Close Behind Him
written by John Wyndham and narrated on 'The Black Dog Chronicles'

 

“You didn’t ought to of croaked him,” Smudger said resentfully. “What in hell did you want to do a fool thing like that for?”

Spotty turned to look at the house, a black spectre against the night sky. He shuddered.

“It was him or me,” he muttered. “I wouldn’t of done it if he hadn’t come for me – and I wouldn’t even then, not if he’d come ordinary ...”

“What do you mean ordinary?”

“Like anybody else. But he was queer ... He wasn’t – well, I guess he was crazy – dangerous crazy ...”

“All he needed was a tap to keep him quiet,” Smudger persisted. “There’s was no call to bash his loaf in.”

“You didn’t see him. I tell you, he didn’t act human.” Spotty shuddered again at the recollection, and bent down to rub the calf of his right leg tenderly.

The man had come into the room while Spotty was sifting rapidly through the contents of a desk. He’d made no sound. It had been just a feeling, a natural alertness, that had brought Spotty round to him standing there. In that very first glimpse Spotty had felt there was something queer about him. The expression on his face – his attitude – they were wrong. In his biscuit-coloured pyjamas, he should have looked just an ordinary citizen awakened from sleep, too anxious to have delayed with dressing-gown and slippers. But some way he didn’t. An ordinary citizen would have shown nervousness, at least wariness; he would most likely have picked up something to use as a weapon. This man stood crouching, arms a little raised, as though he were about to spring.

Moreover, any citizen whose lips curled back as this man’s did to show his tongue licking hungrily between his teeth, should have been considered sufficiently unordinary to be locked away safely. In the course of his profession Spotty had developed reliable nerves, but the look of this man rocked them. Nobody should be pleased by the discovery of a burglar at large in his house. Yet, there could be no doubt that this victim was looking at Spotty with satisfaction. An unpleasant gloating kind of satisfaction, like that which might appear on a fox’s face at the sight of a plump chicken. Spotty hadn’t liked the look of him at all, so he had pulled out the convenient piece of pipe that he carried for emergencies.

Far from showing alarm, the man took a step closer. He poised, sprung on his toes like a wrestler.

“You keep off me, mate,” said Spotty, holding up his nine inches of lead pipe as a warning.

Either the man did not hear – or the words held no interest for him. His long, bony face snarled. He shifted a little closer. Spotty backed up against the edge of the desk. “I don’t want no trouble. You just keep off me,” he said again.

The man crouched a little lower. Spotty watched him through narrowed eyes. An extra tensing of the man’s muscles gave him a fractional warning before the attack.

The man came without feinting or rushing: he simply sprang, like an animal.

In mid-leap he encountered Spotty’s boot suddenly erected like a stanchion in his way. It took him in the middle and felled him. He sprawled on the floor doubled up, with one arm hugging his belly. The other hand threatened, with fingers bent into hooks. His head turned in jerks, his jaws with their curiously sharp teeth were apart, like a dog’s about to snap.

Spotty knew just as well as Smudger that what was required was a quietening tap. He had been about to deliver it with professional skill and quality when the man, by an extraordinary wriggle, had succeeded in fastening his teeth into Spotty’s leg. It was unexpected, excruciating enough to ruin Spotty’s aim and make the blow ineffectual. So he had hit again; harder this time. Too hard. And even then he had more or less had to pry the man’s teeth out of his leg ...

But it was not so much his aching leg – nor even the fact that he had killed the man – that was the chief cause of Spotty’s concern. It was the kind of man he had killed.

“Like a bloody animal he was,” he said, and the recollection made him sweat. “Like a bloody wild animal. And the way he looked! His eyes! Christ, they wasn’t human.”

That aspect of the affair held little interest for Smudger. He’d not seen the man until he was already dead and looking like any other corpse. His present concern was that a mere matter of burglary had been abruptly transferred to the murder category – a class of work he had always kept clear of until now.

The job had looked easy enough. There shouldn’t have been any trouble. A man living alone in a large house – a pretty queer customer with a pretty queer temper. On Fridays, Sundays, and sometimes on Wednesdays, there were meetings at which about twenty people came to the house and did not leave until the small hours of the following morning. All this information was according to Smudger’s sister, who learned it third hand from the woman who cleaned the house. The woman was darkly speculative, but unspecific, about what went on at these gatherings. But from Smudger’s point of view the important thing was that on other nights the man was alone in the house.

He seemed to be a dealer of some kind. People brought odd curios to the house to sell him. Smudger had been greatly interested to hear that they were paid for – and paid for well – in cash. That was a solid, practical consideration. Beside it, the vaguely ill reputation of the place, the queerness of its furnishings, and the rumours of strange goings-on at the gatherings, were unimportant. The only thing worthy of any attention were the facts that the man live alone and had items of value in his possession.

Smudger had thought of it as a one-man job at first, and with a little more information he might have tackled it on his own. He discovered that there was a telephone, but no dog. He was fairly sure of the room in which the money must be kept, but unfortunately his sister’s source of information had its limitations. He did not know whether there were burglar alarms or similar precautions, and he was too uncertain of the cleaning woman to attempt to get into the house by a subterfuge for a preliminary investigation. So he had taken Spotty in with him on a fifty-fifty basis.

The reluctance with which he had taken that step had now become an active regret – not only because Spotty had been foolish enough to kill the man, but because the way things had been he could easily have made a hundred per cent haul on his own – and not be fool enough to kill the man had he been detected.

The attaché case which he carried now was well-filled with bundles of notes, along with an assortment of precious-looking objects in gold and silver, probably eminently traceable, but useful if melted down. It was irritating to think that the whole load, instead of merely half of it, might have been his.

The two men stood quietly in the bushes for some minutes and listened. Satisfied, they pushed through a hole in the hedge, then moved cautiously down the length of the neighbouring field in its shadow.

Spotty’s chief sensation was relief at being out of the house. He hadn’t liked the place from the moment they had entered. For one thing, the furnishings weren’t like those he was used to. Unpleasant idols or carved figures of some kind stood about in unexpected places, looming suddenly out of the darkness into his flashlight’s beam with hideous expressions on their faces. There were pictures and pieces of tapestry that were macabre and shocking to a simple burglar. Spotty was not particularly sensitive, but these seemed to him highly unsuitable to have about the home.

The same quality extended to more practical objects. The legs of a large oak table had been carved into mythical miscegenates of repulsive appearance. The two bowls which stood upon the table were either genuine or extremely good representations of polished human skulls. Spotty could not imagine why, in one room, anybody should want to mount a crucifix on the wall upside down and place on a shelf beneath it a row of sconces holding nine black candles – then flank the whole with two pictures of an indecency so revolting it almost took his breath away. All these things had somehow combined to rattle his usual hard-headedness

But even though he was out of the place now, he didn’t feel quite free of its influence. He decided that he wouldn’t feel properly himself again until they were in the car and several miles away.

After working around two fields they came to the dusty white lane off which they had parked the car. They prospected carefully. By now the sky had cleared of clouds and the moonlight showed the road empty in both directions. Spotty scrambled through the hedge, across the ditch, and stood on the road in a quietness broken only by Smudger’s progress through the hedge. Then he started to walk towards the car.

He had gone about a dozen paces when Smudger’s voice stopped him: “Hey. Spotty. What’ve you got on your feet?”

Spotty stooped and looked down. There was nothing remarkable about his feet; his boots looked just as they had always looked.

“What?” he began.

“No! Behind you!”

Spotty looked back. From the point where he had stepped on to the road to another some five feet behind where he now stood was a series of footprints, dark in the white dust. He lifted his foot and examined the sole of his boot; the dust was clinging to it. He turned his eyes back to the footmarks once more. They looked black, and seemed to glisten.

Smudger bent down to peer more closely. When he looked up again there was a bewildered expression on his face. He gazed at Spotty’s boots, and then back to the glistening marks. The prints of bare feet ...

“There’s something funny going on here,” he said inadequately.

Spotty, looking back over his shoulder, took another step forward. Five feet behind him a new mark of a bare foot appeared from nowhere.

A watery feeling swept over Spotty. He took another experimental step. As mysteriously as before, another footmark appeared. He turned widened eyes on Smudger. Smudger looked back at him. Neither said anything for a moment. Then Smudger bent down, touched one of the marks with his finger, then shone his flashlight on the finger.

“Red,” he said. “Like blood ...”

The words broke the trance that had settled on Spotty. Panic seized him. He stared around wildly, then began to run. After him followed the footprints. Smudger ran too. He noticed that the marks were no longer the prints of a full foot but only its forepart, as if whatever made them were also running.

Spotty was frightened, but not badly enough to forget the turn where they had parked the car beneath some trees. He made for it, and clambered in. Smudger, breathing heavily, got in on the other side and dropped the attaché case in the back.

“Going to get out of this lot quick,” Spotty said, pressing the starter.

“Take it easy,” advised Smudger. “We got to think.”

But Spotty was in no thinking mood. He got into gear, jolted out of hiding, and turned down the lane.

A mile or so further on Smudger turned back from craning out of the window.

“Not a sign,” he said relieved. “Reckon we’ve ditched it – whatever it was.” He thought for some moments, then he said: “Look here, if those marks were behind us all the way from the house, they’ll be able to follow them by daylight to where we parked the car.”

“They’d’ve found the car marks anyway,” Spotty replied.

“But what if they’re still following?” Smudger suggested.

“You just said they weren’t.”

“Maybe they couldn’t keep up with us. But suppose they’re coming along somewhere behind us, leaving a trail?”

Spotty had greatly recovered, he was almost his old practical self again. He stopped the car. “All right. We’ll see,” he said grimly. “And if they are – what then?”

He lit a cigarette with a hand that was almost steady. Then he leaned out of the car, studying the road behind them. The moonlight was strong enough to show up any dark marks.

“What do you reckon it was?” he said, over his shoulder. “We can’t both’ve been seeing things.”

“They were real enough.” Smudger looked at the stain still on his finger.

On a sudden idea, Spotty pulled up his right trouser leg. The marks of the teeth were there, and there was a little blood, too, soaked into his sock, but he couldn’t make that account for anything.

The minutes passed. Still there was no manifestation of footprints. Smudger got out and walked a few yards back along the road to make sure. After a moment’s hesitation Spotty followed him.

“Not a sign,” Smudger said. “I reckon – hey!” He broke off, looking beyond Spotty.

Spotty turned around. Behind him was a trail of dark, naked footprints leading from the car.

Spotty stared. He walked back to the car; the footprints followed. It was a chastened Spotty who sat down in the car.

“Well?”

Smudger had nothing to offer. Smudger, in fact, was considerably confused. Several aspects of the situation were competing for his attention. The footsteps were not following him, so he found himself less afraid of them than of their possible consequences. They were laying a noticeable trail for anyone to follow to Spotty, and the trouble was that the trail would lead to him, too, if he and Spotty kept together.

The immediate solution that occurred to him was that they split up, and Spotty take care of his own troubles. The best way would be to divide the haul right here and now. If Spotty could succeed in shaking off the footprints, good for him. After all, the killing was none of Smudger’s affair.

He was about to make the suggestion when another aspect occurred to him. 


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