Death En Camera
Three well dressed gentlemen and the three gorgeously caparisoned ladies who were their wives, were slowly wending their way home after an uplifting and rewarding evening of song and culture - they had attended an opera. A magnificent full moon glistened overhead in all her glory and lighted the abandoned streets of Hicksville, Long Island as clearly as if it were day. Better than day for the light was softer.
It was after two in the morning and taxis at that time were non-existent. Fortunately no rain threatened and it was a lovely night for a walk. The sidewalk at this point, being a narrow one, permitted only two of them to walk abreast. There was no oncoming pedestrian traffic, The vanguard tactfully was accorded to Jim and Adele Appleguard, who were not only the oldest and entitled to that respect but they were also the richest.
The Appleguards were followed by Kent and Wilhemina Drunce. Carlos and Carlina Brown brought up the rear. They passed blocks of closely padlocked store fronts. All were closed but the moonlight displayed the window wares as clearly as if the stores were illuminated electrically.
The interiors of the stores were Black because the moonlight did not penetrate quite that far. Nor did it penetrate very far into the alleys they passed. A shadow detached itself from the utter darkness of an alleyway and silently crept up on them from behind. A hand that glistened as whitely as a bouquet of Easter Lilies flashed out and tapped Mr. Brown on the shoulder.
Brown leapt at least a foot into the air. The party turned as one. Moonlight revealed the intruder to be a shorter than average man. He was prevented from being a midget only by a pair of extremely high platform shoes. His slightly prancing or mincing gait and goat like beard were reminiscent of a satyr. In fact, his feet moved in a relentless dance that took him nowhere all the time he confronted the party. Brown took and instant and wholehearted dislike to him.
"Well! " he demanded gruffly.
The intruder brandished a cigar shaped glass vial that looked like a laboratory test tube with one end stoppered.
"The bargain of a lifetime, Sir." He waggled the tube under Brown's somewhat generous nose. "The elixir of life... only fifty cents. Drink this and you will live forever." He fashioned his mouth into a grin that was intended to be engaging but which all of the party found disquieting.
Brown snorted. "Oh, for God's sake! A panhandler with a new twist." One of his hands located two quarters in a pocket and thrust them at the satyr. "Here!" he commanded, "have yourself a ball."
"Thank you, Sir. Thank you!" the beggar responded in an eerie windlike voice. Brown's coins vanished into a not overly clean pocket and the owner of the voice disappeared into the darkness from which he had sprung. Brown found himself trembling and holding a small cork ended bottle. He had no idea as to how he came to be in possession of it. Brown shoved the bottle into his pocket with an exclamation of disgust.
The group, after a few half-hearted jibes at Brown's expense reformed their ranks and resumed their homeward journey. Every now and then someone attempted a chuckle but at best it was irresolute. The incident upset Brown who did not see any humour in it. They came to a street and crossed it. It was abandoned but for themselves. On reaching the other side, they found the sidewalk broadened unexpectedly so that it was possible for four of them to walk comfortably abreast. Carlos and Carlina were still in the rear.
The conviction had crept up on them that they were the only residents of Hicksville abroad at that ungodly hour. They were doubly confounded when confronted by an elderly gentleman whose suit had seen better days. But that was long ago. It was as threadbare and as ragged as the sails of a derelict ship. He stood forlornly on the street corner and watched them approach with the hopefulness a starving beaver might eye a young and tender sapling. An immense camera stood just as forlornly on tripod legs beside him as if he had been taking it for a walk. In fact, Adele found herself looking for the end of a leash in his hand.
The elderly gentleman quavered:
"Take your pictures, ladies and gentlemen. Take your pictures. Only twenty-five cents a print. See what you will look like when you are dead."
"What!" Jim Appleguard exclaimed in a startled voice.
"Eh!" said Kent Drunce.
"Unbelievable!" Brown muttered. He bit down hard on his cigar and then flung it away. He noticed the others were regarding him expectantly and added, "Sorry, fellows. It's your turn. I gave back at the alley.
For some reason, no one thought of brushing past the old man and going on. Appleguard seemed to be stricken with a peculiar indecision.
"After we are dead?" He echoed, not understanding. His hand sought a coin in his pocket.
The photographer spoke in a voice that was every bit as dilapidated as the suit he wore. . . as if he had used it too many times for too long.
"My camera takes pictures only of what it wishes to take. Tonight, it wants post obit."
Appleguard started to remonstrate on the impossibility of this and then he thought, "Dash it! The sooner done with the sooner we can be on our way again. He vowed that never again would he be caught out on the streets of Hicksville, especially at that hour. His fingers located a quarter and grudgingly he released it to the photographer.
He asked, "Where do you want me to stand? "
"Right where you are, Sir. Where do you desire to be laid out?"
"Where do I desire . . Oh, hell! In my parlor."
The photographer made a few adjustments on his camera, raised an old-fashioned flash gun and there was an almost blinding explosion of light. He fiddled under a black canvas drop cloth on the back of the camera and emerged holding a still wet print. Appleguard took it and held it up under the moonlight. For a moment he literally stopped breathing and croaked like a frog in the distance.
His friends stared at the picture. It showed Appleguard resting serenely in a coffin. They recognised the background as the parlour of his sumptuous house. They knew he was dead and not sleeping because he was not holding a book to his chest.
"Who will be next?" The photographer intoned. How about you, Madam? Would you like to stand in front of my camera?"
Adele Appleguard shuddered and drew back from the photographer as if he was a source of infection.
"No! No! Stay away from me! She escaped into the background.
Kent Drunce held his ground and glared at the cameraman.
"You think that you have me intimidated, don 't you? Well, I'll show you that you don't .You're an ingenious fake."
His hand dipped into a pocket and came out with a piece of change which he thrust at the photographer.
"Take my picture. I want to be laid out in my parlour too."
His wife said something like, "Oh, Kent. . ." Her hand flew to her mouth. She started toward him and then stopped as if an invisible force held her back.
Jim Appleguard clung to a lamp post. Adele fanned him with a theatre program. Her husband's face was ghastly.
Kent defiantly assumed a heroic pose. He held his hat to his breast as if the flag was passing by. His jaw was squared and his eyes glistened but his forehead was broken out in beads of perspiration.
Again the photographer huddled under his drop cloth as if in secret conclave with someone or something he preferred no one should see. The motion of the cloth hinted the focusing process was at least as complicated as that of an artillery range finder. Once again the flash gun spoke. There were more movements under the drop cloth and once again the arm emerged clutching a wet print.
Whatever hopes Drunce might have cherished were dashed by his first glimpse. There was a catch in his throat as he tried to say something and failed. Silently he passed the print to someone at his side; he did not know who. It showed him in a coffin in the familiar background of his parlour.
Dimly he heard himself ask the photographer, "When?"
The man replied in a whining, nasal voice. "I do not know, Sir. My camera takes what it sees but does not tell me. He looked expectantly at Carlina and Wilhemina.
Brown stepped forward. Brusquely he said, "The ladies do not want their picture taken.
His hand brushed against a hard smooth object in his coat pocket. His expression changed to one of cunning and he almost laughed as he brought out the stoppered glass vial. Brown was speaking almost to himself.
"What did that fellow say? That this was the elixir of life - that I would live forever?"
He handed the photographer the requisite quarter and unstopped the bottle. Before anyone thought of stopping him, he raised it to his lips and bolted the contents. Then he hurled the little bottle against the street lamp where it shattered and fell in a shower of broken glass.
"All right, Mr Photographer," he said bellicosely, "take my picture."
"Yes, sir, Yes, Sir, immediately!"
The man went through all the motions of taking and developing a picture. Carlos accepted the print when he was finished. He scanned the picture and burst into a somewhat disorganised laugh.
Appleguard asked, What is it?
Brown handed the print to him and the others gathered around. It was a picture of a parlour barren of anything but its normal furniture. There was no coffin or recumbent form.
"That alley peddler said I would live forever." Brown apparently did not understand the import of his own words for he repeated them. "That alley peddler said I would live forever."
His face was flush and he wanted to say something memorable but could think of nothing to say so he decided to laugh. The laughter seized him with both hands and he was unable to stop. Brown made a feeble grab at his chest and fell lifeless sidewalk.
A year passed and the three ladies met in the tea room of one of their houses. This was the first chance they had had of getting together and exchange important news. For one thing, they all had embraced the classification of widowhood. That was good for fifteen minutes of conversation.
But the thing that remained uppermost in the minds of Adele Appleguard and Wilhemina Drunce was the remarkable incident of the street photographer.
Adele was saying to Carlina, " . . . our husbands died just as the camera predicted. We all saw Jim and Kent laid out in their caskets." Her voice was accusing as if she suspected Carlina of not quite playing the game.
Wilhemina added, "Yes, we all saw the snapshots of Kent and Jim in their coffins. But your picture never showed Carlos at rest. Why was there no picture of him in his casket?"
Carlina's answer was simple and to the point, "I had him cremated."
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