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.
The chaos of the cleaning (and, he thought, perhaps the chaos generated by the cat as well) had kept the hotel’s residents almost completely absent the past few weeks. Occasionally Richard might hear a footfall overhead, or hear cabinet doors opening and closing as he passed a kitchen, but otherwise the residents had made no appearances.
And now that the big cleanup was over caution still appeared to be the order of the day at the Deadfall. One afternoon Richard watched as two figures covered head to foot in matching suits of stained canvas crept around the front lawn with badminton rackets in their hands, swinging at low-lying branches and into the shadows beneath bushes. There was also the incident in which he was stopped walking down the third floor hall by a voice behind a door.
“Sir? Sir! A moment, if you will.” The voice was gravelly, garbled, and wet, as if the speaker’s mouth were just under the edge of water.
Richard went over to the door, putting his ear against the panel to listen. “Yes, I’m Richard, the manager. Can I help you?”
“Just a piece of information I would like to share with you.”
“Yes?” He could hear a soft, pleasant splashing sound from inside the room.
“I – cannot–abide–a cat.”
And try as he might, he could not get the speaker to say more.
The oppressive heat slowly leaked out of the Deadfall over the next two weeks, supplanted by a cool, which, because of the contrast, actually seemed uncomfortable at times. Life was strangely slow now, as if the heat had used up all available energy.
For all Richard’s doubts and ignorance as to the efficacy of their cleaning procedures, the hotel did feel like a much more sanitary environment these days. He breathed more easily, slept more soundly, and the hotel in general was a less gloomy, less shadowy place. The windows must have been rather grimy for there to be such a difference, and yet he didn’t remember anyone actually cleaning the windows. In the midst of all those odd and complicated instructions, no one had even been assigned the windows.
“I can’t believe how fresh everything feels and smells around here lately,” he said to Jacob one morning as the old man busily sprinkled a green powder around the flower beds out front. “Not so much like a mausoleum.”
“Well,” Jacob stopped now and then and dug a small hole with his trowel, filling it with a portion of the powder. “Even with a structure like the Deadfall, sometimes you just have to clean some of the dread out of a place, before the situation becomes critical.”
Richard watched for a time. “Is that green stuff meant to encourage growth?”
Jacob hunched his back, vigorously attacking one corner of the bed with his trowel. “No,” he said, as stems and petals slapped at his hands and shoes. “It is to keep them a bit less active.”
Richard meant to ask what exactly he meant by that, but never got around to it.
Serena spent a great deal of time to herself these days, brooding in her room, or curled up in a library chair reading.
There was no peace in the way she held herself – she looked edgy, ready to spring. She wouldn’t talk to him about it; when he tried to talk to her she snapped at him. But he’d been the same way at her age. No one really liked growing up, the way the body, the mind, changed. He remembered feeling like some sort of animal. In fact, he remembered smelling like some sort of animal. Cornered and in a constant state of confusion. Transformed. As if you didn’t know what kind of animal you were going to turn out to be.
The next cat showed up around sunset one evening. Richard had been out on the front lawn trying to track down the source of a sound: an elusive whining somewhere between a baby’s cry and the soft keen of an injured animal grieving for itself. Usually he ignored the various and mysterious sounds which traveled through the Deadfall. Too far displaced in time and location – to pursue every one of them would have been maddening. But this particular sound was especially distressing to him. It had gone on most of the day and by mid-afternoon Richard had felt a heavy depression descending through his body. He’d gone out looking for the source of the sound less to render aid than to stop the outcry.
He was approaching a line of singular bushes – their tiny brownish leaves recently having burst back into a fiery kind of life, having become so red he could almost feel the heat from them – when a portion of one bush flared up into a roughly ball-shaped cloud of fire which fell to the ground and rolled on to the next bush. It was only after it joined these flaming leaves that Richard realized it had been a cat: a red tabby Persian with bright copper eyes discernible among the brilliant red foliage. Watching him, and wanting him to know it was watching him.
For a few brief moments Richard actually thought about calling Serena so that together they might coax the cat out so that she could have a replacement for Dragon which could only cheer her up again. But then he knew he wouldn’t mention it to her at all, and hoped that this new cat would make no such dramatic appearances while she was around.
Less than a half hour later he caught sight of a huge blue cat perched on the edge of the porch roof. A Russian Blue, if he wasn’t mistaken. He’d once dated a woman with a Russian Blue and this one could have been the twin. That one had been an incredibly gentle cat. This cat had a presence which projected anything but.
Its eyes seemed unnaturally light, large and flat as if painted on. But it was the mouth that was impossible: fluid and mobile like the mouths of talking cartoon cats. It screamed silently at him and leapt. Richard instinctively covered his face; when next he looked around the cat had disappeared.
But the deepening shadows around the edges of the front lawn were shifting. There was a nervousness in the way Richard was looking at things. Then he realized it wasn’t his eyes: the landscape had grown agitated, a fierceness barely contained.
Cats in twos and threes suddenly sprouted from the bushes, slunk out of the shadows spread under the trees, dropped from darkened eaves, jumped into the warmth of windows. Then there was a scream like a baby’s scream and all movement stopped, the cats became shadows and stone, and a cat very much like Serena’s Dragon crept slowly up the Deadfall drive toward Richard.
The cat halted a couple of feet in front of him, tilted his head and gazed up and held Richard’s eyes, then murmured and moved his pink tongue in and out, yawned enormously and moved a paw up to rub his face. That was all that was required to make Richard feel utterly foolish: this was a kitten after all. No demon. No fire-breathing dragon, either, but unmistakably Dragon, Serena’s lost cat. Richard stepped forward and crouched. “Here kitty kitty,” with one hand outstretched. Serena would be so pleased.
But Dragon moved, first side to side like a weaving snake, which made Richard hesitate and draw back, then the cat bounded away, batting at fireflies as he went, leaping to snap at a flapping moth, running and tumbling across the blackening lawn. “Kitty kitty,” Richard called again, thinking how stupid he must sound, how he had never called the cat this way, and walked briskly after, thinking he could deliver Dragon into Serena’s arms before she went to bed.
Richard tried following the cat as he shuttled across the lawn, in and out of bushes, clumps of vegetation, up one tree and down another, passing through light and passing through dark. Sometimes Richard could hold the cat in his eyes and sometimes he could not. When he could not he imagined the animal’s progress, dreamed the dance in and out of this world and the worlds beyond and in between. The cat was some sort of messenger, but Richard wondered if this was a message he really wanted to hear.
Then he came upon the cat again cast in the circle of a security light that had just switched on in the thickening gloom. There were four or five such working lights scattered somewhat randomly along the Deadfall roofline. There were many more, however, which did not work, had been painted over, or had things growing out of the sockets.
Dragon was playing with another cat, wrestling, mock stalking, embracing. But as Richard grew closer he realized this wasn’t another cat at all, but a light-gray, emaciated squirrel, struggling to get away but caught and dragged back by Dragon’s delicate but amazingly strong paws. The squirrel began to squeal, a noise Richard didn’t think he’d ever heard a squirrel make before.
Richard watched Serena’s Dragon as he played aggressively with the squirrel, but a squirrel was so much bigger than a mouse, so much wilder, surely a kitten could not play with a squirrel as it did with a mouse, but Dragon did, tormenting the squirrel, torturing it. Richard was glad Serena wasn’t seeing this – Dragon scratching away at the squirrel’s belly just enough to expose the most sensitive layers of skin, but not enough to kill it, just enough to precisely heighten its agony? He didn’t want her to see things like this, to even know about things like this, even though it was everywhere. Cruelty that came unplanned, that came out of a creature’s nature.
With a final bite to the neck Dragon ended it, and then almost immediately came a murmuring and a rustle that stiffened Richard’s neck. He turned around as the surrounding dark began to move again, and cat after cat came out to witness Dragon shred and devour the squirrel inside the circle of light.
He had never seen so many different types of cats gathered together in one place. He recognized several Burmese: a brown like his neighbors used to have. Then a lilac. Then a red. Then bounding in front a Siamese with a glacial white coat which shaded into a light blue as it twisted in apparent ecstasy and displayed its back.
There were more breeds here, he realized, than he could recognize. He could identify a large, plump angora in the crowd. A couple of others might have been Turkish. There were several long-haired tabbies. A huge, raccoon-like animal slunk up the rear – he’d seen pictures of the breed. A Maine coon cat. Several black cats of different varieties – both short- and long-haired – blended in with the others to make a neutral background of night.
Then three aristocratic-looking cats with fur a blend of gray shades strolled in front of him. They looked at him with a precise, synchronous turning of heads, and he could feel an electric charge of anxiety passing across his nerves. They twisted around and displayed their double tails.
Pieces of the dark started breaking off around him. He made a staggered turn and tried to walk swiftly, but not too obviously, away.
His foot kicked into softness with a hard center. He looked down at a rag doll cat chewing at the offending shoe. Feeling the cats behind him beginning to turn, he glanced back at hundreds of bright, focused eyes.
The cats had been focused on the squirrel, leading and playing with the squirrel. Now they were focused on him. He jerked his shoe away from the snarling rag doll and started trotting toward the front door.
Several brightly-colored bodies shot past him, then slowed down to keep pace. Other cats shouldered them aside and trotted along, grinning up at him. Soon there were a dozen cats keeping pace with him, running ahead, falling back. As if they knew with amused confidence they were in a race they were going to win. At the middle of the group were a couple of larger cats – mountain cats, wild cats – cats you might expect to see in a zoo.
Richard reached the front apron of the Deadfall and started up the porch when the dance of light and shadow overhead made him look up. The line of the porch roof was jammed whisker to tail with cats. They peered down at him as one creature, their numbers giving increasing thickness to the shadows massed above the Deadfall.
Cats crowded so closely to the edge of the roof that the ones in front began tumbling off, twisting and stretching out their backs during their descent until the legs came around, feet ready to cushion their landing. They dropped in front of Richard and shot behind him, gathering together again so that he was surrounded.
Suddenly he felt a sharp tearing at the back of his ankle – he twisted around and found Dragon clamped onto his lower leg, biting down with all his might. Richard kicked and kicked, but could not shake the cat loose. He dragged his leg, cat attached, to a wooden box beside the front steps where they kept a variety of brooms, clippers, shovels. He reached in, grabbed a shovel, and tried beating on the cat without hitting his own leg. The cat howled and dug deeper with teeth and claws, until in agony Richard dropped the long-handled tool.
At that moment the front door of the Deadfall slammed open and a ball of fire shot out, made a high, brilliant arch and landed in the middle of the cats with an explosion of sparks. With a ragged howl that chorused and echoed throughout the feline mass the cats scattered to shadow. Dragon released him and went after them.
“Richard! Come on! Move your feet!” Dazed, Richard looked up at the doorway. Jacob stood there, motioning vigorously with both hands. “Come on! Before they understand it was just a burning ball of rags!”
Richard trotted up to the porch and leapt to the first step, then through the door past Jacob who smelled strongly of gasoline. “All those cats – ”
“A field of kitties,” Jacob said. “It appears that Serena’s Dragon turned out to be King of the Cats!”
“King of the Cats?”
Jacob’s eyes were brilliant in his soot-coated face. “Surely you don’t imagine human beings are the only ones into politics? I know you must have heard of alpha males and such.”
“But that’s hardly politics.”
“Politics was born the day the first creature opened its eyes to the realization that it wasn’t a physical part of everything else. That made it lonely, and that made it angry. That was the day the real darkness first came, the beast was born, and politics along with it.”
“So we have a political problem here?”
“At least. And a pest control problem of somewhat major proportions. I would have suggested that we throw out a few mice to pacify them but I think one of our guests has eaten them all.”
Richard glanced down at his hands which had been feeling alternately hot and clammy. He hadn’t felt the claws go in, but the backs of his hands were criss-crossed with thin lines of blood. He looked back up at Jacob. “Maybe one of those guests might help.”
“No, Richard – that runs counter to the contractual understandings we have here. We’re staff, they’re guests – the lines don’t cross. Besides, most of those guests would not help in any case. Remember that they are of a different world – it simply rubs up against ours now and again. Most of them would be quite unable to parse what the fuss was all about.”
“So what do we do? Bring out the flame throwers? Stay inside our rooms with the doors locked? I’m about ready to do that.”
“We do what people have done throughout the ages when serious political grievances arise – we take out the king.”
Richard glanced around warily. He could hear a distant, directionless scratching. “So do you have a shotgun?”
Jacob shook his head. “The first time we had him in our sites there would be a dozen other cats throwing themselves into the line of fire, and a few dozen more clawing up our backsides before we knew it. No, we’ll have to be cleverer than that. We’re going to have to get up close to Dragon with someone he already trusts.”
Richard had been distracted, listening for the vague scratching that moved in and out of his hearing in waves. Then suddenly Jacob’s words registered. “You’re out of your mind.”
“She’s not just a little girl, Richard. There are limits to what you can protect her from.”
“I’m not sending Serena out to face that thing! We’ll find another way! If you were a father yourself you wouldn’t even suggest it.”
Jacob stared at him, then he opened a hand and shrugged. “Then we look for another way.”
“Fine then. I’m going to wash this blood off and check on her.” Then, seeing Jacob purse his lips, “Because I don’t want to alarm her. I’m alarmed enough for the both of us, goddammit.”
Richard scrubbed and disinfected his hands vigorously. The skin burned and reddened, then paled amazingly, the surface looking like skate tracks in ice. Maybe she wouldn’t notice, he thought, knowing full well that these days Serena noticed everything. He threw cold water on his face then ran down the hall.
In the corridor outside Serena’s room two cats stood guard: a tall, thin black, a short stout gray. Wide mouths, slightly goofy expressions. Richard thought immediately of Laurel and Hardy. He forced himself to smile down at them as he started past, putting his hands palm down as if to placate or pat.
The short cat approached him with tail and ears erect: friendly, interested. But as it climbed onto his shoes its tail suddenly began lashing side to side, the tip twitching, and then the claws came out, and Richard started kicking when the claws entered his pants leg. The cat landed against the cushiony flocked wall and commenced a deep and harsh purring.
Then the tall cat rubbed up against him, its fur electric, and Richard tried to pull away, but could not. It was as if he’d grabbed hold of an electrified fence and his charged muscles would not permit him to let go. But the Hardy cat broke the connection by barreling between them, then lolling playfully on its back to expose its huge belly, looking up with an invitation for Richard to scratch. Richard declined.
The Laurel cat took one swat at Hardy’s belly, opening it in a broadening red line. Hardy looked surprised, and then sprayed the air with fur and phlegm. The emaciated Laurel leapt up into a small open window and crouched there, ready for any retaliation from Hardy. Laurel kept turning its head toward the outside, sniffing at the air, then when it seemed to find a particular direction of interest it opened its mouth and gasped in more air.
Meanwhile Hardy spread itself wide in front of Serena’s door, its eyes mad with fury and pain, obviously determined to bar entrance even with its ropy guts hanging out. Richard would need something more than his feet and his unprotected hands to get through to Serena. He ran back down the corridor to the closet in his own room, groping for the baseball bats and tennis rackets he kept stored there.
And felt fur moving back and forth against his hand.
He stepped back as the closet door eased fully open, the huge white and yellow-streaked creature coming with him as if its fur were glued to his hand. The cat rubbed the side of its head back and forth against his palm, staring up at him with wide, fixed pupils. With an effort of will Richard pulled his hand away – the fingers tingled. The cat’s zombie-like stare broke and its mouth suddenly grinned impossibly wide.
Richard ran into the bathroom and washed his hands thoroughly, near delirious with his need to remove the feel of the thing. But the tingling was still there. Another cat appeared outside the bathroom window, its doughy face pressed into the glass until eyes and mouth went loony. Richard opened the back door to the bathroom and made his way down the dim-lit back hall. But from behind each door he passed came a scratching, a sniffing, as if they were tracking him.
A rubbing against the outside of his leg as a cat passed from behind. Richard looked down: the small, multicolored creature trotted ahead, coat changing shade and pattern as the light changed. But the way the cat moved seemed so normal, so innocuous – here and there stopping to snap at a moth, or to lunge clumsily at a moving shadow – Richard tended to think this cat must not yet be part of the others, until the cat glared at him, doubling size with a glance, and Richard recognized this cat as Dragon, Dragon in the eyes and in the teeth, whatever size and shape the cat might take.
Richard stood his ground, or, more accurately, was afraid of what might happen to him if he ran. But Dragon swiveled his head back around and continued to trot down the corridor as if he hadn’t noticed Richard at all. Richard turned, indecisive, wanting to return to Serena’s front door, but this back hall connected to Serena’s bedroom as well. Could Dragon know this? Without a doubt – he’d pretty much had the run of the place since he’d shown up (except for certain corners, certain stretches of floor and carpet, certain thresholds even Dragon knew better than to cross) – and Dragon was headed in her general direction. Richard started after the cat, who seemed completely oblivious to him now.
Dragon kept several yards ahead of him, raising his leg and spraying each door before Richard could get there. The odor accumulated, intensified, and it occurred to Richard this was more than one individual cat’s marking of territory, but a claim being staked for the whole of the Deadfall, a claim for the kingdom of the cats.
To his relief they passed the innocuous-looking rear door of Serena’s quarters. Dragon didn’t even bother to mark it (or did the cat already consider it marked?). Richard didn’t stop in any case, not wanting to alert the cat to Serena’s whereabouts if he didn’t already know. They left the worn carpeted hall for a series of tiled, empty rooms which Jacob always referred to as “the overflow kitchen.”
Richard heard the first click-clack, and then a series of them, click-click-clack, an overlapping syncopation of hundreds of clicks and clacks, then around the doorway came dozens of Siamese cats trotting across the floor, their claws extended.
Richard moved into the carpeted back hall. And there was Dragon suddenly blocking his way, sniffing at his palm, then moving his mouth over Richard’s thumb and closing, not too firmly, keeping his teeth back but still holding Richard’s thumb well enough that Richard knew Dragon wouldn’t easily let his prize go.
Dragon’s tongue began caressing the trapped thumb, wrapping around his thumb so tightly he couldn’t possibly pull loose. The cat started moving the tongue slowly back and forth, its rough texture grating away his skin. Finally Dragon uncoiled his tongue and walked away slowly with an air of dismissal. Richard examined his thumb: it was bloody. Layers of skin had been scraped away.
“Dragon!” Serena squealed behind him. Richard turned as she rushed past him, slipping across the tiled floor and landing behind the cat, who still would not turn around. “Oh, Daddy, you found him!”
“No, Serena!” he shouted, as the cat’s eyes became huge and hard, one paw raised, claws shiny even in the dim light.
“Daddy?” Serena looked back at him, at the same time reaching out a hand to caress her long-lost cat. Richard held his breath. The cat’s ears shot up like rigid cones. Richard started running, reached his hands down to scoop up his daughter or grapple with the cat if required. “Daddy! You’ll scare him again!” Sudden defiance, resentment in her voice.
“Honey, I didn’t.”
“Yes you did! You never liked Dragon! And he’s all I have left!” Serena burst into tears and pulled Dragon to her. Richard tensed, but the cat allowed himself to be held. A low purr filled the room: directionless, and impossibly loud. Even in her upset Serena must have felt the wrongness of the sound. She held the cat out and away from her, her hands under his front legs. He opened his mouth wide with a loud, snake-like hiss. Serena dropped Dragon, scurried over to her father on her hands and knees, clamped on to his leg. “Da – deeee.” She began to cry.
The cat stretched himself out to twice his length, fixed his eyes on Richard and Serena, and then lowered his ears half-way, waiting.
Richard tried to ease himself and Serena toward the back hall, at the same time pulling Serena up along his leg from the floor. She held on so tightly he could barely move. But Dragon hissed yet again, even more loudly, more like his namesake than any garden-variety serpent. They stopped. Serena was rigid against him.
The cat flattened his ears completely and began to circle them. The ears twitched back and forth, followed by two quick flicks of the tongue around the lips. Dragon padded over to Serena’s feet and raised his paw. Without thinking Richard reached down to bat him away.
Dragon’s paw pushed against his hand. He could not believe the strength in the gesture. He could feel the claws coming slowly out of their pads. He jerked his hand away and moved his right shoe between Dragon and his daughter.
The cat clamped his mouth over the toe of the shoe. Serena squealed. Richard struggled to pull his foot away, but the cat was like a lead weight, impossible to budge. Richard felt enormous strain on his lower leg as he yanked. He almost laughed – such a small cat, and yet it was as if a boulder had rolled onto his shoe. He flashed back to a time just after they got Dragon, and the kitten had attacked, and chewed playfully on his big toe, exposed through a hole in the sock. This was insane.
Suddenly Dragon released the shoe and Richard staggered back against the wall. Serena was screaming. Richard looked down at the front of his shoe: a couple of inches of leather gone, shreds of blue sock pulled out and dangling, blood trickling from the ragged cavity.
Dragon stretched his mouth into a hideous grin and sniffed loudly.
“Daddy, look,” Serena said softly.
Richard lifted his head and looked beyond Dragon, to the doors of a second auxiliary kitchen, and the hall beyond. All of it packed wall to wall with cats. There were breeds he recognized and breeds he did not. Abyssinian, Bobtail, Burmese. An indescribable breed with a yellow-dotted coat and scarlet whiskers. And on the left pressed against the wall there was a Cornish Rex (or so he thought – he’d never actually seen one before). An Egyptian Mau, an aged Sphinx. White cats with whiter eyes. Black cats with blacker eyes. A reddish cat with a blue-tipped tail. Two Norwegians. A huge cat, almost hairless, and Richard would have thought it a pig if not for its teeth and claws. A variety of Orientals. A long narrow cat. A tall crooked cat. A Himalayan, several Persians.
One incredibly large cat with an unlikely amount of muscle was shaking its heavy, bull-like head from side to side, more dog- than cat-like in its movements. Several creatures tumbled out of its ears onto the floor and it lapped them up with a skinny, pale yellow tongue.
But it was the distinctiveness of their various eye colors that impressed him the most: yellows, hazel-greens, greens, rich oranges, red-tinged whites, the occasional blue. But when Dragon stepped back into the midst of them, creeping in reverse like some grainy silent movie wound back, their eyes all gradually changed, until eventually they took on the silver hues of Dragon’s great, brilliant eyes.
Dragon lifted his head toward Richard and Serena, stretched out his throat, and began to purr. The purring quickly fell through the registers into a soft growl, then, as if testing the various muscles and sinews involved, Dragon’s mouth went through a number of contortions, but with no sound resulting.
Dragon’s throat appeared to move differently than a domestic cat’s – there was something vaguely panther-like about it, Richard thought. In the next moment, Dragon began to roar like one of the big cats, a large, full-throated sound. But Richard was sure domestic cats did not have the ability to roar, even to execute some sort of pale imitation of a roar. Dragon cut off the sound with a sudden smacking of his lips. His tongue shot out briefly, and Richard thought it much too large for his mouth. He watched as Dragon stretched on his front paws. For his relatively small size, Dragon’s muscles seemed massive. He arched his back and twisted around, showing them the grandness of his tail: this new tail was almost four times the width of the one he’d come to them with. The enormous tail bobbed forward over Dragon’s head as he pranced in front of his followers. The other cats appeared tense, fixed on him, taking measure of his every gesture. Richard felt as if he and Serena had been finally dismissed, but doubted this was truly the case.
“He’s changed, Daddy. Oh, he’s changed so much.”
“I know, honey. I know. I’m afraid he’s not your little pet anymore. Come on, we have to go now. Just hang on to me, whatever happens.”
They were able to slip out of the room and halfway down the hall toward Serena’s room before seeing Hardy, sprawled dead across the middle of the hall, three tiny black and white kittens tearing away at its insides. Serena started to squeal and Richard clamped a hand across her mouth. Her eyes grew enormous. He moved her into an even narrower connecting hallway, his hand still over her mouth.
They were several yards down this hall (which led, Richard thought, to a door off the front lobby) when he became aware of a tearing sound behind him. He twisted to see a half dozen cats entering the hall, claws in the wallpaper on each side, tearing their way toward him. He kept Serena ahead of him, moving her along as he picked up the pace.
They pushed through the door at the end of the narrow passage, discovering that indeed it did bring them out into the lobby. Richard locked it. On the other side the cats began to howl.
“Daddy, what’ll we do?”
He held a finger to his lips and Serena clamped her own hand over her mouth. There was a multi-layered popping noise, rising in volume. He couldn’t imagine what it might be. Where was Jacob? He didn’t think much about the fact that he hadn’t seen any of the guests the past few hours – they tended to lie low as a matter of course, more so if anything unusual was going on. And was this unusual? Certainly, even for the Deadfall. But he’d expected to see Jacob in a crisis. This was a crisis, wasn’t it? Under the circumstances, the man’s secretiveness seemed intolerable.
The popping noise was even louder. And there was a bass ripple cascading from above. Then he realized what was happening, turned his head while pulling Serena to him, foolishly clinging to some thin thread of an idea that he might shield her from this.
At the top of the left-hand staircase a wave of electrified cats appeared, followed a beat later by a wave of cats on the right, both floods descending toward the wide landing at the top of the lobby where they would join and overflow the Deadfall’s great central stair. Their claws were out as they ran, making the popping noise as they snagged and pulled carpet thread in rapid succession, sending dust and bits of material flying, a gray cloud of it drifting to the red-tiled lobby floor. Many of them eeyowed in pain, or anger, or excitement – Richard imagined claws snagging and snapping, but there was no apparent impairment to their descent.
The registration desk was just a few feet away. “Stay here,” he whispered, and the wide-eyed fear that spread through her face almost made him stop, almost made him want to wrap his arms around her and wait for whatever happened.
He tore himself away and moved swiftly behind the desk, slid open a small drawer and retrieved the loaded pistol there. He eased back to Serena’s side. The cats were louder, almost to the bottom of the stairs. Serena stared at the gun, looking even more frightened. “Daddy.”
“Just come with me.” He grabbed her by the hand and pulled her with him toward the front door. Several cats bounded ahead of the crowd, immediately targeting Serena. Richard pointed the gun in their direction and fired. One of the cats tumbled amid a general shrieking. Richard was surprised at how loud the gun sounded in the high-ceilinged lobby. He’d never shot a gun before.
The great mass of cats still on the staircase sat motionless, heads butting forward, peering. Then one by one they stretched themselves – there was a final chorus of popping as they freed their claws, bits of carpet flying like flowers under a mower. Then one by one they grinned and began to move from the stairs. Richard threw away the gun and ran toward the front door, Serena dragged along by one arm, eeyowing her own gritty pain.
They squeezed through the door just ahead of a rainbow-colored tide erasing the lobby. Richard slammed the massive door on a scream of babies, looked down and saw bits of bloody fur and paw sliced off by the smooth steel edge of the door jamb. On the other side of the door was more popping – heavier, softer – made as the cats broke their bodies against the carved wood panels.
Serena clung to him and shook uncontrollably. He slipped his finger under her chin and tilted her face up. Only a couple of scratches across her cheeks, nothing serious, but her eyes looked dazed, her forehead white. “Honey, it’s okay. They’re locked on the other side of the door.”
She jerked herself away and shook her head wildly. “It’s never okay!” she screamed, spit flying off her lips. “Not in this place! It’s made not to be okay!” Her body twisted – she seemed barely able to stand. She made a staggered turn and started down the front steps. “Sometimes, Dad,” she threw back over her shoulder, “you’re an idiot!”
“Serena! Stay with me!” He went after her, stumbling over something on the porch. With a flash of anger he kicked it, saw soft, bloody flesh flying. He focused on her back, going gray as she raced ahead of him over the dark lawn. “Serena, we have to stay together!” as he stepped into another lump of flesh. And another. What the hell? Blood slimed his shoes. He could barely contain his fury at her. He couldn’t believe what she’d just said to him – it wasn’t like her – and now she was putting herself into even more danger. She’d been like this since the cat came, more and more unpredictable.
She’d stopped a few yards ahead, was looking around, down at the lawn. Again his shoes went into something soft, with a vague crunch inside. He stopped himself, made himself see more clearly, stared at the hundreds of small lumps littering the Deadfall lawn.
Hundreds of mice, the heads gone, chewed from the bodies. Dozens of birds, opened throat to tail feathers like overripe pods. A dozen or so squirrels, their heads gone as well, bodies stretched and rigid, and flattened a bit, like road kill (and when before had he ever seen a dead squirrel that wasn’t road kill?). An eviscerated mole. A mound of skunk. A helping of miscellaneous, unidentifiable flesh: well-chewed, and regurgitated. And a couple of small dogs, their dog days past, the attempt to remove their heads not quite successful, so that the flesh of their necks was mostly gone, but the bone remained, and Richard marveled at how snake-like those neck bones appeared, so that in death the dogs had become dragons, transforming into other, mythical creatures.
He wondered if this mass offering was meant for him – he’d had cats before, and except for the quantity and variety this was not unlike something they might have done – but then he heard the deep-throated purr, and turned to see Dragon perched gargoyle-like on the edge of the roof.
Serena looked up at Dragon. She slumped to the ground and began to cry. A smallish white cat crept out of the shadows, walking around her in a circle, spraying the ground, claiming his daughter as its territory.
Richard watched as two huge gray cats – both of them twice the size of the largest, fattest house cat he had ever seen – approached Serena from opposite sides of the field of carnage. He gasped and started toward her, even more alarmed when he heard Dragon growl menacingly behind him.
Then the two cats appeared to look past Serena, seeing each other as if for the first time. They stared, fixated, fur bristling, bodies in apparent slow expansion, tails fluffing out, until the king came into view – Dragon had moved so quickly Richard wondered if maybe this was a twin cat, but the way he held himself was all too unmistakable. The two huge cats shrank up inside themselves until they seemed practically nothing.
“Daddy, I want to leave. Let’s get out of here.” It was the soft, broken voice of a little girl inside her bad dream. Dragon trotted over to her, purred, rubbed against her. She didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge the cat’s close proximity. The cat’s eyes went from black to steel. Then he turned his back on her and slipped into darkness with a rush as if the film of the world had suddenly speeded up. The two fat cats followed him at a more leisurely pace. And all was silent. Not even a murmur from the hordes of cats locked inside the Deadfall. Richard found himself waiting for the sound of broken glass, for the mass of cats to come crashing in a stream of blood and fur through the Deadfall’s many windows, but there was nothing. He and Serena might have been completely alone. He could almost laugh at that. He’d wanted a quiet place to recover, to raise his daughter. Jacob had essentially promised him as much.
Something soft was at his waist, embracing him. The sweet smell of his little girl mixed with something else, a musky odor of cat, the charged scent of madness and terror. “Daddy, where’s Jacob? He should be here somewhere, shouldn’t he?”
“I’m sure – he’s working on this, trying to figure a way to get rid of the cats. He’s been doing this a long time – he’s been at the Deadfall a lot of years, you know? I know it’s scary, sweetheart. But Jacob knows what he’s doing.” He pulled her closer, feeling like a fraud.
“What will we do? Where will we go?” She turned her face into him.
Richard stroked her hair, felt something wet, sticky. He looked at his hand: there was blood in her hair. He tilted her head: scratches across the forehead, down the cheeks like exaggerated tears. “We’re going to get into the car,” he said. “And then we’re going to drive away from here.” She looked relieved, but somewhat alarmed as well. “Hush now. Maybe we’ll come back later, after the problem’s been solved.”
They slipped out of the light and into the shadows along the wall. It was ridiculous to feel any safer with that route, of course – cats stayed to shadow, as did other terrible things. But it still seemed to make them both feel better; at least they weren’t tripping over the display of tiny corpses. The garage was recessed into the Deadfall behind a screen of small trees, twenty, twenty-five feet away – you couldn’t see it from the drive, you had to know where it was.
Richard eased open one of the great slabs of weathered wood, Serena tucked behind him. The air was stale burlap, and scratchy in the nose. He didn’t think anyone had been in here since they moved in. Once at the Deadfall you didn’t think of using an automobile except for leaving.
He drew her a few feet inside, shutting the door but not all the way. He imagined breaking out at high speed, wood splintering everywhere, more easily accomplished if the door wasn’t latched. He was reluctant to turn on the dim bulb suspended high overhead, thinking it might draw the cats’ attention. Birds fluttered up in the rafters – a good sign, he thought. He pulled Serena to one wall and flipped the switch there decisively.
His station wagon appeared older than he remembered, a snapshot in silver, bathed in low-watt white from overhead. The old look of it made him nervous – he hoped it was still drivable.
The balance of light and shadow changed with each hesitant step into the dim recesses of the garage. Bits of alien equipment hung from pegs on the high walls: fanciful grilles for car makes he had never heard of, hoses kinked into exotic designs, discarded fenders stained garishly, an assortment of pipes, struts, wires and baroque tools. Up in the rafters the birds shifted in unison, then shifted back again with a synchronous rise and fall of tail feather and wing. The occupied territory of birds.
As he approached his car he began experiencing a strange sort of vertigo. The station wagon seemed already to be moving, rolling slowly through the vague light as if in dreamy anticipation. Shadows boiled out from behind the tires and beneath the chrome bumper. They dropped bits of plug wire, small fragments of black plastic, and shreds of cloth and dingy yellow mats of upholstery pad. No, not shadows at all. Cats, dozens of black cats. Then all the black cats began to hiss, so softly at first it seemed the noise was some distance away, then increasing in volume and deranged raspiness: tires losing air, steam kettles whistling, calm intention in screeching escape.
A great black mass of muscle and fur leapt from the car’s roof and approached the motionless pair. It rose on its hind legs, swelling impossibly, until it seemed it would soon be Serena’s size. It opened its mouth to screech when a shaft suddenly entered its throat, pinning it to the side of the car, silencing it.
“Out of here!” rasped behind them. Richard turned to see Jacob standing half hidden by the double door, an ancient crossbow hanging from one hand. “Let’s go if you don’t want to end up like your car!”
Jacob led them back into the Deadfall through doors and down narrow corridors which seemed vaguely familiar, but which Richard was sure he’d never seen before. Certainly he could have never repeated their steps. But suddenly they were in Serena’s bedroom, and there were no signs of cats, except for a few kitty posters on the walls which Serena ripped down immediately and without comment. Then, amazingly, she curled up on the bed and went fast asleep. Richard leaned over to kiss her head, felt himself sliding, and sat down on the floor by the bed instead. He stared up at Jacob, whose face in the darkness appeared elongated and feline. “What now?” he asked.
“Now, we rest,” Jacob replied, and busied himself moving Serena’s furniture around, pushing it up against her doors.