Sample excerpt




The Breath of Bast

A Charles Escott Story

eBook Edition copyright 2011, P.N. Elrod
Originally in Kittens, Cats, and Crime, Five Star, 2003

    Chicago, 1937

Charles Escott 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 it.
       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 his desk.
       “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 everything.
       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 break.”
       He did so, brushing away more excelsior. “My heavens.”
       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

From 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 wolves.
       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 could feed.
       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 understand.
       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 fear.
       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 base fate.
       “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 another.
       “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 form.


Continued in the P.N. Elrod Omnibus

 Unabridged novel, Quincey Morris, Vampire, available in eformat from Baen Books

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