A Demon of Midwinter: Part 1
Rhys glanced over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. The policeman eyed him but stayed under cover, out of the rain that threatened to become wet snow as the sun set. Rhys turned away, not wanting to arouse the man’s suspicions…any more than they already were. A shiver coursed through him. He tugged his scarf around his face, using the motion to hide wiping tears from his eyes.
John is dead. An icy weight pressed against his sternum at the thought. They’d been an odd pair, thrust together in their first days at Oxford by virtue of being misfits in the storied institution.
Rhys smiled, remembering the day he arrived in his room to find a lanky man in a leather jacket passed out on the bed. They sorted the mix-up quickly but remained friends. The other students in their accommodation had quickly pegged Rhys as someone to pick on. But John would have none of it. Tall and wiry, he’d clocked the first man he heard taunting Rhys. Despite the bloody nose and black eye John received for his efforts, the tormentors never got as bold as they could be. Rhys knew how bold that was. He rubbed his forearm, even though the break was long healed.
He shoved his hands into his pockets, and hunched his shoulders, resisting an urge to look back at the inspector in his long, wool coat. The man's questions rattled in his head, mostly about John's activities, but also about Rhys’ relationship with him. Not because Rhys was gay, though he suspected the policeman guessed. No, the questions stemmed from the communist tendencies John proclaimed to all who would listen. Rhys was sure it was more about thumbing his nose at authority and a hatred of seeing others put down than any actual desire to see Soviet Russia come to England. And possibly to irk the well-to-do family that considered him a disappointment.
Possible suicide. That’s what the man had said. Rhys shook his head. That didn’t jibe with the John he knew. John had an unbridled joie-de-vivre that stood in stark contrast to the few communists Rhys had met — a dour bunch who wore permanent sneers above their tight collars. Rhys’ lips quirked into a half smile at the memory of his friend’s contagious joy. His eyes teared up again and his nose ran.
A pathetic mewl dragged him out of his memories. Lifting his head to glance around, he realized his feet had taken him over the bridge, carrying him towards home without conscious thought. A car sprayed him with icy water as it sped past. The meow repeated itself, more plaintive this time, and he pinpointed its source.
A black cat huddled against the corner of a building up ahead, its form an inky extension of the shadows that poured from the laneway behind it. Across the way, music cascaded into the night as a door opened. A group of revellers tumbled out, and the cat limped down the alley.
When Rhys neared the corner, he peered into the darkness. Eyes flashed red, catching the light from a passing car. “Puss puss.” He crouched and made a sound with his lips while he scratched his fingers against the ground, trying to draw the creature to him. It inched away.
“Come on, cat.” Rhys tightened his scarf as a drop of slush melted and found a gap to use to snake down his back. His toes felt like icicles in his worn shoes and threadbare socks. He frowned and, standing, turned towards the street — he had no idea what he’d do with the cat if he caught it. A low, warbling mrowl drew his attention to the lane again. “Fine.”
Sighing, he slumped into the shadows, picking his way over icy, uneven cobblestones. His ears twitched at the hush between the stone buildings. The merry noises of the pre-Christmas revels seemed far away, muffled as if through a blanket. A scrabbling ahead made him wonder what else was living in the narrow corridor. It sounded too big for a rat and too near for the cat, though the night amplified all sorts of sounds.
Another flash of red let him pinpoint the cat. The streetlights barely reached this far, but he could pick out the fuzzy shadow against the dark brick. It huddled in a doorway that provided little shelter from the wind and the icy slush. The scurrying sounded again, though the cat stayed pressed against the building.
So definitely not the cat then. Rhys glanced back towards the main road then into the inky night. He swallowed — he wasn’t afraid of the dark, but he knew from a lifetime of experience at hiding that silent corridors and shadowy alleys were not safe places.
“Okay cat, one more chance.” He looked back at the doorway. The cat was gone. When he lifted his head to search for it, a flicker of movement drew his attention.
A woman stared at him from the shadowed end of the lane. She flashed a toothy smile, the white stark against her dark lipstick. As she stepped towards him, her fur coat slipped, revealing a pale shoulder and the strap of a red dress turned to the colour of dried blood in the dim laneway.
“What are you doing here all alone?” Her voice was rich and deep, with a slight burr. He swallowed as she sidled closer, her hips swaying. “You look lost, like you could use some company.” She arched a black eyebrow, reminding him of one of his aunts who’d prey on any unsuspecting man, single or not.
Rhys coughed. “I think…” He cast his gaze around, though he knew there was no white knight lurking about to rescue him. He pulled his shoulders back. “I’m sorry, but I’m not….”
Her eyes narrowed, and her lips pressed together as she looked him up and down. “Ah, one of those.” She stepped closer. “That’s okay. I don’t mind.”
Rhys’ heartbeat thudded in his ears. His abysmal dating experience hadn’t taught him how to dissuade a persistent woman. Just then, a blast of music broke the silence. Drunken laughter and merry voices followed.
When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw a couple stumble into the lane, the man’s arm draped around the woman’s shoulder, her arm around his waist. Rhys coughed again, and the man looked up, startled.
“Oy,” the woman said. “This is our spot. Go find your own, wanker.”
A scrabbling drew his gaze back to the inky shadows. The woman was gone, and there was still no sign of the cat or whatever else scrambled in the shadows. The pair were an unusual white knight, but he’d take it. He searched the dim laneway one final time for the cat, but it seemed it had been scared away too. He consoled himself that it was fit enough to flee. Tugging his scarf tight around his neck again, he slumped past the couple, already oblivious to his presence, and continued home