A head, with short, curved horns was floating over a bush.

She Who Laughed Last

by Richard Huzarski

Author of "The Day of Reckoning," "Ten Steps to Death," etc.

Thrilling Mystery | Mar. 1947 | Vol. 18, No. 2

A cruel Circe searches the world to find one man who would refuse to look into her eyes --- and become an animal!

Table of Contents

Chapter 1


I didn’t sleep well that night. A man my age seldom sleeps well. Captain Emery’s raving and groaning in the next room kept me awake. But I couldn’t understand a word he said. Maybe there were no words, maybe they were foreign. The man had traveled and studied a lot.

I finally dozed off, but a while later a scream woke me up. I propped myself on my elbow and looked out. The moon was high over the sea, and lighted our grounds brightly. Near the park wall a girl was running — running fast.

She screamed again. Not so loud this time. Perhaps she didn’t want to wake up the “Home,” or maybe she was so frightened her throat was tight. I couldn’t say. But right away I found an explanation. That girl must be the new gatekeeper’s wife. The fellow must have been drinking again, and was chasing her.

She disappeared behind the lilacs then, and I would have forgotten all about it, except that all at once I thought I saw a head with a pair of short, curved horns floating over a bush. After that something awfully low and broad streaked after her across an open space.

Funny, the way those shadows will take queer shapes at night, I told myself, and waited for her to show up from around the shrubbery. But she never did. The gatekeeper must have caught up with her, I decided, and had taken her back to his house.

But the memory of those “shadows” kept me thinking. If it weren’t for my bum leg I’d have got up to take a look, but I couldn’t. And I didn’t feel like waking anybody else, just to make a fool of myself by butting in on a family squabble. I finally fell asleep.

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Chapter 2

The Gatekeeper’s Wife

In the morning Yorgo Sarafoglou came to help me up. That leg of mine where a shark had stripped some muscle is all right once I’m on it, but getting up by myself is impossible.

“Did you hear anything queer last night, Yorgo?” I asked him.

“If you mean Captain Emery’s raving, Captain Williams, I sure did. Couldn’t understand any of it though, except the name of a woman he kept repeating. Sounded Greek to me.”

I thought Yorgo was joking, seeing how he’s Greek himself, and I meant to tell him a dying man’s a poor joke. But what kind of humor can you expect from a man who’s been a cook on a sponging schooner? “Calm Bay Home” for disabled sailors disregards former rankings. We got to tolerate each other. Besides, Yorgo had seemed dead serious when he said it.

“There’s something else,” he added, dusting off my uniform with his one good arm. “I’m not supposed to tell you, but you’d find out anyway. There’s been a murder. The gatekeeper’s wife.”

“The gatekeeper’s done it,” I said with conviction.

“Nope, Captain Williams. The guy was drinking with the janitor and the cook when it happened. Perfect alibi. Besides, a man didn’t kill her. No man could have — like that.”

“What do you mean?” I said, and something cold began to crawl up my spine.

“She’s horribly ripped to shreds. Ripped by animal tusks. A big animal, the policeman said, after he covered her up. The tusks were no less than three inches long, and sharp. Not even the cap could guess what it might’ve been. And there are queer prints we found on the path and the beach. Cloven feet, Captain. As I live and breathe. Real big ones.”

He looked at me sort of confidentially.

“You suppose the Sea Devil come back? I’ve heard — “

“Sea Devil, my eye!”

I hobbled past him to the refectory. I meant to tell Commissioner Guire of what I’d seen in the night, and I wanted to ask Doc Gillen how Emery was. But Guire was out, probably with the police, and Doc Gillen started talking before I could ask him anything.

“You’re a pretty good friend of Emery’s, Captain Williams,” he said. “You should call on him.”

“Is he any better, Doc?”

Right away I knew that was a dumb question. How can you expect a man to get better when he’s eighty, and sclerosis plugs his veins up with lime, till his legs get to swelling bigger and bigger, and he’s too weak to stand an operation?

The doc shook his head.

“You may cheer him up a bit, now that he’s conscious. Try it, anyway.”

I figured what I had to tell the commissioner would keep, while Emery maybe wouldn’t. So I got Captain Gustafson — at Calm Bay we’re all captains — to come with me to see the sick man.

We didn’t know it then, but Doc Gillen had been wrong. Emery wasn’t conscious. He couldn’t have been, judging by the crazy yarn he told us. At least, that’s what Gustafson thinks. I’m not so sure.

When we came in Miss Stenger, the nurse, was propping Emery’s shrunken body in the hammock bed he’d woven himself. His eyes were closed as always, for he was blind.

Only today the scars over his lids and sockets stood out red and ugly with fever.

“Morning, Captain Williams — how are you, Captain Gustafson?” he greeted us weakly.

It gave me the creeps to think that this blind man could tell us from six hundred others by our tread only. I hobbled to a chair where his blue uniform with foul-anchor buttons was hanging. Gustafson cupped his big hands where his ears used to be, one ripped off by a Spanish bullet at Manila, the other by a yataghan on the Mediterranean. He would hear a bit better this way, but not too good.

I tried to think of something cheerful, to say.

“Understand you was having dreams last night, Captain Emery. Talking with a lady friend most of the time.”

I had to say it loud for Gustafson’s sake, and because the sea was beating hard at the cliffs right past Emery’s window.

The sick man jerked up. And all at once I knew it was the wrong thing to say. His thin hands started shaking all over the hammock cover of his own scrimshaw work.

“A lady!” he screeched, and there was something queer, birdlike in his voice. “Did I call her? What was her name? No! No! For God’s sake, don’t say it! Don’t ever mention it!”

Miss Stenger came toward him, but he was already quiet. His head slipped down on the pillow, and now I saw how his face had swollen overnight, making his small hooked nose look even smaller, sharper. Like a beak.

“It’s over,” he whispered. “All over. Give me death. Quick, clean death. Before she — “

The sea drowned the rest. The sea that had maimed us, and cast us like useless jetsam here into Calm Bay, was still reaching for us, trying to destroy us.

“Don’t ever mention her, men,” Emery moaned. “Don’t ever call her name. If you do, she’ll come, and you … But you won’t. Not after I tell you about her. You won’t dare then.”

He paused, as if listening to the sea, or to Miss Stenger’s even breathing

from the arm-chair. She was asleep there already after the night’s vigil. He started to talk, then. And this is the story he told …

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Chapter 3

The Captain’s Tale

I was on the Principessa, under Captain Noregard. It doesn’t matter how I got on her. I’ve been a lot of places since I ran away from the divinity school in Boston. Too much Latin, too much Greek in school for me. Out I went, and kept going till I found myself on the Principessa.

She flew the Rumanian flag and had a steady run between Constantinople and Piraeus in Greece, and what she carried for cargo only her captain knew. You’d see him bring on a small box in the Golden Horn at Constantinople. Then we’d nose her through the Marmora and the Dardanelles into the Aegean.

In Piraeus he’d walk off the ship with that box. That was all. I used to wonder about it. Smuggled jewelry, opium — you couldn’t tell. But I got paid well for tending the steam engine. That was one of the first steam engines on those waters.

Everything went smoothly till one spring night a Turkish coast guard took after us. A funny hybrid, with one stack and three masts. Maybe she could have caught us, maybe not. Anyway, she fired a four-pounder across our bow.

Noregard yelled for full speed ahead and turned south. A cold wind was blowing in from the Black Sea, chasing up thick yellow fog. You know how many islands there are in the south Aegean. We could have hidden among them from the whole British fleet, except that after awhile the coast guard fired again — a lucky shot. We didn’t have time enough to find out if it was our boiler explosion that killed most of the crew, or if the shell did. There wasn’t time to think.

We took to the life-boat, all that was left of us. Captain Noregard, a Greek stoker, a fat Turk who kept counting amber beads and mumbling, an Armenian about as young as I was, but taller, and myself. The Greek and I took the first shift at the oars. The skipper was at the helm, but you could tell he didn’t know where he was going and didn’t care as long as he got away from the coast guard.

All night we rowed, bailing out what the waves splashed in over the gunwales. By morning we saw the island. It wasn’t big. Mostly green, coppery rock and, like on all of them, some Judas trees in bloom, and wild grapes beyond the beach.

“What place is this?” I asked.

Noregard couldn’t tell, but just then we turned a small peninsula, and the Greek stoker got up, his hairy hand pointed at something on the shore, and it seemed as if his face turned to ice suddenly, so white and blue it got. I looked where he pointed. There wasn’t much to see. A tiny chapel hewed right in the rock, small columns, steps, and all. You could see such columns, only bigger, lying all over the Acropolis, and the Aegean islands are full of old Greek shrines.

Just then the Greek began to screech:

“Not here, Captain! Turn back! Don’t land here!”

That was darn queer, asking us to turn back to the coast guard, and the sea that was swelling. And us with neither food nor water.

“Sit down, Nick,” the captain said.

But it was plain that the Greek was out of his head. He jumped at Noregard and tried to tear him away from the rudder. And all the time he was yelling, “Turn back!” and looking at the shrine.

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Chapter 4


Noregard tried to push him off, but you can’t argue with insanity. The third time Nick came up at the captain, the captain’s gun came up faster. The Greek splashed backward into a wave. His head bobbed up once. I’d expected him to scream or beg or fight, but that big face of his was smiling.

He said, “Thanks, Captain,” and went under for good.

We landed right after that. Not by the shrine, but farther toward the village that showed up, stuck to the cliffs. The people who lived there must have heard Noregard’s shot, for men were piling out, and then we knew we were in for it.

Lazzes, every last one of them, descendants of the Levantine corsairs. You could tell by the red sashes they wore, with knives and flintlock pistols stuck in. A mean breed, fishing only when they couldn’t rob.

They came toward us, slowly and silently. The captain reached for his gun, but still they kept coming. There was one funny thing about that crowd — it wasn’t made up of men alone. Their animals were mixed in. Shoulder to shoulder with the Lazzes stalked their horses and dogs and cats. It gave us the creeps to see them slinking along without a sound.

The captain had his gun out when suddenly a young bull broke loose from among them and charged full speed at us, his horns low. We turned and ran along the beach, all four of us. The young Armenian was first, then the Turk and I. Noregard, the oldest, was behind. The crowd wasn’t silent now. Howling, barking, neighing, men and animals tore after us.

It couldn’t last long, not with the animals running us down. A big black dog tangled with my feet. I plowed headfirst into the sand, turned over just in time to give him a chance to spring at my throat. Noregard fired, and the dog went up squealing. There was no fight left in him when he hit the ground. His squeal changed to a low moan that sounded funny for a dog.

I started running again, with Noregard’s bullets whistling past me as he tried to stop the bull. The Turk was tearing the biggest cat I’ve ever seen off his fat neck.

I glanced back to see how close the pack was, and something colder than fear squeezed at my stomach. Where the wounded dog had fallen now there was a man, groaning and jerking. Maybe the captain’s bullet had got him and he had fallen there on top of the animal. But the bull was too close behind me to think about it any more.

The crowd, beasts and men, had formed a crescent, the fastest of them at the points, trying to close in on us, pressing us toward the peninsula. They would have cornered us there easily, except that the little temple caught the young Armenian’s eye. I don’t know what power guided him to it, but there he ran, and we followed.

And then, all of a sudden, laughter came to us over the howling pursuit. A woman’s laughter. She was standing between the columns at the shrine’s portico. I’ve never seen anyone stop so fast as those Lazzes stopped. They fell to their knees. That is, the men did. The animals just stopped, looking at the men who were continuously beating salaams on the sand.

The woman started down the stairway, still laughing, her eyes on the Armenian. I slowed down. Maybe I was too tired to run fast, maybe something warned me not to approach that woman. I can’t tell. I only knew I wished then that I were back in the divinity school, studying dead languages and theology.

She was close to the Armenian. No one said a word. We were too breathless from our flight, too breathless from this beauty of hers. She wore a single white robe that fell in folds, covering her feet, so that she seemed to float instead of walk. And she was tall, taller than I, and blond, which is rare for the Levant these days.

We looked into her eyes, as blue as the Aegean water where the ship’s screw churns it. So beautiful they were that we didn’t even see all the evil in them — not till later. The Lazzes were still salaaming behind us, but we’d nearly forgotten about them.

The woman began speaking. I didn’t catch on at first. But it came to me suddenly. She was speaking, Greek. No, not the jargon in which the money changers in Constantinople try to outshout each other. This was the old Homeric Greek, the Greek of the heroes and the gods.

I guess I was the only one who could understand.

“You run fast,” she said to the Armenian, and her eyes were burning into the lad. “Fast and graceful — like an antelope.”

Then she smiled at him and started backing away. There was nothing on his face but admiration. Without a word he followed her up the stone stairway and through the portico.

They disappeared inside. We could hear their voices, hers laughing, his imploring.

Captain Noregard tried to smile at me.

“Love at first sight,” he said, and I knew from the twisted grin, from the unsteadiness of his voice, that he was jealous enough to curse.

“I wonder who she is?” I remarked. “Do you suppose she’s a priestess of some kind?”

He shrugged his shoulders, and just then the Armenian’s voice in the temple stopped. In its place sharp sounds came to us, like the clicking of hard hoofs upon the stones.

“I’m wet and hungry,” the fat Turk said. “Do you think she’d feed us if we asked?”

“We can see,” said Noregard. “Let’s go in.”

It was a good idea for, with the woman’s disappearance, the Lazzes got up from their knees and they and their animals came closer.

But we didn’t find her. We thought she might have gone to a grove of olives that we could see on the other side of the temple, past a stone fountain. From the marble basin below that fountain a big antelope, the kind with short, curved horns, was drinking.

“You run fast — like an antelope.”

The woman’s words came back to me as I watched the graceful creature. I guess he was the tamest antelope I’ve ever seen. He just looked up at our approach, then came to us. It gave me the creeps, the way he stared, and it set me thinking.

The Turk reached for his knife.

“Maybe a steak. Captain?” He waited for approval.

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Chapter 5

The Eyes

Something worse than seasickness hit my stomach at his words. I grabbed his arm as the animal looked at me. Those eyes — I never could forget them! There was so much sadness in them they seemed ready to cry.

The captain saw it too.

“Let’s wait for her,” he said. “The Lazzes aren’t coming any closer. Maybe the place is taboo for them. We’ll ask the woman about grub when she comes back. I hope she comes soon.”

Poor, foolish Captain Noregard. He didn’t know what he was hoping for.

I sat on a stone and the antelope came to me. It made me feel funny, the way he nuzzled at my shoulder, as if he were trying to tell me something. I was thinking of the things I’d studied back in school, and watching the fat Turk. But the hunger had gone out of his pudgy face as he looked at the animal. And slowly fear crept into his eyes. Maybe he, too, had read the Odyssey. Maybe someone had told him of the witch who changed Ulysses’ men into beasts.

But what was I thinking of? I — a man of some learning. I tried to laugh, but the antelope nudged me harder, and I couldn’t.

“Emery, you fool,” I could only say to myself. “Forget these crazy thoughts. This animal is just tame. That’s all. The Armenian and the woman are having a good time somewhere in the olives. It doesn’t make sense the other way. Nothing fits. Not even the name those dumb Lazzes called her by. It isn’t the same, Emery.”

But then, names change through the ages, get corrupted. Homer might have had it wrong.

“Where the devil did they go?” Captain Noregard grumbled, and the jealousy was still gritting in his voice.

His big fingers played with the gun that had a shot or two left in it. He looked ugly, with his short black beard matted and wet from the sea.

The Turk was shaking harder and harder — maybe from the morning chill. Finally he picked up some twigs and branches and started himself a fire by the fountain. But that didn’t help him.

He was still shaking when the woman came out of the grove. The Armenian wasn’t with her, and I didn’t ask her where he was. I was afraid of what she might tell me.

The captain jumped to his feet at the sight of her. But she looked at the Turk and burst into a peal of silvery laughter.

“You big fat pig!” she said, and laughed again. “You big fat shivering pig.”

Those huge blue eyes of hers were on him across the fire, and he backed away. But he didn’t back far, for her eyes caught his and stopped him. I saw him strain to break away. A strong, heavy man pulling like a newly caught Indian elephant at his chain. He couldn’t make it. Then he reached for his knife, but his fingers opened the moment he grasped it. It fell to the ground by the fire, as step by step he went toward her, and she began to lead him toward the grove.

That was too much for Noregard. Jealous rage got the best of him. He whipped up his gun and sprang between her and the Turk. Maybe he would’ve shot the fat man, but she stepped in front of the captain, and her eyes caught his. She smiled understandingly at him, which was enough to make him drop his gun.

“Why is the black-haired man angry?” her rich voice lilted. “Does the black-haired one with bristles on his face like a hedgehog want to come with me, too?”

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Chapter 6

The Boar and the Hedgehog

THE captain couldn’t understand her words. He didn’t have to. That flowing movement of her body, that age-old beckoning of her eyes were plain enough. Side by side with the Turk he went.

It was then that I couldn’t stand it any longer. I couldn’t stay alone with the antelope, the sea, the Lazzes, and my own doubts. I couldn’t stay and wait — for what?

“Captain Noregard — stop!” I yelled, and started running after him.

He wasn’t a big man, but a hard, close-knit one. Without even taking his eyes off her he struck me with his forearm. I reeled back and stumbled. The stone balustrade of the fountain caught me on the temple. For a moment I heard the woman’s laughter growing wilder and wilder. Then the sun went out….

The antelope’s rough tongue on my cheek brought me to. One look at him and I remembered where I was, and knew that I had to get away. But where?

Now that the captain had drawn the Lazzes’ blood, now that the woman was gone, they wouldn’t stop at robbery. They would kill me as slowly and painfully as only they could. The sea? The hope to live was strong in me, for I was young. Perhaps I could sneak through the grove, past the woman.

I picked up the Turk’s knife and crept among the olives. There weren’t many of them. I could see right through the grove as soon as I was in it. Nothing but cliffs behind it. One steep wall of cliffs where an earthquake had once sheared the island.

And something else I saw — something that sent me running back faster than I came. In a small clearing she was sitting by a marble amphora like the ones I’d seen in the museums. From a shallow goblet she was drinking a liquid that was red and sticky. And she kept smiling as she watched a huge boar chasing a little hedgehog in front of her. Murder was burning in the boar’s mean, bloodshot eyes. The hedgehog’s black quills stood up on edge defensively around the cringing body that was smaller than a rabbit’s.

There was really no fight at all. There couldn’t have been. Maybe the quills did hurt the boar when his tusks closed on that little animal. I don’t know. I turned away, sickened by the crunching of thin bones.

The woman hadn’t noticed me yet, but I couldn’t reach the cliffs. If a twig snapped under me, if she turned her head, she would see me. Then she would look at me, and I was sure our eyes would meet, and after that … Yes, if our eyes met I’d become —

Suddenly I knew what I had to do. It was ghastly, but it didn’t frighten me — not half as much as the thought of the antelope, the boar, the hedgehog, and the Lazzes’ animals.

I went back to the fire that was still smoldering. A few more dry sticks brought it to life. Then I thrust the Turk’s knife into the flames. Fast! I had to be fast, before she tired of her sport, before she came for me. The blade got sooty at first, then started to glow. When it was cherry red I took it out.

My hand shook terribly, but I closed my eyes and touched the flat side of the knife to my lids. Oh, yes, it hurt — hurt so that I wished I’d lose consciousness.

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Chapter 7

Call For Me

Maybe I would have, but I heard steps — her light steps. She was coming from behind me, and couldn’t see my face even when she stopped.

“Don’t you want to come with me?” she asked. “Don’t you want to belong to me, like the others?”

I didn’t answer. How could I, with that pain and the fear?

That must have made her angry.

“Look at me,” she ordered, and for the first time the lilt was gone from her voice. “Look at me, little man. After you do, you’ll follow me and drink my red wine of — “

I turned my face slowly. She must have seen the burned wounds on my eyelids for she broke off abruptly, and it made me glad to know that I had won, that she couldn’t reach me. So glad that I tried to laugh. It was a gasping, agony-distorted laugh. I stopped, for when she spoke again the lilt was back in her voice.

“You’re wise,” she mocked. “Wise as an old owl. You think you have outwitted me. For the time, maybe you have. But you have seen me, heard my voice. Though your eyes are gone, before the eyes of your soul you’ll carry my image as long as you live, and you’ll long for me. And when your longing gets so bad you can stand it no more, you’ll call for me. I’ll come then, and bring your friends with me. And then you’ll become — “

I don’t remember the rest. The pain in my eyeballs tore at my brain. Crawling on my hands and knees, I got away from the place, away from her. On, on — any place.

The Lazzes must have found me later. I don’t know when or how. There is some nobility left in that old race, it seems. Fighting and running, I’d been their foe. But now that I was blind, they didn’t harm me. Later on that summer, when their barrels were full of herring, they sent me with the fishing fleet to Constantinople where the American consul …

* * * * *

Miss Stenger, the nurse, woke up suddenly and jumped from the rocking chair.

“Captain Williams — Captain Gustafson!” she cried. “You shouldn’t have let him talk so much. He’s tired out. Go away now, please. He must have rest.”

We went out slowly while she lowered Emery onto his pillows. Outside, Gustafson looked at me sadly and shook his head, his big hands still cupped around his earholes.

“Emery must be going fast. I didn’t hear all he said, but what I did hear proves he’s out of his mind. I’m going to miss him a lot, poor fellow.”

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Chapter 8

He’s Gone

We parted there. I didn’t feel like discussing Emery by shouting into Gustafson’s cupped hand. I did a lot of thinking during the day, though, and tried to get hold of Commissioner Guire to tell him about Emery’s story and the shadows I had seen the night before. But Guire was busy with the police who had come to investigate about the gatekeeper’s wife. So I gave it up. He probably wouldn’t have believed me, anyhow.

I didn’t sleep well that night, tossing and thinking. Once I thought I heard a woman’s laugh. It might have been my dreams, or maybe it was Miss Stenger, though I couldn’t see why she would laugh beside a dying man.

Then, early in the morning, a scream woke me out of a doze. Of course, I couldn’t get up by myself, though I tried to. I had to wait for Yorgo.

“What was all the screaming about?” I asked. “How’s Captain Emery?”

“He’s gone,” said Yorgo, and reached for my uniform.

“What do you mean? Did he die?” I liked old Emery a lot. Maybe that’s why my voice sounded so hopeful.

“I guess so,” Yorgo replied. “Last night Miss Stenger snoozed off, she claims. When she woke up toward morning the screen on the window was torn out and Emery was missing. He must have crawled out and fallen off the cliffs into the sea. Though how he did it with both legs dead I can’t tell.

“And a funny thing, Captain Williams. The night light in his room being on, and the screen out, a big owl must have flown in. It scared Miss Stenger so she yelled when she woke up. Took me quite a while to chase the blooming bird out. It beat around the walls for a long time, as if it couldn’t find it’s way. And when I finally pushed it out with a broom, it flew straight away over the sea. It seemed to be blind. But then, it was pretty light already, and all owls are blind in daylight.”

I intended to tell him he was wrong, that normal owls see in daytime almost as well as at night, in spite of popular belief. But what was the use of arguing with someone who had been a cook on a Greek sponger?


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