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Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die.
He had experience in seeing such things. Death was Halston’s business; he had brought it to eighteen men and six women in his career as an independent hitter. Heknew the death look.
The house—mansion, actually—was cold and quiet. The only sounds were the lowsnap of the fire on the big stone hearth and the low whine of the November windoutside.
“I want you to make a kill,” the old man said. His voice was quavery and high, peevish.
“I understand that is what you do.”
“Who did you talk to?” Halston asked.
“With a man named Saul Loggia. He says you know him.”
Halston nodded. If Loggia was the go-between, it was all right. And if there was a bugin the room, anything the old man—Drogan—said was entrapment.
“Who do you want hit?”
Drogan pressed a button on the console built into the arm of his wheelchair and it buzzed forward. Close-up, Halston could smell the yellow odors of fear, age, and urine all mixed. They disgusted him, but he made no sign. His face was still and smooth.
“Your victim is right behind you,” Drogan said softly.
Halston moved quickly. His reflexes were his life and they were always set on a filedpin. He was off the couch, falling to one knee, turning, hand inside his specially
tailored sport coat, gripping the handle of the short-barrelled .45 hybrid that hung below his armpit in a spring-loaded holster that laid it in his palm at a touch. A moment later it was out and pointed at…a cat.
For a moment Halston and the cat stared at each other. It was a strange moment for
Halston, who was an unimaginative man with no superstitions. For that one moment as he knelt on the floor with the gun pointed, he felt that he knew this cat, although if he had ever seen one with such unusual markings he surely would have remembered. Its face was an even split: half black, half white.
The dividing line ran from the top of its flat skull and down its nose to its mouth, straight-arrow. Its eyes were huge in the gloom, and caught in each nearly circular black pupil was a prism of firelight, like a sullen coal of hate.
And the thought echoed back to Halston: We know each other, you and I.
Then it passed. He put the gun away and stood up.
“I ought to kill you for that, old man. I don’t take a joke.”
“And I don’t make them,” Drogan said. “Sit down. Look in here.”
He had taken a fat envelope out from beneath the blanket that covered his legs. Halston sat. The cat, which had been crouched on the back of the sofa, jumped lightly down into his lap. It looked up at Halston for a moment with those huge dark eyes, the pupils surrounded by thin green-gold rings, and then it settled down and began to purr.
Halston looked at Drogan questioningly.
“He’s very friendly,” Drogan said. “At first. Nice friendly pussy has killed three people in this household. That leaves only me. I am old, I am sick…but I prefer to die in my own time.”
“I can’t believe this,” Halston said. “You hired me to hit a cat?”
“Look in the envelope, please.”
Halston did. It was filled with hundreds and fifties, all of them old.
“How much is it?”
“Six thousand dollars. There will be another six when you bring me proof that the cat is dead. Mr. Loggia said twelve thousand was your usual fee?”
Halston nodded, his hand automatically stroking the cat in his lap. It was asleep, still purring. Halston liked cats. They were the only animals he did like, as a matter of fact. They got along on their own. God—if there was one—had made them into perfect, aloof killing machines. Cats were the hitters of the animal world, and Halston gave them his respect.
“I need not explain anything, but I will,” Drogan said. “Forewarned is forearmed, they say, and I would not want you to go into this lightly. And I seem to need to justify myself. So you’ll not think I’m insane.”
Halston nodded again. He had already decided to make this peculiar hit, and no further talk was needed. But if Drogan wanted to talk, he would listen.
“First of all, you know who I am? Where the money comes from?”
“Yes. One of the biggest drug companies in the world. And the cornerstone of our financial success has been this.” From the pocket of his robe he handed Halston a small, unmarked vial of pills. “Tri-Dormal-phenobarbin, compound G. Prescribed almost exclusively for the terminally ill. It’s extremely habit-forming, you see. It’s a combination pain-killer, tranquilizer, and mild hallucinogen. It is remarkable in helping the terminally ill face their conditions and adjust to them.”
“Do you take it?” Halston asked.
Drogan ignored the question. “It is widely prescribed throughout the world. It’s a synthetic, was developed in the fifties at our New Jersey labs. Our testing was confined almost solely to cats, because of the unique quality of the feline nervous system.”
“How many did you wipe out?”
Drogan stiffened. “That is an unfair and prejudicial way to put it.”
“In the four-year testing period which led to FDA approval of Tri-Dormal-G, about fifteen thousand cats…uh, expired.”
Halston whistled. About four thousand cats a year. “And now you think this one’s back to get you, huh?”
“I don’t feel guilty in the slightest,” Drogan said, but that quavering, petulant note was back in his voice. “Fifteen thousand test animals died so that hundreds of
thousands of human beings—”
“Never mind that,” Halston said. Justifications bored him.
“That cat came here seven months ago. I’ve never liked cats. Nasty, disease-bearing animals…always out in the fields…crawling around in barns…picking up God knows what germs in their fur…always trying to bring something with its insides falling out into the house for you to look at…it was my sister who wanted to take it in. She found out. She paid.” He looked at the cat sleeping on Halston’s lap with dead hate.
“You said the cat killed three people.”
Drogan began to speak. The cat dozed and purred on Halston’s lap under the soft, scratching strokes of Halston’s strong and expert killer’s fingers. Occasionally a pine knot would explode on the hearth, making it tense like a series of steel springscovered with hide and muscle. Outside the wind whined around the big stone house far out in the Connecticut countryside. There was winter in that wind’s throat. The old man’s voice droned on and on. Seven months ago there had been four of them here—
Drogan, his sister Amanda, who at seventy-four was two years Drogan’s elder, her lifelong friend Carolyn Broadmoor (“of the Westchester Broadmoors,” Drogan said), who was badly afflicted with emphysema, and Dick Gage, a hired man who had been with the Drogan family for twenty years.
Gage, who was past sixty himself, drove the big Lincoln Mark IV, cooked, served the evening sherry. A day-maid came in. The four of them had lived this way for nearly two years, a dull collection of old people and their family retainer. Their only pleasures were The Hollywood Squares and waiting to see who would outlive whom.
Then the cat had come.
“It was Gage who saw it first, whining and skulking around the house. He tried to drive it away. He threw sticks and small rocks at it, and hit it several times. But it wouldn’t go. It smelled the food, of course. It was little more than a bag of bones. People put them out beside the road to die at the end of the summer season, you know. A terrible, inhumane thing.”
“Better to fry their nerves?” Halston asked.
Drogan ignored that and went on. He hated cats. He always had. When the cat refused to be driven away, he had instructed Gage to put out poisoned food. Large, tempting dishes of Calo cat food spiked with Tri-Dormal-G, as a matter of fact. The cat ignored the food. At that point Amanda Drogan had noticed the cat and had insisted they take it in. Drogan had protested vehemently, but Amanda had gotten her way. She always did, apparently.
“But she found out,” Drogan said. “She brought it inside herself, in her arms. It was purring, just as it is now. But it wouldn’t come near me. It never has…yet. She poured it a saucer of milk. ‘Oh, look at the poor thing, it’s starving,’ she cooed. She and Carolyn both cooed over it. Disgusting. It was their way of getting back at me, of course. They knew the way I’ve felt about felines ever since the Tri-Dormal-G testing program twenty years ago. They enjoyed teasing me, baiting me with it.” He looked at Halston grimly. “But they paid.”
In mid-May, Gage had gotten up to set breakfast and had found Amanda Drogan lying at the foot of the main stairs in a litter of broken crockery and Little Friskies. Her eyes bulged sightlessly up at the ceiling. She had bled a great deal from the mouth and nose. Her back was broken, both legs were broken, and her neck had been literally shattered like glass.
“It slept in her room,” Drogan said. “She treated it like a baby…‘Is oo hungry, darwing? Does oo need to go out and do poopoos?’ Obscene, coming from an old battle-axe like my sister. I think it woke her up, meowing. She got his dish. She used to say that Sam didn’t really like his Friskies unless they were wetted down with a little milk. So she was planning to go downstairs. The cat was rubbing against her legs. She was old, not too steady on her feet. Half-asleep. They got to the head of the stairs and the cat got in front of her…tripped her…”
Yes, it could have happened that way, Halston thought. In his mind’s eye he saw the old woman falling forward and outward, too shocked to scream. The Friskies spraying out as she tumbled head over heels to the bottom, the bowl smashing. At last she comes to rest at the bottom, the old bones shattered, the eyes glaring, the nose and ears trickling blood. And the purring cat begins to work its way down the stairs, contentedly munching Little Friskies…
“What did the coroner say?” he asked Drogan.
“Death by accident, of course. But I knew.”
“Why didn’t you get rid of the cat then? With Amanda gone?”
Because Carolyn Broadmoor had threatened to leave if he did, apparently. She was hysterical, obsessed with the subject. She was a sick woman, and she was nutty on the subject of spiritualism. A Hartford medium had told her (for a mere twenty dollars) that Amanda’s soul had entered Sam’s feline body. Sam had been Amanda’s, she told Drogan, and if Sam went, she went.
Halston, who had become something of an expert at reading between the lines of human lives, suspected that Drogan and the old Broadmoor bird had been lovers long ago, and the old dude was reluctant to let her go over a cat.
“It would have been the same as suicide,” Drogan said. “In her mind she was still a wealthy woman, perfectly capable of packing up that cat and going to New York or London or even Monte Carlo with it. In fact she was the last of a great family, living on a pittance as a result of a number of bad investments in the sixties. She lived on the second floor here in a specially controlled, super-humidified room. The woman was seventy, Mr. Halston. She was a heavy smoker until the last two years of her life, and the emphysema was very bad. I wanted her here, and if the cat had to stay…”
Halston nodded and then glanced meaningfully at his watch.
“Near the end of June, she died in the night. The doctor seemed to take it as a matter of course…just came and wrote out the death certificate and that was the end of it. But the cat was in the room. Gage told me.”
“We all have to go sometime, man,” Halston said.
“Of course. That’s what the doctor said. But I knew. I remembered. Cats like to get babies and old people when they’re asleep. And steal their breath.”
“An old wives’ tale.”
“Based on fact, like most so-called old wives’ tales,” Drogan replied. “Cats like to knead soft things with their paws, you see. A pillow, a thick shag rug…or a blanket. A crib blanket or an old person’s blanket. The extra weight on a person who’s weak to start with…”
Drogan trailed off, and Halston thought about it. Carolyn Broadmoor asleep in her bedroom, the breath rasping in and out of her damaged lungs, the sound nearly lost in the whisper of special humidifiers and air conditioners. The cat with the queer blackand-white markings leaps silently onto her spinster’s bed and stares at her old and wrinkle-grooved face with those lambent, black-and-green eyes. It creeps onto her thin chest and settles its weight there, purring…and the breathing slows…and the cat purrs as the old woman slowly smothers beneath its weight on her chest.
He was not an imaginative man, but Halston shivered a little.
“Drogan,” he said, continuing to stroke the purring cat. “Why don’t you just have it put away? A vet would give it the gas for twenty dollars.” Drogan said, “The funeral was on the first of July. I had Carolyn buried in our cemetery plot next to my sister. The way she would have wanted it. Only July third I called Gage to this room and handed him a wicker basket…a picnic hamper sort of thing. Do you know what I mean?”
“I told him to put the cat in it and take it to a vet in Milford and have it put to sleep. He said, ‘Yes, sir,’ took the basket, and went out. Very like him. I never saw him alive again. There was an accident on the turnpike. The Lincoln was driven into a bridge abutment at better than sixty miles an hour. Dick Gage was killed instantly. When they found him there were scratches on his face.”Halston was silent as the picture of how it might have been formed in his brain again.
No sound in the room but the peaceful crackle of the fire and the peaceful purr of the cat in his lap. He and the cat together before the fire would make a good illustration for that Edgar Guest poem, the one that goes: “The cat on my lap, the hearth’s good fire /…A happy man, should you enquire.”
Dick Gage moving the Lincoln down the turnpike toward Milford, beating the speed limit by maybe five miles an hour. The wicker basket beside him—a picnic hamper sort of thing. The chauffeur is watching traffic, maybe he’s passing a big cab-over Jimmy and he doesn’t notice the peculiar black-on-one-side, white-on-the-other face that pokes out of one side of the basket. Out of the driver’s side. He doesn’t notice because he’s passing the big trailer truck and that’s when the cat jumps onto his face, spitting and clawing, its talons raking into one eye, puncturing it, deflating it, blinding it. Sixty and the hum of the Lincoln’s big motor and the other paw is hooked over the bridge of the nose, digging in with exquisite, damning pain—maybe the Lincoln starts to veer right, into the path of the Jimmy, and its airhorn blares ear-shatteringly, but Gage can’t hear it because the cat is yowling, the cat is spread-eagled over his face like some huge furry black spider, ears laid back, green eyes glaring like spotlights from hell, back legs jittering and digging into the soft flesh of the old man’s neck. The car veers wildly back the other way. The bridge abutment looms. The cat jumps down and the Lincoln, a shiny black torpedo, hits the cement and goes up like a bomb.
Halston swallowed hard and heard a dry click in his throat.
“And the cat came back?”
Drogan nodded. “A week later. On the day Dick Gage was buried, as a matter of fact. Just like the old song says. The cat came back.”
“It survived a car crash at sixty? Hard to believe.”
“They say each one has nine lives. When it comes back…that’s when I started to wonder if it might not be a…a…”
“Hellcat?” Halston suggested softly.
“For want of a better word, yes. A sort of demon sent…”
“To punish you.”
“I don’t know. But I’m afraid of it. I feed it, or rather, the woman who comes in to do for me feeds it. She doesn’t like it either. She says that face is a curse of God. Of course, she’s local.” The old man tried to smile and failed. “I want you to kill it. I’ve lived with it for the last four months. It skulks around in the shadows. It looks at me. It seems to be…waiting. I lock myself in my room every night and still I wonder if I’m going to wake up one early morning and find it…curled up on my chest…and purring.”
The wind whined lonesomely outside and made a strange hooting noise in the stone chimney.
“At last I got in touch with Saul Loggia. He recommended you. He called you a stick, I believe.”
“A one-stick. That means I work on my own.”
“Yes. He said you’d never been busted, or even suspected. He said you always seem to land on your feet…like a cat.”
Halston looked at the old man in the wheelchair. And suddenly his long-fingered, muscular hands were lingering just above the cat’s neck.
“I’ll do it now, if you want me to,” he said softly. “I’ll snap its neck. It won’t even know—”
“No!” Drogan cried. He drew in a long, shuddering breath. Color had come up in his sallow cheeks. “Not…not here. Take it away.”
Halston smiled humorlessly. He began to stroke the sleeping cat’s head and shoulders and back very gently again.
“All right,” he said. “I accept the contract. Do you want the body?”
“No. Kill it. Bury it.” He paused. He hunched forward in the wheelchair like some ancient buzzard. “Bring me the tail,” he said. “So I can throw it in the fire and watch it burn.”
Halston drove a 1973 Plymouth with a custom Cyclone Spoiler engine. The car was jacked and blocked, and rode with the hood pointing down at the road at a twentydegree angle. He had rebuilt the differential and the rear end himself. The shift was a Pensy, the linkage was Hearst. It sat on huge Bobby Unser Wide Ovals and had a topend of a little past one-sixty.
He left the Drogan house at a little past 9:30. A cold rind of crescent moon rode overhead through the tattering November clouds. He rode with all the windows open, because that yellow stench of age and terror seemed to have settled into his clothes and he didn’t like it. The cold was hard and sharp, eventually numbing, but it was good. It was blowing that yellow stench away.
He got off the turnpike at Placer’s Glen and drove through the silent town, which was guarded by a single yellow blinker at the intersection, at a thoroughly respectable thirty-five. Out of town, moving up S.R. 35, he opened the Plymouth up a little, letting her walk. The tuned Spoiler engine purred like the cat had purred on his lap earlier this evening. Halston grinned at the simile. They moved between frost-white November fields full of skeleton cornstalks at a little over seventy.
The cat was in a double-thickness shopping bag, tied at the top with heavy twine. The bag was in the passenger bucket seat. The cat had been sleepy and purring when Halston put it in, and it had purred through the entire ride. It sensed, perhaps, that Halston liked it and felt at home with it. Like himself, the cat was a one-stick. Strange hit, Halston thought, and was surprised to find that he was taking it seriously as a hit. Maybe the strangest thing about it was that he actually liked the cat, felt a kinship with it.
If it had managed to get rid of those three old crocks, more power to it…especially Gage, who had been taking it to Milford for a terminal date with a crewcut veterinarian who would have been more than happy to bundle it into a ceramic-lined gas chamber the size of a microwave oven. He felt a kinship, but no urge to renege on the hit. He would do it the courtesy of killing it quickly and well. He would park off the road beside one of these November-barren fields and take it out of the bag and stroke it and then snap its neck and sever its tail with his pocket knife.
And, he thought, the body I’ll bury honorably, saving it from the scavengers. I can’t save it from the worms, but I can save it from the maggots.
He was thinking these things as the car moved through the night like a dark blue ghost and that was when the cat walked in front of his eyes, up on the dashboard, tail raised arrogantly, its black-and-white face turned toward him, its mouth seeming to grin at him.
“Ssssshhhh—” Halston hissed. He glanced to his right and caught a glimpse of the double-thickness shopping bag, a hole chewed—or clawed—in its side. Looked ahead again…and the cat lifted a paw and batted playfully at him. The paw skidded across Halston’s forehead. He jerked away from it and the Plymouth’s big tires wailed on theroad as it swung erratically from one side of the narrow blacktop to the other.
Halston batted at the cat on the dashboard with his fist. It was blocking his field of vision. It spat at him, arching its back, but it didn’t move. Halston swung again, and instead of shrinking away, it leaped at him. Gage, he thought. Just like Gage—
He stamped the brake. The cat was on his head, blocking his vision with its furry belly, clawing at him, gouging at him. Halston held the wheel grimly. He struck the cat once, twice, a third time. And suddenly the road was gone, the Plymouth was running down into the ditch, thudding up and down on its shocks. Then, impact, throwing him forward against his seat belt, and the last sound he heard was the cat yowling inhumanly, the voice of a woman in pain or in the throes of sexual climax. He struck it with his closed fist and felt only the springy, yielding flex of its muscles.
Then, second impact.
The moon was down. It was an hour before dawn. The Plymouth lay in a ravine curdled with groundmist. Tangled in its grille was a snarled length of barbed wire. The hood had come unlatched, and tendrils of steam from the breached radiator drifted out of the opening to mingle with the mist.
No feeling in his legs.
He looked down and saw that the Plymouth’s firewall had caved in with the impact. The back of that big Cyclone Spoiler engine block had smashed into his legs, pinning them. Outside, in the distance, the predatory squawk of an owl dropping onto some small, scurrying animal.
Inside, close, the steady purr of the cat.
It seemed to be grinning, like Alice’s Cheshire had in Wonderland.
As Halston watched it stood up, arched its back, and stretched. In a sudden limber movement like rippled silk, it leaped to his shoulder. Halston tried to lift his hands to push it off.
His arms wouldn’t move.
Spinal shock, he thought. Paralyzed. Maybe temporary. More likely permanent.
The cat purred in his ear like thunder.
“Get off me,” Halston said. His voice was hoarse and dry. The cat tensed for a moment and then settled back. Suddenly its paw batted Halston’s cheek, and the claws were out this time. Hot lines of pain down to his throat. And the warm trickle of
He ordered his head to move to the right, and it complied. For a moment his face was buried in smooth, dry fur. Halston snapped at the cat. It made a startled, disgruntled sound in its throat—yowk!—and leaped onto the seat. It stared up at him angrily, ears laid back.
“Wasn’t supposed to do that, was I?” Halston croaked.
The cat opened its mouth and hissed at him. Looking at that strange, schizophrenic face, Halston could understand how Drogan might have thought it was a hellcat. It— His thoughts broke off as he became aware of a dull, tingling feeling in both handsand forearms.
Feeling. Coming back. Pins and needles.
The cat leaped at his face, claws out, spitting.
Halston shut his eyes and opened his mouth. He bit at the cat’s belly and got nothing but fur. The cat’s front claws were clasped on his ears, digging in. The pain was enormous, brightly excruciating. Halston tried to raise his hands. They twitched but would not quite come out of his lap.
He bent his head forward and began to shake it back and forth, like a man shaking soap out of his eyes. Hissing and squalling, the cat held on. Halston could feel blood trickling down his cheeks. It was hard to get his breath. The cat’s chest was pressed over his nose. It was possible to get some air in by mouth, but not much. What he did get came through fur. His ears felt as if they had been doused with lighter fluid and then set on fire.
He snapped his head back, and cried out in agony—he must have sustained a whiplash when the Plymouth hit. But the cat hadn’t been expecting the reverse and it flew off. Halston heard it thud down in the backseat. A trickle of blood ran in his eye. He tried again to move his hands, to raise one of them and wipe the blood away.
They trembled in his lap, but he was still unable to actually move them. He thought of the .45 special in its holster under his left arm. If I can get to my piece, kitty, the rest of your nine lives are going in a lump sum.
More tingles now. Dull throbs of pain from his feet, buried and surely shattered under the engine block, zips and tingles from his legs—it felt exactly the way a limb that you’ve slept on does when it’s starting to wake up. At that moment Halston didn’t care about his feet. It was enough to know that his spine wasn’t severed, that hewasn’t going to finish out his life as a dead lump of body attached to a talking head.
Maybe I had a few lives left myself.
Take care of the cat. That was the first thing. Then get out of the wreck—maybe someone would come along, that would solve both problems at once. Not likely at 4:30 in the morning on a back road like this one, but barely possible. And—
And what was the cat doing back there?
He didn’t like having it on his face, but he didn’t like having it behind him and out of sight, either. He tried the rear-view mirror, but that was useless. The crash had knocked it awry and all it reflected was the grassy ravine he had finished up in. A sound from behind him, like low, ripping cloth.
Hellcat my ass. It’s gone to sleep back there.
And even if it hadn’t, even if it was somehow planning murder, what could it do? It was a skinny little thing, probably weighed all of four pounds soaking wet. And soon…soon he would be able to move his hands enough to get his gun. He was sure of it.
Halston sat and waited. Feeling continued to flood back into his body in a series of pins-and-needles incursions. Absurdly (or maybe in instinctive reaction to his close brush with death) he got an erection for a minute or so. Be kind of hard to beat off under present circumstances, he thought.
A dawn-line was appearing in the eastern sky. Somewhere a bird sang.
Halston tried his hands again and got them to move an eighth of an inch before they fell back.
Not yet. But soon.
A soft thud on the seatback beside him. Halston turned his head and looked into theblack-white face, the glowing eyes with their huge dark pupils.
Halston spoke to it.
“I have never blown a hit once I took it on, kitty. This could be a first. I’m getting my hands back. Five minutes, ten at most. You want my advice? Go out the window. They’re all open. Go out and take your tail with you.”
The cat stared at him.
Halston tried his hands again. They came up, trembling wildly. Half an inch. An inch. He let them fall back limply. They slipped off his lap and thudded to the Plymouth’s seat. They glimmered there palely, like large tropical spiders.
The cat was grinning at him.
Did I make a mistake? he wondered confusedly. He was a creature of hunch, and the feeling that he had made one was suddenly overwhelming. Then the cat’s body tensed, and even as it leaped, Halston knew what it was going to do and he opened his mouth to scream.
The cat landed on Halston’s crotch, claws out, digging.
At that moment, Halston wished he had been paralyzed. The pain was gigantic, terrible. He had never suspected that there could be such pain in the world. The cat was a spitting coiled spring of fury, clawing at his balls.
Halston did scream, his mouth yawning open, and that was when the cat changed direction and leaped at his face, leaped at his mouth. And at that moment Halston knew that it was something more than a cat. It was something possessed of a malign, murderous intent.
He caught one last glimpse of that black-and-white face below the flattened ears, its eyes enormous and filled with lunatic hate. It had gotten rid of the three old people and now it was going to get rid of John Halston.
It rammed into his mouth, a furry projectile. He gagged on it. Its front claws pinwheeled, tattering his tongue like a piece of liver. His stomach recoiled and he vomited. The vomit ran down into his windpipe, clogging it, and he began to choke.
In this extremity, his will to survive overcame the last of the impact paralysis. He brought his hands up slowly to grasp the cat. Oh my God, he thought. The cat was forcing its way into his mouth, flattening its body, squirming, working itself further and further in. He could feel his jaws creaking wider and wider to admit it.
He reached to grab it, yank it out, destroy it…and his hands clasped only the cat’s tail.
Somehow it had gotten its entire body into his mouth. Its strange, black-and-white face must be crammed into his very throat. A terrible thick gagging sound came from Halston’s throat, which was swelling like a
flexible length of garden hose.
His body twitched. His hands fell back into his lap and the fingers drummed senselessly on his thighs. His eyes sheened over, then glazed. They stared out through the Plymouth’s windshield blankly at the coming dawn.
Protruding from his open mouth was two inches of bushy tail…half-black, half-white.
It switched lazily back and forth.
A bird cried somewhere again. Dawn came in breathless silence then, over the frostrimmed fields of rural Connecticut.The farmer’s name was Will Reuss. He was on his way to Placer’s Glen to get the inspection sticker renewed on his farm truck when he saw the late morning sun twinkle on something in the ravine beside the road. He pulled over and saw the Plymouth lying at a drunken, canted angle in the ditch, barbed wire tangled in its grille like a snarl of steel knitting.
He worked his way down, and then sucked in his breath sharply. “Holy moley,” he muttered to the bright November day. There was a guy sitting bolt upright behind the wheel, eyes open and glaring emptily into eternity. The Roper organization was never going to include him in its presidential poll again. His face was smeared with blood.
He was still wearing his seat belt.
The driver’s door had been crimped shut, but Reuss managed to get it open by yanking with both hands. He leaned in and unstrapped the seat belt, planning to check for ID. He was reaching for the coat when he noticed that the dead guy’s shirt was rippling, just above the belt buckle. Rippling…and bulging. Splotches of blood began
to bloom there like sinister roses.
“What the Christ?” He reached out, grasped the dead man’s shirt, and pulled it up.
Will Reuss looked—and screamed.
Above Halston’s navel, a ragged hole had been clawed in his flesh. Looking out was the gore-streaked black-and-white face of a cat, its eyes huge and glaring. Reuss staggered back, shrieking, hands clapped to his face. A score of crows took cawing wing from a nearby field.
The cat forced its body out and stretched in obscene languor.
Then it leaped out the open window. Reuss caught sight of it moving through the high dead grass and then it was gone.
It seemed to be in a hurry, he later told a reporter from the local paper.
As if it had unfinished business.