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ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



Weird Tales JULY, 1946

Catspaws

BY SEABURY QUINN

 How easy it is to flee in terror at night from formless spectors
who cannot be, save in our imaginations
 

WE HAD been late leaving the Medical Society meeting and the cold rain of the early evening had changed to a wet, sleet-spurred snow, hag-ridden by a bitter wind, when we came out into the street. At the southern entrance of the Park my car gave a sharp lurch as a report like a bursting electric bulb was followed by an angry hiss and the sound of vicious slapping on the roadway. "Grand Dieu des pores," asked Jules de Grandin, "what in Satan's name was that?"

I swerved the car to the curb and shut off my engine. "If you don't know I haven't the heart to tell you," I answered.

He nodded sadly. "One might have guessed as much. And we have no spare tire, naturellement?"

"Naturellement," I echoed." Those things are pretty strictly rationed. We just came through a war, or hadn't you heard?"

"It is the fortune of the dog we have. What should we do?" Then before I could make a sarcastic rejoinder, "One comprehends. It is that we walk?"

"It is," I assured him as we dived into the Park's darkness, heads bent against the weather.

The gale clutched at our hats, whipped our sleeves, lashed at our coats; snow gathered on our soles in hard inverted pyramids that made the going doubly hard, now and then a laden tree bough shook its frigid burden down on us.

"Feu noir du diable," de Grandin cursed as a particularly vicious barrage of wet snow fell on him, "quelle nuit sauvage! If only —morbleu, another luckless pilgrim of the night! Observe her, Friend Trowbridge."

I followed the direction of his pointing stick and saw a woman—a girl, really—fur-swathed from neck to knees, bareheaded and shod with high-heeled sandals, judging by her awkward gait, struggling with frantic haste over the rough hummocks of frozen slush. As she drew almost abreast of us I realized she was half moaning, half sobbing to herself as she ran.

"Pardonnez-moi, Mademoiselle," de Grandin touched the brim of his black felt hat, "may we be of service? You seem in trouble—"

"Oh—" she gave a little scream of surprise at his voice. "Oh, yes; yes. You can help me. You can!" Her voice rose to a pitch half an octave below hysteria. "Please help me, I'm—"

"Tiens, you have the nervousness unnecessarily, Mademoiselle. We shall take great pleasure in assisting you. What is it?"

"I—" she gulped sobbingly for breath— "I want to get to a trolley, a taxi, any way to get home in a hurry, please. I—"

"And so do we, ma petite," he broke in, "but alas, there is no street car, bus or taxi to be had. If you will come with us to the other side of the Park—"

"Oh, no!" she declined fiercely. "Not that way. I'm afraid. Please don't take me back that way. He's there!"

"Eh?" he shot back sharply. "And who is 'he,' if one may ask?"

"That—that man!" she panted hoarsely, half turning to resume her flight. "Oh, sir, please don't take me back. I'm terribly afraid!" Her teeth began to chatter with mingled chill and fright.

"Be quiet, Mademoiselle!" he ordered. "This will not do. No, not at all. What is your trouble, why do you fear to retrace your steps? Is there anybody there two able-bodied, healthy men cannot protect you from?"

"I—" the girl began again, then seemed to take a grip upon her nerves. "No, of course I'm not afraid while I'm with you. I'll go." She swung round, catching step between us.

"I was going home from a party at a friend's house," she began, speaking hurriedly. "My—my young man had to catch a midnight train for Philadelphia and couldn't take me, so I was waiting on the comer for a bus when a man drove by and asked me if I'd like a lift, and—like a fool!—I told him yes. I told him 1 was going to MacKenzie Boulevard, but he turned into the Park, and when we got down to the bottom of the hill he—oh, I was so terrified! I jumped out and began to run, and—and I'm afraid, sir; I'm terribly afraid of him!"

The light from one of the infrequent roadside lamps fell on de Grandin's face and showed a look of mingled wonder and amusement. "One understands, but only partly, Mademoiselle. You were a very foolish little person to accept a ride from a stranger. Had you never heard that she who rides must all too often pay her passage? That the young man—one assumes he was young—should have proved a wolf was not astonishing, but you evaded him. He did not harm you. Why, then, are you so distrait, so terrified? Is it that—"

Her frightened exclamation cut through his question as her hands clenched on our arms with fear-strengthened fingers. "See! There are the lights of his car. He's waiting for me—oh, I'm afraid!"

THE Frenchman loosed her clutching fingers gently. "Look to her, Friend Trowbridge. Me, I shall attend to this smasher." Striding to the car parked at the roadside he addressed its unseen occupant. "Monsieur, this young woman tells us you have affronted her. Me, I do not like that kind of business. Have the goodness to descend, Monsieur, and I shall take great pleasure in tweaking your so odious nose."

No answer was forthcoming and he put a foot upon the running board. "I see you, miscreant. Silence will not give you protection. Descend and defend yourself—" He raised his head level with the face of the man at the car's steering wheel. There was a rustle of snow-covered sleeve against the casing of the car window, and: "Mordieu, Friend Trowbridge, come and see," he ordered as he fished into his pocket for his flashlight. "Look at him, if you please— and keep tight hold of the woman!"

I grasped the girl's wrist and leant forward as the beam of his light pierced the darkness and fell back a step, my fingers tightening on her arm involuntarily.

Bolt-upright at the wheel of the roadster was a heavy-set blond young man, bareheaded, and with the collar of his ulster open at the throat. His left hand wore a heavy glove, I noticed, while his right, which rested on the wheel, was bare. His light-blue eyes, probably always prominent, were widely opened in an idiotic, fixed stare and fairly popping from his face. His mouth was gaping with a hang-jawed, imbecile expression, the tongue protruding slightly, and the chin resting on the fabric of his turned-back collar.

"Oh," the girl beside me let out a shrill, squealing scream, "he's dead!"

"Comme un maquereau," de Grandin agreed laconically. "Nor did he die from overeating. Regard him, if you please, Friend Trowbridge." Placing his hand on the young man's sleek fair hair he moved it with a gentle rotary motion. The head beneath his hand followed its pressure as if it had been fastened to the shoulders by a loose-tensioned spring. "You agree with my diagnosis?" he asked.

"There certainly appears to be a fracture, probably at the third cervical vertebra," I agreed, "but whether he died as a result of—"

"Perfectly," he agreed. "The autopsy will disclose that." Then, to the girl: "...

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