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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

CORPSE IN THE SKY

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A DOC TURNER STORY


First published in The Spider, April 1937

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-04-19
Produced by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

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The Spider, April 1937, with "Corpse in the Sky"



Somewhere on the fringe of Morris Street a devil's cauldron, fed by murder, bubbled with the tribute of the terror-stricken poor. Never was there a stranger pair of detectives than Old Doc Turner, defender of the downtrodden, and the smart black parrot on his knee.



DOC Turner stood in the doorway of his ancient drugstore on Morris Street and smiled a bit wanly under the bushy screen of his white mustache. The sun, sifting through the long trestle of the "El" structure, made a barred pattern on the rubbish-strewn cobbles of the slum thoroughfare. Piled oranges were vivid on a pushcart in the unaccustomed brightness. Another cart blazed with the green fire of sprinkled, fresh broccoli, and from still another mounded a scarlet strawberry hillock. Swarthy, alien faces, hatless or shawl-framed, glowed darkly with an olive inner illumination. The hucksters' raucous cries had a singing lilt, and the chaffering of the housewives was good-humored, somehow stripped today of the feverish urgency to pinch a penny here, two cents there, because pennies were so hard to earn and so very precious.

Spring had come to Morris Street. And although the coming of spring meant that summer was not far behind, with its days of gasping, deadly heat and its deadlier nights, yet it also meant that winter—cold, dreary, racking starved bodies with the eternal hack, hack of relentless coughs, stabbing hollow chests with the twisting knives of pneumonia—was gone. For a month or two there would be only poverty to contend with, only death from hunger to stave off by ceaseless toil...

A shadow blotched that barred pattern of shadow on the cobbled gutter, incongruous, grotesque! It swung slowly across the interlaced light and shade—and suddenly the jabber of Morris Street was a shrill scream-chorus, the myriad faces of Morris Street were masks of pallid horror, the countless fingers of Morris Street were pointing, grimy and gnarled and quivering like a forest of aspen leaves in the shimmering sunlight, at the appalling Thing that hung from the sprawling long structure of the "El."

It pendulumed slowly at the target-point of those terrified faces, of those pointing fingers, swinging slowly back and forth, back and forth, twisting at the end of a long rope by which it hung from a cross-tie of the trestle that till now had served only to carry the thundering "El" trains over the heads of Morris Street, but now was a grisly tree bearing the gruesome fruit of murder!

The corpse swung there at the end of a gallows rope. But though the rope was noosed about its neck, it was not the rope that had taken the life from the lumpy, gross body. The flaccid shape was black against the trestle's black lattice, but from its slowly circling toes a slow drip rained, drop by single drop that flashed scarlet in the bright gridiron of sunbeams and splashed scarlet on the cobbles below.

And as the foreshortened corpse twisted to present its front to Doc Turner, he saw across its abdomen the gory slash where that carmine seepage had its source.

Turner, whirling to the telephone booth just within his drugstore door, snatching the 'phone receiver from its hook and hurling a nickel into the slot, was aware he was making a useless gesture. He had the train dispatcher's office on the wire in seconds, was snapping his incredible report to the crisp voice at the other end, overheard orders being winged to the stations at either side for the station guards to converge along the tracks. But he knew they would not trap an intruder between them on those tracks.

The fenced sides of the trestle came too near the fire escape ladders of the tenements for the killer to be caught like that.

As the cadaver dropped, in the instant before it had been seen, the gruesome prankster had climbed from trestle-side to firescape rung. His was, no doubt, one of those colorless, staring-eyed countenances goggling from the teeming, drab facades. His mouth was twisted as those others were with horror, while he gloated over the terror with which he had struck the Spring from the hearts of Morris Street.


A DISTANT police-siren was a banshee's wail threading the stunned traffic when Doc reached the sidewalk again. The corpse hung dreadfully still. The first startled outcry of the slum denizens had faded to a whimpering, affrighted growl—except for one terrible scream that slashed the throbbing, garbage- odorous air.

The paper bags she had dropped had burst about her feet, covering them with a froth of pulped vegetables, but the thin arms of the woman who screamed were lifted to that still, pendulous cadaver; their fingers clawed as if to snatch him from midair. Her mouth was a gaping orifice in the paste-white oval of her face. Her eyes, black as her streaming hair, were wells within which madness jittered as she screamed unendingly.

Only Doc Turner dared approach her, dared speak to her.

"Lisa," he said, his arm around the scrawny shoulders from which a tattered shawl had slid. "Lisa Valanti. Your screaming won't help Carlo. Come. Come inside my store. Let me take care of you."

She did not stop that piercing, mindless keening; but she responded to the pressure of the old druggist's arm on her shoulder, stumbling with him across the pavement and into the ancient pharmacy whose dingy white fixtures have looked upon so many years of grief. Lisa Valanti went with the white-haired pharmacist, but as she went she kept turning, spell-bound by the suspended body of her man, so her scream, and that devastated countenance of hers, kept back the crowd that otherwise might have surged after her, and Doc had time to get the door shut, and locked, behind them.

"Who did it?" he demanded. "Lisa. Who is Carlo's enemy?"

She screamed, as oblivious of him as though she herself were that hanging corpse. The wail of the police car, hurtling around Hogbund Alley's corner into Morris Street, was scarcely louder than her scream.

But it dragged the eyes of the curious away from the drugstore's glass door, and gave Doc his chance. He stepped backward—and slapped Lisa Valanti stingingly across her sallow cheek!

The scream cut off. The black eyes focused on Turner, and the light of reason was back in them.

"Sorry," he grated. "I had to do that, Lisa, or your hysteria would have gone straight into incurable insanity." That blow, cruelly kind, had been perhaps the most difficult act of all in his long life. "Now tell me why Carlo was killed."

Tears spurted, tiny jets at the corners of the woman's anguished eyes, but she jerked the bony shoulders from which the shawl had fallen in a gesture of ignorance. "I dunno. Carlo good man, no hurt nobod'. I dunno why he be keel like dat."

"Lisa!" There was distress in the pharmacist's kindly countenance, and smouldering rage. "It is I, Doc Turner, who ask you, not the police." They were all alike, the outlanders who huddled in these blocks of despair around here, in their fear of authority, in their concealment of any knowledge of the perpetrators of any outrage upon them. "You can talk to me, you know that." That was why it had so often fallen to Doc Turner to fight and defeat the wolves that preyed on these helpless poor. "Who killed Carlo, and why?"

Even as he repeated his question, Turner knew it was futile to expect a reply. All expression drained from the women's ravaged visage, even the agony in her eyes vanished behind a screen of flinty defiance.

How well the old man knew that stony mask! It was the stigma of the downtrodden, the underprivileged, of all the world. He had seen it on swarthy Sicilian faces, on the broad-sculptured countenance of blond Polacks, on the sharp, feral features of those to whom Morris Street was just another Ghetto. And now it baffled him on one more racial type of visage, a strange, exotic one; sallow-skinned, almond-eyed, thread-lipped.


THE Valantis had drifted here with a half-dozen other families from one of those Islands in the Caribbean of which little is known. They were not wholly white, yet the taint in their blood was not the tar brush. They were eighth, sixteenth breeds of the Indians Columbus found in San Salvador, the Indians his followers wiped from existence and memory save for the few pitiful descendants of their own lusts.

"Look here, Lisa," Doc tried once more, hopelessly. "If this concerned only you and your husband I'd wipe my hands off it. But Carlo was killed, like that, hung like that for all Morris Street to see, as a threat to others of what will happen to them if they dare defy the one who did it. That means it's another attack on the people out there, on my people. That makes it my business.

"Listen." The druggist's voice dropped low, and there was in it the rumble of the faithful watch dog, protecting his charges. "I'm going to stop him. I'm going to find out who did that, and I'm going to smash him. You can't prevent me. You can only hinder me by keeping silent, and by hindering me make certain that before I track down the killer some one else will die as Carlo did." His hand flailed out, abruptly, dragged out of the tattered black V of the woman's waist a small, ivory crucifix fastened to her neck by a fine gold chain. "Do you want to face Him with that on your conscience?"

Lisa Valanti stared at the carved figure on its tiny cross, and her stony mask shattered. Small muscles writhed in her sunken cheeks, her fleshless lips twitched, opened...

The woman pitched forward, was a crumpled heap on the floor at Doc's feet! She moaned, rolled over.

Something bluish-black projected from the side of her neck. The druggist, going to his knees, saw that it was the feathered stem of a dart whose head was buried in Lisa Valanti's jugular. She was silenced, forever.

But how? No one else was in the store, the door locked. Doc twisted to the entrance, saw a narrow, six-inch bar of light in the dark upright of the door frame.

That was it, of course! The letter-slit. Despite the hundreds crowding the street outside, the killer had stepped into the drugstore vestibule and calmly blown his lethal arrow through the letter-slit in the door to silence the wife of his first victim. He had been safe, quite safe from observation, for the hundreds who might have seen him were wholly engrossed in watching a blue- uniformed cop poised on the roof of a commandeered truck and cutting loose the gutted cadaver of Carlo.

Andrew Turner's age-seamed face was bleak, his eyes slitted, dangerous. He looked at the small crucifix in his blue-veined, almost transparent fingers, the symbol of her fate that had been torn free as Lisa fell, and his tight lips moved, as if in soundless prayer.

Then he did a queer thing. He plucked the poison-dart from the woman's neck and slipped it into the pocket of his alpaca coat. Its needle head left only a single drop of blood behind, and this he wiped carefully away. Then, and only then, he lifted to his feet to open the door and summon the representatives of the law.


JACK RANSOM was squat, barrel-chested. The grimy light of Doc Turner's ancient pharmacy glowed carroty in his unruly shock of hair and brought out the dusting of freckles on his blunt- jawed, heavy-boned face.

"The paper says Lisa Valanti died of heart-failure from shock," he grunted.

Doc's acid-stained fingers drummed on the edge of his prescription counter. "I expected that. Those native poisons all act directly on the involuntary muscles of the circulatory system, constricting them to rigidity."

"Yeah," Jack growled. "But I don't get your keeping it under cover. What's the matter with telling the cops the real answer?"

Turner darted a swift glance at the youth who had been his good right hand in more than one foray against the enemies of the people of Morris Street, looked away again.

"You ought to know how much good that would do the police. It would give the police just one more chance for bull-in-the-china- shop blundering. They'd find out no more about the second killing than they have about the first, and succeed only in keeping the killer quiet till the excitement has blown over. We've got to handle this ourselves, as we always do."

"That's all right by me. But I don't see that we're doing anything about it. Here it's hours since Carlo was bumped, and all you've done is putter around here in the store, as if nothing had happened."

"That's what the murderer thinks too. He's sure that he's scared me off, that I'm covering him up to save myself from the fate of the Valantis."

"What then?"

"He's going ahead with his scheme, whatever it is, before the effect of his warning wears off. Didn't you notice anything out on Morris Street, as you came along?"

"Yeah. Things were kind of still for this early in the evening. There's only a few pushcarts left, and there aren't any men promenading around."

"What else?"

"The houses are pretty dark."

"Exactly. It's a fine spring evening. The avenue ought to be crowded with walkers, the stoops with talkers. But there's none of that. A pall of fear lies heavy on Morris Street, and there's a tingle in the air, as of dreadful expectancy. They know something is going on under the cover of darkness, and they are afraid."

"Hell!" Ransom's bulky fist balled on the scrubbed counter. "I know something's going on too, but that's doing no one any good. Are we going to get started trying to stop it, or are we going to chatter away here all night?"

Doc smiled, with the humorless, patient smile of the oldster who knows events may not be rushed. "Not all night, Jack. Not more than five minutes longer. Go get your flivver around to the door, while I close up."

The store was already darkened when the youth drove up with the battered coupe that was his pride and joy. Doc Turner, bent and feeble-seeming in his shabby overcoat, was waiting for him on the sidewalk. From the old man's hand a bulky, cloth-covered package swung. He clambered awkwardly into the seat beside Jack and held that strange package on his lap.

"Drive slowly, son, in and out the side streets, till I tell you to stop."

Ransom arched rusty eyebrows, but obeyed. When Doc was in this mood there was no use asking him questions.


THE meticulously-tuned motor under the dilapidated hood sighed almost soundlessly into life, and the disreputable flivver slid phantom-like around the corner into Hogbund Lane. The stale, sweaty odor of poverty was a miasma between the drab walls of the tenement-lined ravine, heavier and more desolate than ever because of the unnatural hush, the unfamiliar quiet, that prevailed. Andrew Turner seemed sunk in reverie, his head bent to the queer package in his lap. What the hell, Jack wondered, did he have in there? Noises came from it, a grating rasp, the flutter of—of wings...

And, abruptly, a raucous, hoarse outcry, half-shout, half-scream, and wholly blood-chilling!

That sound was repeated, somewhere behind the blank facade of a two-story wooden shack to the left. "Step on it," Doc snapped, coming to life. "Get away from here, fast as you can make it!"

Ransom's heel-stamp on the accelerator, the leap of the car into swift flight, were one motion. The flivver slewed around a lightless corner...

"All right," Turner said calmly. "Slow down now, and come to a stop. I've got the place spotted."

Jack tooled the coupe to the curb, braked, jerked around to his white-haired companion. "What the devil kind of hocus-pocus are you pulling off now?" he grated. "What's that you've got there?"

"A parrot." Doc pulled the cloth free of the mass in his lap, revealed a large, square cage.

"Parrot, hell!" Ransom exclaimed. "That's a big crow. Who ever saw a black parrot?"

"You're looking at one now," Turner smiled grimly. "This is a true parrot, Jack, or to be exact, a groove-billed ani, crotophaga sidcirostris. A very smart bird, son, because it's just told us where the man who killed Carlo and Lisa Valanti can be found."

"But... but..."

"Never mind the buts. I'll explain later. We've got work to do, and we've got to get busy with it." Doc whipped the cloth back over the cage. "Come on, we've got to find a way into that frame shack back there."

"That's easy," Jack mumbled. "Well go through the basement of this dump here and out into the backyards behind. I don't think we'll have to go over more than three fences..."

He was wrong by one, but moving wraithlike through the tarry blackness of those tenement-house backyards, avoiding rubbish piles and heaps of broken boards by the instinct of long experience, the prowlers reached the rear of the two-story frame shack on Hogbund Alley unnoticed. Here they paused, crouched within an embrasure in its muck-spattered stone foundation.

"Here's the door," Jack breathed. "Do we go in?"

"Wait. Listen."


AT first there was only the growl of the never-sleeping city, a distant rumble cupped under the low, glowing bowl of the cloud-filled sky. Then that rumble seemed to drop upon them, breaking up into a throbbing, wordless chant that came now from within the shack. It throbbed, throbbed with a strange, savage rhythm, and it stirred strange, ancestral fears in the blood of the furtive eavesdroppers.

"What's going on in there?" Ransom's voice was barely audible.

"We'll find out. Get the door open."

Metal scraped against wood. A sharp click snapped the thread of the grisly rhythm from within the shack. Then...

"No go. I've picked the lock, but it's bolted inside."

"Might have expected that. There's a barrel here, against the wall. You can reach the window up there from that and lift me up. Get going."

Doc didn't see the quirk of Jack's mouth-corners in the dark. But he knew what the youngster had in mind when the bulky shadow lifted against the shadowy wall of the shack, clung for a minute to the dim window-sill, and vanished within.

"The fool," the old man groaned. "The young fool. He's always trying to save me from getting into a scrap. This time..."

"I've fooled him," Jack congratulated himself, dropping cat- footed from the window sill. "The old man's always got my heart in my throat, taking the chances he does. I'll show him this time he can trust me to do the rough stuff alone, after he's taken care of the brainwork."

There wasn't any covering on the floor, and except for a pale glimmer from the window that revealed nothing, there was no light. But the eerie, pounding chant was louder now, and somehow more frightening. Steering by it, Ransom crossed a small room, touched broken wall plaster with reaching fingertips, groped along it to find a paint-flaking wood jamb, a doorknob.

It was a matter of infinite caution then, of turning so slow that the knob seemed not to move at all. After what seemed hours a vertical filament of rosy luminance hung in the gloom, widened imperceptibly.

The chant made words now, muffled words in some foreign tongue that though unintelligible were fraught with an ancestral threat prickling the nape of Jack's neck. Then he was looking into a narrow corridor filled with a lurid glow that pulsed in odd consonance with the pulsing rhythm, and he saw that the flickering light spilled through jagged cracks in yet another door, straight ahead.

Someone moaned, dead ahead. It was a sound of belly-quivering anguish, muted and terrible.

Jack got moving again, creeping soundlessly through that gory luminance, his skin a tight, icy sheath for his body. The chant throbbed faster, more wildly, and his own pulse thudded in unison. He was afraid, this youth to whom fear was an unknown emotion. He was deathly afraid. But he would not turn back now. He would not confess failure to the old man whose aid he had disdained.

Somehow he reached that further door, somehow he got staring, pupil-dilated eyes to a crack in the crazed panel, head-high. Little muscles tightened along the ridge of his jaw.


THE light came from dancing, scarlet flames flicking, apparently fuelless, at the hub of a huge stone disk in the center of a room whose walls were draped with thick, funereal hangings. Kneeling in a ring about that stone were a score of men and women, stripped to the waist, their gleaming torsos daubed with grotesque streaks of ochre paint.

On the stone itself a squat, horrific figure stood. He was grass-skirted from the waist down, his torso clothed only in the savage ornamentation of some savage artist, his face goggled and gargoylesque with painted arabesques. He was motionless as death itself, the sickle-bladed machete in his knotted hands motionless, but his skin seemed to writhe with a motion of its own as the gory light rose and fell, brightened and dimmed in time to the runic leap and fall of the flame, in time to the weird systole and diastole of the throbbing chant that came from the lips of the macabre worshipers.

Before him, tripod-suspended over the dancing flames, was a black cauldron. Just in the moment Jack peered through a woman rose from the adoring circle, pranced with writhing hips and pulsing breasts to that bubbling pot, and threw something into it.

The chant rose to a climax, slid off again to its steady throb. White smoke curled upward from the bubbling pot. Hot, and acrid to Ransom's nostrils came the stench of hot metal.

He saw, as the woman retreated to her place in the ring, that before each of the kneeling devotees there was a little heap of gold and silver; bracelets, child's rings, a battered cup; pathetic little mementoes of the homelands, to which these exiles had clung despite the hunger the few pennies they might have brought would have assuaged. The last shreds of nostalgic pride, this pseudo-priest of a Caribbean islet was taking them from these poor as tribute, who had nothing else to give to him.

Wrath was hot at the base of Jack's skull. "That's the stunt, is it?" he thought. "You've got them scared into bringing you their gold and silver, and you're melting it up right in front of their eyes so that it can't be identified. Well, my bucko, by the time you're through with your little jamboree, I'll be back with a squad car of cops that will have something to say to you."

He turned to retreat. Dazzled by the glare into which he had been staring so long, the little corridor bewildered him. He reached a hand out to the wall.

It touched a rod that swung away. "Crroak! Curroak!" A raucous scream jabbed his ear, and a black shadow leaped upon him, a black shadow that buffeted his head with very palpable wings, that tore at his face with very palpable talons.

He threw his arm across his eyes to protect them from the flashing, curved beak that drove at them. "Crooak!" The blue-black parrot screamed. "Curroak!" Ripping the youth's flesh.

Then fists were battering at him, and hands were clamping his arms, his legs, and helpless to struggle he was being lifted, was being carried into the room of the dancing fire. A fist pounded his temple, pounded blackness into his brain.

Jack weltered out of oblivion to pain-shot consciousness. He was stretched on the disc-like stone, before the blood-hued fire that burned steadily now, and he was bound, tightly and strongly, so that he was helpless to move. The painted devotees had reformed their circle but they were settled back on their haunches, and they were watching him with the tiny-irised eyes of those who are drugged, or hypnotized.

Above him loomed the squat and powerful body of the pseudo- priest, and the red flames gleamed with a dread significance on the mirror-like surface of the machete he held.

"Some of you," the painted, savage apparition declaimed in rumbling, awesome tones, "still doubted Lodi even though you see drop from the sky the one who defy her. Can you doubt longer, now you see how the bird of Lodi capture this sacrilegious one who spy upon her sacred rites?"

"No," the chorused answer came. "No. We cannot doubt."

"Lodi is all-powerful."

"Lodi is all-powerful."

"And the punishment for those who blaspheme her..."

"And the punishment for those who blaspheme her..."

"Is death!"

On the word, joined in at once by servitor and acolytes, the machete swept downward to disembowel Jack—


THE flames leaped ceiling-high—mushrooming outward to envelope the killer's arm, the killer himself, in a searing fountain. Ransom rolled, off the stone, thumped to the floor among the screaming, terrified acolytes. He saw a small, white- maned figure leap in through the doorway, heard a sharp command in a voice that must be obeyed.

"Still, everybody. Against the wall and quiet. It's all over."

Then the flames were gone, and the body of the priest of Lodi lay charred and crumpled on the surface of the disk-like stone, visible only in the yellow light of the molten metal that had spilled from the overturned caldron.

"Jack!" Doc Turner shouted. "Are you all right, Jack? Was I in time?"

"Yes, Doc. But how on earth did you manage...?"

"The fire? It was simply a gas-flame. I knew that as soon as I saw that it seemed to burn without fuel. I found the stop-cock and turned it on full force. Simple."

"Yeah. Very simple. And I suppose you sawed through the iron bar downstairs to get in."

"No. I came in the same way you did. I didn't think I could jump from the barrel to the window-sill, and I didn't dare leave to get help from the police, but when I heard the ani scream I guessed that you were in trouble and I discovered that I'm not as old as I think I am."

Doc freed Jack from his bonds, and together they persuaded the pseudo-priest's bemused victims, released now from both fear and hypnotism, to wash and dress and return to their homes. The cooled nugget of silver and gold was gathered up to be sent to the Morris Street Settlement House...

And the blackened body of the killer left to be found, the next morning, by the police in response to an anonymous telephone tip.

"But there's one thing I don't understand," Jack insisted as the battered flivver coupe made its way through the cold, gray dawn. "That's how this black parrot led you to that house."

"That was because it is Spring, Jack, my boy."

"Spring?"

"Yes. You see, when I examined the feathers on the dart that killed Lisa Valanti I realized two things at once. In the first place the quills were soft and resilient, the blood in the capillaries hardly clotted, so that the feathers had been taken from a bird that had been alive not more than twelve hours before. In the second place they were female parrot feathers, and there is only one blue-black parrot, the ani.

"The ani is a tropical bird. None live wild in the United States and extremely few are imported, since they are neither beautiful nor interesting. The chances were, then, that the fowl whose plumage served to wing that dart was still alive, being used as part of some West Indian ritual that had outcropped in the two murders.

"I obtained a male ani from an ornithologist friend, and took him on a tour of the neighborhood. As I hoped, they called to each other as soon as they came within scent, because it is..."

"Yeah, I know. Spring..."

"And the mating season, Jack. I'm not too old to have forgotten that."


THE END