Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.
What caused the teeth marks on the throat of every dead driver of those wrecked war trucks? Old Doc Turner knew the secret—but he was afraid. He was afraid he had lived too long, seen too much—and knew more than it was good for a mortal to know.
IT was the weirdest, and by all odds the most terrible adventure of Doc Turner's career. So, at least, Jack Ransom maintained. The old druggist did not quite know whether to agree with his barrel-chested, carrot-thatched young friend.
Reviewing as one does when death is imminent his years of devotion to the people of Morris Street, Doc recalled too many instances of the awful ingenuity of those who prey on the helpless and bewildered poor. Nevertheless, as they waited in that black and ominous silence for the encounter on which so much more than life or death depended, Andrew Turner knew that never before had he been so desperately afraid.
Never before had the white-maned little pharmacist been so nearly convinced that all his vaunted Science was mistaken, that this time it was no natural enemy with whom he dealt but some Elemental, some evil Thing from behind the dark curtain of the Unknowable with which no being of flesh and blood and finite powers could hope to contend.
And when he felt Jack's sudden cold touch on the back of his hand and sensed that It was there, somewhere in the black dark—
It had begun one evening in the early fall when, in other years, Morris Street would have been colorful with the brilliantly lighted wares of the pushcarts lining its curbs, raucous with hucksters' shouts, with the polyglot chaffering of their patrons, the screaming laughter of the slum children playing dangerously in the rumbling traffic. Tonight the rows of carts had dwindled with the dwindling of daylight. Only every third street lamp had come on as the brooding dusk faded and even the El trains thundering overhead were dim and dark and somehow furtive.
Far out at sea a U-boat wolf pack ravened and there must be no city glow in the sky to silhouette for them the brave ships they hunted.
Like the other stores along the street, the windows of Doc Turner's ancient pharmacy were blacked out. Within, lamps shaded from the street glimmered on sagging, bottle-laden shelves and heavy-framed showcases once painted white but now yellowed and grimy. The store door was fastened open and just inside it Andrew Turner stood looking out, bowed by his burden of age, frail, his faded blue eyes somber beneath their shaggy, silver brows.
There were no pushcarts out there and scarcely any light, but the asphalt and the cracked sidewalks of the slum and its tenements' raddled brick walls still held the baking and terrible heat of August. The rabbit warrens had emptied their glut of breathless dwellers, into the dim and humid streets. A parade of shadows shuffled slowly past him, whispering in the unfamiliar gloom, accustomed laughter hushed, even the shrill cries of the children muted as if by some leaden apprehension whose source they did not quite comprehend.
He could make out individuals only vaguely, formless figures drifting by in the hush, a pale blob of a face here, there an aquiline countenance suddenly lit up by match flare held to cigarette. Somewhere a fretful infant whined and its mother shushed it. Nearer, suddenly, there was a patter of small feet amazingly swift through the thick and slow-shuffling throng.
A shadow detached itself from the moving mass of shadows, came toward Doc, went past him into the store in a strangely urgent rush and crumpled as he turned and was a dark heap on the rutted wooden floor.
Turner saw a distorted mask of face, a mouth open as if to vent a scream that did not come. He got to it, knelt, made out a black-stubbled jaw, ashen beneath its bristles, a collarless, grimed neck. The druggist's fingertips found an outflung wrist, found no pulse. Staring eyes were glazed, sightless.
The gaping mouth gasped a word. "Babe."
There was no pulse. There was no life in those red-rimmed eyes, no breath stirred the black hairs protruding from flared, blue-scrabbed nostrils.
So swiftly had the man entered, so silently fallen and died that no one in the crowd outside had noticed the incident. No one, at any rate, had followed him in, nor was the usual cluster of morbidly curious forming the entrance. Turner lifted and went to the door, shut and locked it and returned to the awkwardly sprawled and motionless heap on his store's gray floorboards.
As he stood, gazing down, he rubbed his fingers against the skirt of his tattered alpaca storecoat. He was trying to rub the feel of that wrist from them, the clammy coldness of dead flesh.
Of flesh that had been lifeless long before his fingers had touched it.
That, of course, was nonsense. He had seen the dead man run past him out of the dim throng, had heard him speak—
Had heard him after he'd felt for his pulse and found no throb of life in the clammy wrist. Doc's throat clamped and a chill prickle scampered his spine.
Perhaps because he'd jarred it slightly, the corpse's head had rolled on the motionless shoulders. The pallid skin just in front of the left ear was bruised by a bluish, serrated ellipse a half inch long. In the center of each longer arc forming the oval, the skin was broken as though two opposing pen points had jabbed deep there.
Not pen points. Teeth. Unmistakably that bruise had been made by tiny teeth and when they'd caught and pinched skin between them, the two incisors had met in the temporal artery.
Andrew Turner knelt again to the tied man. He pressed an acid-stained thumb against the mid-point of the unshaven left jaw, stroked hard up along the bristled cheek to the bruise.
Two tear-sized droplets squeezed out of the incisions, the bright scarlet of arterial blood.
When Doc went to the phone booth near the door, he moved stumblingly and new lines were etched deep around his white-mustached mouth. He fumbled a nickel into the slot, dialed the operator.
"Get me Police Headquarters," he said tonelessly. "The Homicide Bureau."
PATROLMAN FOGARTY looked down at the cadaver, lids narrowed, speculative. "Yeh," he grunted. "Yes, sir, I know him. Leastways, I seen him around. I fanned his pants for him a couple nights ago when I found him sleeping in a warehouse door down here on River Street, moved him along. He's just a bum."
The burly man in civilian clothing shrugged, said, "Okay. Go back to your beat." He turned to the fussy little man from the medical examiner's office. "What you turn up, Doctor?"
"Nothing except that dog bite, Captain Horn, and that couldn't have bled sufficiently to be the cause of death. Looks like another case of malnutrition. The man just plain starved to death."
A muscle moved in the officer's gaunt cheek. "You know," he remarked, "the Big Fellow was only saying to me the other day there's been too many of those cases showing up in the reports lately. Don't look so good, this near election."
"No. I can see that it wouldn't with the opposition newspapers pounding the Welfare Department."
"That's right. I guess he'd like it better if your post mortem showed up a whiskey heart, maybe, or something like that."
The physician tugged at his black van-dyke, his eyes veiled. "I shouldn't wonder if it did, captain. I shouldn't be the least surprised if I should find the cause of death to be acute alcoholism. In fact, that's what I shall enter on my preliminary report."
"I don't figure a bum like this has anybody belonging to him who'd be likely to ask questions." Horn's thin lips moved in a thinner smile and he looked across to the two uniformed cops standing at either end of a long wicker basket. "All right, boys. You can take it out of here."
Morris Street emptying with the approach of midnight, stretched dark and desolate now under the gridded black roof of the El. "Yeah," Jack Ransom grunted, "that's the cops for you, all right. He's just a bum, so what difference does it make if he starved to death or passed out from a dog bite?"
They'd been talking at the door but were walking back now through the pharmacy, the youth lithe for all his burliness, Andrew Turner seeming more feeble than ever against his young strength. "It wasn't a dog bite, Jack. I've given first aid to many kids bitten by dogs not to know what one looks like."
They reached the battered sales counter that stretched across the rear of the store and stopped there. "I've seen enough human bites, too," the white-haired druggist continued. "You treat all kinds of wounds when you run a slum drugstore." His wide nostrils pinched and flared again and he said, "I would be sure this was one, except for one thing."
"Oh yeah? Except for what?"
"Its size. If it was the bite of a human at all, it would have to be the bite of a very small child, too small to have the jaw strength to crunch through skin and fascia and the tough gristle of artery walls. And yet," the old man sighed. "And yet it could not be anything else."
The spray of freckles across Jack's nose crinkled. "How about a monkey? One of those little marmosets for instance?"
Doc's hand, transparent skin loosely gloving bone, made a tired gesture. "I thought of that, too. I thought of a great many things, but—Listen son, that derelict's heart had stopped beating minutes at least before he died."
Ransom stared, muscles knotting along the blunt ridge of his jaw. "If you weren't old enough to be my grandfather—"
"You'd say I'm out of my mind and I'd be inclined to agree with you. However, there is this. The artery that was bitten into was empty from maxilla to temple and it couldn't have been if his cardiac pump had still been working when he fell. Nor was there any sign of bleeding around the wound. Come in back, Jack." Doc started around the end of the counter. "I want to show you something."
They went through the curtained doorway in the partition that divided the prescription room from the public part of the store. Light from a naked bulb pendant within the green funnel of its shade was splintered by neat tiers of small bottles ranged on shelves above a long, white-scrubbed dispensing table. On this lay a two-inch watch glass, concave side up, and at the center of the lens-like crystal a liquid ruby gleamed.
Doc Turner tipped the glass and the crimson fluid ran toward the edge, ran limpidly back when he let the glass fall back. "I managed to squeeze out of that artery two drops of blood." His voice was flat, unaccented. "Before I called the police I sucked them up into a medicine dropper and pressed them out again into this watch glass. That was more than two hours ago and the blood, as you see, has not clotted yet."
"Which means what?"
"Which means that something was injected into the dead man's blood, while it was still in his veins, to keep it from clotting. Through the incisions made by those teeth. No monkey, of course, could do that but there are at least two creatures that can. The vampire bat and the leech."
Jack looked sick, but he licked his lips and said, "Neither of them have teeth."
"No," the old pharmacist agreed. "Neither have human-seeming teeth." In his old eyes there was a sort of creeping horror and in the hush of the dimmed out night there was no other sound but the hiss of Jack's breath and of his.
And then there was another sound from the front of the store, a patter across its bare floorboards. Jack stiffened, stared at the partition as if his dilating pupils could bore through it. "There's someone out there," he whispered.
"That's not surprising," Doc smiled bleakly, "since this is a pharmacy and its door is still open for customers." Nevertheless he paused an instant before pulling aside the curtain in the partition doorway and seemed to be nerving himself to go through.
JACK came up beside him and they went out into the front of the store together and the younger man chuckled, his tension breaking. "Some customer," he murmured, sotto voce.
The child the other side of the counter was no bigger than a minute. His once white blouse was torn and buttonless and half out of the tattered linen shorts that hung three-quarters down pipestem legs ending in broken shoes, one grayish black, one still betraying evidence of having been brown. His nondescript hair was matted and unkempt. Round-eyed and solemn, he stood there with complete aplomb but there were traces of recent tears in the grime on his hollow cheeks and his tiny fingers twisted at the hemp cord that served him for a belt.
"Well, young man," Doc inquired, "What's on your mind?"
The waif looked from him to Jack and back again. "Could I please have a drink of water?"
"Of course. Do you mind getting it for him, Jack? You'll find a tumbler on the shelf over the sink back there."
"Yeah, I know." Ransom let the curtain drop in front of him and Doc Turner leaned across the sales counter, chin cupped in the thumb and first finger V of his left hand. "What's your name, sonny boy?"
"I see." Doc tried it another way. "And what's your father's name, Willie?"
The blackened little fingers stopped their twisting. "I haven't any father."
"Your mother's then."
The miniature body stiffened and it seemed to the druggist that a veil dropped within the retina of those dark eyes that were so much too large for the narrow, bony face in which they were set. "I haven't any mother neither."
He had an odd feeling that the child was not telling all the truth, though even to himself he could not explain that. "Where do you live, son?" he asked gently but that was the moment Jack chose to reappear and Willie's look went to the glass with an intensity that was almost shocking.
Jack held it out across the counter and the small hands, so scaly with dirt they were like claws, seized it avidly. The child drank noisily, untidily, but with heart-squeezing need. It was difficult, Doc thought, to guess how old he was. By his size he was no more than three or four but he did not speak like a four-year old. Well, there was nothing strange about that. The children of the very poor are apt to be undersized, to have weazened old men's faces and dark hollows beneath their eyes.
The children of the poor do not usually have lips that, washed of dirt by the water they drink, are sensuously full and red as the heart of a poppy!
"Look, youngster," Jack was saying as he took back the empty glass. "What's the idea of you wandering around the streets this hour of night? Why don't you go home?"
The scrawny throat jerked, as if it swallowed a sob. "It's not time yet." The child turned and started for the door.
"Hey, wait!" The youth started around the end of the counter and Jack started running. "Wait a minute." The quick sound of his mismatched shoes across the floor was a rodent-like scutter. "Hold it." Jack caught up to him, grabbed his arm. "What's the rush, youngster?" The freckled grin was friendly, boyishly endearing. "I'm not going to do you any hurt. I just want to know what you mean it's not time yet for you to go home."
The tot didn't struggle, didn't attempt to pull away, but every inch of his tiny body was eloquent of resentment. "Seems to me," Jack smiled, "midnight's high time for a babe like you to be in bed."
"Babe!" Doc pulled the edge of his hand across his wrinkled forehead.
Jack said, "I'll bet a dollar I know what's bothering you. I'll bet you ran away from an orphanage and ditched the uniform somewhere and picked up those clothes on some dump."
The queerly red lips were tight pressed.
"And I'll bet another dollar you're so hungry, right now, your belly thinks your throat's cut. Isn't that right, Willie?"
Willie swallowed convulsively and, as if in spite of him, his head ducked a quick assent. "Well," Jack murmured, "maybe we can do something about that." He squatted to get more nearly on a level with the strange, luminous eyes of the little lad.
The child was still speechless but the tautness had gone out of him and he nestled confidingly against Jack. The latter rose, effortlessly lifting the child on the crook of his arm. The matted head dropped wearily to the hollow of his shoulder—
"Don't!" Turner yelled. "For God's sake, Jack, don't do that!"
Terror thinned that cry till it was almost a scream.
Ransom twisted to it. Willie flailed tiny claws, squirmed free of his hold, dropped catlike on his feet. Flashed out of the door.
THE swift scutter darted away on the sidewalk. Was gone. "The blasted little imp," Jack grunted, palm to his scratched cheek. "I can't blame him though. You scared the sense out of me, too."
"I must be getting senile." The faded blue eyes were miserable. "I should have kept my fool mouth shut and—" There was something besides misery in those tired eyes. "But when I saw him like that, and you starting out into the empty dark alone with him, I couldn't help it."
"When you saw him like what? I don't get you."
"On your arm, with his head on your shoulder." The white-mustached lips twitched. "With his mouth only inches from your jugular—"
"Doc!" The youth stared incredulously. "Don't tell me you've got an idea that poor little fellow—"
"Little! That's just it. The mouth that sucked the life from that derelict's temporal artery had to be little. As small as—as Willie's." Doc let go of the counter. "Grant what those drops of blood inside intimate and this new incident fits in."
"How do you mean?"
"What you did—the way you lifted that pathetic waif to your shoulder—as the natural thing almost any man would do if he were taking the child somewhere for food and shelter and I've known more than one tramp to have a heart bigger than all outdoors. That's speculation, of course. What isn't speculation is that just before the—the bum reeled in here to die, I heard exactly the same patter as Willie's feet made running towards that door."
"But you said there was a crowd out there."
"What of it? In the dimness all anyone would have seen would have been a man carrying a child, its head nestled against his. No one could have made out what the child was doing with its mouth." Jack shuddered, visibly. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess so." It was his face that was now assuming a greenish hue. "But the guy wouldn't have just walked along, letting that happen. He'd of yelled, done something, the minute he felt those teeth bite."
"If he felt it. Have you ever had a leech on you, Jack?"
"I have. You don't know it's there at all until and unless you become aware of the suction. Apparently the anti-clotting enzyme it injects with its first incision, has also an anesthetic property, like cocaine. Another thing. You'll remember I told you I heard the dead man say something before he was silent forever. I thought it might be a name but it wasn't It was just the word, 'Babe'."
"Look, Doc," Jack grinned. "What I think, I think this damn heat's got you going at last. What say you close up and we go to the Greeks for some iced tea, with plenty of lemon, and a slice of that cherry pie he bakes himself?"
"So the old man's gone off the deep end, has he?" Andrew Turner's eye-corners crinkled. "All right. We'll go for your tea and cherry pie, but first I'm going to cauterize those scratches. Just a minute while I get out a silver nitrate pencil, and fix those up a bit."
SPIROPAULOS had fixed up an electric fan so that it blew across a cake of ice. The tea had just the right tang and the cherry pie fairly melted in one's mouth. The first order called for a second and as far as Jack was concerned, a third. It was well after one when the oddly assorted couple went out through the black-shaded door.
Morris Street was like a steam bath, gloomy, cavernous. Plane roar, somewhere in the dark sky, seemed somehow to emphasize its loneliness. Jack yawned, mumbled, "Well, I guess this is where we break up." The enormous motor-thunder came down to the ground and they both turned to it. It wasn't from a plane but from a huge truck roaring up Hogbund Lane from the River.
"Those guys sure go hell bent for election," Jack remarked. "They—Hey! Look at that, will you! What's he—?"
Mid-block, the van had veered to the left, was hurtling on a long slant for the side of the street.
"He can't stop—Jump!" Jack yelled. "Jump you—There he goes!" But the black bundle that dropped from the truck's cab was too small to be the driver. A headlight slewed, caught it full beam. It was Willie, somersaulting erect.
He darted away, his scutter oddly distinct through engine pound. Sound exploded in a vast and deafening crash!
The truck tried to climb the tenement wall. It toppled, crashed down on its side and Doc was running to it and blue flames pouffed out all over the monstrous black wreck but they'd already turned a swirling yellow when he was near enough to see into the crumpled cab.
To see the still human form within for which the forked, yellow flames were reaching.
The old druggist scrambled up on splintered wood, twisted metal already hot, searing. Heat beat at him, a solid wall, and he reached into that shambles, got clutching hands on rough fabric that clothed an arm. He dared not breath and he smelled singeing hair and the arm came up but suddenly it wouldn't move and he saw that the driver was caught under the mangled steering post.
He pulled hard, shutting mouth, nostrils against the fire, his lungs laboring. It was no use. A black shape shoved past him. Jack. Jack was down in that mess, had great hands on the twisted post and the firelight seethed over Jack's carrot hair and slowly the post was bending.
The body slid from under it and Doc went backward off the hot wreck but the body came after him, fell soddenly atop him. "Oke," he heard, "Oke, Doc," and the weight was lifted from him and he was crawling away, was out of the heat. He sank gasping to the cool sidewalk and the night came into his throbbing skull.
A clangor of fire bells woke him. He saw a white jacket, a spectacled young face bending to him and over the face a visored blue cap with Ambulance embroidered on it in gilt braid. Gentle, but knowing fingers were spreading a coolness of salve on the sting of his face, his hands. The interne smiled, said, "Only a couple of first and second degree burns. Think you can sit up, Pop?"
"Of course I can." Doc proved he could by doing so, even if he had to wince at the pain. "Jack—Jack Ransom?"
"Right here," Jack said, standing beside the young doctor. Behind them a fire engine chugged and firemen moved about, grotesque in their clumsy coats and wing-brimmed helmets. Jack's face was smeared with soot across the black lines of the cauterized scratches but he was on his feet and smiling. "The driver," Doc wanted to know. "Is he—"
The freckled grin vanished. "We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble. The doctor here tells me he was dead before he crashed."
"Heart failure," the interne observed. "They're working those fellows too damned hard these days, moving war stuff. Here, Pop, let me help you up." His hand slid under the pharmacist's armpit. "The dog bite might have helped, though."
"The dog bite?"
"On his neck. Right at the carotid artery. Looked recent, too. His helper might tell us how that happened if he didn't have the shaft of a quarter-ton lathe mixed up with his brains." White shoulders shrugged. "There's my driver wigwagging me to push off. He's in a rush, this call broke up his little tete-a-tete with a cute new probationer in the emergency admitting room."
The doctor sauntered away. Doc looked at Jack and said, "Dog bite?"
THE carrot-head nodded. "I got a peek at it. It's just like the one you described." He felt of his own neck. "Those tough-looking drivers are all suckers for a woman or a kid in trouble. We wouldn't have known just what yarn Willie spieled to him to get picked up even if the helper wasn't killed. He was asleep on a berth just back of the cab, the way they fix them when they're on these long night trips."
The firemen were picking up their hose. Both sides of the narrow tenement windows were filled with pale blobs of faces and cops were holding back a crowd in the street. What had been a truck was a black and shapeless mass smelling of burnt wood and cooked oil. Standing near it was a little knot of men, a couple of cops with gold officer's badges, a fireman in a white rubber coat and white helmet, a tall, dour civilian.
"Let's get over there," Turner suggested.
Two green and white radio police cars stood slantwise to the curb. Nearby was a battalion chief's scarlet runabout with its brass bell. At the edge of the wall of gaping faces was a black, open-top convertible. As they neared the little group another civilian climbed out of the ruins. He was thin, sharp-faced, his hair gray at the temples, and he was dark with smouldering rage. He came over and said, "They could have torpedoed half a convoy and it wouldn't have done as much for them as this one little job."
"It can't be as bad as all that," the cop with the lieutenant's badge objected. "Those machines in there aren't bunged up much."
The thin civilian twisted to him. His mouth opened, shut again. Doc could almost hear him count ten before he said, very quietly, "Those machines in there are bunged up just enough to ruin them. They're precision stuff that's been waiting in my warehouse two months while a factory was being built up-state to house it. With the scarcity of skilled diemakers and the shortage of the special kind of steel that goes into those machines, it will probably take three months or more to replace them. You can make a hell of a lot of—"
"Hold it, Mr. Robbins," the other civilian cut in. "You're about to spill something you're not supposed to." He turned to the police lieutenant. "You can't blame him for being burned up, though. This makes the fourth of his trucks that has been smashed up in an unavoidable accident. It's got under his skin."
"What's got under my skin, Grant," Robbins snarled, "is that what you F.B.I. birds keep on calling those smash-ups accidents. If you were worth your salt—"
"Cut it!" the dour man snapped, then his tone mollified. "Come on. There's nothing more we can do here. Let's get back to River Street and send the salvage crew out."
He urged Robbins toward the black convertible. Doc followed them, caught up with them just as they reached the car. "Just a minute, Mr. Grant," he said. "I'd like a word with you."
Grant came around. "Yes?"
"I have a rather odd notion of what's behind those accidents you've been discussing. I wonder if I might come to your office tomorrow morning and tell you about it."
The man's face was a mask, without emotion. "Why not tell me about it now?"
"It's rather complex and," the old pharmacist smiled apologetically, "as you can see, I am hardly in condition just now to talk about anything at length."
"Hmm. Who are you?"
"Andrew Turner. I—"
"Ah yes, I recall the name." Grant thawed a little. "You have been of assistance to us on one or two other occasions. Very well, Mr. Turner. Ten a.m. tomorrow. My office is—"
"I know. Thank you. I shall try to be prompt."
Doc watched the two men get into the car and drive off towards River Street. "I'm all in, Jack," he sighed. "I'm going home to bed and I suggest you do the same."
They pushed through the crowd. When they were clear of it the old man murmured, as if thinking aloud, "Fogarty said he found that so-called bum sleeping in a warehouse doorway. If it wasn't the doorway of Mr. Robbins' warehouse I'm a purple owl with yellow claws and a brass beak."
"You mean he was a G-man?"
"They don't usually go around proclaiming their identity when they're working on a case, not even to people they're sure of. One agent, like Grant, acts as contact man, the others keep themselves very much under cover and they know that even if something happens to them, they will not be claimed by the department if that would jeopardize the course of an investigation."
"Yeah," Jack grunted. "Talking about undercover, Doc, do you realize you talked to Grant right where half the crowd could hear every word you said."
The white-mustached smile was without humor. "I was quite aware of that. Listen, Jack," Andrew Turner said softly, "I've got something to tell you before we part at the corner..."
DOC TURNER'S bed creaked under him, and then the black and ominous silence was once more absolute. The door was ajar for ventilation, the window wide open, but no air stirred within the rented room where he spent the few hours his ancient pharmacy did not claim.
Ordinarily, even with the sky overcast as tonight, the glow of the never-sleeping city would at least have outlined the chamber's sparse furnishings. The dim-out had changed all that. Doc peered into a darkness so complete it was a physical pressure against his burning eyes.
Something had come into that space in the last few seconds, noiselessly. Stealthily. It was very near him. He knew it, but he did not know how he knew it. Certainly not by the testimony of any of his five senses, but he was poignantly aware of it, and he was aware that it was evil beyond possible imagining.
Andrew Turner knew that never before had he been so desperately afraid.
That he knew why the unseen intruder had come here, that he had in fact planned its advent and prepared for it, made it not one whit less terrible. Cling as he might to the materialism his profession had taught him, his Science, he could not rid himself of the obsession that he dealt with something not material, with something that transcended man-brained Science.
It was stirring!
He could hear now the whisper of its mismated feet on his threadbare rug, nearing. He could hear the furtive hiss of its breathing. It was here now!
Doc jerked the twine he held in his hand and light smashed at his eyes from the chandelier to which it trailed, blinded him as he pulled himself to his elbow.
His vision cleared. He blinked at a pair of brown-trousered legs where he'd expected the pinched face of the terrible waif. He saw a brown suit-coat with a brown-sleeved arm thrust into its pocket, looked up in a single astonished sweep to a sharp, thin-lipped face, grayed at the temples.
"Robbins," Doc gasped.
The warehouseman smiled sardonically. "I hope you will pardon the manner of my entrance, Mr. Turner." His eyes were brown agates. "What you said to the Federal agent, Grant, made it necessary for me to see you tonight, and the purpose of my visit is such that it is vital no one be aware of it."
The old druggist's nightshirt had fallen open as he sat up and the flutter of his heart was very palpable beneath ashen skin. "How did you know where to find me?"
"You were followed. Even if you had been alert, you would not have seen your shadow." Robbins' arm moved. His hand came out of his pocket and there was a knife in it, the blade long and slim and triangular. "Too bad," he murmured, "that you are so light a sleeper, or," his stony look flicked to the twine that now hung straight down from the electrolier, "or is it that you were awake and expecting a visitor?"
"I thought it possible," Doc answered, "that I might be visited by the very strange child who told me, quite honestly, that it had neither father nor mother but perhaps omitted to mention that it never had either. I was prepared for it, but not for—" he nodded to the glittering, sadistic blade—"not for that."
"Which is why it, and I, are here." Robbins moved an inch nearer the bed and Turner realized that before he could possibly get out a cry for help, the steel would strike. "I rather suspected that a man clever enough to solve Wilhelm's secret would not speak to Grant as you did, where you could be overheard, unless he were baiting a trap. Yes," he mused, "you are more clever than that fool who for a fortnight has blunderingly been trying to fathom why so many accidents happen to the most important shipments."
The play of light on that slim blade was hypnotic. "He would not have believed your wild tale. You made your appointment for tomorrow morning so that you could bring him proof of it." It drifted smoothly to within an inch of that flutter beneath Doc's ribs. "But, Mr. Turner, you will not keep that appointment."
"One question, Mr. Robbins, before you kill me." By his tone the white-haired druggist might be prolonging an absorbing discourse with a crony. "This Willie, or Wilhelm as you call him. What is he, precisely? Precocious child, abnormal midget or—or veritably an imp from Hades?"
THE fifth columnist shrugged. "I cannot tell you. All I know of him is that he was sent to work with me, and that he has been very efficient. He—Ach!" He was flung backward by hands that had darted from beneath the bed and thrust at his knees.
He thudded against the opposite wall and Jack Ransom shot from beneath the sheet that had hung down over the bed-edge to conceal him, was erect in a single lithe spring and bounded across the room toward Robbins.
"The knife!" Turner yelled. "Watch his knife, Jack!" He saw the youth grab the wrist that wielded it and twist.
Jack took a sledge-hammer blow on his breast, launched one in response. The two crashed against the wall and the dagger flew in a silvery arc. A small form dropped from the window sill, scuttered toward it.
Doc threw himself from the bed. Something caught at him as he leaped—the light cord. Darkness smashed into the room. Doc's frantic fingers found, clutched a flailing thin arm.
A mewling small fury swarmed all over him in the sudden black, a spitting and vicious explosion that scratched and bit and was too small, too active, for his own free hand to find. The old man went down under the vicious onslaught but somehow kept his grip on the bestial thing.
Somewhere else there was a thud of blows and the grunt of men locked in fierce combat. Some fierce surge of strength matching his weakening tore Willie's arm from Doc's grasp. A tight knot of thin arms clamped around his neck. Matted hair butted his cheek and a noisome small head burrowed beneath his chin.
Sharp teeth pierced, clenched on his throat. Doc tore at the terrible small bundle but it clung, limpet-like, and sucked the strength, the life, from him.
Light struck at, dazzled him and there was a shout and a shrill and awful scream—and the Thing at his throat was gone. Doc could see. He could see a mewling, screaming flail of tiny arms arc up and away from him in Jack Ransom's clasp—saw it twist in mid-air as a cat twists, jerk loose and catapult through the window.
Jack stiffened, staring at the dark, square opening, revulsion shuddering through him. The thin scream outside, cut off. "Four stories down to concrete," the youth muttered. "That's that."
Doc Turner went down and down into a sick half-world and came up out of it again. He was on the bed and the little room was filled with a trample of police. He found Robbins standing against the wall, face a mass of bluing bruises but eyes still expressionless agate, wrists handcuffed. Jack, by no manner of means neat or unmarked, sat on the edge of the bed and the same young interne was dabbing iodine on his swollen hand.
Turner felt of the bandages around his throat, looked at the bandages on his arm. Heavy footfalls pounded at the open door and two more cops lumbered in.
The lieutenant who'd been at the wreck in Hogbund Lane turned to them.
The taller of the two cops licked his lips. "They ain't nothin' down there in the backyards, lieutenant. Not a thing."
"Hell!" Jack blurted. "Nothing could have crawled away after that fall. It must be down there somewhere."
But it wasn't, and days later, when the old pharmacist and his young friend were talking over that night in the ancient drugstore on Morris Street, no trace had been found of the terrible waif, either in those backyards or anywhere else. "He must have been human, Doc," Jack almost pleaded. "Don't tell me you believe for a minute he was anything else."
Andrew Turner rubbed a slow palm along the top of the battered sales counter. "I'm not sure just what to believe, son," he murmured. "I've tried to tell myself that the—that Willie was a midget trained to acrobatics in some circus and thus able to keep himself from being killed by that fall, and I've looked through volume after volume on abnormal psychology and found descriptions of just such cases as his.
"I convince myself that Willie can be quite logically explained, and then I think of the creature he served and of all the wanton evil for which that house painter is responsible—and I wonder. I wonder if perhaps the crawling Thing you flung out of that window may not be of a piece with its master, whether it may not have been spawned out of the same hateful mire that gave birth to the perpetrator of the horrors of Warsaw and Rotterdam and Lidice, and so many terrible hundreds more."
A wan smile moved the bushy white mustache and a light came into the tired old eyes. "One thing I am sure of, my boy. Whatever master and servant may be, whatever foul spirit of Evil both serve, their time of awful triumph must inevitably come to an end. If there is one thing I have learned in my long life, it is this; Always, when the terrible night ends and the time for the final accounting comes with the dawn, it is the followers of God who are found to have gained the ultimate victory over the followers of Satan."
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.