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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

THE CLAWS OF SHARI

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A DOC TURNER STORY

First published in The Spider, June 1942

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version Date: 2017-03-10
Produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan

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The Spider, June 1942, with "The Claws of Shari"



Who was the man that moved soundlessly as a cat through Doc Turner's midnight slums? Had he any connection with the slinking killer-cat which slew human beings for no apparent reason? Once more the aged pharmacist of Morris Street goes to war for his people!



ALL day and in the night's early hours Morris Street had been raucous with truck horns, with the shouts of the pushcart hucksters, the polyglot babble of its thronging pedestrians, the shrill cries of tattered children playing dangerously in its gutters. Now, after midnight, the slum's teeming life had drained off into the tenement warrens. Store windows blacked out, the debris-strewn pavements were lit only by wide-spaced, feeble street lamps. A hush lay over the district.

Into this somehow ominous quiet came the yowl of an alley cat. To Andrew Turner, plodding wearily homeward from long hours in his ancient pharmacy, some overtone of the familiar nocturnal sound brought the odd notion that just so might wail a human soul in torment.

The aged druggist paused. Acid-stained fingers tugged at the white bush of his mustache as he peered into the alley mouth within whose murk feline ululation rose to a snarling climax—and exploded into a scream.

Not the scream of a cat—the scream of a woman. The shriek spoke of unthinkable, nerve-shattering terror.

By the time the cry died out, Doc Turner was in the alley, hurrying toward the source of that agonized sound. The deeper dark here paled the high opening where the black walls that formed the gut ended. Beyond, against sky-glow of the never-sleeping city, a back-yard fence was Stygian. The fence was suddenly surmounted by the lithe silhouette of a huge cat.

From its muzzle to its undulant tail, the brute seemed to measure three feet.

A moan pulled Doc's eyes up to a faint glimmer in the side of a building. When he looked again, the cat was gone. Its enormity, he reassured himself must have been an optical illusion. Still, ice sheathed Turner's body.

"Can you make out where the scream came from?" a voice asked, and a vague form took shape in the darkness near Doc Turner.

"Somewhere towards the rear of this house," Doc said. "The first floor, by the sound of those moans." There were other sounds within the tenement now, a muffled thud of doors, questioning calls. "I'm going around in front and see."

The stranger's walk, beside him, was oddly noiseless.

The vestibule door was not locked. Narrow, uncarpeted stairs rose to a congested hallway that held the pad of bare feet, an excited jabber in a dozen different languages, the rap of urgent knuckles on wood. In the dim glow of a tiny bulb Doc saw his companion, tall and slender, well-dressed. He had a triangular, dark face, and his uncovered black hair was sleek and lustrous as though, like a woman's, it received a hundred brush strokes morning and night.

"You are Andrew Turner," he said, "proprietor of the drugstore at Hogbund Lane corner. I am Gar Karin."

His English was too precisely enunciated to be his native tongue, but neither name nor appearance gave any clue to his origin. "Sonia!" someone shouted, above. "Sonia Marshvitz! Open de door."

Climbing the broken-railed stairs to a gabble now more frightened than excited, Doc recalled that Sonia Marshvitz was a widow living here with her four year old son, Paul. Someone had switched on a light on the next floor and the landing was crowded with night-gowned women and night-shirted unshaven men.

"Ai!" one of the latter exclaimed. "Now is here Doc Toiner!" Sleep-blurred faces turned, showing signs of relief. "Dey don't answer, Doc. Vot shall ve do?"


ALWAYS in time of stress or distress, these people the old man so long had served thus shifted their burdens of decision to him. "Do?" He accepted the load as they parted and let him through to a scarred door. "Break in, of course." He glanced around. "You, Tony! Abe Katz! You're big fellows. Use your shoulders if you can't use your heads."

The lock was flimsy. The door yielded at the first thrust.

Dingy luminance from the hall probed a kitchen, the living room of the very poor. The room was immaculate and empty, but a mindless and awful babble came out of a black doorway in the further wall.

On the landing there was no sound except a hiss of appalled breath. No movement. They waited for Doc to enter and face whatever horror was in that inner room.

He nerved himself to the task. Going across the kitchen, his legs seemed to force themselves through an invisible, adhesive miasma. He reached the dark rectangle, breathed the peculiar, musty odor of poverty's bedrooms as he went through.

Two windows diagonal to each other in right-angled walls drained vague light over a decrepit bureau and a broken backed chair. A quilt trailed from an iron-framed double bed in which a woman sat upright. Her straggly hair hung about a scarcely human face; her distorted mouth vented sounds hardly human. Her bare, flabby arms made a cradle against her bosom, and in this cradle lay a small, limp form. The nightgown and the flaccid little body bore stains that had come from the child's torn throat.

The flesh of the shoulder on which Doc put his hand was as chill and hard as stone. "Who did it, Sonia?"

Even in that dimness, the eyes that lifted to him were the eyes of a nightmare. "I'm Doc Turner, Sonia. Tell me. Who did this to your Paul?"

The woman's mouth writhed, made a single word. "Cat."

The word repeated itself behind Doc, running through the braver or more morbidly curious of the tenement dwellers who had crowded in after him. "Cat—Katz—Chat..."

He forced himself to look once more at what just this afternoon had been a curly-haired, merry-eyed little boy. Gently, he said, "No, Sonia. That could not have been done by a cat." But memory of the enormous beast he'd seen limned against the sky-glow curdled his veins. "It couldn't have been a cat."

"You are mistaken, Mr. Turner." Gar Karin was at the open window that looked out of the rear of the room. "It was a cat." He alone had ventured past the end of the bed. "Here on this sill are the bloody paw prints it left as it leaped out."

"Yes?" The druggist's white-maned head turned to him. "You seem to know just where to look for them, my friend."

"This window is open, I notice."

"Yes," Doc murmured. "That window is open but it hasn't been open long. A cool breeze is coming in past you, but the air in here is warm, stuffy. These people sleep with their windows shut. A cat, Mr. Karin, cannot open a window."

The man stiffened, his thin lips snarling back from white teeth. "What do you mean?"

"That a cat may have done this, but the window was opened for it by someone. By the way, I recall now that you came from back there. What were you doing in a tenement-house backyard at this hour of the night?"

He was merely thinking aloud, did not yet intend an accusation, but a man in the crowd took it as such.

"He's a open da window," he growled. "He'sa letta da cat in."

And suddenly a man shoved past Doc, and another, and in a sudden spate of epithets the crowd was surging past the bed. Clawed hands reached for Gar Karin.

He was cut off from the door. He whirled, vaulted the sill! The foremost of the men spat an oath, flung himself at the window—screamed and flung himself back against the crowd that in turn recoiled from the thing framed in the window; the furred head and the bared fangs, of an enormous cat!

The beast's eyes were green flame as its snarl shuddered into the terror-stricken room.

It vanished.

Doc Turner shoved through the numbed press to that window, stared out and down. There was no life anywhere in the yard, no sign of man or beast. On the sill were the prints, in blood, of paws big as the span of a man's hand.


SLEEPLESS though the night had been with its howling sirens, its shouts of policemen fruitlessly hunting for a cat and a man, by morning the usual routine took charge of Morris Street. Heavy-limbed, red-eyed, unshaven men trudged off to toil, housewives swept and scrubbed and cooked. Pushcarts lined the curb and the peddlers took up their shouts. Children went noisily to school and came home. The evening shadows gathered between the tenements' drab facades. And through the shadows, beneath the hucksters' hoarse howls, were whispered retold tales as old as man.

Like the concentric ripples on the surface of a dark pool into which a pebble has been thrown, fear spread to every dingy corner of the dingy slum.

"You know what they're saying, Doc? They're saying this Karin guy changed into a big cat right in front of your eyes."

Morris Street's brawl beat against the drowsy hush of Andrew Turner's drugstore, its heavy framed showcases and bottle-laden shelves eloquent of the years that had passed since he first outfitted it. A battered sales counter ran across the rear of the store and beyond this was the partition that closed off the narrow prescription room. "Well, Jack," Doc probed at the counter's edge with a spatulate thumb, "I cannot swear he did not."

Jack Ransom stared. "No," he groaned. "No, Doc." Carrot-haired, barrel-chested, he was little more than a third the pharmacist's age, but the bond between them defied this disparity. "Don't tell me you believe it." Together they had fought unceasing war against the criminals who exploit the ignorance, the credulity, the helplessness of the very poor. "Don't tell me you take any stock in this bunk about a were-beast."

"A beast that is no beast at all but a man transformed into a ravening killer." The old man's faded blue eyes were somber, his seamed, gaunt countenance bleak. "It is one of the oldest beliefs of humankind."

"Superstition."

"A superstition that was born in the dawn of the race, that is known wherever man dwells. The people of the Scandinavian forests dread the were-wolf; in India the jungle folk shudder at the roar of the tiger they think was once a man. The peasants of Southern Europe have their tales of the loup-garou; the habitants of our own Canadian timberlands their dread stories of the human wolverine. Science, my son, has learned that a legend found in every quarter of the globe cannot lightly be dismissed as mere superstition."

The youth's feet shifted. "Well..." He looked uneasy, but unconvinced.

Doc sighed. "Before the police arrived, last night, I made sure I was right about Sonia Marshvitz having closed that window before she went to sleep. Human hands opened it." He spread his own. "There is a twenty foot sheer drop beneath it, and the nearest fence is four yards away."

"He broke in from the hall."

"The detectives have been unable to find any trace of forced entry."

"She's lying. She opened the window herself."

"So that the cat might attack her son? Nonsense. It was murder, Jack, and the woman has no enemies. No one in the world could gain anything by her death or her son's."

"Okay. It's murder then. But why?"

"For some reason we must uncover," the old man said, "and the killing was done by a cat's fangs. Gar Karin leaped out of the window and the next instant there was a huge and ferocious cat on its sill. When I looked out, both had vanished."

"They ducked around the corner into the alley—"

"In which Karin had appeared to me, on feet soundless as a cat's. In which, pitch dark as it was, he quite certainly saw me, long before I'd seen him, with eyes that see in the dark as a cat's eyes do."

Jack's hand closed on a bottle, one of a display pyramided beside the cash register. "What the devil...?" His freckled face broke into a grin. "Oh, I get it. You're showing me how this Karin's built up the idea he's a—" He broke off, his narrowed eyes on the green portiere that, behind Doc, filled the doorway to the prescription room. "That curtain moved," he whispered. "Someone's in—good Lord!"


THE bottom of the drape had been lifted by a whiskered black muzzle. The hem slid back over a round head in whose triangular face lips snarled back from a cat's pointed fangs.

The head was large as a football. The vertical, yellow irises were lambent with green fire. Those eyes found Doc. The beast growled and its head lowered to paws, big as fists, that unsheathed eight terrible claws. The lean-flanked body haunched, a coiled spring of muscle...

A bottle smashed on the floor inches in front of the cat. Fluid splashed from the crashing glass. The incredible cat yowled, twisted in the last instant before it sprang, and was gone through the curtain. The acrid fumes of Household Ammonia caught at Jack's throat as he groaned, "I missed it. You were in my way and I couldn't get a clear—hey Doc! For the Lord's sake!"

Turner had darted to the curtain, had shoved it aside. It swung back behind him as Ransom vaulted the counter, flung through into the dark prescription room. The old man was slashing back the bolt of the side door. To his left and above him was a small window through whose bars, devised only against human prowlers, a cat could have squeezed.

Now the door was open. Reaching it, Jack saw the old man standing still on the empty, desolate sidewalk of Hogbund Lane. The great cat was nowhere in sight.

The glare of Morris Street, seventy feet away, only made the shadows here blacker. A man came out of those shadows, his feet noiseless. As the pungent stench of ammonia trailed across Jack's nostrils, Doc nodded and said, "Gar Karin."

The dark, triangular countenance was touched by a thin-lipped, saturnine smile. "You seem to be looking for something, Mr. Turner."

"Yes," the old pharmacist agreed. "A cat." He shifted as Karin joined him, so that the man's back was to the doorway in which Jack stood. "Do you happen to have seen one?"

"I?"

"Or perhaps you have an idea who opened this little window to my back-room."

Ransom, gathering himself, sensed the raised eyebrows. "What makes you think—" Jack sprang forward reaching for a strangle hold—and reeled backward from sudden, red-hot agony searing his cheek.

In the split-second of his leap, Karin had whipped around, lashed out. Momentarily blinded, the youth heard Doc Turner's furious exclamation: "You young fool! Why did you do that?" and then he could see again. He and Doc were alone in the desolate street.

"I—I thought you wanted me to grab him."

"What good would that do? We have no proof that he had anything to do with Paul Marshvitz's death last night, no proof that any reasonable man, let alone a court of law, would countenance. If you'd let him alone, I might have—"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm a dope all right." Jack brought his hand away from the pain in his cheek, stared at bloody fingers. "He—he sliced me..."

"He gave you a deep gash." The old man's anger seeped away, was replaced by anxious solicitude. "Come inside quick. No telling—I've got to cauterize that right away."

"Doc." Mechanically Jack yielded to gentle pressure on his arm. "Tell me, Doc." His voice was strained. "What did he do it with—a knife?"

They were through the door and a shaded bulb was funneling light down on a scrubbed prescription counter before the reply came. "If it was a knife, it was so small I could not see it." The pharmacist was laying out sterile cotton and slim applicators. "But the wound is jagged, like that which a cat's claws would be apt to make."

The short hairs at the back of Jack's neck prickled. "A cat! But it was Karin—"

"What do you think Gar Karin is, son? Your guess is as good as mine. Now grit your teeth. I'm going to swab silver nitrate into that wound and it's going to hurt like hell."


THE great cat killed again late that night. Its victim was Hercule Antakian, head of a family of five. He was found, his belly slashed, in the little basement shop where he cobbled the broken shoes of Morris Street to three and four in the morning. Antakian always locked his shop door at about midnight. He had not forgotten to do so this time, but one of the boards in the wooden partition that divided his workroom from the rest of the tenement cellar had been loosened.

A cat could not have withdrawn the rusty nails from that board.

The police came back, and now they swarmed the neighborhood, guns out, searching for the black cat that killed for no known reason. Now fear was stamped on the face of every slum-dweller. Once again, as the concentric circles on a dark pool into which a pebble has been thrown, a whisper spread to every dingy corner of the dingy slum.

"They're keeping something from us, Doc."

It was night again and Jack Ransom, cheek patched with a wide strip of adhesive, had returned to the ancient pharmacy on Morris Street. "I been noticing them all day, putting their heads together and whispering, but the minute I came near them, they broke up. I tried asking a couple of Polish friends of mine, but they just clammed up and played dumb. You know how they are."

"Yes," Doc sighed. "I know how they are. They come to me with their troubles as long as those troubles stem from the strange ways of this new country that will be new and strange to them no matter how long they live here. But let them be threatened by some menace that seems to be tied to their old homelands, and they shut me out."

"What can we do about it?"

"Nothing, my boy. Nothing except wait for a break."

"And in the meantime that murdering—Hello!" Jack swung to sudden loud shouts outside, a woman's scream and a blare of auto horns. "What's up now?"

The door swung open. "Johnny's hurt!" yelled a pigtailed, dirty-faced little girl. "A truck's runned over Johnny Pacilupo!"

"Damn it all," Doc groaned, starting up front. "When will this rich city give these kids some other place to play beside the gutters?"

"They're bringin' him," the little girl yelled. "They're bringin' Johnny in here." She was elbowed aside by a burly truckman from whose mackinawed arms dangled the knickerbockered legs and scuffed shoes of a small boy.

"Close that door and lock it, Jack," Turner snapped. Then, to the white-faced driver he said, "Take him inside and lay him on the prescription counter and I'll see what you've done to him."

"Cripes, mister," the big fellow blabbered as he went through the green curtain. "I swear it wasn't my fault. He come in front of me from nowheres and I grabbed brake fast but he was under my wheels before I could—"

"Yes. Yes I know." The druggist felt legs, arms. "Limbs all right." The boy's head lolled on the wood, eyes closed, swarthy face pallid under its coating of grime. "Let's find out about ribs." Doc pulled open a torn blouse, probed with skilled fingers. "No... are you sure he was under your wheels?"

"I—I don't know. I just grabbed him up an' run in here."

Doc's white mustache moved in a bleak smile. "If you could pick him up, just like that, the wheels weren't on him. He was just knocked down. There are no broken bones. Concussion, perhaps?" He thumbed open an eyelid. The corners of his mouth twitched and he said, "All right, Johnny. Sit up. There's nothing wrong with you."

The boy pushed up, swung his legs down off the counter. "Aw gee, Doc," he wailed. "Don't I get to ride in an ambulance or nuttin'? Maybe I got in-internal injuries like they say in the papers. Maybe—"

"Sorry, son. All you need to make you as good as new is some soap and hot water. You can go, driver. He's all right."

"But—"

"Get out of here." There was a sudden sharp note of command in Doc's tone. "Tell my friend to let you out, lock the door and come back here—no, not you, Johnny. I want to talk to you."

The street door opened, let in a babble of voices, closed again. Doc pulled the boy's blouse open, laid his finger on an inch-square cloth bag pinned to the gray undershirt. "What's this, son?"

The youngster looked down at it with round, innocent eyes. "Gees, I dunno."


JACK came in through the curtain, stood at the end of the counter, watching. Doc unfastened the safety pin, ripped open the clumsy stitching that closed the tiny bag, spilled its contents on a paper on the counter. There was a pinch of grayish, gritty powder, a silvery metal bead, a sliver of what looked like horn and a tuft of black fur as big as fingernail. "You know who pinned this to your shirt, don't you?"

"Me mudder."

"Where did she get it?"

Silence.

"All right." Doc sighed. He pulled a banana from the boy's pants pocket. "I guess I'll have to tell your mother that you've been swiping fruit from pushcarts and getting yourself almost killed running away—"

"Gees, no! Gees—she'll skin me alive. Okay. Okay, I'll talk. Mom bought it from the same place everybody else is gettin' theirs, from that old Gypsy hangs out in a shack down by the river."

An incoherent exclamation from Jack brought a glance of warning from the white-browed, faded eyes. "How much did your mother pay the Gypsy for this, Johnny?"

"A couple bucks, I guess. She got one for me sister, too, an' one fer de old man, but she won't have cash enough fer one fer herself till next Saturday. Kin I have it back now, Doc, huh?"

"Yes." The aged pharmacist sifted the odd items back into the bag, returned it to the boy and watched him pin it back on. "All right, Jack. Let him out and switch off the window lights. I—"

"Look, Doc," Johnny broke in. "Look. The wop I hooked this banana from spotted me an' he'll be waitin' out there to nab me. Kin I go out this here door to the Lane, please? I kin duck around the block to me house. Please, Doc."

"Well, all—"

"Cripes Doc!" Jack protested. "It's lonesome out there. Suppose the cat hops him?"

"No danger of that. Not to Johnny. All right, son. Come, I'll let you out this way."

The carrot-haired youth's brow was knitted when the old druggist turned back from bolting the side door. "I don't get you. What makes you so all-fired sure the kid's safe?"

"The contents of the bag he has pinned to his shirt. A bit of cat's fur, a sliver from a cat's paw, and a powder supposed, no doubt, to be the burned ashes of a cat's bones. The significant item is the little ball."

"The hell it is! What's a ball-bearing got to do with a cat?"

"Nothing. But Rosa Pacilupo was probably told it was a silver bullet."

"A silver—"

"Only a silver bullet can kill a were-beast. By a sort of twisted logic, then, a talisman against the were-cat must contain one."

"Got you!" Jack's palm slapped the counter. "Two dollars apiece for a little bag of junk, and somebody's selling them by the thousand. So it isn't murder without reason."

"That was obvious from the beginning. Gar Karin was too anxious to identify himself with the killer-cat, to wake up the old superstition and the old terror. There may be more killings if the sale of the amulets slackens, but no one who wears one will be harmed."

"It's the old stuff, eh? The same old terror shake-down we've run up against before." Two white spots appeared in Jack's cheeks. "Okay. I know that Gypsy the kid meant. She's a hag who's been hanging out in what used to be the ticket-office of the old ferry house, telling fortunes. Let's go!"

"Steady, son. Steady. We don't want to scare off Karin by—What was that?"

His startled eyes darted to the side door. Into the abrupt hush, the sound came again. A faint scratching; a barely audible moan. Jack got to the door, opened it.

Something dark, small, toppled in over the threshold. It was the body of a small boy. His shirt was torn to ribbons. His head rolled and lips twisted in Johnny Pacilupo's face. They emitted a single word, "Cat," and were still.

"Safe," Jack Ransom gasped. His forefinger pointed down at the little pin-fastened bag, mockingly intact. "You were sure he was safe because he wore that thing—I guess we can forget the Gypsy..."


FEAR stalked the slum now, but the iron fist of routine held its people. The heavy-limbed laborers plodded off to their daily tasks. The housewives swept and scrubbed, with icy hands. In groups for mutual protection, the children went to school. Pushcarts lined the Morris Street curbs.

But when the children returned from school they were held, in protective custody, within the musty rabbit-warrens of their tenement homes. The hucksters shouted their wares to a sparse audience and very early trundled their still-laden carts off. The shadows of the El merged with the shadows that crept out of the side streets and deepened to darkness.

The slum night was empty save for an occasional belated wayfarer fleeing homeward, and the weary policeman who, without hope, searched dark back yards for an enormous black cat.

Jack Ransom's eyes were haunted as he slammed the drugstore door shut behind him. "It's that Gar Karin they ought to be looking for," he burst out before Doc Turner could utter a good-evening. "If I could spot him, I'd soon find out if a silver bullet's any better than these." He held out two huge hands, fingers curled and closing slowly as if they closed on a human throat.

Doc's smile was utterly without humor, his speech toneless. "There is no proof against him, son. The law would call it murder."

"Okay. It would be murder, but it wouldn't be murder without reason."

Doc sighed. "I've been thinking, Jack. Sonia Marshvitz's flat is in Four-thirteen Morris Street. Antakian's shop was in the basement of Four-o-nine and the Pacilupos live in Four-twenty-one. Those houses are all in the same block and the only other place the cat has appeared is here in Four-o-one, the corner house of that block."

"That's so." Jack's lids narrowed. "Karin must have his hideout somewhere in one of these houses."

"No. The police have combed all the cellars and roofs. I've made it my business today to talk to someone from every flat in the block. They all deny any knowledge of either man or cat, and I'd know if they lied."

"You think he's specializing on this block, then?"

"Those who live here think so, too. They have every window nailed shut and every door double-locked. In every flat at least one person is staying awake, on guard. Gar Karin will be hard put to it to find a victim tonight."

"Tonight," Ransom grunted. "Maybe they'll keep safe from him tonight. They can't keep up that sort of thing forever, though. If that cat's not found and killed, they'll be moving out. They'll have to."

"Yes. They will have to move out." Doc's gnarled fingers drummed a tattoo on the edge of a showcase. "Perhaps I should have taken advantage of that offer, this afternoon."

"What offer?"

"A real estate broker brought me a proposition, from some client whose name he refused to disclose. He wants to buy my lease on this store, not the business mind you—just the six years balance of the lease. He didn't offer much, just a little more than what it would cost me to move to another location. But he gave me quite an argument about how the neighborhood is running down more and more, how with the El running along it there's no chance of it's ever improving. I turned him down, of course, but—"

The telephone ring interrupted Doc. He went into the booth to answer it, rolled the door open again and called to Jack to bring him a prescription pad and a pencil from the rear room.

There was an odd glow in the faded blue eyes when he emerged. "That was a very interesting call, Jack."

"Yeah?"

"He said he was a Dr. J. Stanley Hoven. He dictated a prescription to me and asked me to send it up to Mrs. Marya Gurzel."

Jack's brow knitted. "What's interesting about that?"

"Several things. Dr. Hoven's office fee is twenty-five dollars. It must be at least twice that for a home visit. He is an infant specialist. Marya Gurzel's youngest child is a young man of twenty-eight."

"Boy! Interesting is right."

"Finally," Turner went on, "she happens to live on the top floor of Number Four-seventeen Morris Street. It seems fair to suspect that the man to whom I've just spoken is the one known to us as—"

"Gar Karin, or I'm a brass monkey. There's nobody on the street and he can't get into anyone's flat, so he's fixed a trap for me."

"For you?"

"Don't you think he knows I always make your deliveries when it's too late for you to pick up a kid from outside?"

The paper crackled in the old man's hand. "Perhaps he does, but you're not going to make this delivery."

"Of course not. Nobody is."

"In about five minutes," Doc went on, ignoring this interjection, "you are going out of here, very conspicuously—"

"The hell I am! You're nuts if you think I'm going to leave you alone here—"

"I shall be perfectly safe. I told Karin it will take me an hour to compound this mixture and that I will deliver it myself after closing. He will be waiting for me on the top floor landing of number 417. In the meantime—Listen to me Jack, very carefully..."


THE rickety staircase of Number 417 Morris Street was narrow and steep, its rail sagging. Seven-watt bulbs burning on every alternate landing served to accentuate rather than diminish the darkness that lay on the flights between. Ordinarily, even at this late hour, there would be sounds of life behind the drab hall doors, the fretful wail of a sick infant, the high voices of a quarrel, or perhaps a hacking cough. Tonight, Doc Turner climbed through an apprehensive silence.

He paused for a moment's rest before essaying the flight to the fifth floor, the last except for the ladder to the roof. One hand held on to the newel post, the other tightly clutched a paper-wrapped bottle. There was no light on this landing. The darkness was absolute. No sound came to his ears; to his flaring nostrils only the stale smells of gone-by meals, of pātes alimentaires and gefuelltes Fisch and pirozhki and corned beef and cabbage, mingling in an olfactory League of Nations.

Another, more pungent odor abruptly blotted these out.

Doc's lungs ceased to labor for breath. He resumed his climb.

As he came up on the last step a deep-throated growl greeted him. In the blackness two sparks of green light blossomed, the eyes of the killer-cat. They lowered. The cat was crouching to pounce. Doc's hand made a little, throwing gesture and the growl became a half-human yowl as a black shape sprang—not at Doc but straight up!

For an instant the huge cat was silhouetted against the paler oblong of the roof-trap above, then, in a burst of spitting fury, it was gone. Doc Turner coughed, his throat constricted by the fumes of the liquid he'd thrown from the bottle, the cork of which he had loosened during his pause below. There was another cough in the blackness nearby, and he sensed movement toward him.

"Karin?"

"Yes," a low voice purred out of the dark. "You are clever, Mr. Turner. You knew that the odor of ammonia would recall to Shari how his eyes burned, last night, when the liquid from the bottle your young friend threw splashed into them. You were clever in that, but you were foolish to come here at all."

"Perhaps."

"Definitely." The voice was nearer now, within arms-length. "I have claws too, as you may remember, and when I have struck none will be able to tell it was not Shari's claws that ripped your throat. I can move swiftly as Shari. You cannot flee me."

"No," the old man sighed. "No. I imagine not. Do you suppose that when I am found dead on this landing, it will be enough to finally empty these tenements, or will you have to feed your black leopard more and more victims?"

"If I have to I will—My leopard! You know that Shari is a black leopard?"

"Of course. No cat could be as large or as ferocious. You have him well trained, Gar Karin, for your terror campaign to empty this block of buildings so that you can buy them for a song. What puzzles me, however, is how you expect to rent them again after giving them the reputation of being a were-beast's hunting ground."

Karin's laugh was a spine-prickling sound in the dark. "I do not expect to. I shall sell the property to builders who will tear these tenements down and put up a block of high-priced, modern apartments in their place."

"With pushcarts lining the curb and the El thundering past at all hours of the day and night?"

"There will be no pushcarts in a year or two from now, Mr. Turner, because there will be no elevated railroad. The city authorities have decided to remove that monstrosity. They are keeping that decision secret for awhile, so that certain persons may take advantage of the knowledge to enrich themselves. I am not one of those politically so favored, but I happened to learn of the plan, and so—"

"And so," Doc broke in, "with that leopard as the lethal weapon, you embarked on murder for profit."

Karin's nerve-tingling laugh was repeated. "Quite so. But I do not need Shari." There was a glitter of metal in the darkness, sharp metal at the end of the lifting shadow of an arm. "As I mentioned before, I too have claws. You are very clever, old man. Too bad that you must die—" Light blazed from the trap above, revealed the tall, dark-clothed figure, the upraised hand from between whose clenched fingers curved keen steel scimitars, the size and shape of the leopard's claws.

"Hold it!" a gruff order came from behind the flash-beam. "Hold it just like that, Karin." It was Jack Ransom's voice. "I've got you covered."

Lips snarled back from white teeth. "Trapped!" The word had all the spitting fury of an angered cat. "You've trapped me, but—" The steel claws flashed for Doc's throat.


THE old man dropped, his cry drowned by the pound of gunshot from above. But the bullet did not find its mark for in a split-second Karin had leaped to the iron ladder, clung halfway up, a black, enormous jungle feline. The flash beam darted to him. He leaped again, over Turner's sprawled body, over the stair rail, in a tremendous bound that took him to the landing below.

He whipped around the newel post, vanished. A shot pounded below. Another. The smell of cordite met Jack Ransom as he scrambled down the iron roof ladder. As he knelt anxiously beside the white-maned, motionless form of his old friend, a hoarse shout came up:

"Got him! Got the son..."

But Jack was sobbing, "Doc! Doc!" His trembling hands were tugging at a bony shoulder, lifting the old man's head. "Oh gosh, Doc—" He looked up, blank-eyed, at the two burly detectives who'd climbed down from the roof after him. He said, "I didn't shoot quick enough. Doc's dead."

"You are exaggerating somewhat," the old druggist said softly, sitting up. "I am very tired, but I am not dead."

The youth's eyes were wide, his lips bluish-gray. "I—I saw him slice your throat."

Doc Turner smiled wearily. "You saw him slice at my throat, son, as I expected him to." His gnarled old fingers tugged at the rags that had been under the turned-up collar of his shabby overcoat. "And so I wrapped a dozen thicknesses of tinfoil around it, from the box where I'm having my customers deposit it for the Red Cross... You got the leopard, did you?"

"Yeh," one of the plainclothesmen said. "We grabbed him in a blanket as he came up through the trap, like Ransom here told us you wanted us to. The damn cat won't be doing no more killing."

"Neither will the guy that owned him." Another officer had come up now from the lower landing. "It took shootin' to wing him though. He come down them stairs like a bat out of hell." He pulled in breath. "Without no noise, too, which made it harder. You ought to see the shoes he's wearing, all soft rubber, with the big toe separate."

"The shoes a slackwire performer wears," Doc said. "I rather guessed that he must be a circus performer of some kind to have been able to enter and leave the Marshvitz flat the way he did. He undoubtedly used one of the clotheslines as a highway. He was an acrobat too, judging by the way he leaped about, just now; and probably an animal trainer. When you trace his antecedents, I am certain you will find that he came from one of the old circus families of Europe."

"You got the tip-off," Jack remarked, "to what he was after from that broker's wanting to buy up your lease. Karin sent him, of course."

"No. With a six year lease I could hold up any sale of the building for destruction, but he had a cheaper way of getting rid of me than buying me off. I recognized that broker's firm as one closely tied to certain politicians, however, and that cleared up the whole thing for me, in a flash. There was still the problem of connecting Gar Karin with the cat's killings, in a manner that would hold water in court. He very obligingly gave me the opportunity to do so, and even more obligingly talked before witnesses."

"You don't need no witnesses against him now," contributed the policeman who was so proud of his prowess as a marksman. "The morgue's where he's going."

Doors were opening, all up and down the staircase. Voices were calling questions, voices were replying, in all the polyglot tongues of Europe, and those voices were no longer dulled by fear.

"Cripes," Jack Ransom said ruefully, "that Gar Karin sure had me almost believing there are such things as were-beasts."

Andrew Turner's response was sober. "There are, my boy. Not men who change into the form and shape of ravening beasts, but men whose minds are made bestial by greed, by the lust for profit and power. The men may be killed by shells and bombs, perhaps, but the thing that makes them were-beasts, spreading fear to every corner of this world of ours, can finally be defeated only by the silver bullets of Ideas, the Ideas of Human Dignity and Human Freedom and Man's Humanity to his Fellow Man."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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