by Nancy Adams
The Black Cat is the winner of our Halloween Mystery Short Story Contest! It was a very tight race as almost all of the stories were really good-as evidenced by how many we are publishing. Watch for the rest of the top five to go up between Monday-Thursday this coming week leading up to Halloween! And be sure to catch them all in our Terrific Tales section!
She was lost. Deliberately lost.
Rain pelted her face, and a chill night breeze pierced her thin coat of fur. Persephone shivered. Feet passed to and fro on the broad pedestrian walkway, and she huddled into the bushes that bordered the walk, only to start away as raucous laughter rang through an open window and a glass bottle sailed out, too close.
The bottle smelled like the bottles he drank from, the bottles that changed him into another person, the person who had—
Sheeting rain pursued her, and Persephone paused to look around, panting with fear. Before her, another broad walkway intersected with the first. Beyond it, trees and grass: a park. Too much open space here, where could she go? The lives within her belly clamored for birth; she had to hurry.
There. A solid looking building some ways ahead on the main walk’s opposite side. An old building, with little niches here and there that would provide shelter from the rain and wind. Shelter, and a hiding place, too. Gathering her courage, Persephone dashed across the broad walk, skirting the melee of moving feet, shifting her sinuous body to dodge boots and shoes. The passing students didn’t see her, a small cat black as the rainy night, though a few of them felt her passage, invisible as the wind.
Another border of hedge. Persephone skittered into the concealing branches, belly heavy, pinpricked with pain. Almost there. In drier weather, the hedge would do, but in this rain the building would be better. With her last scrap of energy, she darted across autumn-withered grass and up broad stone steps to the tall red doors. The doorway was deeply recessed, with roomy niches on either side that would deflect most of the chill wind and an overhang above that kept out the worst of the rain. Persephone curled into the driest corner, and her body gave a great heave as waves of pain surged through her belly. She yowled through the pain and flopped onto her side, resting a moment, then rose to her feet and squatted down. Fluid poured out, and then the kittens, one at a time, tiny, mewling, slick-covered things. She licked each of the five dry as it appeared, and each kitten then took its place at a teat. As soon as the last kitten was settled and nursing, Persephone lay down her head, feeling safe at last.
Sunlight woke her, and the sound of feet coming up the stone steps. The little cat tensed. As the kittens stirred, nuzzling against her belly, memories of yesterday came flooding back. Her person’s face, contorted by rage, his hands lashing out with a sharp silver something. Her frantic race away from the house into the unfamiliar, rain-slicked streets. Finding this doorway. Feeling safe. Giving birth.
But now a new threat appeared.
The man wasn’t tall, but he made up for that in bulk. Round, not angular like he had been. A long beard of brown, speckled with gray, and blue eyes that peered down at her from beneath little bits of clear glass in small wire frames. He hadn’t had those, neither beard nor bits of glass in front of his eyes. More important, this man’s breath smelled of fresh mint, not the odor that came from the little glass bottles that had turned him from her person, the person she’d loved, into a predator who sought only to hurt. The differences were reassuring, but Persephone cowered back all the same.
“Aw, you poor little thing.” The stranger crouched down, and Persephone shrank further back into the stone recess, shielding the kittens with her body as best she could.
“I won’t hurt you, kitty.” The man seemed to read her thoughts. “Here.” He whipped off a red scarf that had been wound around his neck and settled it over her and the litter. “But you need something better, don’t you?” The stranger’s voice was deep, but soothing, unlike his high-pitched tones, which grew shrill and shriller with every bottle he drank.
The round, bearded man rose to his feet and took something out of his pocket, stuck it in one of the red doors. Then, gently, he swung open the far door, propped it with a stone, and went inside.
Persephone stared at the open doorway, half wanting, half fearing to go inside. Inside would be warmth and shelter from rain. The drops had stopped during the night, but she knew they would come again, sometime. And this doorway wouldn’t always be safe. Doors were for humans to go in and out—and what if he were to come through? She hadn’t run that far, after all.
“Today of all days, on the Feast of Saint Francis.” The round, bearded man reappeared in the doorway, holding a cardboard box. “He preached to the birds, you know, and if he was here today, he’d preach to you cats. He loved all creatures, all living things. I reckon the saint himself led you and your little ones here. Just in time for the Blessing of the Animals.”
The man crouched by her side again and set down the box, then removed the red scarf covering her and the kittens, placed it inside, and backed away to stand by the open door. Without the red scarf, Persephone shivered in the sudden chill. The kittens were starting to shiver, too. She glanced back at the bearded man. She had no choice; she had to trust him if the kittens were to live.
Hesitant, she rose to her feet and approached the box. Sniffing, she investigated it thoroughly. Human smells—but something reminiscent of the glass bottles, too. Stiffening, Persephone arched her back, hairs standing out. Behind her, the kittens began to mew anxiously. Still blind, they were helpless. She smelled the box again. Like, but not like. What if this man drank, too, and turned into another creature? He, after all, had also been gentle at first. But the kittens were shivering. They would die without shelter.
One by one, she took each by the scruff of its neck and set it into the warm, fuzzy red nest the bearded man had made, then jumped inside and began licking them. The bearded man approached, crouched down again, and then Persephone felt herself rise, the box lifting, pressed against the man’s chest. His beard smelled of soap, no trace of that other smell, and Persephone began to relax and enjoy the warmth.
They went inside.
The bearded man set the box carefully down against a wall and then shut the door. The chill wind ceased, and Persephone took a long sniff, wanting to know more about this place, since it would be her new home.
Clanking sounds met her ears, and a puff of warm air. A distinctive smell that she recognized: water and mineral and heat. It was a welcome scent, and yet the familiarity made her uneasy, too. All the same, it was good to be inside and warm again. She licked the kittens one more time and then sank into sleep.
Persephone woke again as the man returned with a bowl of water and a dish that smelled of lovely, water-dwelling things. Suddenly ravenous, she lifted her head and leaped out of the box.
“Never knew a cat to refuse tuna.” Her rescuer grinned.
A draft and a creak. The door opened and a woman came in. She was dressed all in black with a little white collar.
“Laurie!” The bearded man rose and went over to give her a hug.
“Hey, Nick.” The woman thumped him on the back.
“Look what Saint Francis has brought.” Nick led her over. Persephone didn’t raise her head. There was still more tuna to eat. Women posed no threat, in her experience, and she didn’t know when she’d be able to eat again.
“That’s perfect.” The woman named Laurie knelt down with a big smile. “Kittens, too! Oh, Nick, where did you find them?”
“On the church steps when I came to open up this morning.”
“And on the Feast of Saint Francis. Can you believe that?” she marveled. “You should stay here with them till the service is over. They can be our grand finale.”
Suddenly a great, low sound rumbled through the building. Persephone could feel the vibrations rise from the stone floor beneath her paws clear through to her bones, but unlike most human sound, it was a pleasant sensation.
“All right, you lot,” a man’s voice said in the distance. “Let’s start with the hymns.”
Human voices joined the rumbling sound, but they were different from any voices Persephone had ever heard. It was the difference between a sparrow’s chirp and a cardinal’s liquid song. Finishing off the tuna, she jumped back into the box and licked the kittens again.
Then the joyful noise ceased, and footsteps clattered in. Anxious, Persephone peered out of the box as people began coming through the doors. But it wasn’t just people. She could smell dog, and hear a disquieting yip, yip, yip. It was joined by other animal smells and sounds. Birds—Persephone twitched and flicked out her tongue; the chittering of rodents; another couple of cats; then a stronger smell, and there appeared an animal she’d never laid eyes on before, something the size of a large dog, but smelling completely different. It had shaggy white fur, hooves instead of paws, and a long, thin face topped by floppy ears and short, curving horns. Even a little beard at its chin like a human’s. Looking around, it uttered a shrill bleat. Persephone stared. Nick stayed by her side, a reassuring presence. She settled back down to licking the kittens.
Then the great rumble began again, and Nick picked up her box. Nervous, the little cat hunkered down. A strong, overpowering odor assaulted her senses and she began to sneeze. When she dared to look up again, she saw the other animals, each accompanied by a human, all in a row. She, Nick, and the kittens were at the far end, next to the strange-looking horned beast. Persephone sniffed at it more thoroughly, and was reassured by the smell. It was a beast you’d have to watch, what with the horns and its size, but the smell was nothing like that of a predator. Then the human birdsong began again, carrying with it a sense of safety and peace. Persephone rubbed her head against Nick’s chest and began to purr.
Weeks had passed since that awful night when she’d fled for her life. Snug in Nick’s little house next to the church, Persephone almost forgot to feel afraid. The kittens grew teeth and began to play. Nick continued to feed her tuna, and she even got chicken livers every so often as a special treat.
Dusk had fallen when a knock came at Nick’s door. When he opened it, a group of people stood outside, dressed in strange clothing. “Trick or treat!” they cried. Persephone heard the words, but didn’t understand what they meant. She still didn’t like strangers, and hurried under the couch, poking her head out to see what was going on.
Nick laughed at the strangely dressed group and took out a big orange bowl that he’d placed on a table by the door. Persephone could smell what was in it—interesting odor, but not at all like meat. Nick held out the bowl to the group, and they reached inside.
“I’ve got plenty,” he said. “You can take two a piece.”
“Thank you!” The strangers waved and departed. Perhaps to humans, those things in the bowl were “treats.” Despite the interesting smell, Persephone still preferred her chicken livers and fish.
All evening, the scenario was repeated over and over, until at last Nick turned out the porch light and locked the door. As he settled on the couch with a book, Persephone came out and jumped on Nick’s lap. The kittens jumped in and out of the empty bowl, which fell on its side, then started batting it around. It didn’t seem to weigh much, and started rolling away, increasing their excitement.
But it didn’t take long before they wore themselves out and collapsed on the floor. Nick rose and put away the bowl, then brought out the big basket where she and the kittens slept at night. Gently, he nestled each kitten into the familiar nest of his old red scarf and took the basket back into the kitchen, where it was warmer, before resuming his place on the couch.
Nick was just shutting his book when there was another knock at the door—accompanied by a low, whimpering cry. Persephone sat up, ears twitching. The cry was horribly familiar. She hissed and stood up, arching her back, fear making her fur stand on end. But Nick was already opening the door and heading out into the night.
No, no. What should she do?
Her worst nightmare came through the door. Nick guided the man inside with a supportive hand.
Persephone leaped off the cushion and dove back under the couch, trembling with horror. It was him.
Cautiously, Persephone crept forward to peek out. Her person pointed—no, he wasn’t her person any more, but a predator, a creature worse than a street full of dogs.
“It looks like my cat. She ran away four weeks ago. Four weeks ago this very night. That’s why I came to see you. Heard some kids say there was a black cat here in your house by the church, that it came just about the time mine went missing.”
Persephone’s heart raced. He’d come to claim her. To claim her, and then—an image of the sharp, shiny steel blade aiming for her eye flashed into her mind.
Nick said nothing, but his jaw clenched. His gaze became wary. “Why don’t you sit down, Mr.—?” He gestured to a chair on the far side of the room, away from her hiding place. Maybe Nick wasn’t going to hand her over after all.
“Alan,” her old owner said. He followed Nick to the far corner of the room and sat in the chair, but his eyes never left the couch. He was watching for her. Persephone backed up as far as she could, until she was against the wall. She could no longer see their faces, but she could still see their feet, Nick’s clad in plush red slippers, his in scuffed brown loafers and old socks that sagged at the ankles.
“That cat,” Alan said, his voice slurred as it always was when he’d been drinking from the little glass bottles.
“Loathsome brute, stealing my slumber.”
“Sounds like you need some coffee,” Nick said. “I’ll just pop into the kitchen. You need it right away and I’ve drunk the last of the pot. ‘Fraid instant will have to do.”
Sounds of water and the smell of gas as Nick lit the burner. Then Persephone heard something else. Sounds too faint for a human to pick up from the next room. The click, click, click of buttons being pressed.
“Here you are.” Nick set down a mug next to Alan’s chair and retreated back to the couch. Emboldened by the barricade of his red-slippered feet, Persephone crept forward again to see what her old owner was up to. What if he turned on Nick the way he’d turned on— Memories of red-splattered terror welled up. No. She didn’t want to remember.
“Hideous beast,” Alan went on,”whose craft seduced me into . . .” He covered his mouth with a start. “I’m . . . I was starting to fall asleep. Been having these nightmares.” He took a glass bottle from his jacket pocket, a hideously familiar bottle, and took a long drink, then put the bottle back. But his hand stayed in the pocket, just a little too long. The gleam of silver blazed into Persephone’s eyes as Alan’s hand snaked out, clutching a sharp, shiny blade. She had to do something. She couldn’t let Nick die the way Madeleine had—
With a full-throated yowl, Persephone bounded out from under the couch. Nick had been good to her, he’d rescued her, she had to protect him. Nick would get away—and take care of the kittens. He’d be good to them after she was gone.
Claws out, back arched, she sprang at Alan’s legs and dug her claws in.
Alan shrieked and started up, knocking over the coffee from the side table.
At that moment, a knock sounded on the door. Nick sprang from the sofa to open it, and a man dressed in blue hurtled into the room.
“Demon! Infernal fiend!” Alan raised the knife over Persephone’s head.
But the man in blue grabbed his arm. Alan dropped the knife—but Persephone was back under the couch again. “Well, if it isn’t Professor Edgarson,” the man in blue said.
“You know him?” Nick asked.
“Edgarson lost his bid for tenure, took to drink,” the blue man said. “We’ve picked him up for drunk and disorderly more than once. Rumor is, he took it out on his wife, too.” He gave the professor a look of disgust. “Then she disappeared four weeks ago, under suspicious circumstances. Was supposed to meet her book club group on the evening of October third, but never showed up.”
“The walls of our cellar are solid,” Alan babbled, locking eyes with Persephone as she huddled beneath the couch.
“So that’s where you hid your wife’s body,” the man in blue said. He took out a metal thing with loops and put it on Alan’s hands.
“No, no!” Alan shrieked, attempting to twist out of the other man’s grip. “It’s that creature, that fiend!”
But the blue-coated man just rolled his eyes. He didn’t even look in her direction. “Thanks, Nick,” he said with a nod, and led Persephone’s old owner out. Nick closed the door and locked it. Persephone crawled out from under the couch and jumped back onto its cushions. Soft mews came from the kitchen as the kittens scampered back into the front room.
“You won’t have to fear him again, little girl,” Nick said, stroking her back. “He’s going away for good.”
Persephone stopped trembling and rubbed against Nick’s chest. The fur from his long beard tickled. Deep in her chest, a rumbling started. The kittens clambered onto Nick’s shoulders, and Persephone fell asleep, still purring.
Inspired by Poe’s story of the same name, this differs in several obvious ways. Unlike Poe’s cats, mine is female rather than male (and hence named “Persephone” rather than “Pluto”), and more importantly, she escapes. Like Poe’s cat, however, she is the means by which her murderous former owner is finally discovered and brought to justice.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories, and more Halloween stories all month, in our mystery section.