used it less than a year ago, when he and Jack had scotched a den of narcotic sellers who were using this place as their den; so it was with no uncertainty that he pressed on a certain spot on the jamb.
The vertical board sagged inward, and the door came open under his hand. "Come in," he whispered. "Follow me."
Parke went in after him, and the door closed them into pitch darkness. The lawyer felt Doc's hand on his arm, drawing him in a little further against a wall. Heard breathed words: "Wait. Listen."
The musty air of long disuse was hard to breathe.
Minutes dragged, infinitely long in the utter lightlessness, the utter silence.
A footfall thudded on the porch outside—the door hinges scraped! A black silhouette blotted the widening gray slit of the opening portal...
Light, dazzling, blinding, flashed from the intruding apparition. "Up with 'em," a hoarse voice growled. Metal glinted alongside the blazing lens of the flashlight from which the light glared, the gleaming metal of a revolver muzzle. "Grab th' ceiling."
"God!" Parke grunted, his hands lifting above his head. Doc stiffened, followed suit.
"So this is where you have her cached," another voice husked, behind the runted shadow that held flashlight and gun. "That's all I needed to know. Let 'em have it, Tony. Let 'em..."
"Wait!" Parke squealed. "Wait! She'll hear you. She'll get away."
"The hell she will. She isn't in the place; we've looked it over. We'll get rid of you two, and then we'll wait for her to come home. That's a break for my dear aunt, anyway. With my cousin out of the way, Martha can take her time kicking off. All right, Tony. What are you waiting for?"
"I like ter hear a rat squeal, boss." A cocking trigger clicked. "Betcha I take 'em bot' wid a shot apiece. Here goes." The gun muzzle moved minutely, bringing to bear on Doc. Orange-red glare spewed from it...
Into the floor—the flashlight smashed the boards, went out. Against the dusk glimmer a veritable maelstrom of combat broke out, of flailing black arms, grunting bodies. There was the thud of hard knuckles against bone, then a gasp...
And quiet again.
"All right, Doc," Jack Ransom's familiar accents filtered into the room. "They're both out for the count. The boss went down easy under my wrench, but the gunner gave me a bit of a tussle."
"Drag them inside, Jack, and close the door." There was relief in Turner's inflection. "You cut it awfully fine."
THERE was the sound of bodies being dragged across splintered wood. The door thudded shut on what little luminance still remained outside. Then the flashlight was lit again, spilling its yellow radiance from Ransom's big fist down on the swarthy thug who had shot at Martha O'Neill on Morris Street and on a slim-waisted, ferret-visaged youth, the black-haired back of whose head showed a rapidly rising bump.
"You better tie them up before they come to, son," Doc said, evenly. "They might give us trouble. Here, I stuffed some rope in my pocket just in case."
Jack took the yellow cord, handed the flashlight to the pharmacist, knelt to his task. "This is a pleasure," he grinned.
"I—I don't understand what this is all about," Parke stammered. "Evidently you arranged a trap, for it was Reilly, the cousin, eh?—and his killer?—but how could you have? I was with you all the time, and I'll swear you didn't speak a word to this young man."
"Here's the answer." Jack interrupted his task to fish in a pocket of his overalls and toss something to the lawyer. Parke caught it, gazed at it dazedly. It was a folded cardboard carton that had once contained a patent medicine bottle. Its blue was faded by the years, and the blurred print on it said, Nastin's Coughex.
"What," the attorney spluttered, "what on earth is this?"
Doc smiled bleakly. "I often want to signal Jack that I need him without anyone knowing it, and I do it by setting that carton in my window display. There wasn't time this evening to do that, so I took it along and tossed it out through the sedan's door while you were paying him for the gas."
"Yeah," Jack grunted, rising to his feet. "If you look at it, you'll see a kind of S drawn on it with pencil. I knew, from that, Doc wanted me to come here, because it was a picture like that of the tree outside that brought us here once before." He grinned. "This old house is used to excitement."
"I happened to have the stub of a pencil in my pocket, and managed to get that done without your noticing it, Parke."
The attorney shook his head, wonderingly. "It's all very clever, and it worked, but wouldn't it have been simpler to have told Mr.—er—"
"... Mr. Ransom what you wanted him to do? If he hadn't understood, we'd both be dead by now."
"Yes," Doc said softly, "it would have been simpler. However I am not, Mr. Parke, a simple man—but we're wasting time. Suppose you go out to the street and get a policeman to take charge of these fellows. Having got rid of them, we can go on and find Agnes O'Neill."
"She isn't here?"
"Of course not. You don't think I would have led these killers to her, do you?"
"No. All right. I'll get back as quickly as I can." Parke turned, had the door open, was out of the room.
"Come on, Jack," Doc snapped. "We daren't lose sight of him." The two ran through the house. Doc opened the front door, which hadn't been locked since three prisoners had been led through it by Federal narcotic agents.
"There he goes," he muttered, "through the alley like a bat out of hell. He won't hear us following him." Then they too were flying through the cluttered alley.
MOTOR roar came in through its mouth, the zizz of tires taking hold on cobbles, sending a big car leaping away from the curb. Doc and Jack, out on the sidewalk, jumped into a battered flivver parked in front of Reilly's truck.
The disreputable car fairly jumped into motion. Beneath its rusted bonnet was a Packard motor, and the light vehicle was capable of incredible speed. It needed all the speed it had to keep Parke's taillight in view as it rocketed down the wide waterfront street, twisted suddenly left and into a side street.
"Hogbund Alley," Doc exclaimed, as they reached the corner and turned it. "Slow down now, Jack. I don't want him to see us."
"But we'll lose him."
"No. He's slowing. He's stopping, see?"
The scarlet spark slewed to the curb and blinked out. A half-block behind, Jack braked without waiting for Doc's command, skidded his flivver to a halt.
For a moment Doc didn't move. He was watching a slim shadow climb out of the armored sedan and cross the street. He watched it mount a high stoop and vanish into the vestibule at its summit.
"Of course," he murmured. Then he turned to Jack.
"I'm getting out here. You go back and make sure our two friends in the abandoned house haven't wriggled out of their bonds."
"Obey orders, Jack."
The irresistible, driving will that was so incongruous a part of the white-maned, feeble-seeming old man crackled in the phrase. Ransom groaned assent, and Doc climbed out to the sidewalk.
The old man plodded wearily to the step up which Parke had gone. A group of chattering Hausfrauen fell silent at his approach.
"Good evening, Mrs. Rumplestiltken," Turner greeted a wrapped beldame.
"Guten Abend, Herr Doktor. Ach, id iss a bleasure to see you taging a little walk in de fresh air for vunst."
"Yes. It isn't often I can. But tell me something. That man who just went inside, with the yellow topcoat and the derby hat—do you know where he went?"
The gossips exchanged significant glances, and Doc knew he had depended rightly on their curiosity to act the spy for him. No one as well dressed as Parke could have failed to arouse it.
"Ach, ja!" Gretchen Rumplestiltken responded. "Yes. To the t'ird floor rear he goes ahp, to Fanny Winkle's flat dot she lets out rooms to boarders. Gestern morgen—yesterday morning—he war dere too und de rent he paid for die sick girl vot she vass goink in der street to throw out."
"Thanks." A glimmer of satisfaction showed momentarily in the faded blue eyes, then vanished. "He was in my store this afternoon and left something there. I just saw him, and I want to tell him about it. I'll go up."
Leaving this bit of explanation behind him to keep the curiosity of which he had just taken advantage from interfering with his plans, Doc ambled up the stoop and through the broken-windowed vestibule door. It shut behind him, and in the dim light of a pinpoint gas jet the stale smells of poverty closed about him.
Uncarpeted stairs creaked complainingly beneath his small weight; the splintered balustrade rasped his palm. There was a light on the first floor landing, but there was none on the second. Andrew Turner climbed slowly up into the gloom that deepened till on the third floor it was a stygian, tar-barrel murk.
He had marked the location of the rear-flat door at the first landing, and now he went unerringly to that on this third. His hand fumbled for the knob.
A voice, barely muffled by the thin wood, came through to him. "Mrs. Winkle!" It was a woman's voice, but weakness shook in it, the weakness of hunger and illness. "Please help me pack. Hurry!"
Doc's old mouth thinned with pressure, and his eyes narrowed. "Isn't it wonderful, Mrs. Winkle, that mother Rand should send for me just when everything seemed ended? Just when I'd given up. Just think—Mr. Jenkins says she's taken a house in the country and she wants me there. In the country—sunshine, green leaves, flowers. I'll get back my strength there. I'll..."
THAT was the story, then, Doc thought. Parke had represented himself as an emissary from Agnes O'Neill's foster mother, who was taking her away to some suburban cache. Thought he was taking her away. The old man smiled grimly, started to turn the door knob...
"Not so fast, Mr. Turner!" A whisper sounded in his ear, and something small and hard jabbed his spine. "Lift your arms and back away from that door."
Doc groaned inwardly, remembering old Martha's words: "There's brains behind that calf's look of his." It had seemed so easy to outwit Parke that he had forgotten them. He took a backward step, another...
"Turn around now, slowly," the whisper murmured behind him, "and start climbing. We're going up to the roof, where we can finish our business without being interrupted."
Turner came slowly around, as he was bidden, and the gun in his back came around with it, steady, menacing in its steadiness. He climbed wearily, the feebleness of his ancient legs no longer feigned, becoming now the water-weakness of dread. Behind him, menacing in their very softness, he heard the thud, thud of Cecil Parke's feet.
There were two more flights, rising dreadfully through the dreadful dark, and then another, steeper one at whose top an oblong of more velvety black was star-dusted. Doc reached it, stumbled out into the cool air of a quiet night. Tarred gravel crunched under his faltering soles...
"Far enough." Parke's injunction was no longer a whisper but a toneless, threatening murmur. "Turn around. I want to talk to you before I put you out of my way."
The old druggist obeyed. Against the curtain of sky-glow the lawyer was a thin silhouette; his derby hat, his flapping topcoat a grotesque contrast to the flat automatic in his gloved hand. The short barrel of that gun was held unwaveringly on Doc's midriff.
"You are very clever, Mr. Parke," Andrew Turner said, and there was nothing in his tone that acknowledged the imminence of death. "What made you realize that I suspected your little game?"
"The trick you used to communicate with Ransom. If you had trusted me you would have spoken with him openly. After you told me about that I thought back, and it dawned on me how you had made me betray my knowledge of Agnes O'Neill's whereabouts."
"Yes. By asking you some perturbing questions and occupying your mind so that you turned in the right direction—to the left—at the river front without asking me again for directions. I had planted in you the conviction that I knew where she was, and you drove instinctively while you were engrossed in devising plausible replies to my queries. Luckily you turned toward the old house, so I didn't have to jar you back to awareness by telling you to go the other way."
"Yes. I figured that out, and when you sent me for the police, giving me a chance to evade you, I was certain you intended to follow me. After telling Agnes to get ready, I slipped out in the hall and waited for you. But what bothers me is what made you suspect me in the first place."
"Your statement that you could not trace the source of the anonymous letter."
"If the writer had been able to get around, she might have been able to conceal that, but she was in the hospital and could only ask a nurse or orderly to mail it for her. The postmark on the envelope would give you the approximate location of the hospital, and working from that it would be easy to find out what woman patient had died within a day or two from the time it was mailed. You were too clever to have missed that. As a matter of fact, that was exactly what you did, wasn't it?"
"Yes. I found out where Mrs. Rand's home was, and tracing her servants, I located Sam Tartus. Through him I was able to track down Agnes."
"And now you plan to take her away to the country. In her weakened condition, and susceptible to romanticism as she has proved herself, you will bring about a reconciliation between her and Tartus. Then, and only then, you will 'find' her for her grieving mother—and share with Tartus the O'Neill fortune when he inherits it as Agnes' husband."
"Exactly," Parke snarled. "Go to the head of the class. I'm playing for half of a three-million-dollar fortune. Being so clever a scholar, maybe you can tell me what I will do with the man who will cause me to lose it if he remains alive."
Doc's bleak smile again stirred his mustache. "You will make sure I do not stay alive."
"One hundred per cent! A single shot won't be heard, up here. By the time someone comes to look for you, I'll be far away—with Agnes O'Neill. Here's your prize for being so smart a student."
The automatic lifted to snout at Doc's head. Its trigger clicked...
And Parke crumpled, as a monkey wrench crashed against his head.
"Jack!" Doc exclaimed. "I saw you in the stairhead doorway, and I was terrified Parke might hear you and shoot before you could get to him. But his egotism, his desire to show off his shrewdness, held him oblivious to what little sound you made, creeping up on him."
"Yeah," Ransom grunted, kneeling beside his victim. "Th' two of you thought you were hellish smart. But where would you be now, if I hadn't said, the hell with your orders—I'm going to follow you up in the house an' make sure you don't get hurt."
"Check!" Doc smiled. "You win this time. Take care of him while I go back to my store and make an old lady happier than I will ever be again."