Death wore the seeming of a battered Chevrolet.
The child’s scream and the screech of rubber on concrete knifed through two seconds of time before snapping, like a celery stalk of sound, into aching silence. The silence of limbo, called into being for the space of a slow heartbeat. Then the thud of running feet, the rising hubbub of many voices.
“Give her air!”
“Keep back. Don’t try to move her.”
“Somebody call an ambulance.”
“Yeah, and somebody call a cop, too.”
“I couldn’t help it.” It was the driver of the ramshackle Chevvie. “She fell off the curb right in front of me. Honest to God, it wasn’t my fault.”
“Got to report these things right away,” said the grey-haired man beside him. “No cause to worry if you ain’t to blame.”
“Probably no brakes,” said a heavily accented voice, and another spoke as if on cue, “Probably no insurance, neither.”
“Let me through! Oh, please--” The woman’s voice was on the edge of hysteria. She came through the crowd like an automaton, not seeing the people she shoved and elbowed aside.
“D.O.A.,” said the woman heavily. Her face was no longer twisted with shock, and she was almost pretty again. “D.O.A. Dead on arrival, it means. Oh, Jim, I never knew they said that.” Suddenly there were tears in her blue eyes. There had been many tears, now.
[Illustration: Illustrator: Ernie Barth]
“Take it easy, Jean, honey.” Jim Blair hoisted his lank six feet out of the old rocker, and crossed the room, running a nervous hand through his cornshuck hair. She’s only thirty, he thought, _and I’m three years older. That’s awfully young to have bred three kids and lost them._ He took her in his arms. “I know how tough it is. It’s bad enough for me, and probably worse for you. But at least we’re sure they’ll never be bomb fodder. And we still have Joanna.”
She twisted away from him, her voice suddenly bitter. “Don’t give me that Pollyanna stuff, Jim. ‘Goody, goody, only a broken leg. It might have been your back.’ There’s no use trying to whitewash it. Our kids, our own kids, all gone. Dead.” She began to sob. “I wish I were, too.”
“I don’t care. I mean it. Everything bad has happened since Joanna came to live with us.”
“Darling, you can’t blame the child for a series of accidents.”
“I know.” She raised her tear-stained face. “But after all-- Michael, drowned. Then Steve, falling off the water tower. Now it’s Marian.” Her fingers gripped his arm tightly. “Jim, each of them was playing alone with Joanna when it happened.”
“Accidents, just accidents,” he said. It wasn’t like Jean, this talk. Almost-- His mind shied away from the word, and circled back. Almost paranoid. But Jean was stable, rational, always had been. Still, maybe a little chat with Doctor Holland would be a good idea. Breakdowns do happen.
They both turned at the slamming of the screen door. Then came the patter of childish feet on the kitchen linoleum, and Joanna burst into the room.
“Mommy, I want to play with Marian. Why can’t I play with Marian?”
Jean put her arm around the girl’s thin shoulder. “Darling, you won’t be able to play with Marian for--quite a while. You mustn’t worry about it now.”
“Mommy, she looked just like she was asleep, then they came and took her away.” Her lips trembled. “I’m frightened, Mommy.”
Jim looked down at the dark eyes, misted now, the straight brown hair, and the little snub nose with its dusting of freckles. _She’s all we have left, poor kid, and not even ours, really. Helen’s baby._
He looked up as the battered cuckoo clock on the mantel clicked warningly. “Time for little girls to be in bed, Joanna. Run along now like a good girl, and get washed.” Even as he spoke the miniature doors flew open and the caricature of a bird popped out, shrilly announcing the hour. It cuckooed eight times, then bounced back inside. Joanna watched entranced.
“Bed time, darling,” said Jean gently. “School tomorrow, remember? And don’t forget to brush your teeth.”
“I won’t. Goodnight, Mommy, goodnight, Daddy.” She turned up her face to be kissed, smiled at them, and was gone. They listened to her footsteps on the stairs.
“Jim, I’m sorry about the things I said.” Jean’s voice was hesitant, a little ashamed. “It is hard, though, you know it is-- Jim, aren’t you listening? After all, you don’t have to watch the clock now.” Her smile was as labored as the joke.
He smiled back. “I think I’ll take a walk, honey. Some fresh air would do me good.”
“Jim, don’t go. I’d rather not be alone just now.”
“Well.” He looked at her, keeping his expression blank. “All right, dear. How about some coffee? I could stand another cup.” And he thought: Tomorrow I’ll go. I’ll talk to Holland tomorrow.
“Let me get this straight, Jim.” Holland’s pudgy face was sober, his eyes serious. “You started out by thinking Jean was showing paranoid tendencies, and offhand I’m inclined to agree with you. Overnight you changed your mind and began thinking that maybe, just maybe, she might be right. Honestly, don’t you suspect your own reasons for such a quick switch?”
“Sure I do, Bob,” Blair said worriedly. “Do you think I haven’t beaten out my brains over it? I know the idea’s monstrous. But just suppose there was a branch of humanity--if you could call it human--living off us unsuspected. A branch that knows how to eliminate--competition--almost by instinct.”
“Now hold on a minute, Jim. You’ve taken Jean’s reaction to this last death, plus a random association with a cuckoo clock, and here you are with a perfectly wild hypothesis. You’ve always been rational and analytical, old man. Surely you can realize that a perfectly normal urge to rationalize Jean’s conclusions is making you concur with them against your better judgment.”
“I’m not through, Jim. Just consider how fantastic the whole idea is. Because of a series of accidents you can’t accuse a child of planned murder. Nor can you further hypothesize that all orphans are changelings, imbued with an instinct to polish off their foster-siblings.”
“Not all orphans, Bob. Not planned murder, either. Take it easy. Just some of them. A few of them--different. Growing up. Placing their young with well-to-do families somehow, and then dropping unobtrusively out of the picture. And the young growing up, and always the natural children dying off in one way or another. The changeling inherits, and the process is repeated, step by step. Can you say it’s impossible? Do you know it’s impossible?”
“I wouldn’t say impossible, Jim. But I would say that your thesis has a remarkably low index of probability. Why don’t others suspect, besides you?”
Jim spread his hands hopelessly. “I don’t know. Maybe they do. Maybe these creatures--if they do exist--have some means of protection we don’t know about.”
“You need more than maybes, Jim. What about Joanna Simmons’ mother? According to your theories she should have been well off. Was she?”
“No, she wasn’t,” Jim admitted reluctantly. “She came here and took a job with my outfit. Said she was divorced, and had lived in New York. Then she quit to take a position in California, and we agreed to board Joanna until she got settled. Warrenburg was the town. She was killed there quite horribly, in a terrible auto accident.”
“Have you any reason for suspecting skulduggery? Honestly, Jim? Or for labelling her one of your human--er--cuckoos?”
“Only my hunch. We had a newspaper clipping, and a letter from the coroner. We even sent the money for her funeral. But those things could be faked, Bob.”
“Give me some evidence that they were faked, and I’ll be happy to reinspect your views.” Holland levered his avoirdupois out of his chair. “In the meantime, relax. Take a trip if you can. Try not to worry.”
Jim grinned humorlessly. “Mustn’t let myself get excited, eh? Okay, Bob. But if I get hold of any evidence that I think you might accept, I’ll be back. The last laugh and all that. Pending developments you take it easy, too. Don’t let yourself get overworked. Stay out of the sun. So long now.”
“So long, Jim.”
It was cool in the Warrenburg city hall, though outside the streets were sizzling.
“Sorry, Mr. Blair,” said the stout, motherly woman with the horn-rimmed glasses. “We’ve no record of a Helen Simmons. Nothing whatever.” She closed the file with resolute finality.
Jim stared at her. “Are you sure? There must be something. Mightn’t there be a special file for accident cases? She was here in Warrenburg. She died here.”
The woman thinned her lips, shook her head. “If we had any information, it’d be right where I looked. There isn’t a thing. Have you tried her last address? Maybe they could tell you something. We can’t.”
“I’ll try that next. Thanks a lot.”
“Sorry we couldn’t help you.”
He went out slowly.
872 Maple was a rambling frame house dozing on a wide flower-bordered lot. There was nothing sleepy about the diminutive woman who opened the door to Jim’s knock. Snapping black eyes peered at him from a maze of wrinkles. A veined hand moved swiftly to smooth down the white hair that framed her face.
“Looking for someone, young man?”
“Just information, Mrs.--”
“Collins, and it’s Miss. Don’t give out information about guests. You a bill collector?”
“No, Miss Collins. As a matter of fact, I’m trying to check up on an old friend I lost track of. Helen Simmons. She lived at this address for a while.”
“Sure did. Well, come on in. Mind you, I don’t usually do this, Mr.--”