By Sam Waas
Chill breezes cut across dark city streets, streets still damp and dripping from an earlier rain, more storms forecast. A full moon tried to penetrate the oncoming clouds without success, instead casting fleet shadows on the street resembling scurrying phantoms in the night.
Martin Stewart was one of those phantoms, stepping briskly along the poorly paved sidewalk, trying to avoid puddles and keep himself from tripping on the uneven brickwork beneath his feet. The streetlights didn’t help. They were widely spaced, and what light they emanated was some faux gaslamp glow.
“Retro,” Stewart muttered to himself. “To hell with retro,” allowing a little smile. He’d moved into the neighborhood a few months ago specifically because of its Gay Nineties charm, everything reconstructed to the mode of sandblasted red brick and black wrought iron trim. And it was a pleasant change from the cold flat glass and steel of most urban settings, to be sure. Right now, however, he’d gladly trade it all for a solid concrete sidewalk and bright carbon streetlights.
Cat food, dammit. Stewart meant to pick up cat food the last time he shopped, and had simply forgotten. Not his normal behavior, because Stewart was the type who planned meticulously. He’d done so his entire life and had profited. But nobody’s perfect. So Stewart, distracted by his latest activities and arriving home late, was confronted by two mewing cats who immediately demanded their dinners. And even as he reached for the kitchen cupboard, he knew the shelf would be empty, because that morning he’d dished out the last can as breakfast for Tinker and Soldier. Hence the quick drizzly trip to the corner store, where he’d probably pay triple for what he could have easily bought a few days prior at the discount mart. Oh well, best laid plans.
Stewart felt a few drops of rain on his face. He increased his stride and hoped he’d be back home before the deluge hit. Otherwise he’d be soaked. But wet or not, Stewart couldn’t let his treasured cats go hungry.
Originally there’d been four, a litter he adopted at the animal shelter, their mother either having abandoned them or perhaps run over by a car. A quartet of adorable tabbies that he immediately named Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, after his favorite John le Carré novel. Within weeks, Tailor, the only female, sadly succumbed to an intestinal birth defect, and that summer Spy sneaked out an open screen door, his poor mangled body later found in the street by neighbor kids. Whether killed by a dog or vehicle was never certain.
But Tinker and Soldier were the survivors, having grown into a wonderful pair of feline brothers. Eight years now, and with good vet care and a loving owner, they’d have many happy years ahead.
Stewart trudged dutifully through the dimly lit streets, four short blocks to the all-night store. A brushing sound behind him and Stewart pivoted quickly, raising his arm in defense!
Wind rattling branches of a nearby tree. He sighed and turned back on his journey. There’d been a rash of muggings in the area, and lone pedestrians at night were easy prey. Should have taken the car, Stewart thought, but fond hopes and a faint farewell to that. He was committed to the walk now, so he shook off any regret and continued along the artfully broken brickwork.
Stewart reached the little convenience store (inconvenience store, he thought, smiling again) and stepped inside. The interior was almost as poorly lit as the street, and its windows, obscured by heavy security bars and numerous product posters, rendered the place claustrophobic. Whatever. In and out and get home.
He’d only been to the store once and it took him a while to find the pet food. A sad display of off-brand cans, dusty and forgotten, nearly a buck each. It would have to do. He took four, hoping the cats would at least tolerate one or two. Tomorrow he’d go shopping for real and bring Tinker and Soldier a generous treat, perhaps fresh liver, to offset this insult to their palates.
The customer ahead of him at the counter was taking forever. He’d gotten the wrong beer and had to go to the cooler and grab the correct six pack. Now he was pondering which cigarettes to buy. Stewart glanced at the clock on the wall. Nearly midnight, not a time he chose to be out, especially without carefully planned things to do, people to see. Being here because of a mistake made Stewart feel unsure of himself. He hadn’t stayed successful by acting impulsively and didn’t want to start now.
The customer finally made his purchase and left. Stewart put the cans on the counter, handed the clerk a five, got change. Neither person spoke. Stewart took the small plastic bag containing the cat food and hurriedly walked home. The rain somehow held off till Stewart was about fifty feet from his front door, then it descended in gushers. He scooted quickly beneath the shelter of the small porch roof overhang and put his key into the front door lock. Safe, with mission accomplished.
“Go on, dude,” a voice in his right ear. “Open the door.” Stewart turned toward the sound and felt a sudden sharp prick at his neck. He stood stock still, and in his peripheral vision could see the knife blade and shadowy outline of the mugger. “I said open the damn door!”
How the guy had gotten the drop on him he didn’t know. He’d seen no one, but of course he’d been preoccupied and not as careful as usual, his lack of vigilance now coming back to haunt him. Somehow he’d been followed right to his own house. Stewart twisted the key and was abruptly pushed, slammed against the door. The mugger turned the knob, swung open the door, and shoved Stewart roughly inside. Stewart stumbled, dropped the bag, cans rattling and bouncing across the floor.
Tinker and Soldier ran to meet Stewart, then drew up and stopped as three strangers also dashed inside from the downpour, closing the door behind them. The cats shyly retreated.
Stewart regained his balance and stood before the intruders. They were fairly young. The one who confronted him with the knife was about twenty, a slender black man dressed in hoodie and dark pants. His partners were both white, a tall solid man, maybe thirty, an equally large girl about the same age, both in nondescript dark clothing as well, hoods pulled up. Brother and sister team? The tall man held a piece of pipe as a club, the girl another knife. All three advanced upon Stewart, glancing to one another for support.
“I don’t want trouble,” Stewart said, holding his hands away from his body. “I’ve got some cash, hundred bucks or so. You can have it. Just leave me alone.”
“We’ll take what we want and leave alone what we goddamn feel like, Pops!” The girl grinned sarcastically as she spoke.
“I don’t have much but you’re welcome to it. Take my cash, my TV, DVD player. It’s insured.”
“Gimme your wallet, dude,” the black kid said, pointing with the knife. “Slow and careful.”
“Sure,” Stewart replied. “Take the cash and leave, okay?” He eased his wallet from the hip pocket, handed it over.
Without looking, the black kid passed the wallet to the big stocky guy. He opened it, flipped through the currency. “Ninety, hunnert, one twenty.” He removed the cash, stuck it in his jacket pocket, checked the rest of the wallet. “American Express and Visa.” He retrieved the cards, waved his steel pipe at Stewart. “You, siddown on the floor.”
“We’re gonna need those PINs for your cards, Pops,” the girl said.
Stewart nodded his assent. “Fine, there’s a notepad on the desk. I’ll write them down, take the cards. I don’t want trouble.”
She moved closer, put her knife blade under Stewart’s nose, making him tilt his head back. “Pops, we are trouble. We’re gonna hang around here a while, hit the ATMs every day till you’re busted flat, then if you act nice, we might not cut your friggin’ throat on the way out.” She smiled again. It wasn’t a friendly smile.
The girl glanced over Stewart’s shoulder. “Hey, kitty, kitty,” she called. She walked toward the kitchen, reaching down, then turned and looked back at Stewart. “You like your kitties, Pops? You behave and we won’t slice ’em up.” She laughed and a wicked shiver filled her voice. “But carving kitties is my specialty. I might do it no matter what the hell.”
“Don’t hurt the cats, please,” Stewart pleaded, showing concern and fright for the first time. “Do what you want, take what you want. Leave the cats alone.”
The black kid replied by stepping forward and viciously kicking Stewart in the ribs. “We do what we want, asshole! You don’t got no say in the matter, so shut up!” He drew his leg back, balancing for another kick. Stewart ignored the attack and looked toward the girl, who was squatting down, making friendly to the cats with one hand, knife poised overhead in the other. Soldier held back but Tinker was cautiously advancing.
Stewart didn’t care for impetuous decisions. He’d been into that before and scarcely survived. Planning was better. But sometimes…
As the kick swung toward him, Stewart dropped his fictitious clumsy and tentative persona. His hand was an impossible blur as he reached out, seized the kid’s thigh, and squeezed. The sound of the femur snapping was clear in the room, like someone breaking cordwood. The boy collapsed, kick forgotten, knife forgotten. He grabbed his leg and rolled on the floor, screaming.
The big guy ran toward Stewart, pipe raised as a bludgeon, but Stewart was on his feet in a flash. With one seeming casual push from his palm, he struck the attacker’s forehead. The skull split open as if hit by an axe, neck shattered. The man was dead before he hit the floor.
A fraction of a second later and Stewart was standing before the girl. She’d seen what was happening, was quick, and just had time to thrust the blade into his chest to the hilt. He scarcely felt it, instead held her knife hand firmly, almost lovingly, his other arm about her shoulders in a mock embrace, pulling her close. Fangs now fully extended, Stewart bit into her neck and drank a while, then let her fall. She lay there, twitching.
Stewart casually withdrew the knife from his chest as he ambled toward the black kid, who was groaning and in shock from having his leg crushed. He looked up. “What?” his only word. Stewart leaned over, lifted him easily from the floor with one hand.
“I told you to take what you wanted. I would have let you go. But you will not threaten my cats,” Stewart lectured, then bit down and took his time. Later, he finished the girl and was now too satiated to bother with the big guy and his broken neck. Dead blood simply didn’t taste the same anyway.
Near dawn and Stewart was finished scrubbing the floors. The muggers were cut into pieces and stuffed into trash bags. Later, he’d lug them to his sailboat. If something did wash ashore, sharks would hopefully be blamed.
Stewart regretted his actions. Not the killings, of course. That’s what vampires do. But feeding in his own neighborhood, especially his home, was risky. He’d not done something that rash in nearly a century. Nevertheless his hand had been forced.
At least the cats would have plenty of fresh liver.
Sam Waas is the author of the popular Mitch King, Private Investigator series.
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