Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#44



 

No Such Things as Curses

By Talbot Pratt


YOUR EARS STILL RING from the brutal slap of the gunshot.  The acrid stench of gunpowder still stings your delicate nostrils.  Somewhere, in the far distance beyond the bay window of the drawing room, a siren wails heroically, a police siren answering a call.  You listen as the song fades steadily away into the night.  Then, in the following silence, you breathe once more...and look at the man you have killed.

Or almost killed.

He lies sprawled in a pool of blood, the ghastly gleaming stain spreading around him like a rich, scarlet carpet.  You thought he was dead, didn't you?  Your hand had been trembling as you squeezed the trigger, your aim a titch too high -- but still, you thought the job was done.  But, no.  Now, as you watch in horror, the man on the floor in the blood like a carpet, the man who thought he was your friend, gives a sudden quavering groan, then heaves up on shuddering elbows.  A sting of blood drools from his lips.  His eyes rise to meet yours.  You expect to see surprise there, shock.  After all, you just came for drinks, a quiet evening between two old acquaintances.  For it to conclude like this, surely he must be wondering why.

But you don't see that in those eyes.  Not surprise.  Instead you see something else, something you never expected to see; no, not in those eyes.   There's hatred there, bright, burning hatred.  More blood spills, and the lips twist to form words.  And there's hatred there, too.

"It was for the Cairo Lion, wasn't it?  That was it, eh, Tobias?  For the Lion?"

You are silent, but your silence is its own answer.  That and the momentary shifting of your eyes to the small golden statue on the overmantel.  A statue of a crouching lion, the eyes two glittering yellow jewels, the yawning fangs carved of ivory.  Percy Fenimore catches the glance and he nods slowly.

"I should have known it was only a matter of time -- until you did something like this.  When you told me you would pay any price for that thing, the look in your eyes when I told you it wasn't for sale, not at any price -- if only you could have seen yourself, Tobias.  If only you could see yourself now."  He chuckles, a deep wet rumble that tells of lungs quickly flooding.  "Look at yourself.  Just look.  You're nothing but a common thief, Tobias.  You with your precious antiquities, with your name and your reputation, nothing but a cat burglar!"

You only half hear what he's saying.  His words are drowned out by the pounding in your ears.  Why? you ask yourself.  Why doesn't he die, damn it!  Can you shoot him again?  Can you pull the trigger a second time?  Can you?

Then, it's as if he reads your thoughts.

"Don't worry, Tobias.  You've killed me, all right.  I've only got seconds left.  Whatever I may think of your morals, you always were a damn good shot."  He laughs again, the sound breaking up into a hideous hacking cough.  He spears you again with those two terrible eyes.  His voice stiffens.  "I spent a lot of time in Cairo, you know that, don't you, Tobias?  I studied the ancient places, the ancient beliefs.  I was especially interested in the curses.  The Egyptians truly believed in their curses, with all their hearts they believed.  They put them on their tombs, to keep away grave robbers.  I always told you you should take a hint from them, in your line of work.  Put the odd curse on one of those headstones you turn out, or maybe on the coffins -- you could probably charge a little extra for the service.  You'd be the only funeral home in Penny Bridge to promise supernatural protection for the deceased."  Again that laugh.  Again the cough.  His face is white.  Why doesn't he die?

"Well, I'll tell you what, Tobias.  Let's you and I see whether those Egyptians knew what they were talking about.  What do you say about that?  Let's see if there's something to this curse business, after all.  Let's give the thing a field test, so to speak."

You have to get out of here, you have to hurry.  When the maid comes in the morning, she must think Percy was shot by a burglar.  But you can't move.  You can't shoot him again.  You can only listen.  What's that he's ranting on about?  A curse?  What curse?

"That's right, Tobias, I'm laying a curse on you.  A real live Egyptian curse.  I may not be a Pharaoh, but I think I can manage.  But it's got to be something appropriate, something special to suit the circumstance, don't you think?"  For a moment, his eyes drift away from you, roving absently over the room.  Then they fix on the overmantel -- no, on the Cairo Lion.  A smile curls his lips, incongruous as a grin on a corpse.  He looks at you again, and you see something new in those eyes.  Not surprise and not hate.  Triumph.

"Death by a lion," he says.  "You got that, Tobias?  That's the ticket.  You want a lion so badly, then you shall have it.  By a lion you will die."  He must sense the end approaching, vast and unstoppable like a freight train.  But there is no fear in him, only urgency.   His eyes dilate and his voice rises shrilly.  "Got that, Tobias?  By a lion you will die, die, die -- auugh!"

And with that, Percy Fenimore passes from the world.  A moment later, with the golden Cairo Lion tucked in your vest, you make your way out to the car.  As you make your way down the long curving driveway and out through the wrought-iron gate, you find yourself laughing, too.  The senile old goat, you think -- a curse, of all things!  You always said he spent too much time around mummies.  All that dust must have gotten to his brain.  Must have made him dotty.

Just the same, as you follow the hill road back into Penny Bridge, you decide to let Nigel handle the funeral scheduled for tomorrow.  Not that you place any stock in curses, because you don't.  You really don't.  But it has just occurred to you that the recently departed was a member of the local chapter of the Lions Club.

And why take the chance?

***
How does it feel, eh, Tobias?

Here you stand, immaculately attired in funereal black, hands folded behind your back, features composed and suitably consoling, while only five feet away stands the weeping widow of your lately-departed friend, Percy Fenimore -- Percy Fenimore, now safely interred two feet beyond her beneath six feet of earth in Lakeview Memorial Park.  How does it feel?  Knowing you murdered her husband for a small golden statue and then asked her to pay to dispose of the corpse?  If asked to comment, what would you say?

One of your better funerals, wasn't it?

Certainly, you have to congratulate yourself on your thespian abilities.  You weren't really sure you would be able to pull it off.  When the police released the body for burial and it arrived at the funeral home, your behaviour was exactly as anyone would have expected.  After all, the man was a friend.  You were clearly grief-stricken.  But you were a professional, as well.  Your business is death.  You hid your grief well, everyone said so.  You were a rock.

Now, the funeral concluded, you wait until everyone has left, the long row of black cars winding mournfully out of the park like an ebony serpent.  Then you make your way to your own car.  Five minutes later, you return to your office on the third floor of Veale's Funeral Home.  You close the door and lock it.  Loosening your collar, you go to the safe and open it, then take out the magnificent golden Cairo Lion.  Your breath catches, your eyes blaze.  The sun through the window shimmers off the glossy form, lustrously dazzling, the yellow eyes sparkling like two quivering drops of wine.  It's more beautiful than you imagined, made all the more wonderful now that it is yours and yours alone.

For a time, you fondle the statue, devouring its glossy lines with your eyes.  You kept it in the safe in case the police came by with questions about Percy's antiquities collection.  But now all that is over and done with.  The police are convinced poor Percy interrupted a burglar -- which, in a sense he did.  Now, though, you can take the Cairo Lion out of the safe.  No one knew about it except you and Percy, anyway.  No one will ever know.

Only one thing mars the satisfaction which you should feel in this moment.  Only one thing -- the curse.  The damn curse.  You've told yourself the whole thing is ludicrous; there are no such things as curses, Egyptian or otherwise.  And you almost believe it.  Almost -- except...

Except Percy seemed so certain in that final moment, so absolutely sure of himself.  There had been such a light of triumph in his eyes, such a ring of victory in his voice -- and the way he had said it, with such utter conviction.  By a lion you will die.  Obviously he had believed it.

And try as you may to laugh it off, somewhere deep down inside you have to admit that you believe it, too.  Just a little.  Just enough to ruin this otherwise perfect moment.

And just enough to cause a twinge of concern over tomorrow's scheduled funeral.
 An odd one, that.  But then, Mrs. Butterworth always did have a reputation as a bit of an eccentric, a bit of local colour.  The dearly departed left a curious request in her last will and testament.  She had always had a fondness for animals.  Thus, she asked that her memorial service be conducted at the Penny Bridge zoo...

***
 Mrs. Butterworth's memorial service is finally concluded.  It's been a long afternoon, interminable in some ways.  Still, everything seems to have gone off without a hitch.  True, the mood was somewhat spoiled by the constant chattering from the monkey cages up the hill; but the sorrowful calls  of the peacocks more than made up for that.  Hired mourners couldn't have sounded a better song of despair.

Unfortunately, there was no way to section off this area.  It's a public zoo, after all.  Two youngsters on skateboards made a nuisance of themselves, and a mime proved a bit of a distraction.  A boy pushing an ice cream cart, his bell chiming merrily, added a further irritant.  But, other than those minor problems, everything went just fine.  Everything went swimmingly.

Everything except the lion.

It was only a coincidence, you told yourself that again and again all afternoon.  But still, there is a tiny fragment of doubt, a minute shard which just keeps working its way closer and closer to the surface.  After all, this is a fairly large zoo.  There are many animals.  Why then did the service just happen to have to take place beside the lion's cage?

All throughout the service, as much as you tried not to, your glance kept drifting to the concrete barrier.  Beyond the barrier lies a cement ditch, twenty feet deep and twenty feet wide.  Then, on the other side of the ditch  lies an artificially constructed landscape of stone cliffs and caves, ridges and juts.  And sprawled languidly in the sun atop one stone ridge is the lion.

A male, his mane is a magnificent black explosion about his head, his massive form sleek and glossy, great muscles rolling like snakes beneath his tawny hide.  You tell yourself there's nothing to worry about.  There are no such things as curses, Egyptian or otherwise.  And, anyway, between the ditch and the concrete barrier, there is no way for the lion to reach you.  But, just the same, there is something about that lion, something which causes the hair to crawl on the back of your neck, something which chills your blood.  No such things as curses.  No such things as curses.  You chant it like a mantra in your head.

But the lion is looking at you.

No such things as curses.  No such things as curses...

In fact, he's been watching you all afternoon.  You know how insane that would sound if you told anyone, but it's true.  Those two yellow eyes have been following you, patiently, hungrily, never wavering.  You tell yourself that you're imagining things; this curse business is getting to you.  The lion can't be watching you.  Lions don't do that.

But he is.  He's watching you the way a cat might watch a mouse, waiting, just waiting for the right moment to pounce.

And seeing the way he's looking at you, you can't help wondering.  What would it be like to be killed by a lion?  He must weigh, what? -- three hundred pounds?  Four hundred?  And his claws when he stretches -- each one as long as your finger.  What would those claws do to a man?  Or maybe he wouldn't use his claws, maybe he would devour you with his fangs.  You recall reading somewhere that lions often eat their prey while it's still alive.  You wonder about that.  You wonder about that a lot.

And wish he would stop looking at you.

No such things as curses...

"Excellent memorial service, Veale.  One of your best."

You just about jump out of your skin, startled by the voice at your back.  You whirl with a slight exclamation -- to find Peter Soames, a friend of Mrs. Butterworth, reaching out to pump your hand.  Numbly, you accept the hand and only half-listen as he continues in the same congratulatory vein.  Really touching ceremony.  Old girl would have approved.  Should have more at the zoo.  The atmosphere...something special.

But you're only half-listening, aren't you.  Something else has your attention.  Peter Soames is a burly man, built like a fridge; you only come up to his chest.  Now, peering around his vast bulk as if around a massive boulder, you notice some commotion further up the hill.  People are shouting and waving their arms.  Dimly, you wonder what all the fuss can be about.

"Peacocks actually added something, don't you think?"  Soames is oblivious to the noise.

Then, finally, you notice the ice cream cart.  The boy must have left it unattended at the top of the hill, the brake off.  Now the cart is rolling, rolling faster and faster as it descends the hill, steadily picking up speed, its cheerful bell wildly ringing like the bugle song of a charging cavalry.

"Er..." You try to interrupt Mr. Soames, but the man doesn't even notice.  The cart, you realize, will pass very close to you both.  Very, very close.

"Er..." you try again.  This time he notices, and, seeing the direction of your gaze, he starts to turn, his huge form shifting with geological ponderousness.  The cart is a rocket now, jolting and jumping over the cobblestones of the pathway, the freezer lid bouncing up and down in a giddy frenzy.  Behind, still waving their arms, chases a dozen bystanders, the ice cream boy in the lead, knees almost hitting his chin.  But none of them can catch up with the runaway cart.

You don't want to make a fuss, but the cart is going to pass very close.  You would move out of the way, but Peter Soames has you trapped against the concrete barrier, the barrier to the lion's cage.  There isn't room.  And then there isn't time.

It happens very suddenly.  You were quite right; the cart will pass close but it won't hit you.  If you both stood perfectly still, nothing would happen.  The cart would coast on by, finally ending up nose-first in the duck pond.  But Peter Soames lacks your presence of mind.  Finally completing his ponderous turn, he sees the oncoming cart -- and he panics.  He makes a squeal like a terrified elephant, and his whole massive bulk surges backward in one titanic lurch.  You try to protect yourself, but as well fend off an avalanche.  You give a horrified shriek as he forces you backward, squeezing you against the barrier, then further backward still.  The barrier is too low and you find yourself toppling over, your fingers clawing wretchedly at his black coat, fighting for purchase on the slick starched material, any purchase, any at all.

The world spins around you, the sky, the trees, you go over, you scream --

And then welcome beautiful hands are hauling you back, back over the barrier, setting you on your feet.  Your legs barely hold as you grip the barrier, trembling, and try not to faint.  Soames'  voice is a dull murmur beneath the wild thundering of the blood in your head.  "My god, Veale, I'm so sorry!  You might have been killed.  I saw that cart coming and I just panicked.  Are you all right, sir?  Lucky for you I caught you!  Lucky, lucky, lucky!"

Lucky indeed.  Who would have thought the man could move so fast?

But, though he's still speaking, still apologizing and asking if you're all right, still telling you how lucky, lucky, lucky you are, you don't hear him anymore.  You're too busy with other things.  You're too busy searching the lion's cage, casting about with wide, desperate eyes.  Where has the lion gone? you ask yourself.   It was there all afternoon, sprawled on its ridge, looking at you, just looking at you.  But now?  Now it's gone.  Where...where...

And then you look down.

The lion sits at the bottom of the concrete ditch, twenty feet directly below where you almost went over.  It sits down there, just looking up, and waiting...

***
That night you don't sleep.  You toss and turn, beat your pillow and tug at the sheets, but you don't sleep.  You keep remembering those two yellow eyes staring up at you.  You keep recalling the horrible sense of vertigo as you spun over the barrier.  And you keep thinking about the ring of conviction in Percy's voice.

No such things as curses...

Damn that Percy.

Barely has the morning light gilded the blinds on your bedroom window than you rise and go down stairs.  The morning paper has already arrived and you bring it inside, then fix yourself bacon and eggs.  Settling down to breakfast, you snap open the paper, determined to put this whole nasty business behind you.

The bold black headline screams out at you.

Zoo Lion Escapes -- Police Still Searching

Part 2: Conclusion





 


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No Such Things as Curses is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)