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Copyright © Mark Cassell 2017


Published by Herbs House


The right of Mark Cassell to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the Author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.


All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Artwork, photography and cover design © Mark Cassell 2017



Paperback available




CONTENTS


Hell Cat of the Holt

A Bonus Story

About the Author


HELL CAT OF THE HOLT





A Shadow Fabric mythos novella




holt – noun, dialect, archaic

A wood or wooded hill.



Origin: Old English, of Germanic origin; related to Middle Dutch hout and German Holz, from an Indo-European root shared by Greek klados ‘twig’.


A STORY I HEARD



From sunlight to darkness in mere seconds. Squealing tyres, shrieking metal. And silence …

Alfred opened his eyes but only blurred light greeted him, jagged and confusing. The stench of burnt rubber and damp foliage clogged his nostrils. He coughed and an ache raced through his brain. Seconds dragged as his vision sharpened the sunset. The sound of tinkling glass lanced his eardrums, and he tried to move. His seat belt restricted him.

Then he remembered: Martha hadn’t worn her seat belt.

Thank the Lord she was still with him, wide-eyed and pretty as always – her senior years had been so very kind. Regardless of not wearing her restraint, she looked fine if a little dazed.

Somewhere above them, birds chirped. Those shrill cries drilled into his head. He winced.

Often, he would tell Martha – remind her – to fasten her seat belt, and she would always respond that she never found them comfortable. This went back to the mid-70s when a Road Traffic Bill was put forward in the House of Commons, coinciding with those ‘Clunk Click Every Trip’ TV commercials. He remembered the fuss she made when they became compulsory to wear if the car had them fitted.

“What a silly idea!” she had said at the time. “Strapped in like children.”

The right side of his head hurt like hell. He rubbed his face and his hand came away wet, and red. The rest of his body felt fine other than a few familiar aches; for the past decade, his body had woken up to all sorts of discomfort. Yet he could not complain, he was more able-bodied than the majority of his peers and, moreover, his mind remained sharp.

The windscreen was a patchwork of cracks. His door window, however, was unbroken, beyond which he saw the cat – again. Not your average domestic cat, but much larger. It now crouched in the darkness of thorny bushes, blending with the shadows. Could it be a panther? Dear God, really? He had heard of black cat sightings in the area, although shrugged them off as ridiculous urban legends.

The bloody thing was the reason why he’d crashed. He had been the one driving, Martha beside him, when the large cat had bounded across the road: black hair glistening, eyes reflecting the sunset like cooling embers; a sudden dark streak across the tarmac. Alfred had swerved.

And here they were: his car a wreck, mangled bonnet around the trunk of a looming oak.

With rubber fingers, he released his seat belt. The metal clasp smacked the central pillar. Shifting sideways, still aware of the cat’s presence, he looked at his wife. Being such a law-abiding English gentleman, he had soon given seat belts little thought and found himself clunking and clicking. They were not in any way uncomfortable as Martha had protested. Several years ago, he read somewhere that on the 40th anniversary of Clunk-Click, over one-hundred thousand lives had been saved. He wondered what the tally was now, himself and Martha included in those numbers.

“It’s okay,” he whispered and took Martha’s hand.

It was relatively easy to clamber from the wreckage, and even when they were both clear he didn’t once lose his grip on her. They stood looking at the Toyota’s crumpled bonnet and mashed grill. Steam hissed. Wispy phantoms crawled up the bark.

The cat – the panther, whatever it was – was no longer nearby. A quick scan of the surrounding trees and shrubs and tangle of brambles, revealed nothing. Still that warmth filled him. Fear of the cat or anger at crashing, he could not tell.

Martha wasn’t saying much, nor could he blame her. It was he who had been driving; he was to blame, taking a shortcut through country lanes at a time of day where the low sun bleached the world, pale and bright. Martha had been talking about their plans for after they’d returned home.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she was saying, “I’ve truly enjoyed our weekend, it’s just I miss having time away from home. I’d like us to book another break, further away and for longer. Not just one week but perhaps two. We need to make the most of these years, Alfred, while we’re still in good health.”

He saw her point; if only she could see his when it came to wearing that seat belt. Sometimes he annoyed himself and he doubted that he would ever give up thinking of her safety.

Now he was walking with her, away from the car wreck. And that cat. The sunset blinked through the branches of the autumnal canopy and they eventually came to a stream cut between the immense oaks. Without pause, they stepped into the water. Coldness soaked through to his toes, and he and Martha cleared the stream in two strides. His shoe slipped on the embankment. Martha found it no trouble and remained silent as he composed himself on the other side.

The air damp, the ground swampy, their trek through the woodland became more a zigzag path, avoiding lichen-coated rock and ivy-clad boulders. Some of the boulders were broken, gaping like jagged yawns. Years of forest growth covered each one, and although some were as large as houses, they were dwarfed by the surrounding oak trees.

Over the last few years, Alfred had taken to each day with appreciation. Life was for living. Enjoying. It was sad there were those who took it upon themselves to end their own lives. What of the driver heading towards the cliff without any intention of braking? Did they, from home to final destination, bother to wear a seat belt? Were they at such an emotional low they clicked the belt into place out of simple habit as opposed to an ironic view of their safety during the oncoming journey? Maybe they wished to avoid any entanglements with the law, and if they considered such things with apparent lucidity then was it not possible to bring themselves out from their most desperate hour?

If only things were as simple as the pleasant stroll he and Martha were now taking.

Parallel to them, the cat broke the shadows between a scattering of smaller rocks. Its eyes again reflecting the sunset. Not at all urban legend but real, as sure as his own heartbeat. Incredible. Crisp leaves whispered beneath its paws as it kept pace with them.

A small part of him knew he should be afraid, but …

Thinking back to the accident, Alfred squeezed Martha’s hand. Still she said nothing, nor did she return his small sign of affection. Was it affection? Guilt, most likely. The sun had been low in the sky and he had reduced his speed accordingly, but he should have seen the cat sooner. The next moments were lost to darkness … and now he was walking with Martha, walking away from that darkness.

Just as it had then, the beast leapt across their path. Hair glistened, muscles rippled. It bounded in front and froze between tree trunks on the edge of deepening shadows. A flurry of leaves swirled. The impressive beast huddled in a place where rays of red sunshine failed to penetrate.

The air seemed to shrink in Alfred's throat, and he and Martha jerked to a standstill. He must run, return to the car wreck. He had to call the police, an ambulance … Run, run away …

Those red eyes, not reflecting the sun at all but glowing from an inner fire, locked on to his own. A heat surged through his body, similar to that which filled him earlier in the day on the south-east coast; a rare warmth which arrived with a strange October, the two of them appreciating both the weather and the other’s company. He was lucky. They were lucky.

From behind them, leaves rustled. Getting louder. Voices too.

Alfred turned.

Two police officers approached between the trees, twigs snapping.

“Sir,” one of them shouted. “Stop there!”

Alfred looked back towards the cat. Its eyes burned, blinked once, and it tilted its great head. Then it darted off. Nothing more than a dark streak in shadowy folds, it vanished. A chill rushed through him. His fingers and toes numbed and his breath plumed before him in a lazy cloud. He dragged his eyes from the swaying foliage, from what looked like quivering shadow, and peered over his shoulder. His head throbbed.

All he could do was let go of Martha’s hand.

One policeman already stood a short distance from Alfred, while the other staggered to a halt further away.

A silence deepened the gloom.

The officer closest to Alfred opened his mouth to say something, but his colleague’s strangled words stopped him. Alfred frowned and wondered what they were both staring at. He followed their gazes, looking down at his feet.

Blood peppered his shoe and soaked into the earth. Next to that was Martha’s hand.

“Martha,” he said, “you should have worn your seat belt.”


MY NAME IS ANNE



I'd heard the stories and read the articles, but despite growing up under my grandparents’ care in the village, I had never once seen the Black Cat of Mabley Holt myself. And that had been frustrating. After all with its population of little more than one hundred, you would have thought I’d get at least one glimpse. As I grew older, even though the sightings were mostly reported by adults, I resigned myself to the idea it was something that happened only to little girls – if at all.

Kind of like seeing fairies.

Grandad claimed he’d seen the Black Cat, and that was all he spoke about after the accident. Three days later he’d died of a broken heart.

That had all happened last year.

A little piece of me had also died when I lost first Gran in that car crash, then Grandad. I took a modicum of comfort from the fact that I’d lived back home with them, in the room I’d had as a kid, for about a year before the accident, providing me with recent memories to cherish.

Orphaned at birth and an only grandchild, a failed marriage and unashamed cat lover, my life had seen its share of ups and downs. I’d meant to have been living there again only temporarily, but now they’d both gone, I guessed it was a good enough place to start a new chapter in my life.

So here I was, stepping out of my family home …

I zipped up my coat. The fresh morning rushed into my lungs, and I squeezed a pocket; I had a habit of forgetting my purse. It was in there. The front door clunked shut and I gave it a push to make certain it was locked. I walked down the short path that led to the road. No pavement, just the cracked tarmac of the country lane beyond an iron gate, which had remained open since the 1980s, rusted and tangled with brambles.

A blue Ford sped up the road.

“Speed bumps,” Gran always used to say. “The road needs speed bumps.”

Since the funeral, it seemed both their voices echoed a little too often. Especially over Christmas; how that house had echoed memories. Now spring approached, I still heard them.

Back in the autumn I’d lost them both, then five months later I’d lost Murphy, my own black cat, my little buddy.

I walked past the houses of my only two neighbours – each hemmed in by overgrown leylandii hedgerows – and headed up the road. It was a ten-minute walk to the local shop, along a winding lane with too many potholes. I needed some milk but figured I’d grab it on the way back from my walk.

I wanted to look for Murphy for the umpteenth time in less than a week.

My stroll followed a roadside ditch filled with the mulch of leaves and rain. Eventually, I rounded the last bend that led to a row of terraced cottages, beyond which was the shop.

The elderly lady who lived in one of the large houses further along the road stood in front of a telegraph pole, pinning something to it. Her name was Rose, one among a handful of residents who’d remained in Mabley Holt throughout my twenty-year absence. She stepped back from the poster of another missing cat.

My pace slowed.

She’d fixed her laminate below my own.

It had been six days since Murphy had left through the cat flap, having licked clean his bowl and not returned. My stomach churned a now-familiar sadness.

Rose’s down-turned mouth twisted into a weak smile when she saw me approach. I knew my mouth mirrored hers.

“Yours too, huh?” I said.

She nodded, her jowls wobbling slightly. “Helix has been gone four days now.”

“Almost a week for my Murphy.” I eyed his photo. It was the one I’d taken of him in front of a roaring fire the previous Christmas back when I’d lived up in Birmingham. My photo was in colour whereas Rose’s was in black and white, of her black and white cat.

“I still put fresh food out for him,” Rose said, “near the cat flap, just in case.”

“Me too.” I wondered how old Helix was.

“And biscuits.”

I wondered if I’d ever see Murphy again.

“And water,” she added.

Another car shot up the road. Again, too fast. When they finally completed the bypass, it should reduce the number of vehicles using the village as a cut-through. Too many times since Murphy’s disappearance I’d considered the possibility of his fate beneath speeding wheels.

“We can only hope,” I told her. “Keep looking, keep hoping.”

As I continued along the road towards where the pavement finally began, I of course scanned the last ditch, the last hedge, and the fields beyond, just looking for a tiny furry body. What I’d do should I actually find him there, I had no idea.

I shivered and made fists in my pockets; I should’ve worn gloves.

A black 4x4 was parked with two shiny alloy wheels over the pavement — probably the only off-roading the vehicle ever saw. Some of the smaller cottages didn’t have front gardens let alone a driveway or garage, and several had large vehicles which didn’t help the parking situation. Often, I’d overhear neighbours complain. I usually kept my car on the driveway, however it was currently gaining the attention it deserved after I’d ignored the Engine Management System warning light for too long. Having it breakdown on me a few days ago had brought on more tears than it deserved, but it just topped everything off.

The last twelve or so months had been incredibly sad: leaving Birmingham, a beautiful home and an incompatible husband, to return to my grandparents’ house all the way down in the south-east. The life I thought I wanted was just not for me so I had come back to the room I had as a little girl, welcomed with as much love as ever. Gran had made extra fuss, and she never tried to hide her joy at having me once again under their roof.

I reached the shop and paused, wondering if I should go in; I wanted to head up the road, wanted to look for Murphy near the church. Voices drifted from the gaping door beside me. A stack of bread crates had been left just inside the threshold: Hovis, Kingsmill, all household names that reminded me I should add bread to the list. I’d write a shopping list in my head and later forget most of it when I was actually in the shop. I suspected that would happen again now.

“… stuff is everywhere …” It sounded like one of my neighbours, Harriet. Her voice carried like gunshots to chase me as I headed up the road. I could not be arsed with her right then. I wasn’t in the mood.

At the junction, the familiar smell of oil clung to the air – Mabley Holt residents had oil tanks in the garden because British Gas had never got around to connecting pipes to the village. To the left was the kiddie’s playground, and beyond that a rusted National Speed Limit sign gave way to another lane that wound towards the main road for Sevenoaks. Off to the right sat the church with its spire lancing into the overcast sky.

I rounded a ragstone wall that began at ankle level and soon towered above me, leading into the graveyard. By now it had to be 7.30 a.m. This had always been my favourite walk – there was something about treading the crooked and often overgrown path between moss-coated headstones and broken grave markers ... just something.

When I first returned to Mabley Holt I'd considered getting a dog for a walking companion, extra company alongside Murphy, but I preferred cats. Not only that, I didn’t think Grandad would have much liked the idea. Both he and Gran were cat lovers too, and had been more than happy when I’d come home with Murphy. There’s a strange kind of knowledge behind the sneaky intelligence of a cat, and that’s something I’d always admired and respected.

Murphy, where are you?

The air turned colder as I stepped into the shade of the church itself. White moss peppered the stonework, the walls chipped with years of abuse from the elements. This particular wall, I’d always noted, was battered more than the others and I assumed it was because it faced the open fields. From its place atop the hill, the church overlooked the valley that at this time of year was a mix of browns and greens. Today, patches of fog drifted at the edge of the far woodland. Soon there’d be a hint of rapeseed yellow to prove that spring was here, but not quite yet.

I continued walking towards a rusted fence that marked the edge of the holy grounds. Dry leaves crunched beneath my shoes as I slowed my approach to the fence. I stopped beneath the drooping limbs of an oak whose roots had devastated what perhaps were the first graves to have been laid. The wind bit my cheeks as I curled fingers around the cold and rusted iron. It gave a little beneath my grip and made a grinding sound in the ruined paving. My breath plumed as I squinted across the expanse of churned earth, out towards a copse. Little more than a collection of perhaps a dozen sizable trees, the copse stood in the centre of the nearest field.

Where those trees once stood proud, their trunks and branches were now shrivelled, blackened. Burnt.

The ground surrounding the trees was barren, typical for the time of year, but in places scorched. The trunks and branches were black from what I guessed must have been a fire. Strange thing was it hadn’t been like that the day before when I’d walked up here. Of that, I was certain.

Maybe there’d been a lightning strike last night – even though I’d not heard a storm. Maybe it had been some pyromaniac youths. Using that word, youths, reminded me of Gran.

The jagged trunks of several trees reached up to the sky like black claws. Whatever the cause, the fire had only burned long enough to take out the copse and spread no further. Aside from the scorch marks, there were deep cracks and rifts that splayed out from the blackened tree line. It reminded me of those pictures of the barren ground in Ethiopia where, as a kid, I'd first witnessed sun-baked earth and famine, sad eyes and pot-bellies.

A rustle above made me jerk upright, my neck clicking. I stared into the gloomy thatch of branches. Something dark, fleeting, teased my peripheral vision. I tried to follow whatever it was and saw only twigs and branches quivering. Perhaps it was a squirrel, or … or something larger than a squirrel.

Murphy?

I moved and my shoe caught on a cracked paving slab. As I went to step away, my coat snagged on the fence and ripped.

Whatever had been in the branches had gone.

Nothing. No Murphy.

When I went home, I forgot to go in the shop.

Typical me.





I knew at some point I’d seriously have to get on with my contracted work, and it was already way past midday. Freelance accountancy had been my thing since leaving Uni, but recently I hadn’t been getting much done. It seemed I allowed myself far too many tea breaks where I’d not actually make any tea, and instead wander off into the village and the surrounding fields in search of Murphy. Procrastination was always an issue, and right then I was hungry and had little in the cupboards in the way of lunch.

I was just considering going back out to get that shopping, when a screech of tyres and a crash put a stop to my intentions.

I rushed to the window and bumped the sideboard, knocking off a photo frame. It cracked when it landed by my foot. Such a clumsy arse. Ignoring it, I pulled aside the net curtain to look out.

Just past my neighbour’s house, a red van sat crooked in the ditch atop flattened bushes with its crumpled bonnet against the telegraph pole. Steam poured from the front grill. The driver, a good-looking guy with one tattooed arm, clambered out. His eyes were wide. He didn’t immediately inspect the damage, instead he paid more attention to the field beyond the trees and bushes past the wreck.

I wedged my feet into my shoes, stomping them in for a few steps to properly get them on.

Clive, my elderly neighbour, was already out of his house by the time I made it onto the road. I wrapped my cardigan around my chest, hugging myself and wishing I’d grabbed a coat. After the funeral, Clive had been there for me. Indeed, he and his wife, before she’d passed away, had been good friends with my grandparents. Today, it was no surprise that he wore his mustard-yellow jumper. I’d never once seen him without it. When I lived here as a kid, I’d always see him wearing it – I honestly wondered if it was the same one. Even in summer, he’d wear it without rolling up the sleeves, and in winter, he’d not wear a coat.

“I’m okay, thanks,” the driver was saying to him as he ran a hand over his vehicle’s roof. “Van’s not.”

“You sure you’re okay?” Clive held an empty shopping bag in one hand and his house keys in the other.

The driver again glanced over the hedges. A mist crept along the far edge of the field, curling through tufts of grass down where a stream wound into the expansive woodland.

“Damn thing came from nowhere,” the man said.

“What?” Clive demanded. “What did you see?”

“The thing darted from the bushes.”

“Yes, but what?”

I believed I knew what the man was about to say.

“A big black cat.”

I wasn’t surprised and immediately thought of Grandad. As a kid, a number of long-living residents of the village often spoke of how they’d seen the Black Cat skulking through the fields. One old lady once claimed her late husband fired his shotgun at it. Point-blank range, apparently. No harm befell the cat.

“Look at my van!” the man said.

“Anne,” Clive said, his eyes narrow, “are you okay?”

I nodded, knowing I held my mouth open, and quickly closed it.

The man looked at me, then eyed his van. “Had an accident.”

I wanted to say, “I can see that”, but that would made me sound like an arse. That wasn’t my style. My throat was dry.

The man walked round the front of the vehicle and stroked the bonnet. “Still haven’t finished paying it off.” He dug in his pocket and pulled out a mobile phone.

“Shopping?” I said to Clive, pointing at the bag. It was an obvious question, I realised that, and I had no idea why I asked. Perhaps it was to distract myself; I was still thinking of Grandad in hospital, adamant he’d seen a black cat. The Black Cat.

“Yes, I need a few things,” he said and glanced up the road. “Have you found little Murphy yet?”

I hated that question. A friend from Birmingham had phoned that morning asking precisely that. I gave them both the same answer: “No, not yet.”

My neighbour’s gaze drifted over my shoulder, and I turned to watch the van man lean against his side door. He was speaking on his mobile. Clive and I walked a short distance away to allow the man some privacy.

I wanted to talk about the Black Cat, my Grandad. Everything.

Eventually, Clive murmured, “Said he saw the Cat.”

“What do you think?”

“I think he’s telling the truth.”

“Why?”

“Because I saw it, too.”

“You did?”

“About a minute before the crash.” With his shopping bag, he motioned across the fields. “Over there, down near the stream.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.”

I didn’t believe there was a Black Cat, or the ‘Black Cat of the Holt’ as Grandad said just before his heart finally broke. I couldn’t believe such a beast roamed the local countryside. In truth, the idea scared me. Imagine if … if the Cat had got Murphy. Perhaps the Cat had eaten him.

My stomach churned at the thought.

“That fog is heavy,” he said, “and it’s coming in fast.”

It clawed along the edge of the woodland, drifting in layers.

“I need to get to the shop,” Clive said and started walking. “See you.”

Me too, I thought, but I didn’t go with him. I went back indoors, grabbed my coat and eyed the cracked photo of Gran and Grandad. I still didn’t bother picking it up.

Before Clive had even made it a dozen steps up the road I was outside again, such was his slow plod. By now, the van man sat in the driver’s seat. I wondered if I should at least offer to make him a tea or a coffee. Then I saw him pop open a can of drink, a Coke or Dr Pepper maybe.

He looked fine.

Off I went in the opposite direction to Clive, heading down towards the stream.





At this time of year, the stream would be deep enough to be a river. The sound of tumbling water intensified as I walked off the field into the woodland, following the slope that led down to the stream. The river. The damp air, earthy and salty, filled my lungs. Around these parts of the village, mossy rocks and ivy-clad boulders dotted the landscape, some as small as a shoebox, whereas others, without exaggeration, could be compared to the size of a house.

A large portion of rock had broken away and slid into the deeper part of the river to form a kind of waterfall. Gnarly roots pushed out from the muddy slope, growing up and over several large rocks. Overhanging branches dangled into the water, creating ripples. Layers of mist teased the water bank, not as thick as I’d suspected.

The cross-hatching of overhead branches creaked. For a moment, I expected to see whatever it was that had spooked me earlier. Nothing there. Just gloom.

No Murphy.

Not that I expected to see him up a tree. I’d never known him in a tree, but then again, I’d never known him to go missing. I was there for a different kind of cat. What was I even doing? This could be dangerous.

Something behind me rustled in the leaves, I turned and—

My leg shot sideways. I slid, landed in the mud, and slipped further down the embankment.

A coldness soaked through my jeans, to my skin. My hands raked the mud … down I went … and cold water rushed over me. Freezing. I choked and coughed and sputtered, my arms flapped, my hands slapping the surface. The back of my head went under, my ears bubbling. Luckily my face didn’t go under. Rocks bit into my back and my bum. My legs kicked the tangle of reeds. It was like a dozen hands wrapped around my ankles, keeping me under. Cold water rushed down my throat and again I choked and coughed. I scrambled, desperate to grab something, anything.

Finally, my slick hands gripped a branch. Only just. I lurched and fell back as though a tide swept me beneath its surface.

My wet hand lost its grip.

I turned over, still kicking, still flapping my arms. My head smacked a rock. Light and colour and darkness blinded me and I went under; my whole head this time. Chunks of broken rock lined the bottom of the river, and as I tried to get my feet beneath me, I saw what looked like cave paintings. Reds, yellows and blues painted on the rocks. No time to make any sense of it.

I lurched upright, desperate to grab the branch again. It was as though the water was deeper than it really was.

The branch. Got it. Tight.

Water rushed over me. I swallowed some and choked. Cold and bitter.

Beside me, up the bank, there was movement. A blurry image of someone running from the fields, then sliding in the mud, nearer and nearer the river. An arm reached out and for an absurd moment all I saw were those rock paintings again. I kicked and thrashed and grabbed the arm. Strong, hairy.

The man yanked me up. His fingers pinched my skin as I jerked upwards. All I saw was his woolly hat and a firm jaw. He slipped, and embarrassingly I landed on top of him. Coughing, I glared at the churning water, expecting to see something reaching for me. My breath came in gasps and I pushed myself away from him. My cheeks warmed despite my cold skin; I’d landed on top of the poor man.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay.”

“But, I saw …”

He glanced at me as we both stood. I guessed he was a hiker.

“I saw something down there,” I told him. My legs felt like jelly.

“What?” He snatched off his black coat and draped it over my shoulders. He looked at the landslide, watching the water tumble over and around the rocks. “What did you see?”

His coat smelled of clean laundry and I felt guilty as I wrapped it tight around my shoulders, hugging myself. My teeth chattered and all I could taste was that bitter water. “I … I don’t know.”

He raked his stubble. His brown eyes were as dark as the muddy water. They were sad, though.

“Lucky I was nearby.” His voice was soft. “You okay?”

I nodded, feeling as dumb, as they say, as mud. My hands were slick with the stuff. Plus, I’d broken a nail; like I cared about that. The murky mix of bubbles and debris made lapping noises against the bank of tree roots and rock. How I even managed to see the rocks at the bottom and those markings I had no idea.

“Recently,” he said, “people around here have been seeing a lot of weird stuff.”

Again, I nodded. I was such an idiot; I couldn’t believe I’d fallen into the river. My teeth felt furry, gritty, and like the true lady I was, I turned my head aside and spat. It didn’t do much for getting rid of that awful taste. “Excuse me.”

“S’okay.” He laughed. “Can’t imagine it tastes nice.”

“Nope.”

“Mucky.”

“Yeah.” I rubbed my hands together. It made little difference to the chill, but I kind of felt better. I had to get home.

“You local?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Me too.”

Again, I looked at him. I didn’t recognise him.

“Come on,” he added, “let’s get you home. Is it far?”

“Not at all.” I jerked my head in the direction of the field behind us. “On the edge of the village. You’ll see my house once we get away from the river.”

He wiped his muddy hands down his trousers. He wore combats and big boots.

“I reckon,” he said, “you’ll be taking plenty of that water with you.”

I looked at his wet trousers. “You too. And your coat’s gonna be soaked.”

He waved a hand. “Nah, it’s cool.”

I went to move away from the embankment and staggered like I was drunk.

He reached out and gripped my upper arm. Firm. “You good?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll walk you home.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Yeah.” His smile warmed his face, but failed to warm me. “Yeah, I do. I’m Leo, by the way.”

“Anne,” I said and wiped my face with his sleeve. “I’ll wash this coat for you.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Yeah, I do.”

We stepped up the bank and headed for the edge of the field, the barren ground slick with mud.

“I’ve not long moved into the village,” he told me. “Been here since last summer. Gone by fast.”

My shoes squelched around freezing toes as we headed for the main road and my house. “I kind of keep myself to myself, to be honest,” I told him.

“Me too.” Again, I thought how troubled he looked.

I glanced behind us, back down towards the river. “Have you seen the Cat, too?”

He took a moment to answer. “I’ve seen a lot of things.”

“A big Black Cat? Some guy earlier claimed he saw a panther.”

Leo shot me a curious look.

“I’ve also heard that pet cats have been disappearing,” he said.

“My Murphy.”

“I’ve seen your posters.”

“I miss him.”

“Of course you do.” He dropped his gaze to his feet. “You went down there to look for it, didn’t you? The big Cat, right? The panther?”

“Stupid, huh?”

“Of course not,” he said.

“Curiosity.” For the first time, I thought how terrible it would be if Murphy had been killed by this so-called panther. I hoped to hell that wasn’t the case.

“I’m sure Murphy’s okay,” he assured me. “Maybe stuck in someone’s shed.”

“It’s been almost a week.”

The rest of the way, which wasn’t too far, was in silence. The closer we got to my house, the more embarrassed I felt. I was such a clumsy idiot. By the time we reached it, I noticed the crashed van was empty. The driver had most likely gone up to the shop. Or, knowing Clive, he was bending the man’s ear about the hiking trails around the local countryside. He and his wife, Janice, used to hike a lot with my grandparents.

“That doesn’t look good,” Leo said, gesturing at the wreck.

“Nope.” Given my clumsiness down at the river and meeting Leo, I’d forgotten all about the accident. “It happened earlier. The driver said he swerved out of the way of the Black Cat.”

The muscles along his jaw rippled. His head rocked forward and back, slowly. He didn’t say a word.

“Thanks for walking me.”

“No problem,” he said without looking at me. Instead, he focused back on where we’d come.

“And thanks for the coat,” I added, “I’ll wash it.”

“It’s okay,” he said and held out his hand, “I’ll do it.”

I slipped it from my shoulders and handed it to him, feeling so pathetic it annoyed me.

He rolled it up and mud dripped on one of his boots. “See you around, I’m sure.”

“Yeah.” I almost added, I’d like that, but managed to catch myself. I dug in my soaking pocket for my house key.

Leo turned and started walking down the lane.

“Do you think we should call the police?” I asked.

He stopped and looked back. “No.”

“Why not? We should tell them about the Black Cat.” It was the kind of thing Harriet would have done by now. If not, perhaps even Clive.

“I don’t think that’ll help matters,” Leo said, and pulled his hat down tighter on his head. “The police can’t do anything.”

Before I could protest, he turned and strolled off. Water dripped from him and his big boots left mud in his wake.

I unlocked my door, thinking of his last words.





Harriet shuffled aside as I slid the bottle of milk across the counter. How was it she seemed to be in the shop every time I was? And I didn’t go in often. Her presence made me feel tiny – especially her great bosom. What was it with older ladies like this? Even her voice was massive.

“And,” she was saying, “that’s when I noticed the black stuff all over the back steps.”

Hadn’t she been talking about the black stuff earlier? Even though it was late in the afternoon, absurdly I wondered if she’d been in the shop all day. The shop assistant, a young girl with a nose stud and whose name always escaped me, threw me a quick smile. She looked apologetic and bored.

“Just this please,” I said and glanced at Harriet. This was the first time I’d spoken since falling into the river and as I spoke, I could still taste the bitter water.

“Have you noticed any of the fungus?” Harriet asked me.

Moments like this, I hated. I had to talk, what if I said something stupid? These kinds of thoughts came at me in waves. Sometimes I’d be the most confident person you’d meet, other times not. What if the shop assistant laughed at me? A cool sweat prickled my forehead.

“No,” I whispered. It was the truth. Kind of. I thought of the burnt and black trees I’d seen earlier that morning.

“It’s everywhere.” Her eyes were wide. “I bet there’s some of it outside, out the back of the shop, already creeping across the walls.”

“It’s probably just a weed,” the young girl said.

“It’s more than that. When you touch it, it gets everywhere.” She clutched her purse to her chest and gave me a crooked smile. “See …” She pointed at my boot, “… it’s everywhere.”

Mud caked my boot. My shoes were soaked from falling into the river, and earlier I’d thrown them out onto the back step to dry out. The boots I now wore had hardly been worn and already they were streaked in mud – dark mud, almost black though. I didn’t say anything, my mouth drying up like I hoped my shoes soon would. I kept my eyes on my purse as I pulled out a pound coin.

Harriet started talking again.

My cheeks burned by the time I stepped out onto the street, and the woman’s voice faded behind me. I snatched up my collar and headed home. As I passed Murphy’s photo on the telegraph pole, I glanced at it while keeping my pace. Nearing my lane, the fog thickened as though eager to join twilight.

The sound of an approaching vehicle from behind made me move closer to the bushes. Headlights speared the fog and pushed a haze of white into the sky. A roadside rescue truck passed and it made me think of the crashed van – if that was for the guy who’d wrecked his van, I wasn’t impressed with the response time. It made me think of how he’d been certain he saw the Black Cat.

Big cats, small cats, whatever. All I wanted was to find Murphy.

Harriet’s cottage was on the other side of Clive’s, with an immaculate garden that shamed ours. Sickening, in truth, even though this past winter had been cold and wet. She was right, the apparent black fungus covered her driveway. Also, peculiar dark vines encased a section of the wall.

Whatever the stuff was, she just needed weed killer – I should probably add some to my next shopping list in case it spread into my garden.


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