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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

D, MY NAME IS DEATH

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RGL e-Book Cover 2019©


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First published in Popular Detective, Sep 1950
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version date: 2019-04-24
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Cover

Popular Detective, Sep 1950, with "My Name Is Death"



Illustration

He wasn't sure he'd finished Corbett.


Jeff was hounded by the police, death—and by the memory of a murder.



THE space in which Jeff Sawyer now lay gasping for breath was as narrow as a grave and no higher than a coffin. The space was blind-dark and noisome with the stench of garbage and animal droppings. Yet a wild elation throbbed in Jeff's veins.

He peered slantwise out at the feet that had thudded in the dark alley behind him. He grinned at the way they shifted uncertainly on the strip of sidewalk that was all Jeff could see from his hiding place. In the pallid dawn, trouser cuffs wrinkled blue over the insteps of shoes that were blunt of toe, thick-soled and clumsy, so clumsy that the sound they'd made had warned Jeff to duck into the alley. They were policeman's shoes. But he had not ducked quite quickly enough. The policeman had seen him and had plunged in after him shouting, "Come out of there. I've got you covered."

As Jeff had sprung into panic flight the alley's black dark hid him at once but it could not hide the pound of his feet. Pounding after him the cop yelled, "Halt or I'll shoot," but the passage angled sharply and Jeff was shielded from his gun. Only momentarily, dawn grayed the alley's mouth toward which he hurtled and the instant the cop got past that angle, Jeff would be silhouetted, an unmissable target.

He dropped to the base of an unseen wall and thrust against it in desperate hope that his pursuer would plunge past him in the dark. A thudding heel missed his elbow by a quarter inch and his convulsive recoil slid him into an unexpected space large enough to accept his whole lank frame.

He heard the officer's footfalls stop short just beyond, followed by a startled oath. A flashlight beam brought sharply into being alley cobbles a foot from Jeff's staring eyes. He watched the light glide toward the alley's other end, then pull back past the opening and lay a bright disk around the cop's feet before it blinked out.

The brief sweep of rays had shown Jeff what had saved him. Decades ago this house had had a porch. When Orange Street was cut through and its tenements built, the porch had been sheared away to make room for a side­walk and a cobbled alley. Planks had been nailed over the yawning gap thus left between the ground and the horizontal joist on which the frame wall footed. Years later in all probability, some urchin had torn away the rotting bottom board for a bonfire and thus made the opening into the space in which Jeff now lay.

It was quite plain that the remnant of the ancient porch jutted out above him some ten inches to form an eave that cut off upward sight. He could see out only on his own level along a yard of cobbles, along a strip of cracked sidewalk to its curb and out to gutter asphalt beyond the curb. They, however, could not see him.

On the sidewalk the policeman's feet shifted uncertainly, betraying their owner's bewilderment. It must seem to the cop, Jeff realized, that his quarry had reached the alley mouth and then vanished into thin air.

The feet started toward the left as though it had occurred to the cop that the fugitive had dived into some doorway and crouched there. The feet stopped, turned the other way. Maybe he'd gone to the right. To search in the wrong direction would give Jeff his chance to pop out of his hiding place and escape.

Jeff Sawyer grinned bleakly, recalling Professor Turner's paradox in psychology class dim years ago. "Put a donkey between two equal haystacks equidistant from him, on a windless day, and the beast will be unable to decide to which one to go, so will starve to death."

The policeman was no donkey. His whistle shrilled in the brightening dawn, calling others to help him in his search.

When they came and found the doorways empty, they'd search the alley. They'd find this hole and Jeff would be trapped in it like the hunted rat he'd become. He must find a way out of the hole before they came.

His inward shoulder was jammed against immovable wood. Inches forward of his head, he made out the vertical cornerpost of the building's frame. He stretched his legs back as far as they would reach and found nothing.

Backward then. Jeff bridged his body between elbows and toes, was in cautious motion.

The whistle went silent, but the gray hush held a distant shout and faint, rapid footfalls. Jeff's head pulled inward from the inner end of the opening. The footfalls became louder, coming fast, but Jeff had worked half an arm's length into his black burrow, would be out and gone before the new cop arrived.

His right foot struck a solid barrier back there, then his left. It was a beam. The old porch had run only this far along the side of the house.

Jeff Sawyer now knew the limits of his prison. It was narrow as a grave, low as a coffin and some ten feet long. The only escape from it was through the gap outside of which a policeman's gun waited.

The guns of two policemen. The new footfalls halted and a breathless voice gasped, "What've you got, Murtry?"

"A killer, Collins. Saw him smash in some bird's skull back through on Cherry Street. It was a mess!"

Jeff's mouth twisted. He hadn't been quite sure he'd finished Stan Corbett. The scrape of shoe leather on pavement behind him had sent him into the alley while the blow's shock still jarred up his arm from this pipe-length clenched in his fist.

He wondered if Corbett had recognized him in that last split second. It would be too bad if he had not.

"I was right back of him," Murtry was saying, "when he busted out into Orange Street here but when I got here there wasn't sound or sight of him. He must of ducked in one of them doorways."

"Not the side I come past, he didn't. There's only the pawnshop an' the Elite Liquors an' both of 'em's got iron gratings locked across their fronts. I'll take a look this other side while you cover me from here. Don't worry," Collins grunted, his voice moving away, "we've got the son penned. We'll get him, sooner or later."


PROBABLY they would. Jeff almost didn't care, now he was certain he had killed Corbett. He would not care at all if it were not for Mary.

He should have killed Mary when he had the chance, an hour ago. He should have stepped into her bedroom from the ledge to which he'd climbed in the dark and killed Mary in her sleep, but that wasn't the way he'd planned it.

Those sleepless nights in his cell, he had planned to kill Corbett first so that Mary would know Corbett was dead. He wanted her to know who had done the deed before she herself died.

Jeff had not, in fact, been sure that he would kill her at all. Hating her as he did, he somehow had hated even more the thought of marring her silken body whose every curve was a song to tear out a man's heart—of matting with blood her midnight hair.

He hated, too, the thought of quenching forever the fires in her gray eyes. Tonight, on that ledge, he had decided it would be far better to let her live in terror, knowing Jeff Sawyer was free and on the prowl. He wanted her to see him in every shadow, hear him in every whisper of wind at her windows and in every rattle of plaster inside the walls of the house he, poor fool, had bought for her!

That had been a mistake. If he was taken now, he would himself be dead in a little while and Mary would know herself safe from him.

He must not be taken before he could get to Garden Avenue and put his hands on her white throat....

Outside his hole, there was the thud of the returning Collins' feet. "No soap, Murtry," he said. "He must of slipped inside somewheres. We got to get help to look for him, but fast." Jeff heard his harsh breathing. "Yeh, hop down to the box on the corner an' call this in to the precinct. You can keep an eye this block from there while I go through an' cover Cherry Street."

"Okay!"

From where Jeff was now, he couldn't see all the way out. But he could hear Murtry's footfalls going away and he could hear Collins' feet come into the alley. He could see their shadows move across the lighted slash into the side of his black burrow.

Abruptly the shadows were motionless, blotching the light. Jeff's skin was clammy with chill sweat. He pictured Collins peering down at the gap in the wall at its base. He pictured Collins' hand easing a revolver from its holster.

The shadows of Collins' feet moved a little and then merged into the single, wider shadow of a stooping form.

Jeff's heart stalled, suddenly was racing. This wasn't disaster, it was an almost unbelievable break. He pressed against the inward joist, giving his arm room to crawl past his ear and free the bloody ten inches of lead pipe that had crushed Stan Corbett's skull.

When Collins' head poked in here, a deft blow would stun him. With Murtry at the corner phoning, the alley would be clear for a dash to Cherry Street and from there to Garden Avenue—and Mary.


BITS of debris sifted down as the officer balanced himself with a hand above the opening. A cry, Jeff thought, even a moan might be heard at the phone box. He dared not worry about striking only hard enough to stun. He must use all his strength.

The pipe lifted. The visor of a uniform cap poked into the hole, now the nose beneath the visor, boldly aquiline. Now! The cop's nostrils flared. "Phew," he grunted. "What an awful stink," and his head pulled back out of the opening.

Debris sifted down. The shadow split into two separate shadows that flitted away, thudding. Jeff slumped, the strength draining from him.

He was tired. He was as bone-tired as he used to be when Mary would drive him home from the hospital after a long day of operating.

She would sit behind the wheel proudly, driving her husband home. Driving home Dr. Jefferson Sawyer. She was very beautiful in her pride. "You should be wearing sables instead of that old cloth coat," Jeff would say. "Instead of cooking and cleaning a musty furnished room, and doing our washing in the sink, you should have your own house and a dozen servants to wait on you."

"A dozen! Oh, Jeff." Her laugh would tinkle like little silver bells. "Silly." But then she'd touch his hand with a caress light as a whisper. "You'll give me all of it, darling. When you've finished your residency at the hospital. When you've built your practise."

To build that sort of a practise would take years. Jeff wanted Mary to have all those things, and more, while she still was young, while her body still was slender and her stride still jaunty and her slim hands still white and smooth. So it came about that when Stanley Corbett came to Jeff and told him how he could begin earning them for Mary far sooner than he'd thought possible, he'd listened eagerly....


INTO the gravelike burrow where Jeff lay came a moan that rose and fell and rose again, the heart-stopping wail of a police car's siren. He hitched forward to where he could again peer out to the sidewalk, bright now with the morning.

Murtry's feet were out there again and many other feet. Now there were men's feet in scuffed shoes, a woman's feet in bedroom slippers, the frayed hem of her wrapper fluttering against bare ankles. Out there was a babble of excited questioning and the siren louder now and nearer and farther off the wail of another siren nearing fast.

From the alley's other end a third siren's howling came faintly. There was no escape now.

Here on Orange Street the siren screamed in crescendo, moaned to silence. The crowd's feet split apart like a curtain and revealed green-painted car-wheels at the curb. Heavy-soled feet came down on the curb and a pair in thinner-soled, dressier shoes. Murtry's feet joined these but the crowd's babble and the second siren, arriving, made it impossible for Jeff to hear what he said.

The siren cut off. A new voice reached Jeff, gruff, authoritative. "—seal the block. Sergeant Luccio, take five men and start combing the cellars and backyards. The hallways and roofs are your job, Abrams."

A single pair of shoes came past Jeff's hole from the direction of Cherry Street, brown shoes patterned with tiny holes, the trouser cuffs above them gray tweed. "Murtry," the voice of authority was saying, "you and Officer Ericsen stay here and keep these people out of the alley, we don't want them in our hair." The brown shoes paused near the shoes that belonged to the voice of authority. "Well, Barstow," it snapped. "What's on your mind?"

"We've identified the body, captain. It's Stanley Corbett."

"Corbett, eh. Our friends on the Narcotics Squad will want to give the killer a medal."

"Yeah. They've figured for years he was the big wheel of a dope-ring but they've never been able to get the goods on him."


JEFF SAWYER recalled that was how it had begun. Stanley Corbett telling him how much he could make writing narcotic prescriptions for rich addicts.

"Friends of mine, Doc. They're getting cut stuff and paying through the nose for it. With your prescriptions, they could buy it pure from a few druggists I've got lined up. And," Corbett added, lips barely moving in his sharp, shrewd face, "you'll be pulling down a hundred to a hundred and fifty a week without taking any chances."

"I'd have to have an office to make it look right," Jeff demurred. "I haven't the cash to set one up."

"Nonsense! I'm rattling around in this old house I own down on Cherry Street. Your old neighborhood. You can have the whole ground floor for the rent you and Mary pay now. I'll stake you to the equipment and you can take your sweet time paying me off."

So Jeff resigned his residency at the hospital and they moved into the house at the other end of this alley. Mary had been like a child with a new toy, fixing up the two front rooms as waiting-room and office and the two in the rear for their living.

It was only natural that they should see a lot of their upstairs neighbor, their landlord and benefactor.

In little more than a year Jeff already had paid off the money Corbett had loaned him. Mary could buy nice clothes now, and a sealskin coat, and have a woman in to do the heavy housework, but Jeff wanted much more for her. Corbett told him how he could get it....


"LOOK," Detective Barstow was saying now. "Look, skipper. Remember this doctor we sent up the river six years ago. Doctor Jefferson Sawyer. Remember the tip that fingered him for us came from Corbett."

That was no news to Jeff. It was what had brought him to the alley to wait in its black maw for Stan Corbett to come home. "Well," Barstow went on, "Sawyer was let out of the State pen yesterday noon."

The captain's feet jerked. "Good man! You've named the killer."

"Now all we've got to do is catch him. Which," Barstow said, "ain't going to be easy. He grew up right here on Orange Street. He knows every hiding hole in these tenements like I know my pockets. What's more, if these people around here can help him get away, they will. There ain't many of them don't owe Sawyer for the life of someone in the family, or maybe that one of their kids ain't growing up paralyzed or crippled. He sure used to sweat blood over any kid that was sick or hurt."

Why shouldn't Jeff have sweated over the children? Wasn't it because of a child that he'd made up his mind when he was thirteen that he was going to be a doctor and scraped and starved and studied till he'd made that come true? Because of his little sister Jen.

It was because of what had happened to Jen when she was six and Jeff thirteen that he'd appraised Corbett's new proposal by no other test than what it would mean to him and so to Mary. He had no obligation to his profession or to society; the debt ran the other way.

Nevertheless, he'd said. "No, Stan. It would not trouble my conscience to patch up a gunshot wound and not report it to the police, nor have I any ethical objection to remodelling the faces of men wanted by the law. But even the fees you mention would not compensate me for the consequences of being caught. I'll stay content with what I have now. I'll take no chance with a prison term."

"You're taking that chance now."

"Not as recklessly. I have an adequate defense. I am merely following my judgment in the proper treatment of patients for drug addiction."

Corbett's blond brows had arced and there had been mockery in his pale eyes. "Suppose they're proved not to be really patients? Suppose at my suggestion one of them got himself picked up as a dope peddler and made a deal for a light sentence by turning you in as his source of supply?"

Jeff was trapped. He'd been as hopelessly trapped then as he was now, lying here in this stinking hole and listening to the police captain say, "Okay, Barstow. It's going to be a tough job digging him out but we'll stay at it till we do. Come on. I want to get the squads on Cherry Street started."


NOW the thud of their feet went past Jeff's hiding place and faded. The semicircle of feet on the sidewalk broke up, there was no more excitement here and there were breakfasts to be prepared and eaten, work to go to. The strip of sidewalk emptied, but Jeff could hear a murmur of talk from where the two cops left to watch the alley mouth were hidden by the wall corner of the house across the alley.

Jeff Sawyer lay very still in the dark and the stench, thinking. Mary would be waking up now. She would be throwing the sheet from her and swinging her bare feet to the floor. She'd be up by now and going to the window to close it.

Jeff remembered how he used to lie in the bed that had been warm from her body, sweet with the scent of her midnight hair, and of her breath. He would watch the sunlight strike through filmy silk and etch for him her singing curves. Lying like that one morning he had said her name and she had turned to him.

Her smile tore the heart out of him. "Go back to sleep, darling," she had murmured. "You must be dreadfully tired. You were out so late on that night call."

Where were you, Mary? The silent question had cried out within him. You weren't in the flat when I came back to get the instruments I needed to patch up Corbett's man. You weren't in the house and neither was Stanley Corbett.

Lest she read the question in them, he had closed his eyes and like a dark flood his weariness and his despair had welled up into his brain and he'd found escape from them in tortured sleep.

In the filth and stink of his burrow Jeff Sawyer, ex-convict and murderer, found escape from exhaustion and despair in death-like slumber....


THIRST woke him, the rasp of thirst in his throat, and the gnaw of hunger. Feet shambled past on the sidewalk, the broken shoes of the slums. A truck's enormous tires thundered by in the gutter. The shadows that slid, out there, beside the feet were small. The sun must be almost directly overhead.

The green car-wheels no longer were at the curb! Jeff's pulse was a muffled drumbeat in his ears. The police had given up while he slept. They were gone. He was free.

A thick-soled shoe appeared from behind the wall corner that edged Jeff's view, its trouser cuffs bright blue. The mate appeared and the two halted, and another pair of blunt-toed shoes came from the other side of the alley mouth and stopped. The shadows of two bodies merged in a black pool.

"This is a hell of a note," Murtry's voice rumbled to Jeff, "the skipper's keeping us here on twenty-four hour duty till they dig up this Sawyer."

"If they do, pal. If they do."

"They will. They're going through the block the way my old lady used to go through my pockets Saturday nights, looking for small change."

"I don't see 'em goin' through this alley here."

"Why the blazes should they, you dumb cluck? Didn't Bart Collins poke his nose in every hole in there right after I lost sight of the son?"

"So what. I'll bet he's out of the city by now. What I mean is, he wasn't alone in this thing. Look at how he knew this Corbett would be coming past where he laid for him, an' just when."

"Easy now! He didn't need anybody to tell him Corbett's habits. Didn't he live right there in Corbett's house till he turned the back rooms into a kind of hospital and bought that house over on Garden Avenue to live in?"

The infirmary had been an excuse. Jeff had moved Mary to Garden Avenue in the hope that would break the thing growing between her and Corbett. He'd been certain that, to Mary, Corbett was only a friend, only someone pleasant to play around with in the long hours when her husband was too busy for her.

How could he think otherwise when she'd said, in the wistful tones that brought an ache to his chest, "You've given me the sables, Jeff, and the house and the servants. You've given me everything you promised but it's not worth anything because I haven't got you any more."

"So I'm off my trolley," Ericsen was saying. "So how much longer do you figure we're going to have to hang around here?"

"Well, Sarge Abrams just told me in the Coffee Pot around the corner, he told me they won't be through till maybe nine, ten tonight so maybe you ought to quit stalling and take your lunch break."

"Twenty minutes," Ericsen grumbled. "Big-hearted the skipper is. Twenty minute break after we been on our feet twelve hours. Okay, I'll be seein' you."

His feet went out of sight in the direction Murtry's had come and then Murtry's were hidden by the wall corner on the alley mouth's other side. Only his feet. His shadow lay on the sidewalk at the wall's edge and Jeff knew he'd gone only far enough to lean his back against the wall.

Let him stay. He and the rest of the police would be gone by ten and it would be dark then. Jeff could endure the stench, he could endure hunger and thirst for another ten hours now he knew that when they had passed he would be free to find Mary and kill her.


MARY must have heard about Corbett by now. Fear must be alive in her as it had lived in Jeff those last days, the growing fear of Stanley Corbett that overshadowed even his hate of Corbett.

The men whose wounds he tended behind drawn shades, with lookouts at the door, had told him about Corbett. The hard and ruthless man who lay in the back room of the house on Cherry Street, breath whistling through tiny tubes jutting out of a head faceless with bandages, had told Jeff what Corbett was.

The woman to whom Corbett sent him one night told him what Corbett could do to a woman when he tired of her. It was fear for Mary that clawed him when he stumbled into the foyer of the Garden Avenue house the dawn after the woman died and he saw Corbett's glove on the floor just inside the door.

The glove was gone when he came down to the meal that was his breakfast and Mary's lunch. Over coffee he had said, "I've made a decision, my dear. I'm going to close up the office and my practise. We'll sell this house and buy one in the country somewhere. I'll take care of the farmers' wives and their children and I'll have the time to be a husband again to you."

The gray fire sprang into Mary's eyes, shining. "That's wonderful, Jeff! It's the most marvelous gift you've ever given me or ever could...."

Before Jeff could nerve himself to tell Corbett of his decision, the police had walked in on him and caught him removing bandages from the head of a man wanted by the law in seven states....

The shadows were a little longer on the cracked sidewalk. Somewhere out there tiny bells tinkled. The thirst was fire now in Jeff Sawyer's throat, fire running through his veins. A vise squeezed his skull as it had when they brought the assistant district attorney to him in his cell.

The lawyer had merely smiled at Jeff's denunciation of Stanley Corbett. "It doesn't make sense, doctor. If what you say is the truth, why should Mr. Corbett have gone to the police with his suspicions of what you were up to in that little private infirmary?"

Why, indeed, unless Corbett already knew of Jeff's decision to break with him and take Mary out of his reach? Jeff had told no one of that decision save Mary herself.

The tinkle of bells that came into Jeff's gravelike burrow was like Mary's silvery laugh. How she must have laughed at him, how she and Stan Corbett must have laughed at him all those dreary nights when he'd been about Corbett's business.

She would not laugh tonight, when Jeff came to her.

Small feet scampered past on the sidewalk, the feet of children running to the ice-cream wagon's tinkling bells, pennies clasped in their sweaty little hands. Jeff had pennies in his pocket. He had ten dollars in his pocket. Ten dollars would buy a lot of ice cream to ease his burning thirst, to cool his fever and still his hunger.

On the sidewalk Patrolman Murtry's shadow lay, waiting for Jeff Sawyer to show himself.


LONG ago, when Jeff was thirteen, he'd had five pennies earned running an errand. The ice-cream wagon had come tinkling its bells all up and down Orange Street but Jeff hadn't bought ice cream with his pennies. He'd bought a ball for Jen, for his gray-eyed, black-haired little sister, and Jen had bounced the ball along the sidewalk, counting the bounces with some childish chant. The ball took a bad bounce out into the gutter and Jen darted out into the gutter after it.

Jeff remembered Jen's scream when the truck hit her. And her dreadful silence afterward.

They let Jeff ride on the ambulance and when they got to the hospital they told him Jen still was alive. Jeff waited. He waited hours, years, in the hard whiteness, the stomach-turning smells of the hospital and at last an interne came to him and had said:

"She's pretty badly smashed up, son. There's one surgeon in the city who might be able to save her but," the young doctor in white told Jeff bitterly, "he's not on our staff."

"What's the difference? Get him to come here and save Jen."

"We can't, sonny. It's against the rules for a surgeon to operate in a hospital if he isn't on its staff." And then, the interne's realization that he was speaking out of turn obvious even to the tortured boy. "We've got good surgeons on our staff too and they're doing their best. Maybe they'll be able to save your sister."

The surgeons had done their best but Jen had died. That was when Jeff had decided that he was going to be a doctor when he grew up. A children's doctor and the best one there ever was, so much the best that he'd be able to insist on changing the rule which, he was to learn, is enforced in almost every first class hospital the country over.

He was to learn the good and sufficient reasons for that rule but they never would quite make sense to him....

The bells tinkled merrily, going away.

Carrying away the ice cream that could quench Jeff's maddening thirst. The cold, wet—He made himself think about something else. He made himself try to remember what Jen had chanted as she bounced her ball.

"B," a piping treble came to him, "my name is Bertha." That was it! "My husband's name is Bobby." That was what Jen had chanted as she bounced the ball Jeff bought for her. "We come from Boston," he heard as the little girl's voice came nearer, "and we sell baked beans."

They never change, the children's games and what the children chant as they play them.

"C." He could hear the ball's thump on the sidewalk now. "My name is Celia." Thump. The idea was to go all through the alphabet without missing. "My husband's name is Charley." Jeff saw the ball thump the sidewalk just this side of the wall corner and flash up again. "We come from Carolina." He saw small red slippers come into sight, their heels slant worn. "And we sell cherries."

Thump. The ball bounced up and the little feet took another step. "D." Thump. "My name is—" The ball hit a small red toe and glanced off toward the curb and beyond the curb there was the thunder of an oncoming truck.

Jeff's throat locked on breath as the ball went over the curb and the little feet turned to dart after it. A yell broke through Jeff Sawyer's throat lock, "No!" He shoved out of his hole yelling, "The truck, Jen. The truck!" and a blue shape lurched into the alley mouth.

Jeff was on his feet, his cry caught in his larynx as he saw the little girl stock-still at the curb, her shining curls golden in the sun, not midnight black like Jen's. Like Mary's. His hand flung out, pointing the blood crusted pipe length at the huge truck that thundered harmlessly past.

The truck's thunder blotted out the bing of Patrolman Murtry's gun!


Illustration

THE END