The Parrot

Clark Ashton Smith

The pawnshop was so crowded with unredeemed articles, that neither electricity nor sunlight could dissipate fully the murk of its doubtful corners. The windows were always unwashed and the cobwebs were unswept. It was even darker and grimier than usual, on this late afternoon of April; and the sea-fog that had inundated San Francisco was visibly mingled with the dust that hovered always in its air. No one who was unfamiliar with the place would have noticed the parrot, which occupied a perch in the corner farthest from the door. The bird was in one of its taciturn moods, and had apparently forgotten its extensive repertoire of thieves' argot, water-front oaths, and Jewish idioms, for it had not spoken a word since morning.

"Veil, Micky Horgan, vot you vant?" The huge, swarthy, furtive-looking person thus hailed by Jacob Stein, the proprietor, was better known as Black Mike to the local underworld and police circles. He was peering about uncertainly for Stein, who was stooping behind the counter. The Jew was so small and dingy that he blended in with his surroundings as if he had taken on a sort of protective coloration.

"I want one hundred dollars." Horgan's voice was a peremptory growl.

"For vot should I gif you so much money?"

"For this." Horgan took an amber necklace from his coat-pocket and laid it on the counter, where it gleamed like a circle of solidified sun-rays.

Stein peered at the necklace through his heavy-rimmed goggles and shook his head with a vehement grimace.

"I gif you fifteen," he said dubiously.

"The hell you will. That's real amber. I didn't swipe it from any hall-bedroom, either. And I'm offering it mud-cheap because I've got to have a hundred bucks to-night."

Stein came out from behind the counter and began to expostulate.

"For vot you take me? No one buys amber. I'm a poor man, and I haf a family. Fifteen tollars I gif you, but no more."

Horgan sensed finality in the tones of the Jew. Sinister, desperate thoughts arose in his brain. His need of a hundred dollars was indeed urgent, for the sum had been demanded by a sweetheart whom he loved with ferocious ardor. He knew her coldness and contempt if he should go to her without the money — knew the merciless vituperations with which she would greet him. Also, he thought of all the former occasions on which Stein had defrauded him of his rightful due for some stolen article.

"You rotten Sheeny — I'm damned if you'll gouge me this time!" Horgan's desperation was tinged with a stealthy, rat-like anger.

"Fifteen tollars — und I'm robbing myself, Micky." The Jew rubbed his hands together, turned his head away, and looked indifferently through the smeared windows. He did not seem to notice the ugly and precarious mood of his client.

A murderous calculation crept into Horgan's thoughts. He peered about. The street outside was very quiet, and the fog was thickening into a drizzle. It was not likely that anyone would come in at the moment. Furtively, with careful slowness, he reached for the revolver in his hip-pocket. He pulled it out, raised it aloft with a flourish incredibly swift, and brought down the heavy butt on the pawn-broker's head. Stein fell, sprawling at full length between a crowded table and the metal base of a floor-lamp. He did not move; and stooping over him, Horgan saw that blood was beginning to ooze from the crushed crown of his skull. The horn-rimmed goggles had not fallen from the eyes, and they lent a grotesque air of life and peering animation to the corpse. It was hard to believe that Stein was dead, for even as he lay, he seemed to be inspecting some dubious article or customer.

The burglar stood up and looked about hastily. He could not afford to delay. He went over to the counter, stuffed the necklace back into his pocket, and then took a step toward the cash-register.

"Veil, Micky Horgan, vot you vant?" The voice came from a shadowy comer, and was an exact mimicry of Stein's. Horgan gave a violent start, and his heart missed one or two beats, while a surge of ancestral Irish superstition clamored in his brain. Then he remembered that there was a parrot which he had seen on several previous occasions.

"I want one hundred dollars," continued the voice.

"Damn that bird," thought Horgan. "I've got to wring its neck before I go." He seemed to hear the parrot uttering his name in Stein's voice to the San Francisco police, and repeating various bits of the late dispute. He started for the corner where the perch stood, and collided with a chair in his blind haste. He almost fell, but caught himself in time and went on, cursing aloud with the pain of a bruised knee. There was so much furniture and bric-a-brac in the place, that he could not locate the perch for a few moments.

"For vot should I gif you so much money?" The voice was at his very elbow. He saw the bird, which seemed to be inspecting him, with its green head cocked to one side and a sardonic gleam in its eye. His hand shot out to clutch its legs, but he was not quick enough. The parrot fluttered away from the perch and settled with a leisurely flap of its wings on an empty coat-hanger among the pawned garments at one end of the shop.

"Damn you to hell!" Horgan was not aware that he had yelled the words. He lurched toward the coat-hanger, obsessed by one frantically imperative idea, that he must catch the bird and wring its infernal neck. This time, the parrot flew off before he came within reach, and established itself on the cash-register. There it continued to repeat word for word the conversation he had had with Stein. "I gif you fifteen," it screeched.

Horgan picked up a little bronze bust of Dante from a table covered with art-objects and bric-a-brac, and hurled it at the parrot. The bust struck the cash-register with a reverberant clang, loud as that of an alarm-gong, and the bird rose again and seated itself on the parchment shade of the floor-lamp above the pawn-broker's body. It yelled raucously all the while, and sailors' oaths and Yiddish idioms were intermingled with more scraps of the dialogue that had ended in Stein's death.

The murderer flung himself at the floor-lamp, tripped on the insulated wire, and brought the lamp down, as he fell across the corpse of his victim. The top of the lamp-stand struck a loaded table, and there was a terrific crash of Chinese pottery and cut-glass.

"Hey, what's going on here?" The door had opened and a policeman was entering. He had heard the gong-like clang of the bust against the cash-register, and had decided to investigate. He drew a revolver very quickly and leveled it at Horgan, when he saw the body of Jacob Stein, from whose head a little pool of blood had oozed.

Horgan picked himself up slowly and sullenly. As he rose to his feet before the leveled muzzle, he heard once more the voice of the parrot, which had now returned to its perch.

"I gif you fifteen," it screamed, with a note that was like malicious laughter.

^xxx^ xxx was added by Smith.
[xxx] xxx was deleted by Smith.
{January 5, 1930}

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Printed on: October 29, 2020