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´╗┐Title: The Cuckoo Clock
Author: Barefoot, Wesley
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Cuckoo Clock" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



 THE
 CUCKOO
 CLOCK

 BY WESLEY BAREFOOT


 _You know a murderer preys on your household--lives
 with you--depends on you--and you have no defence!_


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."

"Jean, Jean--"

"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."

"Bob--"

"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.--"

"Blair." Without any fanfare a bill changed hands.

"Mr. Blair. Well, I can't tell you much. Try that green chair for size.
What do you want to know?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Jim studied the toe of his right shoe. His eyes were veiled. "I heard
she was hurt, and hard up, and I was worried. My wife and I were friends
of hers back east."

"Hurt, hard up? Humph! Not likely, spendin' all her time drivin' that
English car around. Takin' trips. I'm not sayin' she didn't mind her
manners, though."

"Did she have any close friends?"

"She was chummy with Edith Walton, the girl that works for Doc Mendel.
He's county coroner in his spare time. No men. Didn't fool around at
all. I'd a known."

       *       *       *       *       *

Behind Jim's stony eyes the pattern took clearer form, as if a mosaic
approached completion. A mosaic of carefully planned events that
totalled horror. He shivered as the outlines of his hunch filled in.
Helen--what creatures were these? Helen--not dead, not poor,--carefully
planting ostensible proof of her death and going on to a new role, a new
life, in London or Paris or Rome. A free, untrammelled life. And her
child--if child was the word--in his home, repeating the pattern.
Eliminating competition as her mother undoubtedly had done. The
competition--his and Jean's children! Changeling, changeling-- No, not
that. Incubus! He shivered again.

"Rabbits on your grave, Mr. Blair?"

He looked up slowly. "Sorry. I was just wondering. Did Miss Simmons have
a job while she was here?"

"No, she didn't. One thing she did do was rent a place. Used to be
Blands Hardware. Paid a month's rent, too. Said some friends of hers
were plannin' to open a mortuary. Seemed like a funny way for people to
do business, but then, no affair of mine."

Funny? No, not funny at all, but icily, eerily logical. There had to be
an undertaking parlor where he could send the funeral expenses. He
wondered if Helen had laughed when she opened the letter. Everyone his,
or her, own undertaker. And the carefully cultivated friend in the
coroner's office. For stationery.

He got to his feet. "Thanks a lot, Miss Collins. You've been a great
deal of help." He almost smiled as he asked, "I don't suppose she left a
forwarding address?"

The old head shook decisively. "Not a thing. Just packed and left, one
Monday morning."

All the loose ends tied up tight on a Monday morning. Nothing to cause
suspicion. Nothing to worry about. Only a woman's almost paranoid
hysteria,--and a glance at a clock. Not very much to unmask--incubus.
And what could he do? What _could_ he do? Start talking and land in an
institution? Well, there was one thing.

"Thanks again, Miss Collins."

He went out.

       *       *       *       *       *

Swanson didn't look like the general conception of a small-town
newspaperman. One knew instinctively that his beard wouldn't have been
tobacco-stained even if he'd cared to grow one. And he didn't have a
bottle of bourbon in the file marked Miscellaneous, or if he did he
didn't bring it out.

"That never came from my paper," he said precisely. He handed the
clipping back to Jim. "We don't use that type, for one thing. For
another, Miss Simmons, so far as I know, wasn't killed here or anywhere
else."

"You knew her?"

"I knew of her. I never met her."

"What about this report of her death?"

Swanson shrugged; tented manicured fingers. "It's a hoax. Any job
printing shop with a Linotype could do it. In all likelihood it was some
place in San Francisco. That's closest. It would be very difficult to
check." His curiosity was showing.

"I see. Well, thanks for your time and trouble, Mr. Swanson."

"Not at all. Sorry I couldn't be of more help."

One thing to do. One thing that must be done.

Motors over the mountains. And riding with them, the numb resolve.
Motors over the salt pans, the wheat lands, the corn belt.

The stewardess stops again. "Coffee, sir? A sandwich, perhaps?"

"I beg your-- Oh, no. No, thanks."

She watches him covertly, uneasily, longing for the end of the run.

Motors in the night.

And the dull determination growing, strengthening.

The airport, baggage, the ancient taxi with the piston slap, and at last
the dark, familiar street.

"Jim, you're back! Oh, Jim, darling. Next time they send you west I'm
going too. I am!"

"Okay, Jean, sure. Why not?"

"What's the matter, dear? Oh, you're tired, of course. I should have
known. Sit down, Jim. Let me get you a drink."

"In a minute, Jean." Do it now _now_ NOW! "Where's Joanna?"

"She's in bed. Hours ago. Jim, has something--?"

"Nothing, dear. I just want to look in on her. And freshen up a bit, of
course."

"Jim--"

He smoothed away the worried frown with his forefinger.

"In a minute, dear."

She smiled uncertainly. "Hurry back, Jim."

       *       *       *       *       *

The stairs unwind irrevocably, slow motion in a nightmare. The bedroom
door opens, the hall light dim on the bed and the child's face. Incubus
in the half dark.

For a moment Jim remembered wondering somewhere, sometime, what strange
powers of protection might be implicit in such a creature. As the
thought came into his mind, Joanna stirred. She opened her eyes and
looked at him.

He took one step toward the bed.

The little girl eyes over their dusting of freckles slitted. Then they
opened wide, became two glowing golden lakes that grew, and grew--

There was the feeling of a great soundless explosion in his mind. Waves
of cool burning in his brain, churning and bubbling in every unknown
corner, every cranny. Here and there a cell, or a group of cells,
blanked out, the complex molecules reverting, becoming new again. Ready
for fresh punch marks. Synapses shorted with soundless cold fire, and
waited in timeless stasis for rechannelling. The waves frothed, became
ripples, were gone. He stood unmoving.

What was it he was supposed to do? Let's see-- Tuck Joanna's blanket
around her. But she was covered up snugly. Sleeping soundly, too, and
for a few seconds he'd thought she was awake. And Jean was waiting
downstairs, Jean and a cool drink.

Oh, yes, stop in the bathroom.

The stairs wind up again. It is good to be with one's family, relaxed in
the well known chair. Not a worry in the world.

He sat there, his mind at ease, not caring much about anything. He
didn't even look up when the clock on the mantel whirred, and the
ridiculous bird popped out of its nest to herald a new day.



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Amazing Stories_ March 1954. Extensive
    research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on
    this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical
    errors have been corrected without note.





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