The Breath of Bast
A Charles Escott Story
eBook Edition copyright 2011, P.N. Elrod
Originally in Kittens, Cats, and Crime, Five Star, 2003
smiled across his uncluttered desk at a potential client. “May I
inquire as to who referred you to me, Miss Selk?”
Cassandra Selk was what his part-time
partner in the Escott Agency would have called “a knockout in
heels.” Possessed of raven-black hair and expressive eyes so brown
as to be black as well, Escott’s first thought when he ushered her
into his office was that she was an artist’s model. As it turned
out, she was herself an artist, a famous one. He was chagrinned
that he’d never heard of her, but she didn’t seem to mind;
apparently few outside of certain rarified circles were familiar
with her name. Her area of expertise was sculpture; her favorite
subject was cats, and she sold them all over the world.
Miss Selk’s remarkable eyes seemed to
shimmer. “Mrs. Wasserman spoke highly of your efficiency and
attention to detail—and your sympathy toward animals.”
Mrs. Wasserman’s business was still fresh
in Escott’s mind. He’d agreed to kidnap her dog from her estranged
husband. Hardly a case to test one’s intellectual talents, but
that sort of mundane job paid the bills. Besides, Escott liked
dogs. “Yes, the little canine was a most agreeable
travel-companion. Have you a similar task in mind?”
Miss Selk shook her head. “I require a
dropping-off, not a picking-up.”
“May I have more details?” He hoped she
would take her time; he wanted to extend his enjoyment of her
altogether entrancing face.
“Hm?” She blinked. “Yes, of course. I’ve
completed a commission for a local collector. I need you to
deliver it, then return to tell me her reaction to my work.”
His smile faltered. “Why not employ a
regular delivery service?”
“I want someone with an eye for detail and
a good memory to make a full and complete report.”
“Of the collector’s reaction? I see.” He
didn’t, but would never admit it aloud. “Why not go yourself?”
Her bewitching smile melted into one of
rueful sadness. “It’s impossible because of my severe allergy to
cats. This collector has at least a dozen running about her house,
and I dare not set foot to the threshold. It’s terrible for me
because I absolutely adore them. They’re such beautiful, graceful,
noble creatures, don’t you think?”
“Oh, yes, I’ve always thought so. You say
they are your specialty? What do you do for models?”
“I rely on photographs; many artists do so.
The difference for me is making a three-dimensional creation from
a two-dimensional image. The dynamics are fascinating.”
“Is it not frustrating being unable to work
from a live model?”
Her eyes shimmered again, as though she’d
heard that question many times. “Not really. From conversations
I’ve had with photographers, it’s very difficult to get a cat to
hold still for anything. On the other hand, I’ve been compared to
Beethoven. I’m unable to be in the same room with my favorite
animal just as he was unable to hear his own music.”
“That is ironic.”
“I’ve had years to consider the irony and
concluded that if I did not have this allergy, then I would have a
house full of cats and not one piece of sculpture. Without what
some would call a defect, I should be leading quite a bit
different life, perhaps not as fulfilling.”
Escott found himself warming nicely to her
turn of mind, which he found as interesting as her looks. However,
this was a business transaction, so he gently asked a few more
questions and said he would be delighted to take on the errand.
Miss Selk—she asked him to please call her Cassandra—signed his
standard contract and they shook hands.
“The sculpture is in my car,” she said.
“It’s not large, if you. . .”
He assured her he would be happy to fetch
On this humble Chicago street close to the
Stockyards there was no question about which car was hers. The
1937 Cadillacs were barely off the assembly line, but she had one.
That, combined with Cassandra’s expensive fur coat and silk dress,
belied any doubt Escott harbored about whether she could afford
his standard fee. He retrieved a small, heavy wooden box and
carried it up to his second floor office, placing it carefully on
“Would you like to see it?” she asked, eyes
bright with pride.
“Very much.” After she left he’d planned to
open it to answer his own curiosity and as a precaution. In his
line of business, which required that he undertake odd and
frequently unpleasant errands between parties in disagreement, it
was only prudent. So far he’d not been employed to deliver a bomb
for some crazed anarchist, but there was a first time for
The box was just over a foot tall, the top
not nailed in place, but fitting snugly like a humidor lid.
Cassandra lifted it off, revealing a tangled nest of excelsior.
“I’m afraid it will make a mess,” she said.
“Easily cleaned.” He pulled out handfuls of
the stuff until encountering something hard. Cold metal, with
dulled points, he thought.
“Just take it out by the head. It won’t
He did so, brushing away more excelsior.
He reverently set the object on his desk.
He was no expert in the field, but possessed an instinct for
genius, and that was what shone before him. The metal statue was
of a proudly seated feline done in the Egyptian style. For all he
could tell, it might have come right from some ancient temple.
Hieroglyphs were incised into the cat’s body and along the base
upon which it rested.
“Is it silver?” he asked, eyeing its regal
head. The points he’d felt had been the ears.
“Yes.” She seemed pleased with his obvious
awe of her work. “I normally cast in other metals when I use them
as my medium, but this was a special commission, and I’m sure
you’re aware that the client is always right.”
“Indeed.” On visits to Chicago’s museums
Escott often found himself mesmerized by certain pieces. He was
aware of his own artistic streak, expressed, once upon a time, by
being on the stage in his youth. In those early years of knocking
around with a traveling repertory company he learned how to create
a realistic illusion out of next to nothing. Those illusions
lasted only for the duration of the performance, though. Such work
gave him a sharp appreciation for individuals whose talent could
make a lasting creation. “This is exquisite. Perhaps sometime you
could let me see more of—”
“Yes, of course. Tonight, if you’d
like—after you make the delivery.”
He looked at her, slightly startled at this
display of repressed eagerness. Certainly he found her attractive,
but was this a reciprocation of a like feeling on her part or
merely a desire to show off to an appreciative audience? He was
not inexperienced when it came to artists and their egos. The fact
that she wanted a full description of her client’s reaction
indicated that Cassandra possessed a sizable vanity concerning her
work. But then this cat sculpture was evidence enough that its
creator had earned the right to indulge.
Well, he would find out tonight.
The Wind Breathes Cold
Quincey Morris: Vampire
The Wind Breathes Cold, eBook Edition,
copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Dracula: Prince of Darkness DAW 1992
Transylvania, November 1893
No single sense
returned first. They mobbed me.
The numbing cold, the soft whine of dogs,
the rough jostling, all tumbled together in my dulled brain like
seeds in a rattle. I slipped to and fro between awareness and
nothing until a sharp lurch and bump caught my attention, holding
me awake for longer than a few seconds. It was enough that I dimly
comprehended something was very wrong. The next moment of
consciousness I managed to keep hold of; the moments to follow had
me wishing I’d done otherwise.
Things were strongly tugging at my
feet and legs, which seemed to be bound up. So was the rest of my
body. I was wrapped snug and tight in a blanket from head to toe,
unable to move or see. It was right over my face, which I never
could abide. I groaned, trying to get free of the annoyance.
At this feeble sound and movement the
tugging abruptly stopped, and the things—which I dazedly grasped
to be several dogs—snuffled at me. I couldn’t tell how many, but
to judge by their sounds several at the least seemed to hold me as
the focus of their attention. It made no sense until with a raw
shock tearing through my nerves I realized they weren’t dogs, but
In that instant full alertness returned,
mind and body hurtling awake. I froze utterly, in the full
expectation that the wolves would start ripping into me as I lay
helpless before them. After a few truly terrible moments when
nothing happened I tried to swallow my heart back into place, but
there wasn’t spit enough in my mouth for the job.
With whines and growls, their strong jaws
clamped firmly on my wrappings again, and they resumed dragging me
along. I could only think that made bold by hunger they’d entered
our camp and picked me to pull away to a safe distance where they
Panic would kill me. I dared not shout an
alarm to my friends. The noise might spark the wolves to attack
their prize. They’d held off—for the time being—so I gritted my
teeth and waited and listened in the frail hope I might somehow
find a way out of this alive.
There must have been dozens of them. I
could hear their eager panting and the click of their claws
against bare stone or crunching into the thick snow. Wolves
usually shy away from men—such had been my experience when Art and
I had been trailed by that pack in Siberia. Had they been more
desperate they’d have made a real feast for themselves on us.
Being normal wolves, they’d held off and we’d escaped. But this
pack seemed anything but normal. We were in the wild deeps of
Transylvania, a far different place, and I’d already seen grim
proof that a tall tale in one part of the world was God’s own
awful truth in another.
The wolves pulled me along another few yards. My weight, and I was
aware of every solid pound of it going over those rocks, was
nothing to them. Once they felt secure, they’d go through my all
too thin blanket and clothes like taking the hide off a deer. I’d
seen that happen once. The deer had been alive when they’d started
in, and though quick enough, it hadn’t been an easy death.
But all men have a limit to their
self-control and that dark thought was enough to finally break
mine; fear surged in my throat like vomit. It choked off any cry
for help I might have made. I thrashed around like one of the
madmen in Seward’s asylum, fighting against my bindings. The
wolves at my feet let go. One of them snarled, stirring up the
others. They moved all around me, excited, nipping at the blanket
as though in play, their efforts ironically helping my struggles
as they shredded the cloth. Fresh air suddenly slapped my face as
the damned thing finally came loose.
Bright-eyes catching the moonlight in green
flashes, with lolling tongues and rows of white teeth, they
scampered about like puppies. Some darted close to snap at me,
wagging their tails at the sport of it. I wrested my hands free,
but had no weapon to use. Some blurred memory told me I carried no
knife or gun. I scrabbled in the inches-deep snow and found a
piece of fist-sized rock. Better than nothing.
Then a big black fellow, one that was
obviously the pack leader, lifted his head to the wild gray sky
and howled. Ever an eerie sound, but to be so alone in the forest,
to hear it so close and loud, to watch the very breath of it
streaming from the animal’s muzzle—had the hair on my neck not
already been raised to its limit, it would have gone that much
higher. The other wolves instantly abandoned their game and
crowded around him, tails tucked like fawning supplicants seeking
a favor. One after another joined him, blending and weaving their
many voices into a triumphant song only they could fully
The leader broke off and focused his huge
green eyes upon me as the others continued their hell’s chorus.
It’s a mistake to ascribe human attributes to an animal, but I
couldn’t help myself. The thing looked not just interested in what
he saw, but curious, in the way that a human is curious.
He snarled and snapped at those nearest
him. The pack stopped howling and obediently scattered. After a
sharp, low bark from him they formed themselves into a wide circle
like trained circus dogs. I was at its exact center. Some stood,
others sat, but all watched me attentively. Though I’d had more
contact with wolves than most men, I’d never seen or heard
anything like this before.
A few of them growled, no doubt scenting my
Clutching the nearly useless rock with one
hand, I frantically tore at the bindings around my ankles with the
other. It was desperate work, made slow by my reluctance to take
my eyes from the pack. Despite the distraction of their presence,
I saw that for some reason I’d been wrapped like a bundle for the
mail, first in the blanket, then by ropes to hold it in place.
Why? Who had tied me up so? I cursed whoever had done me such an
ill turn, the burst of anger giving me the strength to get free.
I got clear of the blanket and staggered
upright, half-expecting the wolves to close in. But they remained
in their great circle, watching. There were no trees within it to
climb to safety, and if I tried to break through the line at any
point they’d be on me, so I kept still and stared back. One of the
wolves sneezed; another shook himself. They knew they had me.
A gust of winter wind sent the dry ground
snow flying. Flakes skittered and drifted over the discarded
blanket. I slowly picked it up and looped it around my left arm.
The leader stepped forward, growling. I angled to face him, my
powerless fear turning to fury that I should be brought to such a
“Come on, you big bastard. I’ll take you
first,” I whispered, growling right back. I would sell myself
dearly to them.
The wolf lowered his head and rocked back
on his haunches, like a dog about to do a begging trick. A roiling
darkness that seemed to come from within the thing’s body blurred
the details as bones and joints soundlessly shifted, muzzle and
fur retreated, skin swelled. It rose on its hind legs and kept
rising until it was a match for me in height. The crooked legs
straightened, thickened, and became the legs of a man, a tall,
lean man clothed all in black. Only his bright green eyes remained
the same, and when his red lips thinned into a smile I clearly saw
the hungry wolf lurking beneath the surface.
I knew his face. One can never forget such
stern features. They were the stuff of nightmares, all the more so
for my knowing, of my being absolutely certain, that he was
dead—for I’d killed him myself.
Yet there he stood before me, stubbornly
oblivious to the fact.
I was as afraid as I’d ever been in my life
and could have expressed it, loudly, but there didn’t seem much
point. In a few minutes I’d either be dead or worse than dead, and
making a lot of noise about it wouldn’t help me one way or
“I can respect a brave man, Mr. Morris,”
said Vlad Dracula, pitching his deep voice to be heard above the
wind. In it was the harsh tone I’d heard when he’d taunted us from
the stable yard of his Piccadilly house. Now he clasped his hands
behind him and continued to regard me with the same mixture of
interest and curiosity that had manifested itself in his wolf
Continued in the P.N. Elrod Omnibus
2011 P.N. Elrod. Maintained
by Mystik at
firstname.lastname@example.org No artists or writers were injured
or exploited in the production of this website, though blurred vision,
a few hangovers, and extensive chocolate abuse took place, but were
quickly hushed up.
Morris, Vampire, available in eformat from Baen Books