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Chapter 1: Black Cat
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Friday, January 3, 6:00 P.M.
Dan and Karen Marlow sat at their kitchen table and stared unseeingly at their unwanted and cooling hamburgers. Karen had been stirring her coffee for over three minutes.
"Cut it out, Karen! Either drink that coffee or pour it out. I can't stand that constant clinking!"
Karen's mouth quivered and she rose abruptly and dumped the unwanted coffee down the sink. Mechanically she rinsed the cup and then leaned over the sink, head down and shoulders shaking slightly.
Dan watched his wife through a wash of grief and pity. Fear gripped him as he took a sip of his own tepid coffee. Carefully he wiped his mouth and stood to move toward the bowed form at the sink.
"I'm sorry, Honey. I shouldn't have been so rough on you."
At the gentle touch of the big hands on her shoulders, Karen turned and buried her face in Dan's sweater. Their arms circled each other for several minutes, the tears of both mingling on Dan's chest.
Finally Karen spoke. "Dan what are we going to do? I feel so helpless, about the twins, I mean. Do you think we should report this to anyone, or talk to anyone about it? Try to get some kind of explanation?"
As Karen was speaking, Dan realized that this was their first physical contact since his wife got home from school three hours ago. And he felt a slight lessening of anxiety for the first time since the BUST-IT bulletin came across the wire just after noon.
"Honey, I listened to network coverage all the way home from Camp Hill this afternoon and one thing is certain about this whole affair. No one really knows what happened. We know that it is world-wide and that there doesn't seem to be any evidence of an enemy out there somewhere who's doing all this to us. Beyond that there just aren't any answers that make any kind of sense. At least not to me."
"I know, Dan. From the standpoint of logic, what you say is true. But as a mother I just can't sit here and accept the disappearance of my babies without at least making some kind of effort to find them."
The big man curled his index finger and gently lifted Karen's chin till he could look into her eyes. Softly he kissed her salty mouth and then held her out at arm's length. Their eyes met again.
"Karen, I don't know what to tell you or how to console you. The twins are gone, and so are the babies and young children of parents all over the world. I guess the only thing we bereaved parents can do is trust government agencies to come up with some kind of explanation.
Dan paused to blow his nose and when he continued there was an increased measure of huskiness in his voice. "The only thing is, Karen, I can't get over the feeling that no matter what kind of explanation we eventually get, we'll never see Kevin and Kellie again. I don't know how, or why, or even where, but they are just -- gone!"
"You don't think there's a chance that some force from another planet or somewhere out in space has, like they used to say on Star Trek, has transported them somewhere? You know, beamed them up to a UFO or an orbiting space ship, or even another planet somewhere." Karen immediately wished she hadn't used the Star Trek analogy and she saw Dan felt it, too. Yesterday, at this very moment, the twins had most likely been in front of the TV, captivated by an ancient rerun of the adventures of Captain Kirk and Mister Spock. And now? Now they were personally experiencing something which might far transcend anything a script writer could conjure with a typewriter.
a painful moment of silence Dan spread his hands and continued. "I'm not
an eye witness so I suppose I know even less than you do, Karen. But I still say
that something has happened which has no precedent, not even in the minds of science
fiction writers. I know it sounds simplistic, and maybe even a little calloused,
but we'll just have to wait and see what the experts come up with. But that doesn't
keep me from missing Kevin and Kellie, horribly." Dan dropped his head and
fresh tears dripped down on his already-damp sweater.
"Maybe the President will have more information when he has that news conference tonight at nine," Karen offered without enthusiasm or even hope. She poured fresh cups of coffee for both of them and they returned to the kitchen table.
Silence ticked on for several minutes. Then, without warning, a hooded woman appeared in the kitchen doorway. Her bare hands clutched an unbuttoned monk's coat at throat and waist while her entire body shuddered with cold. Looking down Karen was amazed to see that the woman's feet were bare and snow clung to their blue-white skin in frosty clumps.
The strange woman's face was as expressionless as a death mask and neither Dan nor Karen recognized her until the hood fell back and exposed her features to the bright light of the overhead kitchen fixture.
"Mrs. Masterson!" Karen gasped. "Are you all right?!
The marble features did not flicker a response of any kind as the visitor's body continued to shake with seizure-like intensity. Quickly Karen moved to her side. "Dan, let's get her in on the sofa and under a warm blanket. By the looks of those feet she must have been out in the snow for quite a while."
Dan took Veronica Masterson's other arm and together the Marlows led her into the living room. She was passively cooperative as Karen removed her coat and helped her to lie down on the 6-foot sofa.
"You know, Dan, I'm not certified in this kind of thing but from a layman's point of view, I'd say this woman is in a catatonic trance. Her eyes are wide open but she acts like she doesn't recognize us. And when I move an arm or leg, she doesn't resist but she doesn't help, either."
Suddenly a cat's blood-chilling ma-rawling echoed through the house and it sounded like the animal was out in the hall. Dan went to check. Two black paws were on the bottom step of the carpeted stairway leading to the second floor and the largest black cat Dan had ever seen stared straight up at the landing as though looking for something specific. At first he was speechless but Dan recovered quickly, reaching behind him to open the front door and swing it wide.
"Out, cat!" he snapped. "We have enough trouble here without listening to your big mouth." But when Dan turned back toward the stairs after opening the door, the intruder was flowing up the steps with classic feline grace.
"Get down here, you black nuisance!" Dan roared. Somehow "kitty-kitty" didn't seem to fit the occasion. Regardless of the form of address, the black cat never faltered in his upward glide and disappeared from Dan's view in the general direction of the twins' room.
Dan started to go to the kitchen for the broom and then shrugged, mouthed a few unprintables toward the top of the stairs, and returned to the living room.
Ronni was covered from chin to toes with a soft woolen blanket Dan and Karen had bought last summer in New York after seeing the Broadway presentation of the Lion King. Kevin and Kellie had loved that blanket, taking turns standing at the top of the stairs and pretending to be Mufasa.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Masterson's vacant eyes stared straight up at the ceiling and her entire body was as motionless as death.
Silently Karen took Dan's hand and led him back to the kitchen. "What in the world was all that racket in the hall?"
"There was a monster of a black cat right there in the front hall. He must have slipped in when we opened the door for Mrs. Masterson. I tried to put him out but he ran upstairs instead. Do the Mastersons have a black cat?"
"I'm not sure. I can't remember her saying anything last night--yes, she did. Said something about needing to go out for cat food first thing this morning. Didn't say what kind of cat they had, though. Do you think that cat belongs to her?"
Before Dan could answer, a sound rolled down from the second floor which turned his blood frigid. The human intellect solves audio problems on the basis of association. Even the simple process of identifying a sound requires the retrieval of a previously-heard sound of known origin and the comparison of the former sound with the current one.
The sound now assaulting Dan's ears and flooding his consciousness was not on file among the millions of stored memories in his brain. In the absence of familiarity, his immediate reaction was fear. Fear with substance. Fear that coated the lining of his mouth with a foul scum. Fear that caused his vital rhythms to forsake their normal cadence and run amok.
One look at Karen and he knew there was no help there. At the onset of the unearthly sound, she sat down hard in her chair and blood was beginning to ooze from the corner of her mouth as the result of a bitten lip.
Dan owned a Smith and Wesson.22 automatic. Over the years it had been used exclusively for plinking tin cans out at the quarry. Just last summer the twins had started nagging Dan for a chance to do some shooting and the quarry plinking had resumed after a hiatus of several years. By mid-November both Kevin and Kellie, using a two-hand grip, had been able to knock a number 10 can off a stump at 20 yards. The gun hadn't been out of the locked gun safe in the dining room closet since Thanksgiving Day, however.
With the hellish sound still cascading down the stairs and flowing through the first-floor rooms, Dan's hand went instinctively to the key ring hanging from a belt clip at his right hip. In a fever of haste and terror he opened the gun safe and removed the gun from its case. With shaking hands grabbed a clip and filled it with.22 long rifle cartridges. Then he slammed the clip home and took the gun off safety. He dropped an extra full clip in his sweater pocket.
During the 30 seconds or so it took to make the gun operational, the ungodly sounds from overhead continued unabated. If anything, they seemed to be showing increased volume and intensity. For an instant Dan felt slightly foolish as he moved toward the foot of the stairs, gun at the ready in his right hand. Probably just the clock radio going off at an inopportune time. Or maybe that stupid cat... No, not even a cat the size of their unwelcome visitor could produce a sound like the one now reverberating through the Marlow home.
The armed man paused at the bottom of the stairs and thought he could detect at least an undertone of familiarity in what he was hearing. Yes, he was sure that part of the sound resembled speech. Except, it was like no human articulation he had ever heard. Instead of a single source, the sound seemed to be a composite which was coming from myriad sources. And the speech-like facets of the total effect were certainly not human. More like the synthesized racket attributed to the prehistoric monsters in a science fiction movie, only more complex and certainly more sinister. Regardless of how carefully Dan listened he was unable to identify a single syllable which sounded like it belonged to an earthly language.
Now he could hear a soft thumping mixed with the more frightening aspects of the noise coming from above. Dan realized he couldn't justify delaying the ascent any longer in terms of anything but sheer terror and considered retreating to the kitchen and the solace of Karen's company. But the memory of the look in her eyes when she had first heard the sound changed his mind.
Dan checked the safety with his thumb and slowly climbed the stairs, step by careful step. When he passed the midpoint of his upward journey his nose was assaulted with a gross odor fully as frightening as the sound he was hearing. The hideous smell was somewhat reminiscent of advanced putrefaction and fresh feces, with a touch of strong animal musk thrown in. As he reached the top step he could see that the door to the twins' room was open and a shaft of light from the hall ceiling fixture fell across three quarters of the bed.
What Dan saw in that lighted area of the room was more strange than frightening. After getting home from work, Karen had placed the plastic bag containing the things Kevin and Kellie had worn that morning on their bed. Now the enormous black cat was on the bed and had torn open the bag with his claws. The kids' clothes were all over the bed and the ripped bag was on the floor. The cat, with every hair on end from the bridge of his scarred nose to the tip of his luxurious tail, was savagely attacking each article of clothing in turn. Shirts, jeans, underwear, socks--everything received the destructive treatment of fang and claw. And while Dan watched, the black monster reared up on his hind legs and sprayed musky urine over what was left of the twins' things.
desecration was so horrifying and infuriating that Dan almost forgot the terrible
sound and smell. At that instant the cat sensed an intruder and whirled, still
on his hind legs, to face the armed man. His mouth was open as far as it could
go and the full onslaught of the sound-and-odor montage washed over Dan like a
load of sewer sludge. At close range, the multifaceted aspect of the sound was
much more noticeable, almost as though a thousand unimaginable demons of hell
were striving to outdo each other in voicing the most vile imprecations. And the
odor! The odor was so substantive that Dan felt the air in front of his face was
actually tinted brown by its intensity.
As the cat caught a glimpse of Dan, he dropped into a pre-spring crouch, tail lashing furiously. With an inborn instinct of self preservation, Dan raised the gun and began firing. The first slug hit the cat on the bridge of the nose and literally blew his brains out his ears. But the unworldly feline had already committed his body to the spring and was airborne when the second slug ripped open his underbelly from chest to groin.
The cat's original trajectory was plotted to put his yellowed fangs and curved claws in deadly contact with Dan's throat. The two well-placed shots, however, marred the flight and the lifeless, bloody body thudded into Dan at the belt line. The furious man leaped back from the fallen cat and pumped five straight shots into the flaccid black mass where it lay. The body twitched with the impact of each slug.
Later, Dan couldn't remember exactly when the horrific sound left the house. But after the last shot, he could hear it, like a rapidly disappearing freight train, out over the Susquehanna River and heading northeast. With the noise gone and the cat dead, he became conscious of a blanket of subzero air which swirled around his body for an instant. But then both the cold and the odor left, also, as though in pursuit of the strange sound. The upstairs hall assumed some measure of normalcy, except for the bloody body on the floor.
went into the bedroom and dropped into a rocker. Gradually, his vital signs returned
to normal limits. As the tension ebbed out of his body, he allowed his mind to
rewind the tragic activities of the last two days. Could it be just yesterday
morning he had started out for the radio station in a January snow storm?
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