THE NICK OF TIME
(and other abrasions)
Acquainted With The Night
Al Bruno III
The park on Kissos Lane
For As long as there had been a City of Olathoe, there have been cats. Some legends say that they are the keepers of the City's secrets, that they know all and tell nothing. Others believe that they are the decedents of refugees from fabled Ulthar, waiting and scheming until the moment is right. More modern minded thinkers theorize that they are drawn to the City because of the powerful alpha waves produced by its citizens. Over the centuries laws have been passed to protect them, parks had been set aside for their use and whole religions had sprung up in the wake of their mystery.
Dr. Flesh had been to the City of Olathoe countless times but he had never given the felines much thought. After all, if they possessed some great storehouse of knowledge, why didn't they use it? If they were the original City's founders, then why were they content with such a primitive existence? But now he found himself following one on a mad tour through the streets.
They had journeyed through districts that lay sleeping under a blanket of snow. They passed Mimir's Fountain, where a single robed figure knelt before its icy depths and wailed as though all hope had gone from the world, and skirted along the electrified fence that surrounded the dreaded Janisaria ghettos. Eventually they found themselves standing before the locked gates of the park on Kissos Lane.
Everywhere there were signs warning that trespassing was punishable by death. The orange tomcat leapt to the wall and glowered down at him.
Unable to shake the feeling he was being followed, Dr. Flesh waited a good five minutes, looking this way and that before he scrambled over the cold, slick wall to find himself knee deep in snow. In a matter of steps he left the City behind. The park grew wild with trees as tall as houses and blades of grass so long that even now the tips protruded from the drifts like stubble. The orange tomcat set off through the white dunes, leaving Dr. Flesh to slog along in pursuit.
Cats padded in and around the trees, so many that he quickly gave up all hope of making a count. They seemed to be following him, herding him to the center of the park.
Dr. Flesh wondered if this wasn't all some elaborate trap. Up ahead, between four ancient elms, a hoard of cats waited. They paced this way and that, with puffed tails and cautious eyes.
The orange tomcat brushed between Dr. Flesh' legs and gave a little cry. The sea of fur parted and his feline guide bounded down the corridor. Dr. Flesh followed, taking care to avoid paws and tails, straining to see what they were protecting in their midst.
A lifeless kitten lay in their midst lifeless. “Another one.” Dr. Flesh rubbed his chin, “What is this?”
The orange tomcat laid its paws on his leg, Dr. Flesh looked to see it held a scrap of dark cloth in its mouth. He knelt and took it, “Are you...are you asking me to find who did this?
The tomcat purred briefly and rubbed its face on Dr. Flesh' hand.
“I don't... I'm not...”
The cat issued a single plaintive cry.
“All right. I'll try.” He said, and then paused, “I'm talking to a cat!”
The other cats began to withdraw, flitting this way and that, but always in groups of three or more. He watched them go, musing that they had certainly eliminated any chance of him finding footprints. He examined the scrap of cloth; it was jet black with a frayed white fringe, almost like a shirtsleeve or pant leg. He held it to his nose and sniffed, it reeked of chemicals.
It wasn't much to go on, but he still had one more trick up his sleeve. Dr. Flesh gently brushed snow from the kitten and laid his bare fingertips on the fragile body. He closed his eyes and searched for any lingering memories in the kitten's nervous system.
At first he saw nothing but darkness but then he found himself...
...low to the ground and full of energy. Bounding into the air, trying to catch snowflakes in his paws. His littermates forgotten, he scuttles deeper and deeper into the forest, his whiskers tingling with cold and excitement. Sampling the air he almost swoons at the rich smells the scent of decaying leaves and sap, the ghostly aromas of territorial markings and long forgotten couplings. A slight tremor shakes the earth. He halts, suddenly feeling very vulnerable. Using all his untrained senses he plies the depths of the forest. A cloying, alien odor invades his nostrils. Something darts along the treeline, a fleeting shadow against a backdrop of snow, human footsteps there was no mistaking that arrogant stride. The hairs on the back of his neck bristle as he realizes how far he's wandered from his den. Instinct makes his body tense. A pair of ebony boots crash out of the darkness and before he can dart to safety he is hefted skyward. The mere touch of his attacker sends icy bolts of pain arcing through his tiny body. He flails at his attacker, his claws raking the cold luminous hands. A black masked face looms before him, he yowls and convulses frantically, but in moments the deep, savage chill has robbed him of the strength to do anything but breathe. And a moment later he loses the strength for even that...
...the kitten splintered and crumbled, Dr. Flesh issued a shuddering gasp and stumbled backwards into the snow.
For a time he lay flat on his back, oblivious to everything but the kitten's death throes. Those hands had been all encompassing, and so stingingly icy that even in memory they chilled him to the bone.
He might have lain there till dawn if not for the warm rasping sensation tickling his chin. Dr. Flesh stirred and blinked, his glasses speckled with snow.
The orange tomcat sat on his chest and was licking his chin with long, deliberate strokes of his sandpapery tongue.
“Not much to go on. Not even a face.”
The orange tomcat paused and cocked its head at him.
“And all in black, that's always been all the rage. Especially here.”
The cat leapt from his chest and watched him lurch to his feet with a sour gaze.
“Don't worry. I'll find him...” Dr. Flesh looked back at the clumsy snow angel he'd made and thought again of those last three pills on the nightstand, “...somehow.”
The cat retreated into the forest.
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