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Private Detective June 1945

The Precipice

By Ray Cummings

OLD MAN MACPHERSON was dying. There was no argument on that. You could see it in the gray pallor of his face, and hear it in his labored, gasping breaths. And he seemed to know it. He had sent for me in a hurry, late that Friday afternoon, a Friday in mid-October. I found him lying propped up in bed, in his room in the little wooden hotel which stands opposite the Cathedral in the village of St. Catherine de Belfort.

His hand clung to mine as I sat beside him on the bed. "Ye came quick, Tom," he murmured. "Thank ye verra much. I made a big mistake, Tom. Ye'll have to be fixin' it. I jus' thought of it."

"Mistake? That's out of your line, Mac." I grinned at him. "I didn't know you were really sick when you left the plant this morning in such a hurry or I'd have come with you. Tell me—"

"'Twill finish me, this time." He tried to smile, and gasped with an effort to take a deeper breath. "The heart, not so good. Ye've known about that, Tom? The doc, he can't fool me. Not this time."

Old Man MacPherson was my assistant at the plant I'm Tom Roberts, Paymaster of the Jacques Cartier Lumber Company. We're a small concern, located in the woods about a mile from St. Catherine.

"I jus' happened to remember it, lyin' here," MacPherson was saying. "Yesterday, when I sent to the bank for our payroll money for termorrer—I wasn't feelin' so good, even then, Tom."

Mac had completely forgotten that our payroll was considerably increased this week. We had a rush of overtime work and for a new night shift we had been fortunate in getting quite a few additional men. There's no way in and out of St. Catherine except by road—and a pretty rough road at that— through the woods to the town of Pont Noir, some thirty miles away. The armed mailman would arrive tomorrow morning with the registered package of our payroll money from the small branch of the Banque Canadienne Nationale in Pont Noir. But it wouldn't be enough, this week, not by some five thousand dollars.

"My mistake," MacPherson was saying. "An' that's verra strange, Tom, me to be workin' so many years an' then—to finish up with a mistake like that."

"Mine as much as yours," I assured him. "I should have reminded you, Tom. After all, I'm the boss."

Which was true enough. But it wasn't in Mac's line ever to forget anything.

"Ye can fix it, Tom?"

"Sure I can." I had already figured how I could fix it. "I'll send Maurice Leclair in his old caleche at daybreak tomorrow. He'll have our check at the bank before noon, and by nightfall he'll be back with the money."

"We can trust him, Tom?"

Old Leclair was a Canuck who had been with the Jacques Cartier Lumber Company most of his life. There wasn't any question in my mind of his honesty.

"That will fix it," I told Mac. "A lot of the men don't get paid off until tomorrow evening. Five thousand will cover it."

ORDINARILY I could have telephoned the bank manager and had him send someone up. St. Catherine has a telephone line, of sorts. But in a storm a few days ago it had gone out of whack somewhere in the woods between here and Pont Noir; and what with war shortages and such the telephone people hadn't yet been able to get it working.

I sat with Mac nearly an hour that afternoon, wit...

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