Last week I posted a Halloween story, The Awakening, I had written for a writers’ group meeting. This was my second offering; more ‘horrible’ than ‘horror…
The smell of piss was almost overwhelming, despite the mask Danny had made with his hand to cover his nose and mouth. Underneath the piss the smells of dust, decaying food and moulted fur made a thick, multilayered soup of the room’s scant air supply, ripe with allergens for those unfortunate enough to suffer from them. Danny felt his foot sink and slide on something loose and wet. He did not need to look down to know what it was, he just sidestepped and dragged the sole of his shoe backwards across the carpet as the new smell sought ingress under his fingers. He fought the urge to gag again and won, another skirmish in an ongoing battle, though he took no reassurance from that regarding his prospects for an all-out victory.
The call had come in at nine that morning, a man concerned enough by the lack of an early morning call of ‘here, kitty, kitty, kitty’ from his neighbour’s back garden to call the police but not to go and knock on the door himself. He had phoned in from work, effectively salving his conscience while removing himself from any direct involvement or social responsibility. But let’s not judge, eh, thought Danny, we’d probably do the same in his shoes.
Danny had arrived at the house around five hours later, having received the instruction to ‘go and take a gander’ while on his lunch break after acting as support officer on a primary school road safety training day. He had enjoyed watching the littlun’s lining up and taking turns at the chalk-line ‘kerb’ drawn on the school playground, even the cheeky little herb who had managed to get himself run over by an invisible-car-with-a-cloaking-device like the one he had seen on telly. Another kid had asked if he could see Danny’s gun and how many people he had shot. He had seemed as disappointed with Danny’s answers as Danny had been delighted by the questions.
But that had been this morning, and now Danny was standing in a dark and dirty hallway with a shit-smeared shoe and his hand over his mouth getting ready to open a door onto a scene that would perhaps stay with him for the rest of his life. He had not seen a dead person as yet – well not in the line of duty, anyway, and removed from the comfort and composure of a silk lined coffin – but strongly suspected that was going to change very soon. He shouted again; ‘Hi, love… anyone home’, but all he got in return was a chorus of caterwauls, just as he had earlier when shouting through the letterbox where he had found the front door key dangling on a piece of string. He had radioed in to ask if he needed a warrant and been laughed at by the desk sergeant. ‘Yes,’ he had said, ‘hold on there and I’ll get Carter and Reagan to drop it round to you on their way back to Scotland Yard’. Danny had laughed too, then told the sergeant he only knew about Carter and Reagan from the re-runs on ITV3. He asked if they would be bringing Dempsey and Makepeace with them.
As he approached the door to the living room a mangy looking ginger creature with crusted green eyes poked its head around the door and hissed at him, then retreated back through the slight gap between the door and frame. Danny heard a thump as it jumped over or onto something on the other side of the door, then a further series of caterwauls as the room’s other living occupants gave complaint. At the door now, Danny took a deep breath. One more try, he thought, hopefully, then; ‘Hello? Anyone home?’ More meows and the crash of china, but no returning voice. He pushed the door wide open, feeling it bump against bodies that jumped quickly aside.
The room beyond was in darkness, only a single hard bar of light chasing across the carpet from a small gap in the heavy curtains. Danny felt for a light switch, but it was already on, the bulb burnt out or meter empty. He stepped into the room, noticing the lump in the chair in the shadows, and crossed to the window and tugged at the curtains. They fell in one piece to the floor, bringing a hardboard pelmet, curtain track and two cats with them. The cats ran in opposite directions, seeking to escape Danny and the bright sunlight now streaming through the grimy windows.
Catwoman, Danny was relieved to see, was relatively unscathed. She had a few scratches here and there where her little darlings had sought to wake her, but they were nowhere near hungry enough or desperate enough yet to have tried dining on her, and even if they had the meat would have been too fresh and tough for any real progress to have been made. Death was not a good look for her, of course, but Danny had braced himself for much worse and was actually quite relieved. He noted the redness of her feet and the lower arm and hand dangling over the edge of the chair, and though no expert he knew enough about lividity and the process of rigor mortis to estimate she had been dead for hours rather than days. He guessed from her position in the chair and her relaxed mouth that she had not made it to bed the night before, but beyond that it was anybody’s – well more precisely the coroner’s – guess. Looking round the room he estimated there to be at least twenty cats sharing her living space with her, and from the stink and the relative cleanliness of the three litter trays placed strategically around the room he guessed many of them had yet to fully embrace the concept of house-training.
He tilted his radio towards his mouth and spoke to his desk sergeant again, quickly explaining the situation. After a few minutes exchanging details he was told to wait on site for back up.
‘Can I wait outside,’ he asked, ‘it stinks in here?’
‘Okay, but best stay out the back if you can get there, otherwise you’ll have all the neighbours coming out for a shufti.’
As he moved towards the door leading into the kitchen the cats surged forward, anticipating food, freedom or both he imagined. He could hardly open the door for them clamouring at the base of it, and as the smell from the kitchen hit him he wished he had not bothered. He covered his mouth and nose with his hand again, but as he stepped into the room and saw the severed head sitting on the table he lost the fight with his lunch and vomited through his fingers. He saw one of the cats jump up onto the table and start chewing at a loop of bloody vein dangling from the stump of the neck and doubled over to let everything up in a rush.
There was no blood to speak of – the catwoman must have bled the corpse dry before laying it on the table for dissection – but the head seemed to be pleading with him as he staggered and slipped in his own sick. It was some sort of spaniel cross from the look of it, and its sad, once dark but now milky eyes looked at him reproachfully, as if begging for a biscuit. Had it still had one, the tongue would have been lolling too he was sure, but there was just a dark red slash of raw flesh lying on the floor of the gaping jaw. He lent forward and heaved again, this time unable to bring up anything but a thin trickle of yellow bile that burnt his nose and throat. He ran for the kitchen door and twisted the key sitting in its lock, but it refused to open. Panicking, he looked up and saw the drawbolt at the top of the frame and hammered it back with his palm. He rushed out into the small concrete courtyard, drawing in great drafts of fresh air both to stop himself hyperventilating and to clear his nose and throat of the taste of bile.
From the door he looked back in at the kitchen table. Cats were teaming over it now chewing at the dog’s carcass. Some had jumped up on the cooker where they fed from a large saucepan of cooked meat Danny presumed to have come from the missing back legs. The bones of those legs, stripped almost clean but still trailing ribbons of flesh, were laying in an enamel baking tin, either ready for stock-making or perhaps for use as bait the next time catwoman went rounding up strays.
They say there are two kinds of people; ‘cat’ people and ‘dog’ people, and for most that is just a preference rather than a matter of fact. Danny had no doubt, though, that the dead old lady inside the house was a ‘cat’ person, and that given the current climate of cut-backs and inadequate pensions she had found her own way of making sure her wards were kept in the manner to which they had become accustomed.