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.
Sometime in the middle of the night Richard heard the voices: a variety of low, musical murmurs, a blending of chirruping noises, punctuated by open-throated calls, cries, howls, screeches. Requests, demands, greetings, signals, the most elementary bits of a language. He wasn’t sure if he was awake or not, if he heard or had only dreamed he’d heard the cats speak and sing. Abby had been trying to awaken him for hours. The cat needed to be let out, the cat needed to be fed. His turn. He never took responsibility. He never did what he was supposed to. He wanted to clamp his hands over his wife’s mouth, shut her up. He was so tired; all he wanted to do was sleep. People murdered when they were denied their sleep – they couldn’t help themselves. Waking up a sleeping, dreaming man was a dangerous thing to do. You took your life in your hands. The sleeper was like a cat: basic, elemental, amoral. You couldn’t help yourself. Instinct took over. The beast was at home.
He dreamed of hordes of cats being burned alive over great bonfires, and single cats turning black on a spit. An army of peasants at war with the cats, chasing them down and smashing their spines with iron bars. Sack loads of half-dead cats stinking up the courtyards. Mock trials with prosecutors and executioners, the guilty cats strung up on a makeshift gallows.
In the middle of the night the cats howled, and it sounded like human screams, torn from some visceral old world in the back alleys of the brain.
Richard watched as Dragon brought a small fox into the midst of some kittens, and then let it loose. The fox backed away, but there was no place for it to go. One by one the kittens reached out tentatively to swat at the fox. Richard wondered why the fox – so much larger than the kittens – did not attack or fight its way through. But the confused look, the nervous weaving of the head, suggested the fox sensed something different about these particular kittens.
A few of the kittens began hissing and spitting. Then with an eruption of noise they all bolted toward the fox, their forepaws raised. Suddenly the fox disappeared inside an explosion of red mist. Serena’s face appeared in its place, eyes wide, cheeks claw-torn and chewed.
He jolted awake, rubbing at the fur collar around his neck, straining against the pressure at his throat, pushing the collar open, gasping for air. He opened his eyes and gazed at the cats piled high around him, sleeping contentedly, except for the one, Dragon, who crouched by his feet, staring at him unmoving.
He knew it was Dragon from the way the cat tilted his head, the way he stared, licked his lips, and looked down at his paws: a kitten with a monster inside. But his physical appearance had changed some. At first Richard thought the changes were subtle, but as he dared to raise his head for a better angle, more and more of Dragon’s transformation jelled from the shadows.
Dragon had become a scraggly cat, with wild long fur in such disarray it appeared randomly glued to his back. Richard followed the improbably long legs and saw that Dragon now had cloven hooves instead of paws. Bumps in the fur above his pink glowing eyes suggested horns.
“Pssst. Kitty!” Serena’s voice. Richard turned his head – too quickly, dizziness made his eyes swim and fill with cats he had to shake and shoo away – and saw Serena inside the doorway of her closet, Jacob’s pale old face right behind and above her, surrounded by little girl party dresses Serena had outgrown but been reluctant to throw away. With a pang Richard remembered that Abby had bought them all on “just us girls” shopping trips with their daughter. That it had never occurred to him before why Serena might have kept them made him feel like a creep, not deserving the honor of being her dad.
“Kitty kitty!” she called out again. Dragon turned his head stiffly toward the closet. Serena held a ball of yarn in her upraised hand.
Oh come now, Richard thought. The ball of yarn left Serena’s hand as if in slow motion, lobbed through the air in a high arc, one end of the yarn freeing itself, trailing a tail. Dragon appeared mesmerized, following the yarn with his head, then suddenly he leapt, caught the ball in midair, tumbling over and over into the midst of the other cats – who scattered as if a burning coal had been cast into their midst – growling softly with the yarn clutched to his belly.
“Daddy, come on!” Serena demanded, and Richard looked at the two of them squeezed into the closet, Jacob’s head haloed in little girl lace, and he wanted to laugh. But he surprised himself and climbed to his feet, stepping carefully over sleeping cats, watching as other cats slipped slowly from a hole that had been scratched and torn out of Serena’s bedroom wall, saw the cats pause, looking around, hissing irritably, apparently agitated by the rearranged furniture, then seeing Dragon with the yarn they bounded over to join in the king’s play. Richard chose that moment to leap over the remaining slumbering cats and into Serena’s closet like a character in a kid’s fantasy novel.
He looked at Jacob with what he imagined to be a sleepy and crazy smile. “So now what? We pass into some other dimension from here?”
Jacob glanced overhead. Richard looked up at an open trapdoor, into the darkness beyond. “I didn’t tell you about it because it wouldn’t be good for Serena to explore the hotel by herself,” Jacob explained. “Closed, it simply blends into the ceiling.”
Dragon was still playing with the yarn, looking every bit the kitten, completely harmless. “Time to go now, Daddy.” There was pleading in her voice, as if her daddy had gone crazy and had to be brought back to his senses. Richard watched as Dragon’s ears moved, following the sound of Serena’s voice. He shut the closet door carefully.
Jacob was up inside the trapdoor in seconds. The old man’s agility never ceased to amaze. He pulled Serena up and Richard followed, struggling even with their help. Jacob slipped the trapdoor back into place, bringing the darkness down on them completely. Then with a shush a match flame appeared, touched to a candle mounted in a wall sconce beside them. The dusty wall glowed, layered in cobwebs. “I completely forgot about this section while we were cleaning – I must be slipping. Now don’t straighten up all the way,” Jacob warned him. “The ceiling is quite low until we get to the sitting room.”
They followed Jacob through the winding, low corridor, stopping to light more candles along the way. Richard thought these might be the oldest candles he had ever seen: thick as small tree trunks, made of a greasy, yellow wax. The floor sloped downward for a time, which made little sense architecturally, but then what about this ancient hotel pretended to logic? But even as Richard pondered the Escher-like perplexities of the structure, the corridor made a sharp left, followed by a sharp right, and then the floor seemed to be on an incline. There were rustlings along the edges of the walls where the candlelight did not reach, but Jacob did not react, and even Serena seemed calm, no doubt taking his cue. At one point Richard noticed faces painted for several yards on the ceiling: women with shapeless, earthworm lips expressing pain or ecstasy or both, and white crosses furiously carved into the wood to scratch out their painted eyes. Then the faces were gone, and there were large sections of black paint, the corridor widened, and Jacob led them into a large room.
This had to be the sitting room. There were an assortment of benches and loungers and Adirondack chairs scattered about the odd dusty space. A grimy glass with one withered straw perched on a TV tray beside one of the chairs – Richard imagined it filled with lemonade, or some other liquid he wouldn’t have cared to drink. In any case he didn’t imagine the place had been utilized in some years, although in the Deadfall signs of disuse and neglect weren’t always what they might seem.
“This spot used to be quite popular,” Jacob said as if in answer, “although I won’t pretend to know why. You can see the front lawn from some of these peepholes over here.”
Richard joined him by a row of white circles, and then realized the circles were painted around actual holes to the outside. He bent slightly and tried them: a number were clogged, and although they appeared to come in pairs, several of the pairs were too widely spaced for the eyes of anyone he had ever met. But finally he found a pair he felt comfortable with: he brought his hands up to the sides of his face and leaned forward. He thought of a peepshow he’d gone to with some friends back in college. You put in your two quarters and were shown things you had never seen before. Some of those things you really didn’t want to see, but you’d paid your fifty cents so you just had to look.
Dawn was about a half hour past, and there were cats everywhere, their frenzy unabated even after a night’s revelries. Cats tearing at the shrubbery, climbing on each other’s backs, spitting and howling, fighting over the carcasses of small animals, dragging half-live creatures into the center of the front lawn to become the focal point of a new round of feline play. Richard was amazed that they were still able to discover prey anywhere in the surrounding fifty miles.
A scrawny, ragged cat staggered back and forth near the hotel porch, its skin opened, internal organs on display as if it had crawled off the dissection table of a high school biology class.
Watching the cats spread out over the lawn, foraging, hunting, Richard thought of meat, how this was all about meat, the hunger for it, the consumption of it, the rapid and efficient excretion of it. Limber cat bodies directly out of the Pliocene, with those prehistoric memories still intact. He watched as they lurked behind various vegetative materials, as they leapt to consummate a kill.
“Why do you think dogs eat cat feces? They can smell the meat inside.”
Richard twisted around. “Do you read minds, Jacob? It would be unfair not to tell us if you did.”
Jacob smiled grimly. “No more than you, my friend. I simply have a dark turn of mind. It is one of the qualifications for working here. When I’m with other people with similar dark turns of mind, and when we’re looking at the same scenes, it’s not too difficult to guess what you’re thinking.”
Back at the peephole, he watched as Dragon trotted out into the center of the Deadfall’s front acreage, a line of frisky kittens in tow. The other cats parted before the procession, dragging their victims with them. Within a few minutes they’d made a large rough circle: Dragon at the hub of a wheel, the rest of the cats arranged around the rim. It was at that moment that Richard realized where this “sitting room” was, where these peepholes were located.
High above the Deadfall’s front entrance was a row of carved heads: a lion, a bear, a dragon, then several abstract-looking faces so fantastic they refused to stick in memory, leaving you only with the nagging question of whether they were based on life, or based on madness, and finally, a head that might have been a beautiful woman, or might have been a young child, depending on your mood and the time of day. The faces had always looked wide-eyed to Richard, intensely observant.
His immediate thought was that whoever watched from here simply wanted to observe new visitors to the hotel. But this was more a lounge, a gathering place. Then he thought of how that front lawn with the activities that took place there was actually the most “normal” location on the Deadfall grounds. On first arrival new guests usually did not reveal their peculiarities. They waited until safely tucked inside the Deadfall’s plush and complicated interior (although a few came heavily hooded, wrapped in bandages, or masked). Normal deliveries from normal businesses came through the front entrance, as did the mail carrier and the rare salesman. And they had family picnics on this lawn. He played with his daughter on this lawn, and she played there by herself.
And maybe that was the attraction that might draw a crowd. A beautiful, well-adjusted young girl. A father adoring his daughter. Normal life. For some, it would be the only place they could witness something like that.
He took his eyes away from the cats and scanned the room slowly. Jacob saw what he was doing, but made no comment. Richard noted how thick with dust everything was. Except the chairs, the seats and backs and arms of the chairs. Clean and almost shiny from continued use. He considered this as he pressed his eyes against the peepholes once again.
Involuntarily he cried out. Dragon had come up behind the gathering of kittens, killing each with a bite to the back of the neck. Even at this distance their cries were piercing. Was that possible? Their screams were the agonized screams of young children. The worst sound on earth: babies dying in pain.
The monster cat stood up on his hind legs and grinned with his teeth, his contorted face tilted up toward the Deadfall. “He knows we’re up here!” Richard said. “My God he can find us anywhere!”
“Eventually, yes. We cannot know for sure he knows about this place, but eventually he will, I have no doubt. So far he’s worked his way into every other nook and cranny, places I’d not thought possible.”
Richard rubbed his face. “So is that where you were while my daughter was in danger? Taking the tour?”
“It was important to gauge the extent of their infiltration, to find out if there were places they wouldn’t go. Unfortunately I see no area they’ve avoided in any deliberate way.” If Jacob had taken offense at Richard’s tone he wasn’t betraying it. “Besides your station wagon, his cats have rendered the Deadfall’s pickup inoperable, as well as my old Ford. They even managed to remove key parts of the riding lawnmower.”
“This is unbelievable. I’ve questioned my decision to bring my daughter here, despite your fanciful reassurances. And now her greatest danger comes from her pet cat?”
“None of us is entirely safe in this world. It’s understandable when a father cannot accept that. We do what we can. Our guests here know these things better than anyone. I’ve also spent a couple of hours this evening checking up on those guests – you may recall that we have a certain responsibility to them, however alien and invulnerable they might appear to our more elementary sensibilities. Many have left, or hidden themselves in ways I cannot detect, but I’ve found three dead in their rooms, marked and unmarked, with perfectly innocent-looking kittens posted nearby.”
Richard tried to keep his voice under control, not wanting Serena to know how wrong everything had become (And how ridiculous was that? How crazy had he become?). “Then tell me what to do, Jacob. Tell me how to protect my daughter.”
“Serena,” Jacob said softly, his eyes sad, “is the only one capable of protecting anyone here today.”
“How can you ask me to put my daughter in that kind of danger?” They’d moved back down the corridor, leaving Serena asleep on a blood-colored corpse of a couch in the sitting room.
“She’s already in danger. We’re all in danger. Deadfall guests we can control, for the most part. I know very little about what to do in this situation, except to keep my eyes and ears open, and pay attention to what my senses tell me. And what they tell me here is that we are simply more toys to this monstrous cat – and what he eats and what he plays with are all pretty much the same to him. He’s going to tire of us, and then the play’s going to become much more violent, and then he’s going to get rid of us. He’d already be tired of us if it weren’t for Serena. Whatever he’s become he remembers what he used to be – and what he used to be has much to do with Serena.”
“Does the hotel have anything to do with what’s happening here?”
“Not directly, but one of my predecessors had this saying, ‘The Deadfall makes you live up to your potential, good or bad – it’s all the same to the Hotel.’ I think this little kitty just may have achieved its ultimate potential.”
“She’s just a little girl. How is she supposed to handle this?”
“She’ll handle this by being who she is. She needs to turn that cat into her pet again. Those other cats aren’t anything without their king. She’s going to have to get him away from the others. That’s when the two of us will take over the job.”
“And what will the two of us do with him once she delivers him to us?”
“I have no idea.”
“It is the only one we have. I suggest we improvise from there.”
Serena’s eagerness to pursue the plan appalled him. “We can always find another way,” he told her. “You know how clever Jacob is. Remember how he organized things for the cleaning? Pretty amazing, I thought, the way he figured everything out. He’ll come up with another way – I should never have even told you about this crazy idea. I’ll go ask him right now.”
“Daddy.” She sounded so much like her mother, struggling to find patience. “It must be the only way – or Jacob wouldn’t have suggested it. Besides, he is my cat.”
Richard reached to squeeze her shoulder. “Honey, don’t you find it a little – difficult – to think of Dragon as a housecat anymore?”
She let go of an embarrassed little smile. “I guess so. But I’m supposed to take some responsibility, I think, whatever he is. You taught me that, Daddy.”
Richard tried to think of what stupid little homily he might have let slip that would encourage her to risk her life. “And Dragon still likes me, sorta, I think, and I guess that’s all we’ve got going for us right now. And pretty soon, who knows, maybe he’ll change so much he won’t care anything about me anymore, maybe he’ll even have forgotten how to care.”
Her analysis was so close to Jacob’s Richard felt defenseless, foolish for trying to argue against it. She stood up and put an arm part way around his waist. “Let’s go talk to Jacob, Daddy. I guess we should do this pretty soon. I’ll be too scared if Dragon changes much more.”
As they made their way down the staircases they discovered a few cats no doubt left behind because they were either too tired or too wounded to travel with the rest of the pack. Richard and Jacob and Serena avoided even these non-threatening felines, detouring through abandoned rooms and dusty passageways. Everywhere there were signs of carnage, of cats having attacked other cats: scattered fur patches and rags of scalp, tears and scratches so numerous in the woodwork and walls Richard feared some sort of collapse. So much for Spring cleaning. Light fixtures dangled from the ceiling: here and there chewed electrical wire hung down above electrocuted cat corpses. And everywhere noxious yellow painted over the furniture.
Richard went with Serena out onto the porch. He tried to follow her down the steps but she pushed him back, urging him with her eyes to remember the plan.
Serena stepped out on the front lawn. She wore her hair pulled back into a ponytail, the same way she’d had it the day they brought Dragon to her. She hadn’t remembered that, nor had Richard, but Jacob was sure. Richard stayed back on the porch: Serena’s idea, and it made sense. She had to establish the contact with Dragon, recall the relationship. No one else could be involved.
He didn’t see Dragon at first. There were a number of cats around: slow-moving, fattened, somnolent. They pretty much ignored him: too tired, too preoccupied with the pleasures of digestion. He thought about the possibility that Dragon might be in very much the same state. But surely that was too much to hope for. Then Richard saw the large yellow dog sprawled out to one side, recognized it as the poor old stray that sometimes dropped by the kitchens, waiting until someone – usually Jacob – fed him. The dog appeared to be asleep, but then he saw the cat’s paw rising and falling, batting at the lifeless head. Dragon’s face suddenly appeared to one side of the dog’s, grinning. Richard looked at Serena: she’d spied her old pet as well.
Dragon gazed into the dog’s empty eyes. Trembling, Richard could easily imagine the cat looking into Serena’s eyes that same way. Serena was crossing the lawn slowly, avoiding piles of sleeping cats. “Kitty kitty,” she called softly. Suddenly the plan seemed ridiculous.
Dragon’s purr drifted across the lawn, rising in volume. Mesmerized, Richard didn’t want to move.
Serena stopped at the dog’s carcass. Dragon gazed up at her, tilting his head quizzically. “Oh.” He could hear the shake in her voice. “There you are, kitty.” Dragon became very still. “Come with me, kitty. Wanna play?” she asked musically. Dragon tilted his head in the opposite direction. Richard held his breath as his daughter turned, began walking slowly back up the lawn toward the Deadfall entrance. After a few moments she paused and peered back over her shoulder. Dragon took up the old cue and bounded after her like a kitten.
Serena left the front door open as she entered the Deadfall, Dragon by this point trotting in beside her. Richard followed at a discreet distance, staying just close enough to get a feel for Dragon’s attitude, ready to call the whole thing off if the cat became the least bit threatening.
Once inside Serena headed toward the library. Dragon seemed suddenly excited, started racing up and down the carpet as if chasing an invisible companion, the typical kitten.
When Serena opened the library door Dragon raced ahead into the dark chamber. She stole a nervous glance back at her father, then reached in by the door to flip the switch that controlled the reading lamps: the green glass-shaded lamp – gorgeous and oversized – that sat in the center of the cherry wood study table, and the brass floor lamp by Serena’s favorite Queen Anne chair. These lamps were just the thing for some cozy late night reading, but provided only two pools of illumination, barely enough to see to make it across the room. The rest of the vast library was completely missing, swallowed by the darkness. Yet you could still feel the massive weight of all those books, and the dust that lay upon all those volumes (the weight of a few large men in and of itself), and the significance of centuries’ learning, just out of reach, a burden of possibility in the shadows.
Serena followed Dragon into the dim chamber, leaving the library door open slightly, just wide enough for Richard to slide through. The cat would be blocked by the bookcase by the door from seeing him. He brought his head around one edge of it, and saw Serena sitting herself down in the Queen Anne, and Dragon pacing back and forth before a low bookshelf beneath the tall windows. Suddenly the cat pounced at a volume on the bottom shelf, his claws catching it at the top of its spine, his weight tilting the book out of the bookcase and tumbling to the rug below. The book lay opened, the cat rubbing his head into the trough of pages as if reading closely, before circling the book and lunging as if at sleeping prey, clamping his jaws into one corner of the thick leather cover, then dragging the tome across the library toward Serena in her chair.
Richard considered the jaw strength required, and found himself gazing up, at the narrow second floor gallery hugging the walls of books, knowing that Jacob was poised somewhere there in the shadows, ready with one of the ancient fishing nets he’d retrieved from the basement walls. Don’t wait long, he prayed, and looked back at his child as she leaned forward in her chair to retrieve the book where Dragon had brought it. It was an old, well-used book, the words on the cover in large gold script: CAT LORE. Dragon took his place, erect on his haunches by her feet, as Serena began to read.
“Cats have seven lives. Cats have nine lives. For three they play, for three they stray, and the last three they stay. A cat isn’t accepted into heaven or hell until he uses up all nine.”
She looked up from the book and down at Dragon then, as if gauging his reaction. The cat swayed and leaned forward, as if needing more.
“On Christmas Eve the cats get on their knees to pray. On New Year’s Day all the cats in Ohio kneel down to pray.”
The repetition and variation seemed a bit strange to Richard, then he realized Serena must be reading from a catalog of cat beliefs, not all of which would be consistent. But all of which, he thought now, the great King Dragon might understand to be true.
Then Serena took a deep breath, and Richard tensed, knowing what was to come. There was a slight shifting in the shadows overhead, the tiniest glimmer (Jacob’s buckle?), but before Dragon’s attention could be drawn away, Serena’s recitation rushed out of her straining lips, “A pink-eyed cat brings bad luck. A three-colored cat is good luck. A five-colored cat is good luck. A white cat is good luck. A white cat is bad luck. A white cat at night is bad luck. A six-toed white cat is good luck.” She gasped, as something fluttered in the dark. “See a one-eyed cat, cross and uncross your fingers three times if you don’t want bad luck. See a one-eyed cat, spit on your thumb, push into your palm, make a wish that will come true. A sneezing cat is good luck. A black cat is good luck.” As the net came down, the weights along its edges clanking against railings and bookcases. “A black cat is bad luck. A black cat seen before breakfast is bad luck. If you see a black cat, oh Daddy!” she cried, leaning away from the net as it covered the floor in front of her. “Spit three times to avoid bad luck!” Which she did, right into the net.
For a few moments Richard remained in the shadows staring at the tableaux: the net spread across the library floor, dust rising in a haze, the scattered corpses of books ripped from their shelves during the net’s descent, his sweet child leaning over the net, her fists balled, screaming. “I was good to you! You had no business hurting us! It’s not right!” He ran and grabbed her, held her close. “Oh daddy he’s dead he’s dead.”
Jacob walked slowly past them and stood by the net. He leaned over to examine the wreckage.
“Stand over by the chair, honey,” Richard said, leading her away. He returned and helped Jacob search. They tugged on each link in the net, lifting and peering through the still-flying dust.
“He’s not here,” Jacob said simply.
“Impossible! He was right under the net! I saw! It swallowed him whole.”
“You can see it as well as I, Richard. The cat is not under here.”
“Then where is he?” Richard pulled on the net – it was so heavy it hurt his fingers. So he kicked at the net, ran into the net and stomped wherever he could. Jacob said nothing. Finally Richard looked up at him, and past him to the chair where he had left Serena. But Serena wasn’t there.
“Serena!” Richard ran across the net, stumbled, grabbed the chair for balance, moved it aside, knocked it over, looking. “Serena!” He looked wildly around the library, ran up and down the shadowed areas. “Is there a secret passage, Jacob? Tell me!”
“Hold on hold on,” Jacob raised both hands. “Listen.”
Richard tried to silence his breath. He had limited success, but he could hear a faint and descending tapping. Serena’s shoes. Jacob jerked his head toward the child-sized door in the darkness behind the chair. “I don’t know why they put it here,” he said, “but it’s another way to the basement.”
The miniature door splintered in his hand. He threw away the doorknob. There were tiny stairs going down. He thought about Alice in Wonderland. He required the pill that makes you small. The opening was no more than five feet high, and only slightly wider than his shoulders. Pitch black interior, a cloying mildew smell. He pushed himself inside feeling like a ragged cork one size too large. He half-fell to the first tiny landing. A sudden change in air and sound told him that Jacob had squeezed in after him. Now we’re both in the dollhouse, he thought, and it did not reassure him. We’ll never get back out. A rapid tapping down the steps below him, an oppressive cat’s purr that shook the walls pressing against him, and he plunged forward again without a word.
The passage seemed to shrink even further as they went down. A few feet more and he was crouched so far he had to be careful not to ram his knees into his chin when he moved. He could hear Jacob huffing and puffing behind him and it worried him thinking that the old man might have a heart attack. How will I find Serena then? he thought uncharitably. But he hadn’t the time to indulge his guilt – Serena’s shoes sounded closer, and the rumbling purr of the cat so loud he felt as if Dragon had swallowed them all, and they were descending the feline’s esophagus into its belly. “Serena!” he called, but she didn’t answer, and after a few moments more he could no longer hear her shoes, or the cat’s purr – just the close thunder of his own panicked breath.
The steps ended before a smallish window. Without stopping Richard hauled himself up into the frame and pushed his head and torso through. They were in the Deadfall basement. In the dim light beyond rows of dusty cartons and abandoned furniture he saw a flash of Serena’s dress, and a flash of rapidly-moving fur. He forced himself through the window and landed hard on the slightly damp floor. A scurrying in the surrounding dark but he had no time to look. He still could not hear Serena’s footsteps, but off in the darkness things were being bumped against, things were being displaced. He moved as fast as he could in the enveloping dark, dim light from some unknown source illuminating the edges of columns and wreckage, but not much more. He heard Jacob drop to the floor behind him, but did not take the time to turn around.
Things were stacked so high down here he could not see above them. There appeared to be enough old furniture to equip several homes. Now and then bits of paper flapped or crackled with his passage. He pressed past shelves full of oddly-shaped glassware, dinnerware of unknown function and origin. They rattled musically when he bumped them, and he feared they might spur some desperate maneuver from the cat, so he quickened the pace. The fact that Jacob was right at his back, sounding equally urgent, did not reassure him. He rushed past an intersection of lanes, not realizing he’d seen Serena at its end. He stopped and stepped back, peered around the edge of a gigantic antique sideboard–how’d they get this down here?–Serena stood motionless, staring at something he could not see. Then she began to step backwards, out of his frame of vision, and then Dragon crept into view, advancing, back raised, tail up and whipping side-to-side like an agitated snake. Then Dragon, too, moved out of view.
Richard moved quickly to pursue.
“Careful!” Jacob whispered, grabbing Richard’s shoulder. “You don’t want to startle the cat!”
So the two of them eased through the narrow space between boxes and furniture, coming around the end to discover Serena facing them, her head outlined by the dark square window behind her. Dragon had his back to them, facing her, his body looking swollen as every muscle expanded and the fur stood away from his flesh. He hissed and appeared to grow some more, rocking back on his haunches, ready to strike.
Richard clutched the floor lamp a foot or so from his right hand, began lifting it from the floor.
“Daddy, no!” she screamed, looked directly into Dragon’s eyes, raised her shoulders and arms, dropped her mouth open and screeched as loud as she could.
“No!” Richard howled with helplessness as the cat leapt into the air, front legs out and reaching for his precious daughter’s head.
At the last second Serena jerked sideways as if shot, the same moment as the cat disappeared through the black window. Serena recovered her balance, and pushed the heavy iron hatch of the ancient Deadfall furnace closed.
Richard stood dumbfounded. The furnace was so huge – six times larger at least than any furnace he had ever seen – he’d always thought of it as essentially filling the basement, with no specific location, no specific door.
Jacob walked up beside her. She’d looked so large a moment ago, making faces at the monster cat. Now she seemed improbably tiny, even beside the shrunken old caretaker.
Jacob put his hand on a large red button mounted on a metal box above the furnace door. He looked down at Serena.
Serena looked over at Richard, an ineffably sad expression on her face. She stared up at Jacob. And nodded.
Jacob pushed the heel of his palm into the button and the furnace exploded into life. It made a terrible, anguished, and almost organic sound.
At one time a sign by the front door of the Deadfall stated “NO PETS ALLOWED.” It has been missing since before my time here. If I cannot find the original, I will make my own.
I do not believe that any of the three members of the Carter family now residing here will object when I post it. — from the diary of Jacob Ascher, proprietor, Deadfall Hotel, 1969 – 2000