It had been a lovely meal, prepared with delicacy and verve and eaten in the most pleasant of company. The wine, a dry white with a tantalising hint of fruitiness, had somehow complemented perfectly both the meal and the conversation. Now, as Ed looked into Kate’s eyes across a table strewn with the remnants of the bountiful feast, he realised he would quite happily have married her on the spot, first date or not.
She was perfect. Flawless figure with a visage to match, and hair that cascaded down across her shoulders not unlike a golden waterfall. Interesting and amusing, she had a lilting, lyrical voice, with just enough earthiness to make her seem accessible and to allow him to relax in her presence. She was a truly gifted cook, too, and although he had yet to garner proof, he felt strongly that she would be an absolute corker in bed.
And he was damn near sure that he would soon find out for definite.
Earlier, he had not been quite so sure. Ed would never have described himself as lacking in self-confidence, but he did have a marked tendency to misread female body language. Many a woman had slipped past him because he had failed to recognise the little signs, the casual, seemingly accidental brush of hand or thigh, the unnecessarily prolonged eye contact. Almost as many burgeoning friendships ruined because friendly gestures had been taken as a come-on. Earlier, he had been afraid that he might misread Kate’s own subtle signs, afraid that he might move too soon and frighten her away, or else leave it too late and watch the opportunity slip away down the drainpipe like so much dirty dishwater.
But that was earlier, before the contact between her slim unshod foot and his groinal region had become a permanent fixture of the under-dinner-table scene. He was fairly certain that even very close male-female friendships did not progress to footsie, and he had only known Kate for forty-eight hours. New girl in the office, a day spent exchanging glances and shy smiles, a casual, offhand, invitation to dinner sometime; and now tonight was sometime, and looking like it might turn into some time.
Ed felt Kate’s foot slip away and stifled his disappointment. She stood up with ethereal grace, brushed an errant lock of blonde hair away from her face, and smiled down at him.
“Seeing as how I cooked,” she said in her wonderful tones, “I think it’s only fair that you should wash up.”
He nodded, thinking that it was reasonable request in the circumstances, and that he only stood to gain by being helpful and acting the sensitive male role. Besides, the washing up liquid would make his hands extra gentle…
“But,” she continued, and the smile that appeared on her angelic face and more than a hint of the wicked temptress about it, “you can leave the dishes until the morning if you’d prefer.”
Ed, with more than a little difficulty, succeeded in restraining himself from leaping up and punching the air while shouting “Get in there!” at the top of his lungs. It wasn’t easy, but he managed to reply with a nonchalant “Okay” while adopting a posture of supreme cool, even as his heart began an attempt to emulate an alien and burst from his chest.
Kate turned and walked to the foot of the stairs, Ed’s appreciative eyes watching every sway of her hips. She turned, and he quickly brought his eyes up to meet hers, too slowly to mask his desire. She didn’t seem to mind.
“I just want to take care of a few things before you come up,” she purred. “Would you mind checking the doors and windows are locked and switch off all the lights? Oh,” she added almost as an afterthought, “and put the cat out?”
“I think I can manage that,” he told her with a smile. She blew him a kiss, and after one last smile that showed devastatingly perfect white teeth, she disappeared up the stairs.
Ed resisted the urge to chase after her and instead carried the dirty plates into the kitchen. He paused in front of the kitchen mirror to check that his own teeth were altogether free of mocking food. Still grinning, he murmured “nice one my son,” and turned to look back into the living room. The cat was asleep on the rug in front of the fire, an adorable little bundle of black fur, its body gently rising in time with its steady breathing.
He walked towards it.
It was not asleep. It watched the upstart human move towards it with arrogant gait, watched the oversized pink furless idiot approach through slitted eyelids that scarce concealed the awesome malevolence of the orbs beneath. It had feigned sleep through the seemingly interminable evening, watching this male interloper that dared to stray upon its territory like a blind fool stumbling into a nest of vipers.
And just like the blind fool, the human would not realise his mistake until he felt the tearing agony of claw and fang upon his throat, the warm rush of his blood pouring from gaping wounds, until he prayed for death as blissful release from the burning pain that had become his only reality.
Other cats knew not to encroach upon its territory, knew to avoid its pungent urine-marked boundaries or face the certainty of torn ears or crushed noses or lacerated eyeballs that awaited the trespasser. But humans with their feeble useless noses; they would never learn unless taught by pain and death.
This human would serve as an example; the Cat was the master here.
Sure, it tolerated the Mistress, even liked her; for She knew the sensitive spots behind its ears, under its chin, and she saved it the tiresome necessity of hunting to live. But sometimes, when the Cat was in a certain mood, it liked the thrill of the hunt and the orgasmic climax that was the kill. Sometimes it would bring back the fresh corpses that had brought it so much pleasure, and lay them down outside the back door. It knew that the Mistress liked to joke about the bodies, pass them off to her friends as gifts, laugh about how lovely and thoughtful the Cat was. But it knew that secretly She appreciated their true meaning.
Mess with me, and you end up on someone’s doormat.
The Cat watched the human get closer. It emitted a low growl, a challenge. There was only room for one male in this house, and it wasn’t this human buffoon with his disproportionate limbs and tiny whiskers. It watched in disbelief as the human reached down towards it. Surely he could not have the temerity to actually touch a superior species with those pathetic clawless paws? But he was going to, wasn’t he? The Cat vowed then that it would not rest until the human lay dead at its feet, that it would tear the windpipe from his throat and rip the stupid melon head from his shoulders. Then play with it like an extra-large ball of string.
But not here. Here there were bright lights and wide open spaces and deep-pile carpeting. It was the human’s battleground and the Cat, possessed with the innate evil intelligence that is the birthright of its species, knew that on this battleground it could not win. The human, with his vast docile weight, could crush the rapier that was the Cat with the sledgehammer of Homo sapiens bulk. It needed to lure the human onto its own territory, where the human was blinded by darkness and fear, where the human could only scream in impotent terror until the final deathblow was struck.
The decision made, the Cat tensed its muscles and sprang past the cattle-like human with his dull reflexes. It resisted the urge to claw at the human’s face in passing, contenting itself with the knowledge that there would be plenty of time for that soon.
Where humans feared to tread.
Ed’s hand was almost on the black mass of the cat when it burst past his outstretched fingers and tore away up the stairs. He shook his head in amused surprise, chuckled to himself as he made his rounds of the downstairs of the house, checked the doors, switched off the lights. He was tempted to say sod it to the cat, leave it to wander aimlessly, scratching at doors and mewling piteously while he gave its mistress the damn good seeing-to she so clearly deserved.
But then…Kate had asked him to put the cat out and it seemed a small thing to compromise his chances over. Two minutes spent doing what she had asked was better than five minutes spent explaining why he hadn’t done what she asked, and this way he could present himself at her bedroom door and say “I’ve done what you wanted. And if there’s anything else you want doing, I’m your man.”
He could hear a tap running as he made his way upstairs. The bathroom door was closed, as was one of the other doors that led off the landing. A single door stood open on his left, but the room beyond was in darkness.
He rapped gently on the bathroom door.
“Hold on,” came Kate’s voice.
“The cat came upstairs. Did you see it?” he asked, and then immediately cursed himself for his idiocy. With the bathroom door closed it was hardly likely she would have seen the cat, even if it had been twelve feet long and bright pink.
“No,” he heard her reply through the timbers of the door, seemingly without any condemnation of the pointlessness of his question. “Did you try the spare room? He sometimes likes to go in there.”
“Okay, I’ll look.”
He walked across to the spare room door, and reached inside for the switch. He could just about see it, its whiteness illuminated by the dim glow of the landing light, but nothing happened when he flicked the switch.
“The light in there doesn’t work,” came the voice from the bathroom, with classical timing.
“Right,” he called, deciding against a sarcastic expression of gratitude.
He walked into the room, pausing to give his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. Through a gap in the curtains, a thin strip of moonlight cast a pale luminescence over the uncarpeted floorboards; they creaked beneath his feet as he moved further into the room. Hearing a sound, he paused again and listened carefully.
It was the sound of purring.
In its sadistic, callous way, the Cat was enjoying itself immensely.
Having its ears scratched ranked highest among its pleasures, and licking its own genitalia came second, but the thrill of the hunt came a close third. It did not delude itself that the human was scared yet, merely puzzled. Fear would come in time. For the moment, it was content merely to wait, to savour the sight of the human slowly, uncomprehendingly venturing further towards his doom. Come into my parlour said the spider to the fly, and the Cat far surpassed the humble spider in the quality of its evil, if not in quantity of legs.
There were no lights here to guide the human, but for the single mocking shaft of moonlight to give him false hope before the Cat sent him into the smothering embrace of eternal darkness. This was the Cat’s place. The darkness was an old friend and ally, no obstacle to eyes that could see in the dark as if it were the brightest noon. And the eyes were just one of the Cat’s many lethal senses. At the moment the human smelt faintly of aftershave and soap, but soon the room would fill with the urgent odour of fear, and then, just a little later, the overpowering stench of violent death.
The Cat ran its rough tongue over the killing fangs. It was time. It padded noiselessly towards its prey and began to circle.
Ed heard the purring stop, or rather he did not hear the absence of sound that followed. He paused again. The Cat had been somewhere in front of him, but now without the noise to act as a guiding beacon he could not be sure. His eyes were adjusting a little to the darkness, enough that he could see shapes strewn across the floor, some obviously boxes of various sizes, others less recognisable shapes; paint tins, old newspapers? The light from the landing was enough that he could avoid stepping on things, but not enough to know what it was he was avoiding.
Something fell to the floor with a clatter, and he jumped, just a little, feeling his heartbeat quicken a little. He berated himself inwardly for his timidity.
“Here, kitty kitty,” he murmured, making little “chee-chee” sounds. The faintest of noises – the patter of paws on bare wood?
And then there was a sudden pain in his right calf. He looked down with a violent curse, in time to see a black shadow disappear in a rapid blur into the clutter on the floor to his right.
“Little bugger,” he muttered, reaching down to pull up his trouser leg and feel for the damage. Running his fingertips over the skin, he felt no blood, but the skin was definitely marked and quite sore. The material of the trouser had prevented any real cuts, but it still annoyed him that the vicious little sod had scratched him.
“Here kitty,” he begin again, straightening up and allowing the trouser material to fall back down over the wound, “come and feel Ed’s boot up your feline backside.”
Another noise, this time…behind him? He twisted around with a half-smile that became shock as the Cat hurled its furry black body towards his groin, razor-sharp claws glinting like knives in the moon’s glow. He brought his hands across on pure instinct, managing to knock the creature aside so that it tumbled harmlessly among the empty paint pots and assorted papers. It cost him his balance. With a curse, he stumbled backwards over a pile of boxes.
He landed awkwardly, his right elbow crashing down quite hard indeed upon the solid cardboard edge of one; immediately there was a dull pain. “Ouch,” he said loudly, and began to rub the offending arm furiously. Funny bone? There was nothing funny about banging it. There was a pretty good chance he’d have some sort of a bruise there later. And there was nothing funny about this wild-cat chase, either. He had half a mind to call Kate and tell her to put out her own bloody cat.
He might well have done it, too, except that it was then that the door closed.
For a moment, he couldn’t believe it. With the light from the landing lost to him, the thin strip of moonlight seemed only to accentuate the darkness elsewhere. More than that, he couldn’t believe the cat would close the door. He knew it was not Kate; he had not heard her leave the bathroom yet.
Where was the cat now?
He got his answer immediately. Two narrow slitted eyes reflected the moonlight like nefarious diamonds. And then began to move towards him.
The Cat closed in slowly, savouring the moment. The human had surprised it, given it more of a struggle than it had imagined possible, shrugging off the Cat’s first attempt at hamstringing him, and then knocking it aside as it leapt forward for the crippling blow. Now it could see the human watching it approach, making no movement to escape, futile though that would be. It watched the human tending to the minor wound on his arm, not realising that soon he would have real wounds, great rents and gashes that would pump out blood, spray his life over the walls.
All this amused the Cat as it softly padded towards the prone form of its prey.
For the first time, Ed felt a twinge of anxiety. This cat was something else.
The Cat smelt the stirrings of fear. Young fool, it thought. Only now, at the end, do you understand. Claws out, lips drawn back to reveal demonic teeth, the Cat tensed its powerful muscles and prepared to kill.
And then there was light, loathsome light.
“I thought I asked you to put the cat out,” Kate mock-chided Ed with a playful smile, “not play silly buggers with it.” She wore only a short white dressing gown, and Ed could not help but look past the suddenly cute looking cat at its far cuter mistress. She knelt down.
“Munchkin,” she called, “come to Mummy.” The cat padded gracefully over to her.
“Munchkin?” Ed spluttered.
“He’s my little Munchkin, aren’t you baby?” she said, lifting the unprotesting cat into her arms and stroking its ears. The animal, suddenly looking a lot less evil and indeed quite sweet, purred contentedly.
“What are you doing down there anyway?” Kate asked with a questioning expression.
“And closed the door as you fell?” Now she was teasing him.
“No,” he said with mock indignation, “I did that because I wanted to see if I could find him in the dark. Test the old night vision and all that.” He laughed, realising just how unconvincing and, well, just plain odd that sounded.
Kate seemed to accept the reason with good humour. “Well, I’ll put him out now. I want to get to bed sometime tonight.” She paused, then added “don’t you?”
She turned and walked away, but before she disappeared from view, he caught one last glimpse of the Cat. For a long moment their eyes met, human and cat over the girl’s shoulder, and there passed a moment of hatred strangely tempered by a respect of such profundity as can only pass between hunter and hunted, between adversaries who have fought to the limits of their abilities and forged in their striving a bond that cannot be described in mere words.
Then Ed flicked the cat a one-fingered salute, and Kate bore him away.
When she returned, the cat duly cast out into the summer night, she found Ed standing at the bedroom door.
“Are you okay?” she asked with exaggerated concern.
“I hurt my arm,” he told her with a slight whine.
“Oh, my poor dear.” She raised herself on tiptoes to kiss him lightly on the forehead. Then she let the dressing gown drop around her feet and walked naked into the bedroom.
Ed swallowed hard. Suddenly the elbow didn’t seem to hurt that much after all.
He lay on his back, staring at the twisting patterns created by the moonlight on the bedroom ceiling. He was feeling a little pleased with himself; he had put in a pretty heroic performance, and Kate had seemed to enjoy every last moment. And he had been right in his earlier assessment of her; he had not enjoyed himself so much since he had discovered cider.
Despite this, he could not quite relax.
Kate noticed his discomfort. She leaned over, running slim fingers over his chest. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Oh, just…nothing.” What could he say?
“Was it something I…” Kate began, and Ed noticed the slight tremor in her voice. Strange, he thought abstractly, that such a wonderful girl could exhibit insecurity. But then, he thought further, it might be considered odd that a grown man could be unable to sleep because of a cat.
“Darling,” he told her honestly, “you were bloody amazing. Now go to sleep.”
She flashed him a brilliant smile, white teeth shining in the faint moon glow, and rested her head on his shoulder. He put his arms around her, and soon felt her breathing stabilise and deepen. But for him, sleep remained elusive, and his eyes stayed transfixed on the dancing moonlit shapes on the plaster of the ceiling.
On the lawn outside, Munchkin sat very still. And plotted his bloody vengeance.