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About the Author
J.E. Deegan, a teacher/writer by trade, has a volume of published poetry and has had a number of short stories published in small-press magazines. He has also completed a novel and two screenplays. His writing interest is in spooky things; of things that make us know why we are afraid of the dark.
Six To Go
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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 himselfchipless and cracklessafter 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 parkif 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.
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