Dead Fall Hotel: “The King of the Cats,” Part 2

Just what kind of cat was it?

Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel has been keenly anticipated by weird fiction geeks for more than two decades, ever since horror icon Charles L. Grant published the story “Bloodwolf” in his anthology Shadows 9 (1986). Tem, a winner of the World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award, noted that the story was the seed for a much longer work — which has been published, finally, in a beautiful, gift-worthy limited edition by Centipede Press, to be followed by a mass market from Solaris next year.

What is Deadfall Hotel about? A haunted hotel with a long pedigree that has fallen into disrepair. To this afflicted place comes a widower who takes over the job of managing the hotel, accompanied by his daughter and the ghost of his wife.

Last week we ran Part 1 of the four-part self-contained excerpt from Deadfall Hotel “The King of the Cats.” Here is Part 2…

***

One of the cleaning crew found the thing. The jittery old fellow brought a bucket of red paint over and set it down where Richard and Jacob were standing. At first its only movement was a slow wet explosion of breathing and with everything tucked in so it resembled a heart pulled out of somebody’s chest and still, determinedly beating. He looked over at Jacob thinking explain this one, will you please? Then he noticed the edges of dark fur beneath the red paint and just for a moment tried to remember if there were any creatures with fur on the inside, then thinking werewolf, of course, he amazingly felt as if he were back on known, comfortable ground, and tried to smile at Jacob as if to say See how I’ve adjusted? But Jacob continued to stare down at the heart now thrashing around, now spinning like a fur-covered top, now screeching through the goopy layers of blood-red latex enamel.

Still alive,” Jacob said. “I suppose now we must clean the poor creature.” Then glancing at Richard, “It looks as if Serena is about to have a pet. I hope you don’t mind.”

Not on your life, Jacob. Get rid of that thing.”

Just bear with me, please,” Jacob replied. He reached down into the bucket carefully, and to Richard’s continued amazement, clutched the creature on both sides behind the head, squeezing a bit until it stopped struggling, and lifted it out of the can and onto the grass. “I don’t believe he will be going anywhere,” he said, and, as predicted, the thing – a rat, a ferret, a squirrel, what? – sat and shivered and shook off the excess paint in long ropy strands that made it appear to be flying apart. Richard stepped back so his shoes and pants wouldn’t be splattered. Jacob didn’t appear to mind.

Jacob said they should get as much paint out of its fur as they could and check out the mouth and nasal passages to make sure the creature was going to live – and Richard nodded dumbly. It looked up at Richard with a broad, flat head, bloody tears barring its face. Behind the vertical red streaks were eyes like blackened portholes, a dim glow barely detectable as if from far back in the creature’s brain.

We’ll need a mixture of relatively mild solvents to get the bulk of it out. This heavy-duty paint will not come out easily. Scissors will take care of most of the rest. If there are still streaks of paint here and there, well, I suppose Serena will find it that much more appealing.”

Jacob, we’re not bringing this monster anywhere near my daughter.”

The creature opened its mouth and coughed out bright red mucous. Then it stretched its body so that the paint-stiffened fur stood out up and down the length of it, bare patches of grayish hide showing between the spikes. It snapped its head back suddenly, staring at Richard, opened its mouth and hissed and more red mucous and pink foam and clots of paint came flying out. Richard stepped back out of the way.

Jesus, what is it?” he said, watching as Jacob began a gentle rubbing of moist rags over its surface. A murmur came from deep within the animal, rising into a remarkable, engine-like rumble almost appalling coming from something so small and thin. “You wanted to give that to my daughter?”

Jacob glanced up quizzically. Then speaking so softly Richard could barely hear him above the creature’s throaty vibrations, “I’m sorry to disappoint you. Richard – it’s merely a little kitty cat.”

Jacob had the notion that they should present the cat to Serena in the cleaned out paint can he had been found in, nested in black and red tissue paper. Richard didn’t think twice about it until he held the can in his hands, its exterior encased in thick, layered webs of bright red paint.

The cat had torn the edges of the tissue paper to tatters, chewed it up until it was wet and twisted. As Richard carried him toward Serena’s room he wriggled and heaved, looking like a dark parasite writhing within the center of a great plague boil.

Richard knocked on her door. Like all the other carved doors in the hotel it bore a large dragon’s crest with a massive doorknob and hinge hardware patterned after a lion’s paws, a lion’s face with roaring mouth for a keyhole, but this door had been painted glossy white to distinguish it from the others, and there was a small cardboard sign inscribed in bright pink marker: SERENA’S ROOM – ALL YOU CHARACTERS KEEP OUT!!

Richard again knocked lightly. “Come in,” she said softly from a distance.

Richard opened the door and stepped through two layers of soft music – she had both her portable radio and the stereo he’d given her for Christmas on, playing “mush” music, as she liked to call it. Serena lay sprawled across her four-poster bed as if she’d been shot. Around the room were posters of a variety of animals, and pictures of babies cut out of magazines and thumb tacked to the wallpaper. Jacob said it was okay – family quarters could be decorated in any way they saw fit.

I’ve got something for you, honey,” he said, and then hesitated, for some reason not quite ready to bring out the cat, in that hideous packaging, from behind his back.

But the cat had already jumped down and padded across the baby blue carpet, and was now nuzzling Serena’s bare toes. “Daddy!” she gasped. “Oh, it’s precious!” The cat of many colors attacked her toes as she moved them, then rolled onto his back to offer some belly to her, but as she reached to stroke him the cat twisted around again and batted at her fingers.

What a ham, Richard thought. Serena laughed. “He’s as ferocious as a little dragon. That’s what I’ll call him – Dragon!” Dragon stopped as if he’d recognized his name, then glided up the length of the bed to nuzzle her neck. He allowed her to scoop him up and rub her face into his fur. This cat knows exactly what to do. The thought vaguely troubled Richard, but he had never particularly liked cats. Then he was distracted by the weight of the ugly can and tissue monstrosity he held behind him. He didn’t want Serena to see it so he backed out quietly. She was too busy with Dragon even to notice him leaving. He knew she’d ask about the can once she’d heard the story of Dragon’s discovery. But Richard didn’t like the look of it, and planned to throw it away.

By the end of the third week Dragon had become a well-established member of the Deadfall staff. It was remarkable how quickly the cat became attached, and trained, or at least as trained as a cat could possibly be. It amused him to see Serena walking with her kitty in tow, stopping, glancing back over her shoulder, and waiting for Dragon to come trotting.

He discovered that besides reading everything she could find concerning babies and small animals, her personal studies had recently turned to volumes of folklore concerning dragons. The Deadfall library had a number of these. Now and then he would come into the library to do researches of his own – into former owners, unusual guests of the past, highly speculative histories of the hotel itself – and coming out of the low-ceilinged, claustrophobic entrance tunnel, which always gave Richard the sensation of being in one of those World War II era submarines, he would find her around the corner in the L sitting cross-legged in a high winged-back Queen Anne chair, some dusty tome spread across her lap. Dragon was always close by, making only occasional forays to search for mice among the crumbling volumes on the bottom shelves, or to bat at a bug tapping at one of the tall windows over the reading chairs. Serena couldn’t see Richard from her position, and more often than he could feel good about he’d make no attempt to let her know he was there.

Dragon stalked like a tiger. Dragon leapt and rolled like a fox. Dragon curled around her legs like a snake. Dragon widened his mouth and came hissing in Richard’s direction like a great walking bat.

Dragon! Come here! I have a story to read you,” Serena called. And Dragon slunk back, all disappointment. “It’s a story about the king of the cats!”

Richard couldn’t help marveling at how nicely his daughter read, and assumed it had much to do with Jacob’s recent tutelage. All her childhood hesitations seemed to have vanished here, the earlier signs of a stutter absorbed into a slightly nasal accent she affected during the stereotypical male parts of the piece. But then he listened more carefully to the story she read, and found it troubled him.

So he roasted them and toasted them. He baked them ‘til they flaked. Thousands of living cats were lost this way, and the man cared not a jot, for he was a man and believed he owned the world.

But finally after days he had to sleep, and as he slept the spirits of all the cats he had killed entered his house like streams of dark water through every window, chimney opening, and door. Even the calicos, even the white cats were black in spirit, and they were so many they filled every room in his house with their bodies of night and hundreds of them sat on his bed, sat on his legs and chest waiting for him to awaken.

When he did awaken and opened his mouth to scream the black cats entered his mouth just like another door, and one after the other they marched down his tongue and down his throat until they reached his secret places, all the time making a terrible din.

The last thing he saw, they say, back in the shadows and surrounded by his smaller kin, was the monstrous cat Cluasa Leabhra, old Big Ears, the king of all the cats.”

As Serena read these passages aloud, Dragon glided back and forth across the top of the chair, pausing now and then to perch on his hind legs and stare at her and sway with the sound of her as if he actually understood what she was reading to him, as if he were mesmerized by the words. But if she paused for a moment to catch her breath, to admire a particular description, or to puzzle out a word, Dragon resumed his incessant movement, his stalking of things invisible.

After a few weeks of Serena’s constant grooming the cat had become something extraordinary. Extraordinarily beautiful or extraordinarily ugly Richard couldn’t quite decide. He supposed it depended on his mood, and/or the weather.

Much to his surprise the cat revealed itself to be of a long-haired variety. As the days had passed and the paint turned to powder and the hide was scraped clean, long strands of fur appeared to erupt from hidden pockets all over the cat’s body, uncoiling a good inch and a half on the hottest days. The hair was fine, the texture silky, in places more like down than feline fur. Unlike any other cat Richard had ever encountered Dragon seemed to have no interest in grooming himself, content to let someone else do the job. This cat seemed to expect Serena to groom him.

Generally speaking, the cat’s coloring made him a calico, with the usual bright patches of brown, orange, black and white irregularly distributed from the roots to the outermost edges of the hair, so that a variation in the stroke of Serena’s brush resulted in a quite different pattern of colors. This varied the cat’s appearance so drastically from one moment to the next, from one posture or ruffling of fur to the next, that this specific calico became a pattern book for any calico imaginable.

The cat leapt from the back of the chair as if in slow motion, twisting his body until he resembled a bird, a hawk in attack. He severed the mouse that had risked the open rug, ate the front half quickly, leaving the thick hindquarters at Serena’s feet as a kind of offering. She uttered an unconvincing “yuck,” and went back to her reading, but silently this time.

Dragon was a master at mimicking birds in his leaps, bears in his bulk and power, sea creatures in his floating grace, wolverines in his snap and bite. Wandering among the twisting trunks of the Deadfall grove, Richard had been startled to see the cat leaping from one tree to the next almost directly over his head. Seen from underneath Dragon was another thing entirely – dark lines of fur outlining ribs and pelvic bones on stomach fur a shimmering blend of pink and brilliant white fibers – so that when Dragon lounged belly up in the grass Richard could think of little but butcher’s charts and antique anatomical engravings, x‑rays and transparent models.

To see the cat in Serena’s lap, the way she stroked him so slowly, Dragon’s purr thrumming up into the still, hot air, Serena’s eyes and the cat’s eyes half-closed, his claws slightly extended onto her pants’ leg but promising much more, made Richard feel anxious and foolish, but he could not stop himself from spying on them, sneaking glances wherever possible.

He could not bear to pick up the cat himself, imagining remarkable claws hidden within Dragon’s paw pads. The few times the cat passed by him close enough for those impossibly long whiskers to brush him, their stiff edge sent him to the mirror to search his flesh for scratches.

Then one afternoon Dragon disappeared and Richard thought for a time his unease had vanished with the beast. Serena was inconsolable.

He’s just a kitty, Daddy!”

Richard felt badly for her, but he’d never felt entirely comfortable with the “kitty.” Sometimes when he came into her room at night to check on her (which was every night, had been every night since Abby had died), he’d find Serena asleep and the cat curled around the top of her head.

That should have been a touching, a comforting portrait of his daughter, but it was not. There was a peculiar sort of tension evident in the cat’s body, a coiling so unlike the image of the plush toy he appeared to be emulating. As if he might explode at any moment, ramming his claws into her scalp. As if he were simply biding his time.

There was the obligatory search party, and Richard made a show of looking in every hiding place imaginable. After a couple of days Jacob joined in. After two weeks the search seemed to be at an end.

There are quite a few places for a cat to hide,” Jacob said softly, stroking Serena’s hair as if the cat might be hiding some place in her head. “Thousands of places. There are all these rooms and ducts and chimneys and air passages, not to mention the attics and cellars and miscellaneous crawl spaces.”

This is supposed to make her feel better? But Richard said nothing.

Of course there is the deadfall as well,” Jacob said, jerking his head in that direction. “Kitty could wander around that massive old tangle a long time without losing interest. Kitty could find plenty to hunt, and eat, enough to satisfy most appetites. Kitty could spend a year or two exploring that deadfall and we would not even know he was there.”

Then that’s where I’m going!” Serena stomped away. Richard just stood there. His little girl was slinging her arms with real, teeth-clenching rage. Then she stopped and turned around, “Are you two coming or not?” Then she spat on the ground.

Richard was so surprised he didn’t say anything, just stood there while his child walked away from him toward that twisted mass of trees. Then Jacob touched his arm. “You cannot let her go in there, Richard.” And that was enough to galvanize him, sending him running after her. He reached out and touched her back. She spun and snarled as if ready to attack.

Don’t touch me!” she screamed.

Richard stared at her. She was reaching that temperamental age, of course. But she’d always been remarkably sweet for all that. He backed away a step, but he felt in charge again, maybe a little angry.

Calm down. I’m still your dad.”

Did I say – ”

You’re not going in there, sweetie. You’re going back into the house to wait. I’ll search the deadfall myself, and I promise I’ll go over every foot of it. I mean it. Every foot.”

Her face fell. “Daddy, I’m sorry, but – ”

It’s okay. Don’t apologize – I understand. Just go in the house. Read a book, whatever. I’ll come inside when I’m finished.”

And just as quickly Serena was a little girl again. Sadly he watched her go inside the hotel, looking smaller, less sure.

He looked around for Jacob, hoping to get some clever suggestions as to how he should proceed into the deadfall, but the old man had disappeared. He was getting used to that.

He walked across the wide lawn that sloped down to the deadfall like an erasure, noting how brown and wispy the grass was, vaguely wondering if it would recover but knowing that things had no trouble growing here. You could burn, blast, strip away – there were always deep roots you could never touch. In fact, the grass had a pleasing, tamed look to it. It was only as he neared the vast tangle of limbs that he found himself pausing to look at the stray, burnt flowers, their heads blackened and crusted, ruptured, the seeds popped.

On this side of the deadfall the limbs were piled almost two feet high. The layers were shallower around the curve near the cliff’s edge, but he didn’t want to walk that far. Besides, he didn’t much care for the cliff. He stepped up onto a thick branch, and then teetered over to one even thicker. Then he was able to stand, however unsteadily, and get a better look at where he should be going.

The tangle did not make a consistent spread below the skeletal network of trunks and limbs overhead. There were paths and partial paths through the complexity, as well as areas of two or three square feet which appeared to have avoided coverage completely. He really couldn’t see all that far into the deadfall. Deeper into the tangle, sunlight was only intermittent. Despite the fact that the branches were almost totally devoid of leaves – just occasional triangular green things at the ends of long, limber stems, that fluttered in the slightest breeze, that fluttered even when there was no breeze – the trees were so closely packed, the network of interlocking twigs and branches and limbs so complex, that they made an almost opaque canopy, the little light that did escape becoming almost suspect in the vague way it illuminated certain hidden recesses and deformities in the fallen branches.

As Richard stepped off the thicker limbs into the snarl of narrow, brittle wood that cracked and disintegrated beneath his heavy boots, here and there was a shifting, a repositioning which could not be accounted for by his own progress through the deadfall. As quickly as he could he made for one of those bare paths through the branches. Some of the larger branches were slippery, slowing him down as he thought about pitching face-first into the snags and spines. Sudden movements to his left made him turn too quickly and he lost his balance. Thrusting out for any feasible support he left half an inch of skin from the back of his hand on a greedy reach of limb. He crawled out of a nest of branches left broken and sharpened by his fall into a relatively clear pathway.

The regular travel of animals had made the path, such as it was. Droppings of various sizes displayed a range of diets. There were scattered snags of brown, red, white, black and – if he was not mistaken – dark blue fur. There were also prints: broad and narrow footpads, three-toed, four-toed, five, claws and more than claws, bits of teeth and bone, buttons and shoelaces and shoes and here and there a human footprint as well. Barefoot. About Serena’s size. And, more disturbing, sizes even smaller, making him wonder about feral children. Feral babies. If Serena had any idea there might be babies in here, of whatever kind.

Then, around a thick trunk directly ahead, a flash of calico fur, changing patterns iridescently as it moved, a soft murmur building into a full-throated engine purr.

Hey! Kitty!” Richard called out in surprise, recklessly dashing forward.

After only a few steps he snagged a foot. He threw his arms in front of him to break his fall, but curling his hands away to shield them from the wooden fingers and teeth.

Myyaaaaaahhhhh.” Something dashed around his head, digging a claw into his cheek just before he crashed into the branches.

Jesus!” A flurry of winged insects exploded from the mass of dead brush and filled his face. He flailed at them with the arm not jammed elbow-deep into the branches, hit something a bit larger but still winged, beating against his hand, and he figured it for either a bat or a bird but he couldn’t see because things were crawling in his eyes. “Oh, Christ!” Something bit him near the wrist. Something squealed and raced down his back. Something heavy for its size. “Christ, oh Christ oh Christ!” He thrashed around, forced himself over onto his back, flung his arms to detach the squealing, clinging weights and forced his eyes open even though for a moment something was caught, struggling beneath the edge of his left eyelid.

The thing moving through the skeletal branches was a sharp-edged shadow under the glare of the afternoon sun. But even denied the fine details of its appearance Richard could detect something distinctly primitive about the animal. It was short-legged, long-bodied, about the size of a weasel or a small wolf. It moved in and out of the fallen limbs of the deadfall with ease, as if it had been born there. Its large front teeth stabbed down through the neck of a small, unidentifiable rodent-like creature.

Suddenly the animal raised its head high into the glare of sun, and from its silhouette Richard knew immediately it was some type of cat. But the light illuminating the back of its head gave it the glow of decay, its eyes the sheen of a dead thing’s.

It stared at Richard, then leapt once, twice, and Richard knew that a third would bring it right on top of him. He struggled with the branches holding him down, tore his hands open untangling himself. Then the cat struck him high in the forehead and he was down again, torn hands trying to shield his face. He looked between his fingers through a haze of blood, but the creature seemed somehow clearer, more definable.

Hanging upside down from the limb overhead was a gray mass of anger, the fur standing out in silver-tipped spikes, and though the thing was half in shadow Richard was sure he could detect traces of orange and brown, traces of calico, blended into the gray.

 “Myyyaaaaahhhh!”

The jaw wobbled weirdly on its hinge, then opened even farther. Richard saw a tongue caked in garbage before the cat started spitting at him. He moved his head to the side and sticky glop splattered the side of his face. He stared up and saw how its coat was veined first in silver, then in red, saw how its sides heaved, how its muscles had expanded, how its teeth had grown.

Dragon?”

The cat looked down at him with eyes like stones. Then the animal leapt. Richard cried out and tried desperately to shield his face. But then nothing happened; the cat was gone.

He’d have to tell Serena he could not find her cat. He would make some pretense of looking in other places, but he would make sure this cat was not found again.