Six to Go
J. E. Deegan
The moon hung at a quarter-crescent through the single, curtainless window. The window was opened, as it had to be.
It was time, again.
Dennis Bonn felt the warm flush in the center of his skull that signaled the beginning of the transformation. He rose from the decrepit bed within the drab room in the Hotel Harrow that he rented one night every three months and walked to the full-length mirror attached to the inside of the closet door. He enjoyed watching the change take place. The mirror was badly chipped at the edges and had a diagonal crack from its center to the upper left-hand corner. Although these flaws did little to impede his view of himself, they nonetheless irked him. He had installed the mirror himself - chipless and crackless - after securing permission from the hotel’s manager. Following a brief, odd look, the man had shrugged and said: "Whatever makes you happy, pal. But once it’s up, it stays." It deeply angered Dennis that those who inhabited the room when he didn’t were so inconsiderate of property they could lay no claim to.
But the hotel was, after all, in the heart of Limboland, a brick-and-concrete five-square-block island of decay and depravation inhabited by whores, winos, junkies, and other human offal who didn’t have the guts to attempt survival in reputable human environs. And, after all, this perverse populace did provide the perfect prey for a hunter such as himself. From the very beginning he had staked out Limboland as his territory, and, after all, by periodically removing the weak, the diseased and the unsuitable, he provided the city a needed service.
He stood naked before the mirror, a condition he realized was advisable after the first of the transformations had taken place. That first time, every stitch he wore had been ripped to shreds by the sudden and violent structural realignment his body had undergone. He thought of that night, now nearly three years’ past, as the warming wave gradually but steadily worked its way through his neck and into his shoulders.
Dennis Bonn was an outsider who was quite content to be one. For as long as he could remember he had been wary of humankind; of nosy people with prying eyes and meddlesome minds; of coarse, pretentious asses who sneered at his shy manner and ridiculed his preference to avoid contact and conversation. Now thirty-one, he lived alone in a three-room flat, and for the past five years had worked at Rivardo’s Dairy, a small, family-owned enterprise on a fringe of Limboland that produced milk, ice cream, and an assortment of cheese products for local consumption. His job was to clean out the huge stainless steel processing vats and prepare them for the morning’s business. His hours were 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. and he worked by himself, which was just the way he liked it.
On the way home from work, he frequently stopped in the park -- if it could be called that anymore. At one time, the city had proudly and meticulously maintained this small plot of earth and shrubs. At one time, it had been a haven for laughing children, strolling lovers, and families enjoying Sunday picnics. But that was long ago, when Limboland was known as South Square and was populated with decent, principled people who lived in tidy, albeit modest, brownstone homes, and worked in honorable occupations. That was before the pushers, pimps, prostitutes and perverts seeped into South Square like a noxious fog to smother everything respectable beneath a blanket of contagion and sin. Now, swallowed under by Limboland’s relentless advance, it was as foul and forsaken as Limboland itself. Still, its hushed seclusion in the dead of night provided a peacefulness and freedom from distress that Dennis found nowhere else.
It was 3:00 a.m., and the park, as he hoped, was deserted.
As was his habit, he paused on the arched footbridge to look out over the scum-ridden pond, neatly nestled in a cove bordered by weeping willows and water oaks. Beyond was the moon, a bright quarter-crescent that, this night, occasionally peeked through a bank of dark, thickening clouds.
Suddenly, the quiet comfortable night turned on itself. The breeze, inconspicuous until then, swelled to a cold howling gale that ripped through the trees and dug churning rents on the face of the pond. Brilliant streaks of lightning split the clouds. Thunder followed, rumbling angrily through the sky above the city. Although Dennis felt a chill grab him, he nonetheless was exhilarated by the raw, feral majesty of this display.
Then came a sound that caused him to freeze. Not from fear, rather from utter surprise. The sound was the shrill, searing screech of a cat – a very angry one. He turned to see the animal standing stone still at the end of the bridge. Within a dazzling flash of lightning Dennis saw that it was a big Tom with its back arched, its teeth bared, and its eyes glowing an eerie yellow. The eyes were locked on him.
In a blink of blurred movement the cat was in motion. Two huge bounds and it was airborne, its voice a hellish howl, its limbs spread outward with claws glimmering like sharpened knives. Midway into this violent launch, lightning again pierced the night, silhouetting the landscape in a stark contrast of black and white as it impaled the soaring cat. Before instinct snapped his eyes shut, Dennis saw the snarling bundle of fury explode into a blazing, squealing ball of flame. His arms flew up in defense too late to block the sizzling claws of all four paws from tearing into his skull: the front ones into the sides; back ones into his jaw just below his ears. An inferno of pain seared through his skull; fiery waves roared down his neck, through his shoulders, and into the cavity of his chest. The stench of burning flesh choked the air and smothered his lungs as a frantic scream swelled in his gut and raced for his throat.
It never arrived. A blistering pain sealed off his senses, and he collapsed in a smoldering heap upon the footbridge as the final waves of pain burned through his loins and into his legs.
He came to slowly, like some unwanted flotsam spit upward from the bowels of the sea. He struggled to see, but could make out only fuzzy, flashing shadows of light and dark. His head throbbed, his joints ached, and his limbs felt swollen and strangely stunted. Then he tried to move, an undertaking that magnified the pain and forced an agonized cry to tear from his throat. Still, he almost instantly realized that his scream was a sharp angered snarl. He quickly examined himself and saw that he was a cat. Not an oversized alley cat like the Tom, but a big cat. Big and black and shiny. A leopard in its nearly ebony, unspotted form. A Black Panther.
A cold wave of disbelief raced along his spine. Despite its clammy grip, he remained aware that he was still Dennis Bonn, a Homo sapiens…the only extant species of the primate family Hominidae…a male member of that species who fathomed the world around like a man but couldn’t walk like one nor speak like one. That startling realization had no sooner sunk in when hunger began to claw at his belly and quickly gained dominion. His thoughts of Dennis Bonn, the man, fell victim to those of Dennis Bonn, the Black Panther. Food…satiation of that most primitive need… obviated all else.
That night, the roasted Tom filled that need. And once filled, Dennis Bonn, the Black Panther, reverted to Dennis Bonn, the man.
In time he became used to the quarterly cycles of man to beast and back again. In time he came to relish them…to look forward to them despite the pain caused by the transformation. In time he came to understand that a bit of suffering up front was a small price to pay for the reward that resulted. For as a panther, he was the hunter, the master of his domain.
In the Hotel Harrow…in a room on the third floor…the transmogrification began again. The pain, endurable because of its promise, ignited in his skull then spread slowly downward. Dennis Bonn stood before the mirror, eagerly watching his brow shrink and all but disappear above eyes that gradually narrowed into slanted slits with wild, yellow irises and thin, black pupils. Concurrently, his nose and jaw steadily elongated into a rounded snout; his lips thinned and turned in upon themselves. His mouth stretched backward, and he opened that mouth to watch his tongue thicken and turn a rubicund red. His teeth widened; his eyeteeth swelled and lengthened into twin, curved ivory daggers.
The transformation continued into his neck, shortening it and shifting the muscles, tightening and thickening them. His shoulders and hips narrowed; his coccyx grew into a sleek, supple tail; and his spine straightened, forcing him forward onto powerful truncated limbs that ended in rounded padded feet tipped with razor-sharp claws. A wave then rippled backward from his snout to the tip of his tail, leaving in its wake a thick coat of black shiny fur. With a quick head-to-hindquarters shudder that repositioned everything internal, the alteration was completed. And within the mind of this powerful mass of sinew and muscle, human reason and prudence had been suspended, rendered inert by pure, primal, predatory instinct. By a pitiless cunning…by a feverish craving to eat…and by an inexorable need to kill.
Man had become beast.
Prey had become predator.
Dennis Bonn had become a Black Panther.
The hunt began.
Quickly, gracefully, he stepped through the open window to the fire escape, then loped down the steps to the alley below, then to the edge of the street. There he carefully scanned the surrounding area and sniffed the air for scents of danger, a tactic he had adopted following his first hunt from the Hotel Harrow nearly three years ago. Although Limboland was his domain and night his cover, both nonetheless contained hazards. Fully sated and made neglectful by his first kill, he had carelessly plodded in front of an oncoming car. He barely escaped, suffering a bruised hip that had him limping for weeks thereafter. The driver, unhurt but drunk, was ordered – so the papers said -- to undergo psychiatric counseling after insisting that he had skewered his car on a stop sign to avoid hitting a huge four-legged black shape that was as big as a lion.
And there were two other ill-fated occasions, which he chose not to dwell upon.
The street was crowded with still shadows and was deserted, for even in Limboland some respite is needed from perversion and depravity. The strip joints and squalid lounges closed at 2:00 a.m., and by now even the most desperate of Limboland’s hookers had given up the hunt until the following evening. By now, visitors to Limboland’s carnal carnival were nearing home, the lies they would tell their mates about their whereabouts fully manufactured and repeatedly rehearsed. By now, the potheads and winos had again anesthetized reality with their chosen elixirs and were soundly comatose within Limboland’s glut of dead-end alleys, deserted buildings and rubble-strewn lots.
He took care to keep his hunting pattern unsystematic…never hunting the same area twice in succession; being sure to exploit all the attractive zones within Limboland’s five square blocks. Much to his favor was the fact that violent death was no stranger to Limboland. Psychopathic homicides and suicides were not uncommon in this God-forsaken pit of filth and ruin, and killings performed by psychopaths were almost always brutally sadistic. Limboland was littered with psychopaths, and here the police usually did nothing more than ensure that what remained of a mutilated body was carted away.
He kept to the shadows of the storefronts, repeatedly sniffing the air and searching the mix of darkness and gloomy light to both sides. The night remained calm, the street quiet. It was a good night for hunting. Now… Where to feast this night? Which hunting ground to prowl?
He decided on the park…near the footbridge where he had first become a hunter.
He entered the park through a thicket of neglected bushes and silently glided toward the arched bridge over the pond. Once before…a year or more ago…he had caught a hapless soul in an alcohol-induced stupor on a small embankment beneath the bridge, which did offer a degree of cover when the weather turned hostile. And tonight a storm was brewing. He could smell it in the air and sense it in the stiffening breeze. The moon began to dart among the clouds, lightning pierced the sky, and heavy thunder rolled through the sky to the west.
Surely the coming storm would lure prey toward the shelter of the bridge.
With the bridge in sight, he slipped into the black cover offered by the thick undergrowth that had eaten into the footpaths crisscrossing the park. There he watched. There he tasted the air for quarry. There, he patiently waited secure in the fact that patience tended to be an ally of the predator.
His patience was soon rewarded.
The rain began. First as a swirling mist blown in by the wind, then as a stinging deluge that turned the night silver beneath streaks of lightning. A man hurried toward the footbridge and an entrance to the park, which lay but a short distance beyond. On the bridge, the man paused, looked to the sky, and took a halting step forward. He stopped suddenly then turned toward the safety of the small embankment beneath the bridge. The man obviously knew the park, which was no surprise. The park, after all, was now a lush oasis for Limboland’s winos and addicts, and they were here in all its shadowy places, shooting up and gulping down rotgut booze. Dennis’ night-sensitive vision revealed that the man’s clothes were tattered and that his face was filthy and scruffy with beard. The man obviously was a citizen of Limboland
He was prey.
Dennis eased from his spot within the undergrowth and crept toward the bridge. Alert for possible intrusion, his ears were up; his eyes swept side-to-side. His blood quickened. His muscles rippled. And the warm, delicious ache spread through his belly. Despite the rain, the scent of the man was strong. Dennis knew he would eat well this night.
He edged down the incline toward the pond, careful of purchase on the slick mud. At the corner of the bridge’s buttress he paused to gather himself for the attack. As always, he would show himself and for a moment relish the look of frozen incredulity which invariably captured his victims’ faces. Then he would spring forward, mouth agape, great teeth bared, and claws spread for the kill. Death would come quickly.
The man turned at the growl, and his face did contort into a mask of fevered disbelief. He stiffened and flew backward, and his eyes rounded into twin moons. Content with the man’s fear, Dennis tensed, his muscles bunched, and he shot forward like an uncoiled spring.
Three bullets from the man’s .357 Magnum caught Dennis square in the chest and all but stopped him in midair. Snarling with pain, he tumbled into the pond, his front claws digging at the fire searing through his chest.
His final breath gurgled with blood.
"Sergeant Casey… Over here."
Ken Casey had just arrived and was surveying the scene. The area had been cordoned off and a score of flashlights were raking the area around the bridge. He looked down the embankment that led to the pond where a young uniformed officer was waving at him.
"This way, Sergeant. You’re not going to believe this."
Casey eased his way down the slope to the waiting officer, who pointed beneath the bridge. Several battery-operated floodlights focused on a body that lay supine at the edge of the pond, parallel to it.
"See what I mean, Sergeant?"
Casey did. The body he saw belonged to a naked black man. Not a man who was black by race, but one coated from top to toe with black paint or some sort of waterproof grease.
"Those things on his hands remind me of that wacko in those horror films," said the officer at Casey’s side. "What was his name? Freddie…Freddie something or other? Know who I mean?"
Casey did. "Yeah," he replied while staring at the long thin blades extending from each of the man’s fingers. "I know who you mean. But this guy has them strapped to his feet, too."
The officer grunted. "Maybe he thought he was a cat, Sergeant."
Casey turned to the young officer. "Could be. Maybe a Black Panther. He wouldn’t be the first."
The officer’s eyes narrowed. "You mean there have been others like him?"
Casey nodded. "Some people think so."
"A Black Panther, Sergeant? Pretty damn weird, huh?"
Casey grunted. "Not in Limboland, it isn’t. You must be new to the force."
The young officer stiffened, shrugged. "Well, yes sir. Just my second month."
Casey nodded. "You’ll see what I mean. Know who shot him?"
"Fitzwater did, Sergeant. He’s been working narcotics, you know…undercover, and was hanging around the park tonight hoping to drum up some action. When the storm hit, he decided to duck under the bridge to get out of the rain. It was dark as hell, he said, and he was just sitting here on the embankment when he heard what sounded like a deep, rough growl. The kind an angry animal would make, he said. When he turned, he saw a pair of the weirdest looking eyes he had ever seen. Then there was a flash of lightning and he saw a huge black shape and a glint of light off its claws. Next thing he knew, that black shape was flying right at him. So… Fitzwater pulled out his magnum and shot him. It wasn’t until he turned his flashlight on that he saw it was this weirdo with those blades strapped to him. Fitzwater’s still here if you want to talk with him."
"Yeah. I’ll want to do that. How about finding him for me?"
The officer nodded and started up the embankment before turning back to Casey. "You through here, Sergeant? They’re about ready to haul him off."
"I’m through," said Casey.
Dennis Bonn lay covered by a sheet on an oblong stainless steel table. The room was silent and dark, save for a thin wash of light filtering in through a small square window in the door. Dennis had been examined by a coroner, papers had been filled out recording the time and manner of death, and the young technician who worked the graveyard shift at the city morgue was now carrying those papers to his boss’s office to lay them on his desk for review in the morning. He whistled as he walked, his tune gradually fading into the depths of the long hallway.
Now was the time to go.
It was safe.
Dennis opened his eyes.
He lifted his hands from the table and searched his chest for the bullet wounds. They were healing nicely and already had all but sealed up. In another hour or two they would be completely mended. Ever cautious, he slowly lifted the sheet from his head and searched the room. Assured that he was alone, he made his way to a set of lockers in a corner where he found clothing, a pastel green jumpsuit that belonged to an off-duty lab worker. Being naked, he needed some sort of covering. Dressed, he tiptoed to the door. Beyond, the hallway was empty, and within minutes he was on the street, casually walking toward his three-room flat which was just a few blocks distant. He breathed deeply and, feeling no lingering pain, smiled. Some soreness remained in his chest, but that would disappear in a day or two. It had both times before...the two other ill-fated occasions when he had been killed by a policeman’s bullets: once while making a kill; once while feeding.
This time made three.
But he was a cat…a Black Panther…and a cat has nine lives.
He still had six to go.
Bio: J. E. Deegan has appeared twice before in Aphelion (Oblivion, January, 2001; and Dreamsicles, September, 2004), and has had other stories appear in a number of publications, including Deep Outside SFFH, The Accretion Disk, Redsine, Champagne Shivers, Far Sector and Anotherealm.
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