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The Last Place on Earth

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Sam Collins flashed the undertaker a healthy smile, hoping it wouldn't depress old Candle too much. He saluted. The skeletal figure in endless black nodded gravely, and took hold of Sam Collins' arm with a death grip.

"I'm going to bury you, Sam Collins," the undertaker said.

The tall false fronts of Main Street spilled out a lake of shadow, a canal of liquid heat that soaked through the iron weave of Collins' jeans and turned into black ink stains. The old window of the hardware store showed its age in soft wrinkles, ripples that had caught on fire in the sunset. Collins felt the twilight stealing under the arms of his tee-shirt. The overdue hair on the back of his rangy neck stood up in attention. It was a joke, but the first one Collins had ever known Doc Candle to make.

"In time, I guess you'll bury me all right, Doc."

"In my time, not yours, Earthling."

"Earthling?" Collins repeated the last word.

The old man frowned. His face was a collection of lines. When he frowned, all the lines pointed to hell, the grave, decay and damnation.

"Earthling," the undertaker repeated. "Earthman? Terrestrial? Solarian? Space Ranger? Homo sapiens?"

Collins decided Candle was sure in a jokey mood. "Kind of makes you think of it, don't it, Doc? The spaceport going right up outside of town. Rocketships are going to be out there taking off for the Satellite, the Moon, places like that. Reminds you that we are Earthlings, like they say in the funnies, all right."

"Not outside town."


"Inside. Inside town. Part of the spaceship administration building is going to go smack in the middle of where your house used to be."

"My house is."

"For less time than you will be yourself, Earthling."

"Earthling yourself! What's wrong with you, Doc?"

"No. I am not an Earthling. I am a superhuman alien from outer space. My mission on Earth is to destroy you."

Collins pulled away gently. When you lived in a town all your life and knew its people, it wasn't unusual to see some old person snap under the weight of years.

"You have to destroy the rocketship station, huh, Doc, before it sends up spaceships?"

"No. I want to kill you. That is my mission."


"Because," Candle said, "I am a basically evil entity."

The undertaker turned away and went skittering down Main Street, his lopsided gait limping, sliding, hopping, skipping, at a refined leisurely pace. He was a collection of dancing, straight black lines.

Collins stared after the old man, shook his head and forgot about him.

He moved into the hardware store. The bell tinkled behind him. The store was cramped with shadows and the smell of wood and iron. It was lined off as precisely as a checkerboard, with counters, drawers, compartments.

Ed Michaels sat behind the counter, smoking a pipe. He was a handsome man, looking young in the uncertain light, even at fifty.

"Hi, Ed. You closed?"

"Guess not, Sam. What are you looking for?"

"A pound of tenpenny nails."

Michaels stood up.

Sarah Comstock waddled energetically out of the back. Her sweet, angelic face lit up with a smile. "Sam Collins. Well, I guess you'll want to help us murder them."

"Murder?" Collins repeated. "Who?"

"Those Air Force men who want to come in here and cause all the trouble."

"How are you going to murder them, Mrs....