Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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Into Doc Turner's helpless, poverty-stricken neighborhood that monster came—crushing to splintered pulp the heads of his paralyzed victims. But Doc had fought for his beloved poor before—and he knew how to catch a killer with a corpse!
"ONCE, longer ago than I care to recall," Andrew Turner said, "I was becalmed with a friend in a fog so thick that even across our twelve-foot yawl we were only vague shadows to one another. The rest of the world was only a featureless grayness, but, all around us, we were aware, were hundreds of small craft like ours. We had no compass, and, swinging at anchor, had lost our bearings—yet we knew that the steamer from Boston was due to pass." He paused before continuing.
"At any instant, from any direction, that steamer would come plunging out of the fog, a looming and certain death to any in its path. Only chance would determine which would survive and which be smashed. There was nothing anyone could do to avoid disaster... This thing is like that." His voice died slowly away.
From under the white eaves of his shaggy brows, the old pharmacist peered apprehensively through his store door at the bustle of a Morris Street Saturday night. "A terrible death surges silently down upon us out of the sightless unknown. We know it will strike, but we do not know whom it will take. And there is nothing we can do about it—nothing at all."
On the scratched and grimy glass top of an ancient showcase, Doc's gnarled hand curled slowly till it was a fist, blue-veined under yellow, almost transparent skin. It seemed to be throttling something evil—but it closed only on emptiness.
"Hell, Doc!" Jack Ransom grunted, small muscles ridging the blunt line of his jaw, the youthful good humor of his broadly sculptured features masked by grim, smouldering wrath. "We've been up against some pretty tough propositions together, and we've licked them. We'll lick this one, too."
"We have to." The weight of his years seemed to weigh more heavily tonight on Doc Turner's stooped, frail figure. "But how?" His blue eyes were more faded, his grizzled, bushy mustache more ragged. "How do we combat something that strikes without warning, without apparent reason, and leaves no trace behind?" But there was still about him a strange, indomitable quality that somehow had more of strength than all the swelling muscles of Ransom's squat, barrel-chested frame. "Three times—last night, the night before, and the night before that—his victims have been found in bed, no trace of anyone's having been in their rooms but their skulls smashed to a pulp of brains and splintered bone, and..."
"I know," the youth breathed, thrusting spatulate fingers through the carrot-hued tangle of his hair. "I saw Rosa Galluppi..." He cut off, shuddering.
"What did he want from that poor scrubwoman, Jack, troubling no one, having nothing, concerned only with her bitter struggle for bare existence? What does he want from my people?"
"I don't know," the other groaned. "I can't understand—"
THEY were silent for a long moment, gazing out at those for whom they had fought, so often and so well, against the human vultures who prey on the helpless poor.
Under the el's sprawling trestle, the crowd was always shifting— yet always the same. There were collarless, thick-necked men, ungainly with the swollen joints and malformed bones of a lifetime's hard labor, unshaven, unkempt. There were shawled women, gaunt-faced, red-handed, bodies gross with unceasing toil. There were ill-clad, grubby youngsters who played with a feverish intensity as if aware how short was their time to play. There were hucksters, vending, with a sort of frantic desperation, the wares high-piled on their pushcarts, pyramids of fruits and vegetables scarlet and saffron and emerald in the glare of the electric lights strung above them that cast shadows strangely black, strangely misshapen.
"They've given the unknown killer a name," Doc murmured. "The 'Crusher'."
"The cops made a lot of noise, but they didn't get anywhere." There was a bitter twist to the corners of Ransom's mouth. "You'd think they'd put half the force into the district, after three killings like that. Maybe you can see police out there? I can't."
"There's a championship prizefight on at the Colosseum, and the opera's opening tonight," Doc said. "The crowds at those places are made up of important people—people who have votes and pay taxes and can speak for themselves. They must be protected from jostling, traffic snarls, pickpockets. The dwellers on Morris Street have only their lives to lose—their utterly insignificant lives." He shook his head now.
"This nut's up to us to crack, then, like the others have been," Jack said. "Well, Doc, you can do it. The Crusher's bound to make a slip—they always do. And then..."
Darkness swooped into the store, black and complete! The doorway, the street outside—all went pitch-black with every light out!
A scream rent the stunned silence—the beginning of a scream that at once was cut off by a sickening crunch. Then a thud shook the floor...
LIGHT came back, flooding the scene the two had watched the instant before the blackout. There was light, but no sound and no movement in all they could see of Morris Street.
It was as if a movie film had stuck in the projector, every figure frozen in mid-motion—a peddler's hand poised with a melon over the mouth of a paper bag, a boy's stick rigid above the sharpened clothespin it would in the next instant have sent flying, a bearded man's shoulders caught halfway in a racial shrug, a stake-sided truck still trembling minutely with the impact of its brakes. Everything was just as it had been, except for the gasping silence. Only one thing had changed.
Just beyond the drugstore's threshold, a crumpled body lay upon the sidewalk. Its legs were jerked up under, its arms grotesquely twisted, its head... it had no head!
Where that corpse's head should have been, a huge splatter was smashed into the flagstone, so flat that it was merged with the slate—a great splotch scarlet in the glare, and grey and gritty with white bits of ground bone that had once been a skull...
"The Crusher!" a hoarse shout blasted the appalled silence, and was swamped by a hell of sound—of shrieks, bellowed curses, the crash of overturned carts, the hoot of auto horns and rush of terrified feet. Their owners were hurtling, panic-stricken, from that which had struck out of sudden blackness and might be at hand to select another victim, scurrying down cellar stairways, up broken-stepped stoops, seeking a roof overhead, or walls to shut out this terror.
In an eye-blink of fear-filled time, Morris Street was emptied of almost all life, its length a clutter of spilled produce trampled to a formless pulp.
"God, Doc," Jack Ransom exclaimed, on his knees beside that which moments before had been a living human and now was an inanimate nightmare, "it's Tony Liscano. This shopping bag—I saw him buying onions from that pushcart there just before it happened. After he got home from digging ditches all day, he went out marketing for his three motherless brats. Now, there won't be anyone to shop or cook for them..."
"Jack," Turner's voice came sharply. "Do you see anything up there?"
Ransom twisted. The little pharmacist was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, his head thrown back, eyes on the serrated edge of the el runway.
"Up there." Doc pointed slantingly, to where a high wooden pole came close to the railroad structure, an iron distributor box fastened to it, sagging cables running away from it to other similar poles along the street. "Doesn't there seem to be something crouched there, at the edge of the ties?"
"Jingo," Jack ejaculated, "you're right! Maybe it's the..." The rest of what he said was drowned by the rumble of an approaching train. But he had leaped to his feet, was bounding across the walk to the light pole, flung arms and legs about it, climbed upward.
He was moving like a maddened warrior-monkey now...
A POLICE-CAR siren wailed in the distance, eerie as a banshee's howl. The racket of the approaching train was thunderous in the tenement-lined gut. The huddle of blackness, spotted by the druggist, had lengthened, was a blotch against the sky. An orange-red flash streaked from it. Gun-crack slapped Doc's ears and, halfway up the pole, Jack's hand was jolted away from the ladder-spike.
His feet slipped from the spikes they had just found. He hung, his chunky form spasmodically jerking, by one hand. Gun flash reached for him again, its bark drowned by the train's roar. The Juggernaut crashed overhead, its yellowed windows sliding through the darkness. They racketed away, and now the silhouetted figure was gone.
The cop's siren wailed again, nearer. Ransom was bunched against the pole, mounting again and evidently with tremendous effort. Doc Turner watched, his nails digging into palms, lips bloodless. A single dark drop splashed the sidewalk at the base of the pole... another. Jack reached the distributor box, clung to it, momentarily motionless. His one arm dangled limply from his side and it was from this that the drops came.
"Jack," the druggist called, "come down. He jumped the train and got away. Come down and let me see how badly you're hurt."
"One minute," the youth's reply floated down to him. "I've got to—" The sentence was checked as by a wince of pain, but, knees clamped about the pole, Ransom was reaching to the end from which he had been shot at. He seemed to be wrenching at something. Far up the street, two green lights appeared, headlights of the rushing radio car.
"Down, Jack," Doc snapped. "The cops!"
Ransom slid down the pole. His heels thumped the sidewalk, and he flung toward Turner, past him and into the store. The police auto roared up, skidded to a halt, its manhandled brakes squeaking. Burly men in blue leaped from the running-board.
"Geez!" grunted the first lawman to see the thing on the sidewalk. He shoved past his fellows, got to the curb...
Doc was answering questions. "The lights went out, then on again—and this was here." The dwellers of Morris Street were reappearing; emboldened by the presence of the law, they were coming, slowly at first, then more rapidly, toward the corner. "That's all I know. That's all anyone knows."
"You're a great help, mister," the sergeant growled. "A hell of a lot of help."
Andrew Turner was free to return to his store, close and lock its door against the growing crowd and follow the trail of tiny red splashes on the uncovered floor. He went back to the sales counter at the rear, through the curtained doorway in the partition behind it and into his prescription room.
JACK RANSOM was slumped in Doc's own battered swivel chair, before Doc's scarred desk. The fingers of his right hand were clamped tightly on his left arm, just above the elbow where the sleeve was ripped and darkly soggy. His face was tight-drawn, chalk-white.
"Doc," he exclaimed, as the little druggist came through the curtain, "that distributor box—"
"It was broken open," Turner interrupted. "But that can wait..." He jerked open a drawer in the long, white-scrubbed compounding counter, snatched a pair of surgical scissors from it. "Let's see what he did to you."
"It's—nothing," Ransom declared, the statement belied by his wince as the scissors slit the left sleeve of his jacket and his shirt. "Just a scratch."
The pharmacist examined scarlet-smeared flesh with firm, gentle touch. "It's more than a scratch. The bullet scraped bone, but went on through. You won't be able to do much with this arm for a couple of weeks, but all it needs is antiseptic and dressing. I can manage that if you'll trust me."
"Trust you!" Jack grinned wanly. "I'd trust you to do anything you said you could do, and a hell of a lot more."
"It's going to hurt like blazes," the old man warned, collecting carbolic solution, probes, cotton, bandages, adhesive tape.
"Yeah," the youth responded wryly. "But I can take it. Look here, Doc. How did you guess the lock on that box was smashed?"
"I didn't guess," Turner grunted, washing the blood from the injured arm. "I knew it had to be—that's what made me look up there in the first place. It's a long, long time ago, but I remember when those poles were erected and electricity was a very new thing. In most of the rest of the city, the cables have been buried underground, but along here they have been left overhead so that the peddlers might be supplied with light for their stands without complicated wiring. That's why the emergency current, shut-off for these three blocks, is in that box. From the fact that light returned so quickly, I knew that the master- switch must have been thrown off and then on again to supply the moments of darkness the killer needed. If the cables had been cut anywhere else, the lights would have stayed out."
"You thought quick." Jack bit his lip as a cotton-swathed probe bored into his wound to sterilize the bullet's path. "If it hadn't been for that damned train, I might have caught the Crusher right then and there... Hey, Doc, go easy, will you!"
"Sorry, son. I've got to do this or infection might set in, and then John Bain would have to go to work on your arm with a saw. You're forgetting the Crusher's gun, aren't you?"
"Hell! He was a lousy shot. He missed me clean, the second time. But I've got something a damned sight more than a smashed lock, to pay for what his first try did to me."
"What?" Doc's voice was sharp with excitement, but his old hands were very steady as they laid carbolic-soaked gauze pads over the lead slug's entrance and exit, and stripped adhesive over them to hold them in place. "Don't tell me you recognized him!"
"No such luck. He had his hat-brim pulled down and his coat collar up, so all I saw was a big nose with little black hairs sticking out of the nostrils. But he had to leave off unfastening something from the end of one of the ties in order to fight me off, and he left it behind when he hopped that train."
"Something—what?" Turner wound a bandage around the arm he tended, keeping a firm tension, laying length after length of the white ribbon neatly, meticulously in exactly the right place. "Stop stalling, Jack. What was it?"
"You tell me. It's in my pocket. That side."
DOC locked the bandage with adhesive plaster. Breath hissed from between his teeth, and his hand dived into the jacket pocket Ransom had indicated. It came out with a U-shaped strap of steel, some four inches across between the flattened right angles at the end of each leg. These tabs were pierced as though for screws, but the holes were roughly oval.
"He'd unscrewed one side," Jack explained. "I managed to pull the other screw out of its hole before I came down. I didn't think I was strong enough to shear quarter-inch steel like that."
"You aren't," Doc came back, staring at the thing. "No man is. But the edges of the elongation are too bright for them to have been made very long ago. Some tremendous force did that—and look here, Jack! The whole strap has been bent backward and then forward by that same force. You can see the crumpling of the metal."
Ransom lifted narrowed, speculative eyes to the old man's face. "What does all that mean? What are you driving at?"
"That this thing held something else—something that launched whatever it was smashed Liscano's skull and then brought it back to the el trestle. The Crusher took the rest of the device with him, but here's the proof that there is nothing supernatural about that killing and the others, and the proof also that we have a dangerously shrewd criminal to deal with, not a madman."
"That's something," Ransom grunted, "but not much. It won't lead us to him, and it won't stop him if he intends to keep on."
"Wait," Doc muttered. "Wait." He moved away, to where he could hold the thing under the direct light of the lamp, low-hung over the prescription counter. "Maybe this will tell us more... Ah!"
"You've found something!"
"Yes. Look here. This brown spot. It's not rust. It's leather— he must have scuffed his shoe against the edge of this thing."
"You're right." Jack was out of the chair now, peering over Turner's shoulder. "It's a sliver of leather, stuck there by shoe polish. Doc, that polish is a peculiar shade of yellowish-brown! I don't remember having seen any just like it before."
"I have, son." There was a throb of triumph in the old pharmacist's voice. "It was on the shoes of Italians just landed from the other side. They were Sicilians... Say, Jack, Liscano was a Sicilian! How about the others?"
"I don't know. They were all Italians, though. Rosa. Old Vito Pagani. Martino Cordovani. You think—"
"They were killed by someone who very recently came from Italy. Look here." Doc was now at his desk, seeking for something among the papers cluttering its top. "I had an ad in the last ball program of the Sons and Daughters of Sicily. It had a list of their members. Here it is!" He riffled the pages of a lurid- cover pamphlet. "There must be something to tie them all together... Hm... Why the devil don't they print these names alphabetically? They're arranged by towns... Cordovani, Martino... Galluppi, Rosita, right under, and Pagani, Vito—and Liscano, Antonio. They're all together. That's it—Jack, that's it!"
"They all came from the same town, from Caltarino. That's what ties them to one another—and death," said Doc.
"Then the killer must have come across the sea to get them! He'll be going after the others from that town. We must warn them..."
"There aren't any others. That's all there are," Doc declared. "He's through with his devil's work. We had a chance to get him—and muffed it."
"What's that number after Liscano's name? Three? There isn't any after the others."
"Three," Turner nodded. "Three children. The others were childless." His face was abruptly white, his eyes blazing. "Jack, the Crusher isn't through yet! Those motherless bambini..."
"They'll be next on his list," Jack muttered. He twisted toward the partition door. "Come on. We've got to get there ahead of—"
"Not that way, Jack," Doc barked. "The cops are still out there and, if they see you like that, they'll hold us up for the Lord knows how long." He was at the door in the wall beside the desk— the rarely used side door of his store—tugging at its bolt. "We'll go out here and..."
The door jerked inward. Jack Ransom saw Doc start through. Then he saw a sudden black figure to one side of the opening, the gleaming arc of a knife-blade flailing straight for the old man's throat—and Jack left his feet in a long, flat dive.
His left shoulder struck the frail form, pounded it to the ground. Red hot torture gearing his wound, Jack rolled, was in time to glimpse the flash of the stiletto once more, this time slicing at him.
Jack kicked upward with a desperate foot, felt its impact against soft flesh. The black-cloaked knifer jolted away from him, thudding into the brick alongside the open side door. Ransom thrust fists down against the flagstone to shove himself up. Agony roweled his wounded arm, as it crumpled. The dark whirled giddily about him, and nausea rose in his throat. There was the sudden whir of an auto starter, then the roar of a motor...
JACK RANSOM heaved upward to consciousness out of a black sea of oblivion. His head ballooned with pain and his left side was sheathed with torture. His eyes opened. He was on his side of the sidewalk, facing the curb. A bar of pale light, from the drugstore's open side-door, lay across the cracked flagstones. It showed a smear of wet blood on the stone—and nothing else.
In the instant before the assassin had sprung at him, Jack had seen Doc Turner's still form lying there. Where was Doc now?
An awful dread brought the youth to his feet. His left arm dangled helplessly again, soaked with blood, but that did not matter. Nothing mattered except... He lurched back into the store.
"Doc!" he gasped. "Doc!"
No answer. The back room was empty. He staggered to the curtained doorway, peered through it. Doc was not in the front of the store. The killer had taken him away. The old man Jack loved was in the hands of the Crusher!
The youth came around, staring about that deserted back-room unable yet quite to comprehend the enormity of that circumstance, staring at the meticulously neat prescription counter where so often he had seen the old pharmacist deftly at work, at the desk where so often—
The desk—something was missing from it. That U-shaped steel strap was gone!
The Crusher had taken it! That was why he had been outside the side door. He had returned for that essential part of his lethal device, waiting for an opportunity to retrieve it. He had taken a ghastly chance—and there could be only one reason for that. He was determined to complete his murderous enterprise tonight.
His victims would be the Liscano bambini! They were favorites of Jack, hanging around the garage where he worked—big-eyed, olive-skinned, affectionate little brats. Giuseppe and Marianna and toddling, small Rita. A vision of them, as they might be now, flashed across the youth's brain—soft little bodies crumpled, black-haired little heads crushed.
There might yet be time to save them. The Crusher would be delayed by Doc, and whatever it was that he meant to do with him. Doc was beyond Jack's help, but those little children...
Hurry! The youth started toward the door, hesitated. His sleeves hung in shreds from his lifeless arm, and the bandages on that arm, his shirt, were gory. He could not get far this way...
His roving eyes saw what he needed. With his good hand, he tore the tattered sleeves away, snatched from a hook a black alpaca store-coat. It ripped up the back as he struggled into it, and the cold sweat of agony dewed his brow. Too small, it clamped tight on his wound, but it covered the blood and the bandage, and he would get by.
The odorous, dim slum streets were silent, deserted tonight, emptied by brooding terror. Ransom reeled down them like a man drunk or sick unto death, his colorless lips tight set, deep-sunk eyes dark wells of agony. He saw nothing at all. It hammered in the brain behind those eyes, "Doc is gone. Never again will I see that kindly face. But those children—I must save them. Doc would want me to save them, no matter what..."
THE streets, the broken-windowed tenements, were a blur. No conscious will drove Jack Ransom on, only some instinct—the last vestige of strength in that battered, drained, lacerated great body of his. But at last he found himself dragging himself up a broken-stepped stoop, staggering into a noisome vestibule, reeling into a fetid hallway that was illumined only by a pin- point gaslight.
Suddenly he was taut, crouched, as a great formless shadow swooped down over him from above! Something huge and grey was looming over the splintered banister of the stairway. It came downward...
Then the corners of Jack's mouth twisted wryly. The thing that had so frightened him was a rolled-up feather bed, a wizened Italian with a face like the brown shell of a walnut, bent almost double beneath it.
He knew the fellow. "Parlante—" he managed to make his voice almost natural—"tell me what floor the Liscano flat is. I got to see the kids."
The man peered at him from under his burden, and Jack saw that his beady, rheum-rimmed eyes flickered. "Liscano? You no go up there. Death is there. We live there an' now we run 'way. Stay 'way, my fran' Jack, lessa you tired of living."
"The hell I'll stay away." Parlante had reached the bottom of the stairs and now, behind him, Ransom made out a huge-bosomed woman in a dingy wrapper, her monumental arms embracing an enormous, blanket-wrapped bundle, behind her a trail of whimpering, sleepy-eyed youngsters loaded down with pots and pans and the innumerable objects of poverty stricken living. "Think I'm yellow like you, leaving those kids to die? I'm going up here to get them out—save them in time!"
Jack understood now why Tony Liscano had been killed in the open. The Crusher's other victims lived alone, in rented rooms. The Liscano's flat had been crowded. By the murderer's spectacular crime of tonight, he had served two purposes. He had disposed of one more of his intended victims and now was frightening the others' fellow tenants away, so that he might complete his death-list unhampered.
But this meeting meant the Liscano children were still alive. He was in time!
"No one canna save them. The fienda of Mount Lecchio has come for them—for all from Calantrino. His fist is a big rock, an' it crushes skulls lika your fist crushes a rotten pomegranate. No human can fight it..."
"The hell you say," Jack snarled. "Let me get by." While they were parleying like this... He shoved past the mattress-bearing Italian and his pillow-breasted wife, staggered up the stairs.
"It's da top floor," a high-pitched feminine voice came after him. "In da back. Go, brave fool, an' may the angels protect you—and them."
Stairs... unending stairs climbing high into ominous obscurity. The reek of unwashed bodies, of pungent, alien foods, of the musty odor of poverty. Pain filled Jack's body. A prickle of fear touched his spine, cold fingers of dread tightening on his throat so that it was hard to breathe. Higher... He must hurry, but he could not... He was weak...
This landing must be the top; there were no more stairs. Rear, the woman had said. That would be this paint-peeled door right ahead, drab in the vague flicker of a tiny gas-flame.
"Steady, Jack." That could not be Doc's voice in his ear, but Doc had said it so often at a moment like this that it was almost as if he said it now. "Steady, boy."
Ransom was clear-headed, almost miraculously. A little strength flowed back into his veins. He got to that door, listened a moment.
There was no sound from behind it.
Jack tried the knob. The door was locked. He lifted his fist, rapped on the panels.
There was no scutter of little feet, no childish voice asking who knocked. The hammer of his knuckles had sounded hollow within, as though the rooms were empty. But the Parlantes, who had been here only moments ago, had left the Liscano children there...
Ransom fumbled in his pocket, brought out a heavy knife, clipped open a screwdriver blade, with a thick thumbnail. Tenement locks are flimsy. It was a second's work to pry this one open.
THE room which Jack entered was lighted. It was a kitchen, its rusty coal-range cold, the shelves over its galvanized iron sink swept free by the fleeing Parlantes. It was a dining-room. There were unwashed plates on the oblong, unpainted table in the center of the uncarpeted floor, bits of broken bread, a puddle of greasy soup with pallid bits of wormlike spaghetti congealed in it. The room was a bedchamber. A curtain was shoved back on a wire strung from wall to wall, and in the space that curtain hid at night was an enormous iron bed, large enough for a whole family to sleep in. It was stripped of its mattress, sagging spring bare.
There was no one in the room.
Where the folded-back curtain hung limp, stiff with the grease of oily cooking, a door broke the grimy plaster surface of the wall. There must, then, be another chamber there. Were the orphans...
The youth got to that door, shoved it open. The warmth of human bodies met him... and a low moan.
He saw them, at last, in the pale glow that came past his shoulder from behind and was the only light. They were huddled together on a comforter-covered bed. Giuseppe, the nine-year old boy, was in the center, great lustrous orbs staring straight ahead, his scrawny arms protectingly around the two girls. Rita lay against his left shoulder, a doll-like morsel of humanity, black curls framing the countenance of a cherub. Tight to Giuseppe's right side was Marianna, her features too sharp, too wise for her brief six years of life.
None of the three moved. Were they dead? Jack couldn't see them clearly. A haze seemed to be drifting across the rooms, veiling them from him. He must get nearer. He took a step into the room, another. It seemed strangely hard to move. His feet weighed a ton. It was darker now. The door, its frame warped, had swung shut behind him, but that didn't explain why the dimness was so uneven, lighter here, darker there, as though wisps of an intangible black fog were curling in the close, musty air.
Nor did it explain why Jack's legs would no longer support him. They folded under him so that he slid slowly to his knees and remained like that, half-gone, his knuckled fist keeping his torso erect. Something... in the air...
The window. His burning eyes found it, a pallid oblong in a murky wall. He must... get to it... open it. But he could not move. He was held in a grisly sort of paralysis, a nightmare rigidity...
The window's pale rectangle was blotted by a shadow—a black, malformed silhouette that lay against it, grotesque and terrible! The window was scraping open!
SLOWLY, the sash rose, its lower edge jogged by black ringers. Jack Ransom could make out the figure on the fire-escape outside—the crouched, black-cloaked figure that he had seen twice before, on the el trestle, springing at him with a thirsty stiletto. The Crusher!
In that moment, Ransom knew the meaning of the fog, his inability to move, the huddled, motionless bambini on the bed. He understood why there had never been any outcry from the Crusher's victims. This was some kind of gas he had let into the room, paralyzing those marked for death...
The Crusher had raised for a moment from the sill, moved aside just enough to show, outlined against the lowering sky-glow, the U-shaped contrivance of steel with which Jack was all too familiar!
And now, watching in that terrible helplessness, the youth saw the Nubian apparition of death stoop again and fit, under the strap's loop, a thick cylinder that filled it completely and lay horizontally across the sill, aimed pointblank at his own head!
A low, gloating chuckle came through the open window. The Crusher's hand moved, closed on a long lever that projected upward from that tube of death. When he pulled that lever...
Jack Ransom was not afraid to die. But to have his skull smashed into a greasy, gory pulp! To lie as he had seen Rosa Gallupi, Tony Liscano—a headless torso... the next second held for him the ultimate desecration.
The chuckle came again, but, incredibly, the Crusher seemed to collapse atop his infernal machine of death.
The window framed only a heaving heap of blackness... and then there was another form within its sash, a slender, unbelievably familiar shape, a face white-maned, grizzle-mustached!
"Jack!" Doc Turner's voice called. "Jack! Are you all right?" Doc Turner was clambering over the sill, leaping toward him! Doc Turner, with a stiletto in his hand—from which dripped blood!
Something snapped in Jack Ransom's skull, and once more consciousness was blotted out. But no terror went down with him into oblivion, only a great thankfulness...
PUNGENT fumes stung Jack Ransom's nostrils, returning him to consciousness. There was light in the Liscano orphan's bedroom now, making of Doc Turner's white hair a silver halo.
Jack thrust the veined old hand and the wet wad of cotton it held away from his nostrils, gasping.
"Steady, Jack," the familiar voice said. "It's only aromatic spirits of ammonia. It won't kill you." It was true, then. Doc wasn't dead. Doc was here, bending over him.
"How did you—" the youth spluttered.
"Show up in time? Simply enough," Doc said. "I was half- stunned by your very opportune tackle... I couldn't move, but I could see. I saw the fellow duck into the store, took a look at you and saw that you, too, were only stunned—not injured. I played possum when the Crusher came out again, because he had that U-strap in his hand and I knew what that meant. He must have thought he had done for both of us, because he jumped right into his car and stamped on the starter." Doc took a breath, went on.
"The motor didn't start right away, and that gave me time to jump for the trunk-rack in back. Then it roared away."
"Why didn't you yell for the police? They were just around the corner."
"And have him get six months for assault?" Doc said. "He was a murderer, Jack, but I couldn't prove it, unless I caught him in the act. Well, he drove a rather circuitous route, but he wound up around the corner here. Then it was a question of tracking him through cellars, up the stairway of the house next door to its roof, watching him come down this fire-escape. He remained out there a long time, Jack, doing nothing. I couldn't understand that."
"I can. He was waiting for the Parlantes to get out." Jack explained swiftly.
"Yes. That was it. But that almost fooled me. I was watching him from the roof. I decided he was merely getting an idea of the layout in here so that he could come back tomorrow night and commit the murders then. Remember, that till now he had only killed one each night. My attention must have wandered a bit, because, quite suddenly, I was aware that he was on his feet, had finished setting up his machine. I came down the ladder fast, then, taking a chance that he would be too absorbed to hear any slight noise I made."
"You weren't armed. You were going to attack him with your bare hands!"
"He might have disposed of me, but the children would have been warned," the old man said simply. "But, by some great fortune, he had laid his stiletto on the ladder step, evidently to have it ready in case of any trouble. I snatched it up at the same moment I glanced through the window and saw you. His hand reached for the lever, and I—"
"Stabbed him with his own dagger. Killed him without warning!"
"Yes, Jack. It was the only thing to do. His death-machine gave no warning, to Tony or the others."
"The machine—what is it?"
"Simple enough. A powerful spring compressed within that cylinder, its head a disk of armor plate, released by a forward movement of the lever, and an ingenious arrangement of ratcheted gears that pulled it back into the cylinder when he hauled back on the lever. Simple... and effective."
"It's surprisingly light for all its power, and small enough for him to have carried it across the sea..."
"Why did he bring it?"
DOC said: "I've found that out, too. Little Giuseppe had a piece of newspaper in his hand, torn from this morning's paper. It's an advertisement, by the Italian consul, for ex-residents of Calantrino, in Sicily. The government has taken over a section of the Mount Lecchio hillside for some military purpose and is paying a large sum for the land. The Crusher was undoubtedly aware of this, and came over to dispose of other claimants, so that his own share would be the larger."
"Since feudal times, some of the land in Sicily was held in certain communal groups, each member of which shares in the proceeds. Undoubtedly, Galluppi and Cordovani and Pagani and Liscano were members of the group which owned this particular land. Another member was... the Crusher! That is the one bright spot in all this sorry mess, Jack. Because of his crimes, these three orphans will never know poverty again. We will send them back to Sicily, and there they will be wealthy. They will soon forget all this!"