by Rob Hunter
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The cat watched.

Valerie Johasek cursed Vernon Dudley as she struggled with the set of vise grips and a big mechanic’s screwdriver. She knew the muskrat trap was off Vern’s trap line without checking the tag. The cat had been a twenty-pounder once, but now you could read a magazine right through him. He hadn’t been around for a couple of weeks, and Val figured that he had tackled something out of his league: a bullet, traffic on the state road, some upcountry coyote with a taste for feral cats.

The cat watched as the woman worked, his gaze steady and unflinching. There was none of a wild creature’s furtiveness, as though a mask had been set aside, displaced by the deeper urgency of survival. Wide and quiet, his great green eyes invited her to share a secret knowledge, intimating she was trusted, but not yet ready for a full revelation. Her species would have to mature.

Their destinies—hers and the cat’s—had crossed one more time. A January thaw had freed the trap and he’d dragged it home, chain and all.

To her.

The tomcat was a wild citizen who had gone under her house to heal after a dust-up with something bigger, stray dogs probably. It had taken up with her around Labor Day. It had come crawling out from under the porch when she returned from her job at the mill and given her a tentative once-over. When an animal, a wild animal, singles out a human being for trust there is an exchange of obligations. If she’d come upon him in the woods and hadn’t known him from before, she could have killed him in the trap, and gladly, an act of mercy. But here he was, again, and coming to her in his pain.

*  *  *

“Scuse me. I just gotta catch a pee.” The rookie opened the door of the cruiser and stepped out into the night. It was cold and wet both, and frost crystals formed along the insides of his nostrils; Dan coughed and pulled his collar up. This was the killer fog that took away infants and the aged.

“Me too,” called his partner. “I can hold it till you get back, but shake a leg.”

Dan stood relieving himself by the side of the road. He reflected on the long hours and low pay that were a policeman’s lot—food in paper sacks, eighteen hour shifts on lonely country roads, the recurring nightmares. The force was shrunken with attrition, the auxiliaries used up. Hence, a recruiting push. Dan was the new guy, sitting out hour fifteen of this particular detail. The flesh beneath his uniform trousers carried a semi-permanent impression from the seams of the cruiser’s upholstery. At home and off shift, Dan checked his naked rear end in the mirror. He had looked stitched together. Finished, he slid back into the cruiser. “So why’d you wanna be a cop?” he asked his partner. His preceptor had in twenty years and counting. And still a constable. Promotions were hard to come by.

“The action, the glory, the pay.” The senior constable gunned the engine. “Actually, it was the dental plan.” Long, curving incisors flashed what might have been a smile. “Lunch break.” The cruiser spun toward the nearest oasis, a snarl of pink fluorescents that spelled EAT, a break from the ennui of night patrol. They left the cruiser in the road, engine running, radio on.

“Two, Vondelle, we’re double-parked.”

“Coming up.” Vondelle returned her Number Five Cop Special—the lingering smile that promised much, but not too much.

Dan’s hands cupped the blistering hot container. The cup smelled of storage and fried foods. By now a connoisseur, he detected a spicy overtone of disinfectant wafting from the steaming brown fluid. “Bold, but not entirely unprepossessing,” said Dan. His senior constable was not amused. Vondelle smiled.

*  *  *

The big yellow tomcat was patient and trusting, his eyes never leaving the woman who was trying to get the trap off his leg with as little damage as possible. Covered with mud and ice melt from the January thaw the cat, the trap, and the woman sat on a braided rug just inside the door. Val held a piece of cedar shake from the kindling box in her teeth, her hands busy with screwdriver and pliers. Lowering her head to the trap to get the wood between the open jaws she got a good smell of the wound. He had kept it clean and there was no gangrene as yet, but a sickly pink collar of spreading infection surrounded the exposed bone. Val damned Vern Dudley and kept up a stream of calming reassurances. She pried gently; the cat made no sound as the jaws slowly opened.

But the damage had already been done. From constant licking, the flesh had peeled back from where hair and congealed blood were matted on the steel jaws of the trap, and there was an exposed circle of gray bone, bordered by translucent, angry pink. He would lose the paw, maybe the leg.

“Gently, gently now, there’s a good fellow.” He must have been in the trap the whole two weeks.

Val dangled the trap by its chain—the Levitical 16 inches, a short tether. It would have been attached to a staple in the frozen ground. If it hadn’t been for the thaw, the cat would have starved in the trap. She flexed the spring release with the heel of her hand, testing the small, powerful jaws. Residue smeared on the bait tray released a miasma of peanut butter and rotten fish, the trapper’s magic lure.

Freed, the cat tended to a dish of milk while Valerie cleaned the wound with hydrogen peroxide, then injected him with half an ampoule of antibiotic she had left over from the year she had raised goats.

*  *  *

A sixty mile round trip to the vet’s and the leg had come off. “Traps, traps, traps,” the veterinarian clucked sadly.

It cost Valerie almost a week’s pay. Val cursed Vern again. If he tended his traps like the law demanded, he would have found the cat and put it out of its misery. A quick clip with a trapper’s blackjack would have done the job.

Ralph Arsenault, the game warden, took her call and said he’d come by when he found the time. There was some law about checking a trap line regularly—two, three times a week.

Ralph found the time a week later; pet cats were not a priority with the Fish and Wildlife Service. They knew one another, had been in the same class in high school. It was a small town, and they discarded familiarity and slipped into the postures of officialdom: he the Law, she the aggrieved taxpayer.

Ralph pried loose the brass ID tag crimped over one of the links in the wire chain. “Vern Dudley. I’ll talk to Vern.”

“While you’re there, check Vern’s freezer for jacked moose, at least.”

That broke the ice. Ralph smiled, Val smiled, and the warden left, forgiven.

From Ralph’s tone, this was as far as it would go. No fine, no offer to have Vern pay the vet’s bill. Val bore Ralph no ill will. Here in Willipaq, Maine, they were isolated enough to be a tight little island with complex interdependencies. Vern was a selectman, and Ralph’s salary was paid out of local levies. Val understood.

The cat stayed close to the house, healed through the summer, and Val Johasek marveled as she watched him learn to navigate on three legs.

Early in October he brought her the first ermine.

Val was out on the porch, belatedly tightening her house up for the winter. She had just unstapled her screening and was setting the hinges of the wooden storm door when the ta-bump ta-bump of Tom’s gait announced his arrival on the porch. The cat laid his prey at her feet, sat and watched her, his wide, deep, secret eyes a pathway open just this once, and only for her, inviting her to join him in a different place if she knew the language.

Valerie sat cross-legged in front of the cat, the ermine between them. It had been a clean, quick kill, the back broken where its neck joined long, supple racer’s shoulders. It lay so still, appearing even in death vibrant with life and stealth. The black tip of the tail was flecked with white hairs, a start on the winter coat. Rictus had opened its jaw; lips curled back over extended, discolored incisors.

“Thank you, I mean, really thank you!” Val felt foolish as she noticed she was crying. “I have never, ever been given such a splendid gift.”

*  *  *

A bleat from the open hailing frequency called the constables back to the cruiser. “God damn it, another one!”

The counter girl hung in the doorway and gave them a small, regretful wave. To her #5 smile, she added the slight lift of an eyebrow. There would be no tip. Vondelle closed the door. It was not well advised to linger overlong, standing about in the freezing fogs of early winter.

Dan’s partner whipped the cruiser with a jerk that spilled coffee over Dan’s lap. Dan rummaged through the glove box for leftover paper napkins. He had almost had a hot dinner in his grasp. Almost.

They were hungry, tired and edgy as they pulled to a stop beside a rural bridge abutment. Neither was about to admit this. The darting beams of flashlights combined with the alternating blue strobes of the emergency vehicles to give the accident scene the look of a crisp, midnight hell. Dan’s cruiser was the last to arrive.

Dan shivered and pulled his head down deeper into his uniform blouse. “It’s freezing, damn it. If there is a body, it’ll be well preserved.” He stamped his feet to keep warm. “If there is a body—when we come back in the morning?” Dan looked hopefully at his partner.

“He should have kept on going. Less paperwork.” Dan’s constable smiled—this was his little joke. He set the hand brake and exited the cruiser, leaving the emergency flashers on.

*  *  *

Vern Dudley belatedly came by. He drove his pickup into her yard, leaving ruts in the mud where her starveling crop of grass, having given up all pretense at becoming a lawn, was preparing to freeze and die.

“Heard your cat’s been raiding my traps. Guess he’ll stay close to home with a foot off, though.”

Tom picked that moment to run across the yard to the porch, another ermine twitching in his jaws. Vern was some pissed. In their winter pelts, the short-tailed weasels were prime fur. Reaching down to the floor of his cab, he picked up an unopened can of Mountain Dew and chucked it at the cat, clipping him alongside the ear.

Hissing, his green eyes ablaze, his fur shot out stiff and blown up to the size of a soccer ball, the three-legged cat turned to stare at Vern Dudley.

“Honest, Vern, I don’t know where he gets them,” said Valerie. “But it’s sure as hell not your traps. You still using rotten fish for bait? Peanut butter? How dumb do you think ermine are? Try lobster.”

“Just keep your pussy off the road, sweetheart, or it might get squished.”

Popping into reverse, Vern threw a tsunami of mud and sere grass into the air and peeled off toward the county road.

As it turned out, Valerie Johasek was one of the last people to see Vernon Dudley alive.

The Warden Service made inquiries. No one had seen him dead, but he was presumed so, presumed drowned. There was a section of guardrail freshly torn out on the bridge near the junction with the state road, and Vern’s truck was wedged in the hole with the windshield out. They figured Vern had swerved suddenly and violently, avoiding something. The conjecture was he had catapulted through the glass, caught the river at high tide, and been washed out to sea.

*  *  *

This time there was evidence, lots of it. The scene resembled an evisceration rather than a collision, death resulting.

“Another one. Mud and blood, no corpse, just those tracks.” The constable suppressed a shudder. The curious crowded close, materialized out of nowhere, to gape and stare. Lingering on to catch, what?—the vapors of the departing soul? It was the smell of blood that drew them. The commissariat of police wanted these bizarre happenings to remain transparent. Answers were those big, sticky things that brought down careers. The cops cleaned up the mess; the pen pushers lost the papers.

At the far end of a line of blood and chalk where two officers were measuring and photographing, pulped remains lay steaming at the point of impact. Dan poked at a hunk with his toe and regretted it at once. He wiped a bloody smear off his boot on the inside of a pants leg.

Tonight, for one trucker, there had been something in his way. Wrapped in blankets, he was trembling with shock, but coherent. “Big and ugly as sin, three legs and green eyes. I mean, you wouldn’t believe it. All of a sudden, there it was in the middle of the road. Carrying something.”

That something was now littered across the landscape. The constable nodded to a medical aide, who administered an injection. The driver calmed considerably and Dan’s superior squatted in front of him, trying to radiate fraternal concern. “Strange doings. Eh, buddy?”

The driver attempted to speak, found he could not, and dipped his head in assent.

“The report will show misadventure due to an unavoidable mechanical failure. You will confirm this?” The constable had already put away his notebook, clicking shut its metal cover and stuffing it down into an overfull uniform pocket. This was the trucker’s third repetition of his story. “Nothing out of the ordinary happened here tonight. Got it?”

The trucker nodded like a sleepwalker. A few weeks of therapy, the usual brew of psychotropics, and he would remember nothing. A second injection was given and he was led away. The senior constable caught himself working at his teeth, polishing his long, curving incisors with the tip of his tail, a habit when he was nervous or bored.

Tonight, he realized, I am a bit of both.

He examined his tail. The exams were coming up and maybe he’d try for sergeant again this year. Successful candidates for promotion brushed their tails into the silky inflorescences that denoted good hygiene and the idle hours to indulge it. His tail was decidedly ragged; its black tip was flecked with white hairs, the start of a new winter coat.

He waved Dan back to their cruiser and stuffed the end of his tail into a rear pocket. Extracting a clasp knife from his shirt, he worked at his talons, wishing that he had something to chew. The constable sighed and watched his breath condense in the chill air.

Vondelle should have some fresh coffee on by now.

copyright 2003, 2015 Rob Hunter

Tomcat was first published in the May 2003 issue of Demensions—Doorways to Science Fiction and Fantasy and reprinted in a slightly different form in SpecFicWorld’s Featured Fiction for June 2006, Doyle Eldon Wilmoth Jr. Editor.

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