A MANHUNT CHILLER
THE QUIET SHAPE OF DEATH
by Gardner F. Fox
Originally written for MANHUNT #9 (1948) and published by Magazine Enterprises
IT WAS QUIET and lonely, here by the beach. The waves made soft, lapping sounds. It was almost ... too quiet. But the sand would muffle my footfalls, John Emerson would not hear me coming.
I could see Emerson now. He was coming up from the water, wet and panting. He thought a lot of his body, did John Emerson. One of those athletic fellows who are always outdoing the next guy. You know the type, I'm sure. He always took a long swim, just before retiring. He was through swimming for tonight ... or was he?
He turned, looked back at the water. I thought for a moment that he had seen me. No, he did not see me. He would have shown alarm. The night was warm. It would be better if he took another swim. Oh, yes, much better. It would be easier in the water—to do what I had to do.
As if he heard me whisper, he plunged in. He took two strokes in the water. And then, running like a deer, I was across the stretch and throwing myself in the water, right on Emerson's back.
He turned in the water as my powerful hands found his neck. His eyes bulged. His bloating tongue whispered hoarsely, "You! I didn't think ..."
"You didn't think I'd find you, did you, Emerson? You should have known better. I've been after you ... a long time!"
I came out of the water alone. The tides were running, now. They would carry Emerson's body out to sea. I was safe.
"Three more," I whispered as I crossed the sand. "First, Betsy Jane Zinnian ...
Betsy Jane lifted the telephone and set it to her ear.
"Hello? Hello? Who's there?"
She frowned as the voice came across the wire. "You know who this is, Betsy Jane. You and John Emerson, you both know me. Do you remember now?"
A cold chill touched the girl, made her sway weakly against the telephone table in her hall. She whimpered, "John Emerson? He—they think he drowned yesterday."
"He did drown, Betsy. You see, I was there with him. You might even say ... I drowned him!"
"You're next, Betsy. Don't try to run away from me. I'll be waiting for you ... wherever you are!"
The telephone fell from her hands as the girl crumpled. She lay on the floor a long time. Then, as a clock chimed four o'clock in the afternoon, she clung to a chair, lifting herself.
"Got to get away. Before he comes here for me! He... he knows where I live. Maybe if I run away—"
She ran to her purse, opened it with trembling fingers. Four, five hundred dollars. Lucky she took that money from the bank! The car was filled with gas and oil. All she had to do was pick it up and drive out into the country. She thought she could escape me out there.
Betsy Jane ran downstairs. She went out onto the sidewalk, hurrying along toward the nearest subway entrance. I thought for a moment that she saw me, but she went by the doorway where I crouched in the shadows.
I followed her down the steps of the subway. She turned, once she went through the turnstile, and walked slowly down to the far end of the platform. A train thundered in. I ignored it, walking after Betsy, knowing the noise of the train would drown out my footfalls.
But she must have heard me. She whirled—saw my face!
She screamed, and turned to run. Her feet went out from under her. She toppled over the edge of the platform. I shrank back, content: the roaring express train would do my work for me!
But the girl landed on her feet! The train brakes screeched in protest as a white-faced engineer threw them over. Betsy Jane ran a few steps, stumbling. She would escape!
As the crowd milled on the platform, I slid through an open door, walked rapidly to the front of the train. The engineer protested for a moment as I slid into his booth. But one look at my face was enough to tell him to mind his own business.
Over went the starting lever! I heard screams from the people on the platform. The train picked up speed. I could see Betsy Jane Zinnian running along the tracks just ahead of me. The train bounded forward. It was ten feet from her ... five feet ... one foot....
She went down under the wheels, screaming....
It was night. The countryside was quiet. with only the occasional croaking of a frog to disturb the strange hush. I was walking along a country road. I was in a hurry. I was going to pay another old friend a visit.
I could see the Alden farm from far away. It was brightly lighted. Faintly I heard the sound of music. Dance music. Good! Tom Alden was having a party. Fine, fine! Let him enjoy his last few minutes. I wasn't one to begrudge a man a good time.
There was a watchdog who bayed in a deep and mournful voice at sight of me. He bounded across the lawn, white-fanged mouth open. I crouched, took his jump on my arm. My hands went out and closed on his throat. I tightened my grip.
I stepped over the still body of the dog and went on. Through the partly open french windows, there were men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns, dancing. I stood in the shadow of a big oak tree and watched them for a while, hunting for Alden with my eyes.
I saw him, then. He looked older, much older. His hair was gray at the temples. His face was lined. But at the moment, he was laughing at something a pretty blonde woman was telling him.
"Laugh," I whispered to the night-wind blowing through the branches of the oak. "Go on and laugh. Your lips and throat won't laugh after I finish with you, just as I finished with John Emerson and Betsy Jane Zinnian! Laugh ... laugh ... and have a drink. Go ahead!"
Maybe he heard me whispering out on the lawn. He lifted his head suddenly, startled. His face grew very ashen. But the blonde woman tugged at his arm and lifted a cocktail glass to thrust it into his hand.
Alden threw back his head and gulped the liquor down, I heard him yell, "Good stuff, good stuff! I want some more!"
He came to the window and stared out. I shrank behind the oak. He started to close the window when the blonde woman took him by the arm and coaxed him with, “Let's get a breath of air, Tom. It's such a lovely night. Look at that moon!"
"Sorry, Hattie. I—I don't feel like going out there."
"Silly boy! The air will do you good!”
I laughed silently. How often I get people to work for me! I opened my hands and tensed them. My fingers were strong. Tom Alden would not be a match for me. I had never met any of my old—shall I say, friends?—who were my match in strength. Some of them fought a little harder than others, but I always won.
They came out, walking together. Near a patch of rhododendrons, they halted and embraced. I looked at my watch. Not yet. In a few more seconds, now ... I walked forward.
"Tom, I feel cold. I'll go get my wrap."
No, you stay here, dear. Rest a while. Your heart, you know—"
"All right, Hattie. Maybe I will. You run along."
He sat on a stone bench. He looked very tired and old. I went up to him and put my hand on his shoulder. Alden started, shrank back.
"You!" he whimpered. “I—I thought you were—"
"So did the others. Tom. Always, they make a mistake about me. I've followed you a long time, Tom. You led me quite a chase.”
He didn't fight, as Betsy Jane had. He seemed to let go, to crumple into lifelessness, almost as soon as I touched him.
I left him sprawled out in front of the marble bench. The blonde woman was hurrying along the path, a wrap about her shoulders. I went off into the shadows, so she would not see me.
One more. A woman named Vera Lannin. Then my work would be done. I stopped under a lamplight and checked the little slip of paper. Three names were crossed off. There was only the name of Vera Lannin, now.
She lived in a two-room apartment. Dawn was breaking as I went up the stairs, slowly, silently. I knew her habits. She would be up early, would be in her kitchen, preparing breakfast. As I rounded the last turn in the stairs and started along the narrow hall, I could smell coffee.
Vera Lannin always liked coffee. Should I wait and let her enjoy her first cup of the day, and the last cup of her life... or should I walk right in and get her before the coffee was finished perking?
I put my hand on the knob and turned it. The door opened. She was standing there, slicing bread for toast. A pot on the stove was bubbling as an egg boiled.
Vera Lannin did not hear me. She had her back turned. Once she looked at the stove, curiously; reached out and turned off the gas.
She took the pot and went to the stove, emptied out the hot water, removed the egg. She prepared her breakfast while I waited in the gloom of the little hall. There were a few minutes left her. She was not due to die, in my little book, until five minutes from now.
She did not see me, nor hear me, so still and silent I stood. She hummed a little tune. The morning sun made a crisp halo around her up swept hairdo.
From somewhere outside, a clock chimed slowly. Bong! Bong! I counted the strokes. Seven o'clock. At one minute past seven
I watched the little stove-clock. Forty seconds. Fifty seconds. Fifty-five seconds. I walked forward. Vera Lannin looked up, then; looked up and whispered, "I know you! You are—"
The woman was right. For I—am Death!