In this quiet suburban neighborhood, Monica Clayton runs a successful online business collecting and selling old books.
Violence shatters her peaceful life with the terrifying death of her cat, Scrunch. Something stalks her.
Toying with her. Taunting.
To survive she must uncover the secret, and answer the question.
What dragged in the cat?
It all started Tuesday morning with Scrunch in the living room. His flat Persian kitty face looking back at the rest of his body with a familiar look of indignation, as if his last thought was, shit, doesn’t that beat all?
Monica couldn’t go back down there right away. She stayed on her bed with her knees tucked up against her chest, and tried to reason it out. After the first half-hour she wondered if she had simply imagined what she had seen. His body smaller without the inside parts.
Maybe it had been some laundry she left on the floor? It was early and the living room was still sort of dark. His legs scattered like sticks. Except she didn’t leave laundry around the house. She kept the place neat and clean. Blood flecks bright red on the pale carpet but not as much as she would have expected. Something else then. Or maybe nothing. Maybe she had dreamed that she woke up and went down to the living room. Long black and white fur, the softest fur, matted with blood.
Except she was dressed to meet with a seller later, she had on her makeup, and the sunlight made the loft look bright and cheery. Monica pushed her hands down against the bed. She had to go look. She got off the bed and took a shaky breath.
“You can do this,” she whispered.
Monica crossed the loft to the railing, grabbed onto the smooth wood, and looked down. She screamed.
It took the police twenty minutes to arrive. Two squad cars pulled up into her driveway. Four officers got out. They all walked towards her. A big blocky woman officer took the lead.
“Yes. Monica Clayton.”
“I’m Officer Fabin. Are you okay?”
Monica let loose a strangled laugh. “Sure. Great.” She took a deep breath. “I’m okay. I had to cancel my meeting.”
“Just tell us what happened.”
It didn’t take long. There wasn’t that much to tell. When she finished the officers talked among themselves for a minute and then the other three moved off towards her house. Officer Fabin stayed with her in the yard.
“This is a nice place you have here. You live alone?”
“Can I ask what you do?”
“I buy and sell rare books online.”
Officer Fabin looked around at the yard. “You must be doing okay?”
“Did you notice any signs of forced entry? Did you hear anything?”
“No. There’s blood in the kitchen, and on the pet door.”
Officer Fabin talked into a mic on her shoulder for a second. “Okay. I know this is hard. Can you think of anyone that might bear a grudge against you?”
“God, no. I don’t think so.”
“Are you going to be okay if I go help the others? Do you need me to stay?”
“No.” Monica forced herself to smile. She wouldn’t fall apart. “I’ll be fine.”
The police had been inside for fifteen minutes. Monica knew because she kept checking her watch while she waited and paced the yard. The neighbor’s pug, Popeye, charged up and down in their yard on the other side of the fence. He wheezed when he barked. Popeye’s smashed in face was a canine reminder of Scrunch. This is silly, she told herself. Scrunch is dead. Deep breath. She had to deal with it. She couldn’t stay out in the yard all day. She started up the stairs to the porch. Before she reached the top Fabin opened the door and came out carrying a white plastic trash back. In the light Monica could see streaks inside and something heavy and dark at the bottom.
“Ms. Clayton,” Fabin said gently. “We cleaned it up the best we could. You’ll need to do something about the stains. Would you like us to help you bury him?”
Monica felt like someone had their fist down her throat. She coughed. “No. I can manage. Do you have any ideas how…?”
One of the other officers, a nice looking guy about her age, stepped forward. “A raccoon, Ms. Clayton. It must have injured the cat outside and then followed it in through the pet door to finish the job.”
“Yes,” Fabin said. “It must have been shocking to see that this morning.”
Monica gave a nervous, relieved laugh. A raccoon. Of course. She felt a bit flushed. “I’m sorry to call you out for something like this. I was so startled.”
“No problem, Ms. Clayton.” Fabin gently let down the plastic bag. “Take care.”
Monica squeezed her hand. “Thank you. I will. Really, I’m sorry to bother you.”
The officers left. Monica retrieved her shovel from the garage and buried Scrunch in the front planter near the rock where he liked to sun himself. She cried a bit saying goodbye, then went inside to clean up. The police had cleaned up everything except a few brown stains on the carpet. After scrubbing away the stains she showered, then made some tea and decided to use the remainder of her day off lost in a good novel.
Wednesday morning Monica slapped at her alarm and instead hit something warm and a bit squishy. She opened her eyes. Popeye’s head sat on her nightstand looking with cross-eyed surprise at his corkscrew tail which hung from his mouth. Monica screamed. The alarm buzzed on.
She scrambled back from the nightstand. Her hand landed in something wet. Monica slipped and fell back against the sheets and felt the back of nightgown become instantly soaked. A thick butcher shop smell ran across her face. Screaming in great shuddering breaths Monica thrashed and rolled off the bed. More liquid splashed against her front but she got off the bed. She backed away while great sobs shook her body.
Blood pooled on the sheets. Popeye’s deflated corpse lay scattered on the pillow. Monica fled to the bathroom. For several minutes she kept her eyes closed and tried to regain control. It was on her, she knew. She didn’t want to see. It stank. She stank. Monica opened her eyes. She looked ghastly. The lights seemed unnaturally bright. Most of her nightgown clung to her in vibrant wet red. It was splattered across her arms, her neck, and even her face. A drop ran down her lip. She licked automatically.
Monica heaved and collapsed against the sink. Her gut kept heaving until nothing was left. Gradually it subsided. Monica shuddered and pulled the nightgown off. She dropped it in the trash can without looking and climbed into the shower. She didn’t come out until the water turned cold and even then it took her several minutes to open the door.
Monica dressed quickly and hurried downstairs. She called the seller and left a message apologizing for canceling twice. She’d reschedule later. After hanging up she pressed nine and stopped with her finger shaking about the one. She set the handset down. How would this look to the police? Popeye was killed in her bed and she didn’t wake up? How was that possible? And putting his head on her nightstand—his curly tail sticking out of his mouth—that wasn’t something that a raccoon would do. What if they thought she was crazy? They might decide that she had done this. Monica took a deep breath. But what had? She couldn’t go to sleep tonight not knowing.
Monica stood up. First she’d clean up the mess upstairs. Then she’d start investigating.
A search online failed to turn up any recent reports of attacks on pets. Monica settled back in her chair and absently rubbed at her hands, still raw from scrubbing her fingers. She had buried Popeye along with her bedding and nightgown in a new flower bed along the back. She didn’t want the neighbors to think that there was anything odd so she had dug out the sod in a large curving bed. She had gone Home Depot and came back with bags of soil, bark, and a selection of new plants. Then she had spent the better part of the day working on the flower bed. At one point Joseph, Popeye’s owner, had been out in the yard calling for the dog. She had felt guilty when he asked if she’d seen the dog that she didn’t say anything. What could she have said? Yes, I’m sorry, but I woke up this morning with his butchered carcass in my bed? Monica took a deep breath, let it out, and looked back at the screen.
There wasn’t any sign that anyone had broken into the house. She hadn’t noticed any signs that anything else had been disturbed. The possibilities seemed limited. Could she have done it? Maybe in some sort of unconscious state? Popeye had been barking at her yesterday when she was in the yard. Monica didn’t think it likely but she refused to rule it out right away. What other options were there?
Bookshelves lined the walls of her study. It was a collection unlike any that would usually be found in someone’s home. The shelves were full of rare volumes. She had cases for the most delicate and valuable volumes. A couple safes for the really spectacular finds. That’s what she did—collect and sell rare books online. It was the perfect job. She traveled around the world. She got to work at home. Best of all she had the opportunity to read some of the most extraordinary things. Yet with all of this knowledge at her fingertips, and the internet through her computer, she was still at a loss to explain what had happened.
Maybe she should have called the police. Monica sighed and pushed her chair back from the computer. After dinner she’d try again. She got up to leave, stopping to straighten a box of new deliveries that had fallen over beside the door.
Scrunch’s fault, she thought as she picked up the books. He was always jumping on things he shouldn’t. Her eyes moistened. He wouldn’t be doing that anymore. Monica wiped her eyes and picked up the last book. The binding was broken. It might have happened when the box fell. Some of these books were very fragile. When she had a chance she would see if it could be repaired or not. She put it in the box, then went to the kitchen.
Although Monica spent the evening looking for answers she didn’t find out much. Raccoons did, at times, attack and injure house pets. There wasn’t any mention of the sort of thing that had happened to Popeye. She checked the newspaper’s online archives, animal abuse sites, and arrest records. Nothing came up that sounded like what had happened to her. So far, except for the notion that she might be doing this in an unconscious state, she didn’t have a clue what was going on.
Monica rubbed her eyes and groaned. She should get to bed. She was afraid to sleep. Would it be so bad to stay up? She could watch movies all night. If anything happened she would call the police. But first she wanted to make sure that nothing would happen. She shut down the computer and left her study. Then she went through the house and made sure every door and window was locked. She taped the pet door closed with excessive amounts of duct tape. When she finished she made some popcorn and settled in to watch her musicals, starting with Singing in the Rain.
Monica jerked awake. Something had woken her up. She listened. Other than the music for Brigadoon’s menu she didn’t hear anything unusual. She hit the mute button. There was a sharp intake of breath behind her. Monica twisted around.
What light there was from the television reflected across a curved, boney spine. Monica’s first impression was of a skeletal child, skin stretched tight over bones. It was crouched over something with its back to her. There was a stiffness about the bony shoulders. It knew she was watching. It was waiting for her to do something. Monica felt a scream building in her throat. What would it do if she moved again?
The head lifted slowly and Monica lost the impression of a child. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a child. It had a bald skull with a few bristly black hairs. There were spots on the papery skin like liver spots. But the ears were what really killed any childlike impression. They looked chewed. Mangled strips of flesh which hung in tatters around the ear channel. Monica didn’t dare move.
Bony arms reached down into the shadows around its lap. Monica heard flesh tearing and bones snapping. With a faint snarl it threw something away towards the wall. The object landed wetly and looked back at her with glazed eyes. It was the head of a Scotty dog. Smacking sounds drew her attention back to the creature. It was eating with great gasping, gobbling sounds. The noise and the stench made Monica’s stomach clench painfully. Her head swam. No—
She stood up.
The creature hissed and dissolved into a thick black smoke. The dog’s remains splashed on the floor. Monica swayed as the smoke oozed across the floor into her study. She waited a moment then edged around the couch and followed. She turned on the lights as she went. Much of the study remained dark but there was some light in the doorway. Monica crept up and reached in for the light switch.
Claws darted into the light and raked across the back of her hand. Blood poured over her fingers as she snatched her hand back, crying out. She backed up and her heel hit the dog’s head. She bit off her scream and took a step to the side. She saw a sense of movement, just out of the light. It was in there, probably on the box of books next to the door. But it doesn’t like the light, she thought. She didn’t think the light hurt it since it hadn’t been enough to drive it away from the dog. Monica edged towards the floor lamp.
It still hadn’t moved. At least she didn’t think it had. Monica grabbed the lamp with her good hand and pointed it at the doorway. For a second she saw it starkly illuminated. It was crouching on top of the books as she had thought, licking its claws and fingers with a broad purplish tongue. It had a wizened bat-like face. When the light hit it the big yellow eyes snapped shut. It hissed. A second later it vanished, replaced by the inky smoke which sank down into the book.
Monica carried the lamp as far as the cord would allow then stretched out her injured hand towards the study light switch. She could just about reach. With a grimace she sat the lamp down, took a step, and flicked the switch. Warm light filled the room. There wasn’t any sign of the creature.
Carefully, to avoid bleeding on it, Monica picked up the book that had absorbed the smoke. It was the one she had noticed on the floor earlier with the broken binding. The invoice for the shipment was in the box too. She gingerly picked it out. The translated title on the invoice was A Collection of Stories about Demons, Imps, and Haunts.
Whatever that thing was it had come from the book. And if a broken binding had let it out she didn’t dare burn the book or otherwise destroy it. She looked at her hand and winced. First, she’d bandage her hand, but then she’d come back in here and repair the binding and clasp on that book. Then she’d take everything out of the safe and lock it in there. She could get a new safe in the morning.
Monica carried the book to her desk and pointed the task light at the cover. Her Latin was rusty but a literal translation seemed to be A Gathering of Demons, Imps, and Haunts.
No mention of stories. From now on she was going to do her own translations. She winced again looking at the ragged cuts on her hand. She didn’t think she needed stitches but it was going to be sore for a while. Plus who knew what that thing had under its claws? Monica shuddered. She’d better take care of it right away. Two steps away from the desk she stopped and looked back at the book starkly illuminated by the task light. She hated to leave it alone.
She turned and went over to her work table. She pulled down a large number sixteen plastic book cover and spread it out on the work table. Then she turned on the table’s task light so that it was pointed directly at the center of the cover. She went to the desk and carefully picked up the book with her free hand. The cover twitched in her fingers.
Monica gave a startled gasp and nearly dropped the book but managed to keep a hold of it. She hurried back to the table and put the book face down on the cover. Quickly she wrapped the long ends around the book and then folded the short ends over as if she were wrapping a present. She pulled a large piece of book tape from the dispenser and taped the cover shut around the book. For good measure she turned the book face up so that the flaps were held down the back the book’s own weight.
“Now just rest,” she whispered. “When I get back I’ll fix up your binding.”
Monica still didn’t like leaving the book, but she was dripping blood on the floor. The sight of the blood was making her sick. She hurried out of the study, edging around the dog’s remains, and went upstairs to her bathroom. After pouring a liberal amount of hydrogen peroxide on the cuts she pressed a gauze pad to the wounds and wrapped her hand with an Ace bandage. It didn’t leave her with much mobility in her hand. She took a couple ibuprofen.
Her reflection looked pale. There was a smear of blood on her chin. Monica scrubbed her face with a wash cloth. She took a couple deep breaths until her shuddering subsided. She just had to finish this and everything could go back to normal.
Downstairs, she froze in the study doorway. Her hands went to her mouth.
“No,” she moaned against her fingers.
The plastic cover was swollen. Inky black smoke, so thick it looked liquid, pressed against the cover, ballooning it out around the book. A trickle started to run out from beneath the book, bleeding down from the work table.
“No!” Monica ran to the table. She slammed her hands down on either side of the book, ignoring the pain that flared in her injured hand. She yelled right at the bulging blackness. “No! Stop it!”
That twisted bat-nosed face swam up out of the blackness. Yellow eyes squinted against the light as it pressed against the plastic, distorting its wrinkled face further. Its fat purple tongue writhed against the cover and left slimy tracks as it made slobbery noises. Sharp teeth snapped as it tried to get purchase to chew its way free. More smoke oozed from the underside of the book, bringing with it a fecal and blood smell. Monica took a step back from the table. She looked around for something that could help her.
The task light on the desk! Monica rushed over, grabbed it and yanked the plug free. She hurried back to the table and put it down so that it pointed right at the struggling face. Her hand shook as she plugged it in.
The thing’s face vanished back into the smoke. More light, Monica thought. She needed more.
She ran back out to the living room and unplugged the area lamp. She carried it back inside, plugged it in and pointed the lights at the work table. With a faint crinkling sound the cover started to deflate. The edges of the book reappeared. Monica thought quickly. What else?
Finally, after several minutes of scouring the house, she ended up with two more area lights, a large flashlight, and her Coleman lantern. The book lay bare within the blaze of illumination. Monica eased into her chair. Her sore hand was throbbing with her rapid pulse. She bit her lip as she turned the book over and began cutting the cover free with her Exacto knife. Once she had it free she discarded it to the floor. Gingerly she turned the book over and opened the cover.
It was a beautifully illustrated manuscript. Under other circumstances she could see a collector paying a handsome price for such a rare find. She laughed nervously. Of course they wouldn’t have any idea just how rare this book was. She turned the pages and covered her mouth. Horribly disfigured creatures leered from the pages with almost life-like intensity. Monica bit her lip as she turned to the section with the broken binding. There it was. The creature glared at her from the pages. The drawing was split by the broken binding. Monica felt chilled as she stared at the stark illumination. Her hand shook as she reached for the glue and started to work.
When she finished she bound the book by a large four-way rubber band that would hold everything in position until the glue was firmly fixed. Outside the sky was turning pink as the Sun started to rise. If Scrunch had set the creature free by knocking over the box, causing the binding to break, then repairing the book should bind the creature once more. But she had to make sure.
With a careful eye on the book Monica started turning off the lights. As each went off the study darkened. She kept her hands on the last two switches after turning them off and watched the book. Nothing moved. She didn’t see any smoke coming from the pages. She watched it until the Sun came up and flooded the room with light again. Then, stiffly, Monica got up to take care of the final precautions.
She shrink-wrapped the book. Three times. Then she emptied her fireproof rare items safe and locked the book inside. For now it would be enough. Eventually, however, she knew that more steps would have to be taken. Books decay over time. This one would have to be preserved against acid and environmental degradation. She needed to do far more research into the book’s origin. Maybe she could discover another way to bind or destroy the things bound in that volume.
For now, at least, she was safe. The book was repaired. Nothing else would be coming out. She had another unfortunate victim to bury in the garden and some cleaning to do but after that she wanted to get some much deserved sleep. Monica yawned and went out to face the day.
This story is the 54th weekly short story release, written clear back in July 2003. It’s the oldest story I’ve kept in my inventory. Why? Because it was the first story I sold, appearing in Alien Skin Magazine. It wasn’t a pro market but I was still happy to sell the story. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Garden of Evan.