Sam dropped his grocery bags on the coffee table, then checked his landline’s answering machine on the sideboard by reflex. He didn’t get many calls, but he always checked the machine when he got home from work. Seven messages? He dumped his coat next to the phone and stared at it. He’d never had that many in one day before. Hell, not even in a week! That many messages meant someone was sick, or dead. Or... He took a deep breath. He couldn’t know what had actually happened until he listened. But did he want to know what had happened? He stared at the blinking light again, held his breath, then pushed the play button.
“Hey, Sam, it’s the weirdest thing. The cats are going all strange. Especially Alaric. He’s staring at the floor like he can see through it, which he probably can. The martians must be busy today, you know? The girls aren’t so fixated, but they’re prowling. Wish you could see them. It’s totally freaky.”
‘Time: Twelve-fifty-three, Friday.’
Sam sighed, his heart rate going down. It was just Pete. He had the strangest quartet of cats. And that Alaric wasn’t just a black house cat, he’d rip you apart if he thought you didn’t measure up to his standards of tough. Pete had a picture of a snarling black panther on the wall. Alaric’s soul picture, he always said with a smile. Those who’d met the cat knew it was no joke. Nobody messed with Alaric. Not twice, anyway.
He pulled one of the kitchen chairs over to the sideboard and moved his coat onto it. All the messages were probably from Pete. He just hoped that there would be something concrete instead of Pete just going on about his dratted cats. It often happened, but he’d never sent seven messages worth of how clever and whatever they were.
‘Message Two.’ He took a deep breath in anticipation.
“Hey man, don’t you ever answer the phone? They’re all doing the same thing Alaric started earlier. Genevieve never had this kind of hunting behavior before. It’s starting to freak me out, you know? Call me when you get in. You said you were going to blow off work this afternoon.”
‘Time: One Sixteen, Friday.’
“Man, will you pick up the dammed phone? I heard a weird noise from the bathroom, then all the cats were staring at the same heating vent by the front window. Romana bolted upstairs when I came down the hall. Nearly ran over me. There’s gotta be something evil down there. Alaric hissed at it, I’m sure. Call me right away.”
‘Time: Two Oh-seven, Friday.’
Sam started to get up, then sank back into the chair. Was it close enough to April Fools to consider that Pete was seriously trying to get even for the ‘You’ve won the lottery!’ letter that Sam had sent him last year?
Pete didn’t have a basement in the house he rented in West Hillhurst, just a crawl space where the furnace was stashed. Calgary had a lot of them: remnants from the cheap housing the government had thrown up for the soldiers and their families after WWII. Nothing was ever quite square or level in them but they had some of the biggest yards you could find in the inner city.
“I just heard it again, Sam. Really. It was coming from near the front door, but from under the floor. I wish I knew if this place was built on Indian sacred ground or something. But it’s gotta be evil, otherwise the cats wouldn’t be reacting this way. I don’t think I can get out anymore. The only thing that gives me any hope is that the cats are stalking it. Alaric keeps hissing, so it hasn’t dared to make any moves up here. So far. Where the hell are you?” Pete’s voice cracked on the last words.
‘Time: Two Forty-five, Friday.’
Sam stood again, still undecided. Should he go, or finish listening to the messages?
“Man, get your ass home and come help me. Why the hell don’t you have a cell phone? You’re living in the dark ages. I think Alaric’s keeping it at bay, but I don’t know how long even he could last once it decides to make its move.”
‘Time: Three Twelve, Friday.’
Sam’s heart rate was going up again. He felt as if he should be running for the car: instead he sat there, took a deep breath and waited for the machine to play the next message.
“Oh man, I can’t wait for you any longer. The cats are just about going mental. I’ve got the bat, and I’m going after it. I never thought about dying before, but I’m going out with a fight, not letting it just eat me. Don’t ever erase these messages, Sam. It’s like... my legacy. I’m going out fighting Ultimate Evil, from the Indian burial grounds that the white man trampled over and built these houses on. I just wonder what set them off, you know? Maybe it’s the anniversary of their deaths. I don’t know, but they’re under the floor, where the original prairie still is. This is my chance to do a great thing, you know? And I’m up for it. You never know until you’re faced with this trial, just how you’re gonna react. I’m cool.” A deep breath.
“This is the last will and testament of Peter James Resse. All my stuff goes to Sam. That’s Sam Tinnons. That includes the cats, man. If there’s anything left of me and Alaric, make sure we get cremated together.” Pete took another deep breath. “Catch you on the other side, man.”
‘Time: Four Twenty-three, Friday.’
Sam stared at the machine. This was either the best or worst April Fool’s joke that Pete had ever run. He blinked, realizing that there was one more message to listen to.
“Hey Sam, it’s Kathy. I just got in and I’ve got a lot of weird messages from Pete. Did he phone you too? I tried his place and it’s been busy for the last twenty minutes. Have you seen him or called him? I’m kind of freaked, you know? But... it’s Pete. You know. Call me, bye.”
‘Time: Five Thirteen, Friday.’
‘End of Messages.’
That changed everything. Kathy had her head on straight and if she was as freaked as he was, Sam knew something really strange was happening. He took a deep breath. First, try to call Pete. He reached over to pick up the phone and dialed.
He heard the busy signal and let it buzz until the system asked him if he’d like to be notified when the line was free. He disconnected and called Kathy.
“I can’t reach Pete either,” he said as soon as Kathy picked up the phone. “I’m going over. It’s probably nothing, but I’m freaked too. I’ve never heard him sound like that. You want me to pick you up?”
“You want moral support?” Kathy asked, then took a deep breath. “I guess. Or should we call the cops first?”
“And tell them a friend of ours says he got Ultimate Evil in his crawl space? And would they please send the police and maybe the tac team? We’d get the rubber room next to Sam if this is one of his pranks.”
“When you put it like that, no. I'll see you in ten?”
Pete’s house seemed normal from the street. The one and a half story house was set back from the road, a tall hedge separating it from the street noise. Pete’s car was parked out front, and the drapes to the living room’s big window were partly open. No weird noises, no crowds of people, nothing out of the ordinary on an early spring day. No sign of anything remotely evil, bad, or even … naughty.
“Now this is weird,” Kathy said.
“I wondered at first if he was pulling an early April Fool’s at first. But he really sounded too stressed for it to be fake on the last calls. He usually blows the punch line.” She nodded.
As Sam started to open the gate in the front hedges, Kathy gasped.
“I think I saw something move inside,” she said. “The window!”
Sam looked and saw nothing but the last movement of the drapes. Together they approached the house, moving slowly. Something might happen at any moment and Sam wanted to be ready to get the hell out of there. He wondered if he had locked the car. They might need a quick getaway. From whatever Pete had faced, or a very pissed off Alaric.
Kathy kept staring at the door, but Sam couldn’t take his eyes from the window. He saw Alaric bouncing up several times, trying to get something that Sam couldn’t see. He’d seen cats stalking martians before, things that only they could sense. But he'd never seen this sort of thing before. Maelen, one of the other cats came briefly into view and he heard Alaric’s ‘I’m going to tear you to shreds’ yowl. Even standing safely in the yard, it still made his skin crawl.
Forget any Ultimate Evil from the crawl space, was it reasonable to go into the house if Alaric was in that mood? If it were winter, he’d at least have mitts and a parka for protection. Now, he only had a light coat and bare hands.
Then he saw a shape flutter past the window, with Alaric bounding up from the floor after it. The shape came past again, then Sam started to laugh, a weak, partly hysterical, partly relieved laughter that let the tension run out of him, leaving his legs like Jello. He sank down on the front steps to catch his breath.
Kathy stared at him. “What is so funny? Pete could be in real trouble in there!”
Sam pointed at the window. “It’s a bird. It’s only a bird, Kathy. I saw it. All this shit is over a stupid bird that somehow got into the house.” He stood and opened the screen door. He threw open the inner door and held the outer one open. “We’ve got to let the poor thing out, Kathy. Try to keep the other cats in, if you can.”
Kathy ducked under Sam’s arm and went into the house. “Pete, where are you?” she called.
“I’m down here,” came the muffled reply. “Crawl space.” A pause. “Stuck.”
As Sam leaned in, the bird, a small black corvid, shot past him and headed into the neighbor’s poplar tree to perch and fluff its feathers.
“I’m amazed you survived,” Sam said to the bird. He got the screen door closed just in time to keep Alaric and the other three cats from following their prey into the yard.
“Hey man, I’m really stuck,” Pete said. Sam went over to where Kathy knelt next to the trapdoor that gave access to the crawl space and the furnace. “Got no leverage to push myself backwards. I was so freaked by seeing that bird down here, you know? I got bent around this duct thing trying to grab it before Alaric could. I just can’t figure out how the dammed bird got down here in the first place.”
“It probably fell down the chimney,” Kathy said. “I’ve heard of it happening before. It’s a good thing your furnace wasn’t on or the poor thing might have been killed.”
Sam sighed and lowered himself into the opening. He’d wait until he got Pete out of the crawl space before he started ragging him about the Ultimate Evil that had lived down here. The cats clustered around the hatchway. Alaric looked grumpy. He must want another bird to chase. Thankfully the others seemed to be wondering when the wet cat food would come out of the fridge. Genevieve meowed and bunted against Kathy’s leg. She obediently started to scratch the cat’s ears.
Outside, the small crow finished preening its feathers and looked back at the house. It held no animosity toward the cats. They were hunters, and that was as it should be. The humans, on the other hand, should have known better.
‘Stupid white man,’ the crow thought. ‘Doesn’t he know that Crow is the next step in the path of the seekers of truth?’ He flew off, making sure to leave some droppings on the strange wheeled carts in the street in front of his burial place. He had other things to do
- The End -
Lee F. Patrick is a Calgary author writing mostly SF thrillers and Fantasy. Lee has published a number of short stories and Celtic based poetry. She was nominated for the Prix Aurora Award in 2018. Her fourth novel, Always My Love, will be out in late summer. Lee can be found on Facebook. Works are available through Kobo and Amazon.