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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 1996)
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Others to Act as Our Claws

by Don Webb
Copyright © 1996, Don Webb

A Previously Unpublished Short Story by Don Webb :
A story just for the CLF,

(for Misha, who told me every writer needs a cat)

It was quite a surprise to me when I realized that my next-door neighbor was quite mad.

I had always thought that mad people were off in institutions or on TV talk shows or at the very least on street corners downtown arguing with their invisible companions. My name is Morton Abel. I am -- I was a software developer. One of the benefits of my job was the ability to work at home. I could create my little interactive fantasies and E-mail them to my hidden bosses in Chicago, Dallas, or Paris. I could tend my garden and my two cats; drink tea while wearing my gym shorts; and work way past midnight when inspiration or deadline bound me. When I'm not actively banging away on my IBM compatible's keyboard, I watch my cats playing on my patio.

Oscar, a golden neutered male, and Sakmeht, a beautiful black female (of the finest alley pedigree) played on the shadowed cement near the birdbath in my backyard. I always envied them. Their life of sleep and play extending through their own cycles of frisky starlight and drowsy sun. Their life seemed to be a pure manifestation of play -- something that even the most powerful human couldn't lay claim to. I was watching Oscar hunting crickets one sunny afternoon when I saw Mrs. Riddle next door watching him as well.

She had moved into the rental next door. A blue-haired woman, with a straw hat covered in fading plastic roses, I had figured that she would take as great delight in my felines as I. But she was watching Oscar a little too intently and she held a weed clipper. She couldn't see me since her cornflower blue eyes stayed on the cats. I got the impression that should my cats climb over my chain-link fence -- they would be headless cats. Maybe I should meet her and dispel my cabin-feverish thoughts.

I walked outside and she busied herself snapping off low-lying branches of her sycamore.

"Good morning," I said.

"Good morning, Mr. Abel. Certainly a lovely day." She smiled.

We talked and she asked me a lot about my work. As anyone who works at home, I am used to suspicion from people who equate being home during the day with criminal activity, but Mrs. Riddle's remarks seemed hostile to the creative part of my work.

"I suppose," I said, "you'll want to know where I get my ideas."

"I know where you get your ideas, Mr. Abel," she said and walked into her house.

A nutcase.

# # #

I didn't exchange words with Mrs. Riddle for a fortnight. I was picking up the blue 7-lb. bag of OceanFish Flavor Friskies at Simon David's supermarket when someone laid a hand on my back. I hate to be touched by strangers (like cats I am aloof). I straightened up. It was Mrs. Riddle in a green polyester dress a couple of sizes too large for her.

"I left you with a little gift," she said, "Have you figured out where you get your ideas?"

"From an idea service in 'Jersey," I said.

"You get them," she said, "from them ."

" Them ?" I asked, thinking of giant ants.

"The cat-faced ones."

"You mean my cats?"

"There are no cats. There may have never been cats."

"Well, very nice to have talked with you, Mrs. Riddle, but I've got to go home and feed my cat-faced ones."

"Think," she said. "Where do you get your ideas?"

As I made my way down the aisle of endless soda pop, I was thinking whether I should call her landlord and tell him he'd rented the place to a nut.

# # #

The next three days were eighteen-hour days as I met my deadline for UltherQuest,a text-based game for IBM compatibles. The questors had to overcome the evil ape-god Opeos in order to leave the labyrinth and enter the paradisal land of Ulther. I scarcely had time to eat and feed my cats.

I modemed off the result to my boss, put on some Western swing music, and opened a beer.

Where did I get my ideas?

I had majored in history and minored in English in college, which had prepared me to become an assistant manager at B. Dalton's. I was completely unaffected by ambition. I had friends, but my big trouble was keeping up my interest in them. Sex and other frolics occasionally fell in my lap, but I didn't seek them.

Then a little starving kitty turned up on my doorstep. I named her Sarah Jane, because the local PBS was showing Doctor Who. Sarah Jane was always getting into things, and she was the inspiration for my first game, Kitty Quest,in which the player is a kitten seeking out a jar of Pounce treats.

I sold the game to Stephen Jacobson Games. Stephen called me in Phoenix and invited me to move to Austin. So thinking that career had found me, I packed up forty boxes of paperbacks and Sarah Jane and headed east. I worked for Jacobson for five years and made him a lot of money. Sarah Jane ran away and I missed her.

So I went down to the Humane Society and got a pure black female. I named her Sakmeht. I decided to quit Jacobson and went freelance. The first two years I made money hand over fist with Rodent Hunter,Temple of Bast,and Feodora's Familiar. Then I had a dry period and decided I needed something. An affair with a redheaded state legislator didn't fulfill my needs. She lost the election and left Oscar with me.

After Oscar came there was another period of creativity. I created my best-selling Revenge of Puss-in-Boots,which I licensed to Nintendo.

So maybe Mrs. Riddle was right. Maybe I did get my ideas from my cats. Well, if that's the case, I'd better take damn good care of them.

# # #

It was about three in the morning when I heard the scream. There must have been a scream before the scream that had created a nightmare landscape of tunnels that I was running through chased by some gigantic velvet-footed predator. I had to shake the dream out of my head as I heard the second scream. It sounded like a baby being lowered into boiling water.

I sprang up and ran to my front room. By the street light I could see Mrs. Riddle chasing down the chocolate-point Siamese from down the street. The cat made for the thick juniper bushes in front of the McPearson's, but Mrs. Riddle lunged and slid like a little-leaguer stealing second. She grabbed her mewling target and pulled the light-reflecting shears from a deep pocket of her house dress. She pruned the scratching and screaming cat's head off with a single snip.

She had lost her ludicrous garden hat in the process. She picked up the bloody head with the clippers and nudged it into the hat. Then she dropped the body in as well, picking up the hat as a basket. She walked back to her house.

I had meant to confront her, but realizing that I only wore my underwear -- the picture of almost-naked me dealing with a woman strong enough to decapitate a cat seemed at best unwise.

I sat up the rest of the night trying to figure out what to do. Mrs. Riddle seemed to be just someone's dotty old aunt. I didn't think they would believe me.

I took to keeping my cats indoors, only allowing them outside when I was along. Mrs. Riddle took to watching me and my cats through the blinds.

A month passed and I began to doubt what I'd seen. The weird light reflecting off her clippers, the crystal clarity of the scene -- perhaps it had been a dream. Then one night I heard another cat scream. I checked that both of my babies were safe in the utility room. I decided I would get Mrs. Riddle out of the neighborhood.

I needed evidence. So I began watching her. I was sufficiently caught up on my deadlines to spend the time, so keeping one eye on the window and the other on Remembrance of Things Past, I waited.

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, she left her house at 4:30. She didn't return to near seven. I watched her cream-colored Dodge Dart pull away, counted fourteen Mississippi's and jumped over the chain link fence. I had a crowbar and a camera. There was no need for stealth. I had chosen the neighborhood for quiet (and I knew nobody was around for at least three houses on each side). Opening her back door with the crowbar was surprisingly easy -- she had the same kind of wooden door I did. I realized I should get my door changed so as not to be vulnerable.

I laughed a little at the thought, then gagged violently when the smell of the house hit me. I guessed I wouldn't have to look far for evidence. I passed through her utility room and into a normal old-lady-looking den. TV Guides,doilies on the green couch, a plaid Lazy-boy recliner, pictures of weddings and children. To the right lay the back bedroom, which also looked normal. I went through the back bedroom and beyond into a front bedroom.

She had tacked up uncured cat skins on the walls and ceiling. Bits of dried blood as well as browning bodies of dead maggots covered the hardwood floor. The room was bare of furniture save for a stone block inscribed (in Greek) Ablanathanalba, and a pulpit. I crossed over to the pulpit, my Reeboks crunching the foul deposits. It held a hardback book entitled the Revelations of Metratton.

The book lay open and one passage had been heavily highlighted:

"When Ialdabaoth perceived that Adam and Eve partook more of the essence of the Mother of Mothers than did he, he drove them from the Plains of Aden and into the city of Balkh. But the Spirit of Darkness still questing for his Beloved saw in Eve a reflection of the Mother of Mothers and took her. He begat upon her Jave, the bear-faced, and Eloim, the cat-faced, among men and women called Cain and Abel to this day. He did give Jave the water and the earth, that by ruling this Chaos he would reflect the Undying stars of the Pole. He gave Eloim fire and air. Eloim created poetry that he might live from vessel to vessel undying but changeable in form from verse to living being to verse. Eloim with his cat's eyes was to report to the Spirit of Darkness in his quest for the Mother of Mothers. The Spirit of Darkness returned to his eternal hidden home in the North, and Adam having learned the secret of procreation from the Spirit, began to bring forth sons and daughters which looked like men. But the bear-faced ones and the cat-faced ones are still with us, molding us with their subtle magics."

I shot pictures of the walls, floor, and altar. I didn't know what to make of the Revelationsor how it tied in with Mrs. Riddle's gruesome activity, but I knew she had to be stopped.

I locked the back door when I left. I had to shower and get the blood and the smell of blood off of my skin. I took the film to a one-hour developing place. I wandered around the mall while the film was being made up. I stopped by the game shop and hung around until I saw someone buy Feodora's Familiar.That made me feel better. I needed to know that people did stuff for fun. I had to know that not everybody had a room full of cat skins. There are certain horrors you should never see -- because you will begin to wonder if every house in your neighborhood hides some sick soul-eating secret.

I worked back to the photomat and picked up my pictures. The young Hispanic woman on duty gave me one of the most evil looks I've ever got. She must've thought that Ihad carved the cats. Well, she would know otherwise soon. I couldn't imagine the papers not picking up on the story.

I drove home. I went in by the front door and immediately knew something was wrong. My cats didn't run up to greet me -- to nudge me along toward the food bowl with friendly head-butts. I put the pictures down and started calling them.

I ran into my house and found that the back door was open. They weren't in the backyard. I vaulted the fence and ran straight for Mrs. Riddle's door. I shouldered my way in and scrambled/ran across her den floor.

She had locked the door to the front bedroom, but it proved no obstacle to my speed and bulk.

She had tied Sakmeht to the stone and held a kris a few inches above her neck. I ran full tilt into Mrs. Riddle, knocking her to the floor. She rolled out from under me, stabbing my right arm with the blade. I thumped her chest as hard as I could and I could hear ribs snap. She made two raking attacks with the dagger. I pushed myself up and stomped on the center of her chest. Her eyes rolled up into her head.

I pulled the dagger from her grip and stabbed her directly in her heart.

I used the dagger to free Sakmeht and then I collapsed onto the floor. I realized that I had just destroyed my world. Maybe I could just get manslaughter -- or maybe they would just lock me up.

Oscar mewed and I saw him working his big white head from a cloth grocery bag which I hadn't noticed before.

Sakmeht walked over to Mrs. Riddle's corpse and put her paws over the corpse's eyes. A wave of unfocused light passed over her body and it sank through the floor.

Sakmeht walked slowly over to me. She very slowly and very deliberately extended the claws of her right forepaw and sank them into my right hand.

I saw Mrs. Riddle running through an endless cave deep within the Earth, chased by a bear-faced man. I knew that her soul would become food in the endless labyrinth below.

I looked at Sakmeht and asked, "What of me?"

Again my mind was filled with knowledge. I saw the cat-faced ones who are the Eyes of the Spirit of Darkness. Sometimes they dwell in the bodies of cats and sometimes they dwell in the spirits of men and women. They gain their entrance through verse, paintings, stories, games. Read about magic cats and you become a host to a spirit aeons older than the Sphinx. The cat-faced ones look out through your eyes ever searching for the lost beloved of the Spirit of Darkness.

"But what of me?" I asked again.

I felt something stirring in my chest. A kindle of black kittens poured out of my chest. I knew they were going out into my games. I knew that I was dying. My cuts had not been fatal, but I was no longer of any use to the dark muses I had unknowingly served.

The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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Copyright 1996 Don Webb
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