A Demon of Midwinter: Part 6
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Rhys slumped along the path by the river, taking the long way home, heedless of the damp seeping through his thin jacket and the cold reaching into his bones. He glanced over his shoulder, half hoping to see Dar chasing after him. But there were only shadows, which stretched and distended despite the minimal light. He shivered.
Dar the vampire. Even though his eyes told him it was true, his reason refused to believe. He kicked an exposed stone, and the movement disturbed some creature in the sluggish river. With his newfound knowledge, he wondered if it was something more sinister than a duck. With vampires and Jólakötturinn, who knew what other legendary creatures might be real. A rustling ahead made him lift his head. He couldn't locate the source of the sound, but the lights of a car told him he was nearing the Magdelan Bridge, and the place John’s body was found, gaunt, grey and alone, with blood no longer seeping from a wound in his chest. A shiver coursed through him, while melancholy slowed his steps.
Rhys paused, tucking his hands into his armpits for a minute to warm them. Scanning the area, there was no sign of the life full of passion and potential that had ended early. The nape of his neck tingled, and he turned. For a second, he swore he saw a human-shaped shadow, but when he blinked it was just dark trees. He squinted and pulled his scarf tighter, then headed towards the road again. A small shadow darted out from the bushes.
A black cat. He breathed a sigh of relief which caught in his throat. No, the black cat. Its eyes glowed red, even though there wasn't enough light to reflect.
“Well, hello kitty.” He hoped hearing his own voice would ease the rush of fear in his veins. It didn’t. The cat stalked towards him and appeared to grow larger with each step. Its eyes shone brighter, and he found he couldn’t tear his gaze away. Not that he wanted to — he wanted to keep the creature in sight. He walked backward as quickly as he could without falling, and the cat slowed its pace…maybe he’d get to the road before it attacked. The shadows stretched long, reaching towards the beast as it grew larger.
He laughed at the thought of being attacked by a little black cat. Though the creature wasn’t little anymore, nor was it exactly cat-shaped. Though its movements were still feline when it picked up its pace again, slinking low to the ground as it stalked towards him.
Rhys ran his hands over his jacket and felt the notebook. The incantation. He started speaking the old Norse words as best he could remember. The creature stopped, arching its back and hissing at him. It was the size of a wolf now. He stumbled over the spell, and it sank into a low crouch and began advancing again. Unable to remember the words, he reached his hand into his pocket, intent on pulling out Dar’s paper. His heart sank. The paper was back in Dar’s room. He muttered a curse his Welsh grandfather had taught him to the dismay of his Welsh grandmother.
The thought of her brought to mind a singsong chant she’d taught him when he was a child. A rhyme to banish evil.
He started speaking the rhyme quietly. The Welsh was rusty on his tongue, but the words smoothed out as he found the rhythm. A loud caterwaul emanated from the beast, which hissed and spat as it glared at him.
The words became louder as he stepped towards the animal, crouching to pick up a fallen branch. He advanced slowly, continuing with the chant. The creature writhed, its eyes fiery red as if they could burn a hole through his heart.
The caterwaul turned to a low growl as the rhyme continued to fall from Rhys’ lips. He peered down at it, conscious of the weight of the makeshift weapon in his hand. The creature continued its contortions, lifting one leg then another, moving as if stuck in treacle.
“You killed John, didn’t you?” he said, even though he had no doubt. He lifted the stick, then paused as the creature went still, its eyes wide and wild. His arm dropped as he recalled another phrase of his grandfather’s. “Repay evil with good, and hell will not claim you.” He wasn’t sure if he spoke the words in English or Welsh, but the cat finally broke free and lashed out, scratching the hand that held the stick, then fled into the darkness.
Rhys sat there for a moment, peering at the blood that ooze from the burning striations. A voice in his head said he should have killed the beast; his heart told him that wasn’t the last he’d see of hell.
A passing car honked when Rhys stepped into the roadway, his thoughts tangled up in last night’s events. Dodging back, he stumbled. His arms flailed in an attempt to keep him upright, which caused his feet to scramble when they hit a patch of ice. Taking a deep breath, he looked both ways then crossed the street before turning towards home. He hitched his book bag higher onto his shoulder; it felt heavy even though it only held Dante’s Inferno.
Soon his mind wandered again, travelling familiar paths. His heart clenched as he recalled the whisper of Dar’s fingers on his own followed by cold rejection. His gut twisted as he thought of the living creature he’d almost killed. Maybe it was a demon, but it was also a woman, and a cat, and alive.
He was nearly on top of the flashing lights before he noticed them. Police vehicles blocked his way. His stomach sank, then dropped further as Inspector Little emerged from the uniforms and walked his way.
“Mr. Baines.” The inspector peered at him while taking a drag from his cigarette, the end bright orange in the dark night.
“Inspector.” Rhys tried to figure out what had happened, peeking over the man’s shoulder. The detective glanced towards the scene, then shifted to block Rhys’ view as he turned his keen gaze back on him. Rhys swallowed. “What happened?”
“Another one of your friends is dead.” The inspector flicked his cigarette away. “Murdered.”
Rhys’ breath caught in his chest, and his eyes teared up. “What? Who?”
“When was the last time you saw Adam St. James?”
Rhys blinked, recalling when he’d last seen his tormentor. When he’d punched the man. “A couple of nights ago. He was heading out to a party.” Adam’s face loomed in his mind’s eye, as he’d appeared when he held Dante’s Inferno towards the fire, red haloing his head, his eyes leering. “Sorry?” he said, realizing the inspector had spoken.
“Where were you tonight?”
Runes floated in his head. “Studying.”
“Not with your foreign friend.” The inspector stressed ‘friend’ in a way Rhys hated.
He remembered Dar pushing him away. “He’s not my friend. But no. I was in the library. Ask the librarian.”
The inspector didn't speak for a long minute, quiet as he lit another cigarette. He took a drag and peered at Rhys. “What did you think of Mr. St. James?”
“He was an ass.” Honesty bubbled up, making Rhys wonder if he was still channelling his grandmother, though she’d never swear. Silently cursing himself, he ran a hand through his hair. “But he didn’t deserve to die.” A part of him was surprised to realize he meant it. Despite all the horrible things he’d wished would befall the man in the past, death was never one of them.
“What?” Rhys blinked. The inspector’s gaze shifted to his hand, and Rhys squinted at it. He’d forgotten the wound the Jólakötturinn gave him, even though it still burned. “A cat.” He lifted his head to meet the inspector’s narrowed eyes.
The inspector was silent, staring at him for a long moment.
“Did you have any more questions for me? I’m…this is a shock.”
The inspector breathed out through his nose and jerked his head down the street. “Go on. I know where to find you if I have more questions.”
Rhys nodded. He edged his way around the crime scene, nudging his way through the people who’d gathered at the periphery. At the other side of the crowd, he paused, squinting at the circle of emergency vehicles and gawkers. Maybe the two deaths aren’t related. His head nodded, as if it could convince his heart. Just because John was murdered….. Then he shook his head and sighed. Tucking his hands in his pockets, he turned away. There was nothing he could do; he was just one man. His eyes stung at the thought, and he blinked back tears.
Then he stopped cold. Ahead, half obscured by the shadow of a pillar box, was a set of paw prints leading into an unlit alley. Rhys swallowed. Even in the dim night, without medical or zoological knowledge, he realized what they were.
The prints of a cat, written in blood.