Death uncanny struck those who stole from him! [Weird Tales Contest Winner]
|Ruby red in the tropical night, the tiki torches flamed at the corners of the traders' hut; smoke fluttered off them like bats taking wing. Drums thundered distantly beyond the jungle's fringe.
Crome—his bronzed features blurred by drink—paced the covered verandah, the warped boards squealing beneath his boots. He drew a heavy sleeve across a sopping brow.
"Bunga bunga," said his companion dryly. He was a tall, thin man with iron-gray hair and a lean face pitted all over with smallpox scars. "Ooga-booga."
"Shut up," Crome snarled. He laid a hand across his chest, as though imploring the hammering heart within to calm itself. "What time is it?"
"Quarter of midnight. In fifteen minutes it'll all be over."
"But which way?"
"Come tell me in the morning." Lord Delapore stifled an elaborate yawn and tossed his still-burning cigar into the dirt; the embers popped and flew like fireflies. "Curse it, I'm going to bed. You're welcome to my last Havana." He laid a cigar on the railing.
Crome picked it up, and with it clenched unlit between his teeth he stared into the jungle with straining eyes. For ten minutes he stood thus before he lit the cigar and threw away the match. The tobacco was rancid on his tongue, but he sucked it down and mixed its smoke with the smoke of the tiki torches.
Then his eyes bulged, and with a shout he ran into the hut.
"The idol!" he shrieked as he flew into his partner's bedroom. By the burnished glow of the hurricane lamp he hurled dresser drawers to the floor. "We'll give it back! For God's sake, where—?"
"Stop it!" Delapore seized him. "Get ahold—!"
"He's coming!" Spittle flew from Crome's lips. "That damned, spotted Satan from the temple! His torch, I saw it in—!"
"Get ahold of yourself!" Delapore shook him. "For God's sake indeed! If Susan could see you now!" His words fell like ice into the sultry jungle air.
The light played on Crome's mad grin.
"Yes," Delapore continued with the same cold fury. "I knew all about you and my wife, Crome. Why do you think I brought you out here, eh? To get you away from her, though it meant my own exile!"
But Crome had no ear for past thefts. "The idol!" he croaked. "We'll give it back! We'll give it back, and that spotted old Satan from the temple will—!"
"Whatever curse he's laid has already gone into effect, Crome. It's past midnight now."
His partner fell back a step. "No," he gasped. "No!"
"I'm afraid we're done for, old man." From beneath his pillow Delapore drew a squat statue, hardly bigger than a man's hand, made of gold. It was all head, with a sallow grin floating in a broad face dimpled with dots, like a jaguar's. "Well," Delapore sighed, "we possessed an ancient jungle god for a little while at least."
Crome grabbed it to his chest and fled the room.
But he crashed to a halt on the verandah. Yellow smoke was pouring up in a great column in the clearing.
And from the smoke, taller than a rubber tree, stepped a naked man, his muscled torso and limbs gleaming as though oiled. But he had the spotted face of a jaguar, and green eyes that blazed into the night.
Crome screamed. But he was dead even before he fell off the verandah steps, tumbling face first into the dust.
* * *
Heart attack, declared the shabby-coated doctor who looked after the nearby settlement. I told Crome to watch himself.
Lord Delapore knew better. Two days later he stood in the sun-drenched courtyard of the native temple, and with a low bow presented with both hands to the high priest the grinning idol. "Apologies, apologies," he murmured. The priest thrust the idol at the sky, and the villagers shouted to it.
Afterward, the two men repaired to the priest's hut, where in an airless room they raised two Scotches. "Salud!" Delapore said, and they drank. They stared at each other.
Then they laughed, face to face: the pox-pitted aristocrat and the flat-faced priest with the dots tattooed over his cheeks and brow. "Well, we put it over, old man." Delapore patted the other's shoulder. "My wife's lover dead, and your people's faith in the efficacy of your magic renewed."
"Yes," the priest said. He stroked the idol. "All know strong."
"Yes, all know strong. Have a cigar."
The priest drew back. "It's alright," Delapore assured him. "The one with your hallucinogens— Your bad medicine— Oh, hang it." He lit the cigar and inhaled. "See?" He sighed as the priest shook his head again. "Crome should have been so wise. I wonder what your chemicals caused him to see, anyway." The priest grinned blankly at him. "Anyway, thanks again for letting me borrow your temple treasure."
It hadn't all been luck, he congratulated himself as he tramped back to the trader's hut, which he could now close up before returning home. The scheme he himself had knitted together from club connections. An acquaintance from the Indies with rum stories of distilled toxins that produced hateful visions; an Army friend with a post; missionaries who had so loosened the elder priests' hold that one had corruptly entered into Delapore's scheme for a pretended theft, a dreadful curse, and a recovery of the sacred idol; Crome's own dicky heart. The only really fortuitous stroke had been the blackguard's eagerness to join the hare-brained adventure. Probably he had thought it a lark and a laugh: The cuckold's own scheme would bring him the money with which to lever her ladyship into a divorce!
Only one thing bothered Delapore, and as he stepped into the clearing that surrounded the traders' hut he paused to ponder it.
Could a hallucination produce depressions in the earth? Depressions shaped like human feet, with talons on the toes, and gigantic enough for a man thirty feet tall?