Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#44



 

No Such Things as Curses
(Conclusion)

By Talbot Pratt


HOW DOES IT FEEL, eh, Tobias?

Somewhere out there is a massive African carnivore, weighing three hundred pounds or more, with huge sharp claws and drooling razor fangs, with burning yellow eyes and powerful rippling muscles, padding slowly closer and closer, slinking through the alleys and the shadows, past the Canadian Tire Store, past the Multiplex Theatre, closer and closer still.  A lion with your name on it.

How does it feel?

"Tell me again, Mr. Veale," the staff-sergeant asks in a patient but mildly dubious tone.  "Why precisely do you think this lion is out to kill you -- you in particular?"

The office is cluttered with paperwork, the air thick with the brisk odour of coffee.  You inhale the rich aroma and start again, keeping your manner composed, calm.  "As I already explained, I travel quite a bit looking for antiquities.  During my last visit to Egypt, I managed to offend a sort of witch doctor.  He placed a curse on me.  He said a lion would kill me."

The staff-sergeant is silent for a time, regarding you in a grimly appraising way.  Finally, still in that low patient tone, he says: "And you believe in curses, do you?"

"No, of course not!"  For just a moment, you lose control.  You promised yourself that you wouldn't, but the police officer's question has hit too close to home.  With an effort, you master your emotions.  Calmer now, you continue: "Of course I don't believe in curses, officer.  Of course I don't.  It's just that, well, you probably heard how I nearly fell into the lion's cage at the zoo yesterday.  The whole thing has left me rather flustered.  Now, hearing about this same lion escaping in the night, in conjunction with the curse...you can imagine."

The staff-sergeant doesn't look like he can imagine anything of the sort.

"And just what do you want from us, sir?"

"Police protection, that's all.  Just for a few days, just until this lion is recaptured.  That's not so much to ask for, is it?"

"Mr. Veale," his tone finally inches into condescension, "I know you are an important person in Penny Bridge.  I know you have very powerful friends and that you could make things difficult for me, very difficult.  But I only have five constables to patrol this entire town.  Right now, I need every one of those officers just to look for this damn lion.  Now, you know and I know that there are no such things as curses.  And what we also both know is that I can't spare even one of my constables to watch over you just because you got spooked at the zoo yesterday."

There is more to the conversation, but it's all pretty much along the same lines.  You try insisting, then threatening, then pleading.  Nothing works.  In the end, you leave having accomplished nothing but the loss of your dignity.  But then, what did you really expect?  A curse?  Who would believe in a curse?

There are no such things as curses, remember?

The walk from the police station to where your car is parked at the curb takes an eternity.  It is evening and deep shadows have pooled in the bucolic gabelled streets of Penny Bridge.  Even as you start down the stone steps, the street lights come on, but the extra illumination merely emphasizes the gathering gloom.  There are so many places to hide.  Among the neatly trimmed hedges, behind the wood and wrought-iron benches, in the thick shadows beneath the maple trees and oaks -- a lion could be crouching anywhere.  Anywhere.

You are barely breathing by the time you reach the car.  Your hands tremble as you fumble the keys, fighting to pick out the right one, cursing as you jab it again and again at the lock, before getting it to fit and unlocking the door.  All the while, your ears are straining, searching the surrounding darkness, keyed for the soft pad of paws on macadam, for that low hungry snarling of an animal about to pounce...

And then you hurl yourself into the driver's seat and slam closed the door.  Breathing fast, you slip the key in the ignition and turn.

Nothing happens.

For a moment, you are too stunned to react.  Then, biting your lip, you try again, slowly, carefully.  Still nothing.  Finally you notice the gas gauge is at empty.  You're out of gas.  You must have used up the last of it getting here earlier in the day.

Damn.

Now what?  Bleakly, you look back at the police station, a dark mountain in the fading light.  You can't face them again, not after embarrassing yourself that way.  But the only alternative is to walk the three blocks to the funeral home.  From there, you can call a gas station.

Just three blocks.

Wretchedly, you climb from the car, close the door and begin walking.  The first block is the easiest.  There are more lights on Brock Street and even the odd pedestrian heading home for the night, or out walking the dog.  But then you turn onto Church Street and leave the pedestrians behind.  Even the street lamps are more widely spaced along here, with deep, menacing stretches of shadow strung between.  You pick up the pace, your footsteps slapping sharply in the silence.  Again and again, you catch yourself holding your breath, listening.  Sweat trickles down your forehead, gathering in your eyes.  You find your gaze darting back and forth, back and forth, searching the darkness, searching for those terrible yellow eyes, those teeth, those claws.

No such things as curses...

Then you turn onto Confederation Drive.  Almost there.  Only a little bit farther.  You're practically running now, your footsteps rattling like castanets.  You're not holding your breath anymore.  Now you're wheezing, heart pounding.  Only a little farther.  Only a little --

Then you hear it.

In the bushes across the street -- something moves there.  You hear a branch crack, then another.  It could be anything.   A dog.  A person.  Anything.

But you don't think it's just anything.  It's the lion.  You know it's the lion.

With a scream of horror, you run as you've never run before.  You reach the front steps to the funeral home, catching the railing and whirling yourself on the way by, momentum carrying you around and up the stairs, then through the front doors.  Even then, you keep running, up the two flights of stairs to the third floor, then down the hall and into your office.  You slam the door and lock it, panting, sobbing.

You pause just long enough to catch your breath.  The room is in darkness.  Blindly, you rush to the desk.  You fumble at the lamp, jerking the pull-chain.

Pop!

With a flash, the light bulb burns out.  Still in darkness, it is a moment before you realize what has happened.  Damn, damn, double-damn.  What next? you wonder.

Then, out of the surrounding darkness, comes your answer.

It is a low feral purr, a soft silken sound, but hinting at something vastly more terrible to come.  With a whimper, you spin, hands before your horrified face.  Where is it?  Where?

The room is large, intended to impress clients.  There is only one window; the soft street light misting through those panes is no help at all.  Where is it?

For a moment, the purring stops.  The silence is intolerable.  You want to scream but you can't move, can't breathe.  You step slowly backward, floorboards creaking underfoot.  Where?  Where?

Then the purring starts again, closer this time, much, much closer.  It is deep and eager, a horrible, ravenous sound.  And quite suddenly, with a conviction which leaves you breathless, you realize that it is true.  All of it.   Percy was right all along.

There are such things as curses.  There really are.

And this curse is going to eat you.

Again the purring stops.  This time, the silence lasts even longer, stretching on and on.  You sense a gathering in the darkness, muscles bunching, coiling for the pounce.  Then, suddenly, without warning, there is a furious roar, the sound rattling in your brain.  You start to turn.  You see the two yellow eyes gleaming in the darkness, the white yawning fangs -- you scream and hurl yourself back, back against the window, back through the shattering panes, back into the night, then down, down, in a three story plunge which for you will never end...

***
Constable Bryce peered out the broken window and whistled softly.  "That's quite a drop."  He looked at his partner, Constable Pullman, and smiled.  "Still, if you've got to go, this the place for it, I guess."

Pullman grimaced.  "Very funny.  What do you suppose happened?  Think he was pushed?"

"The door was locked when we got here," Bryce reminded him.  "Locked from the inside.  I think this was an accident, that's what I think."

"How does someone accidently throw themselves through a closed window?"

Bryce frowned.  "You've got me."  Then he had an idea.  "Hey, wasn't he the guy who dropped by the station today, the one who wanted police protection?"

"Say, that's right.  Had some crazy idea that the lion from the zoo was going to get him."

Bryce laughed and stepped away from the window.  "Well, I think we can safely rule the lion out.  They found it a little while ago still in the zoo.  It was hanging out by the peacock cage, hoping for a free meal, I guess."

Just then, his eyes settled on a small gold statue of a lion, set on the desk.  "Will you look at this.  Is this real gold?  Wow!"

Abruptly silence settled over the room as they both had the same thought.  Pullman was first to speak, his eyes still fixed on the Cairo Lion, the lion with its glittering yellow eyes and white ivory fangs.  "Say, you don't supposed..."

Bryce looked at the broken window, then back at the statue.  "I don't know," he said slowly.  "In the dark, if you saw that thing, if you were already scared enough...maybe --"

Then they both heard it.

A low feral purring, a hungry growling rising suddenly to a roar, then back to a purr.  The sound seemed to shiver in the air, its direction impossible to place.  They exchanged startled looks.

"What the hell is that?" Bryce asked nervously, his eyes automatically shooting to the statue on the desk.

"I don't know.  Let's check it out."

Together they stepped out into the hall, then traced the sound to the next room.  Inside, they found an elderly man crouched on the floor covered with reddish dust.  He wore earphones to keep out the noise and the constables decided not to bother him.  He was at work with an electric chisel, delicately chiselling letters into the pink granite face of a headstone.  It was the chisel that made the purring noise.  This was a funeral home, after all.  That was what they did here.

Laughing at their own foolishness, the two constables turned away, leaving the old man to finish his job.  As they went, neither of them noticed the five words engraved on the headstone.

Percy Fenimore.  Rest in Peace.

The End


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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!)