CHAPTER NINE- Wallowing in the mire.
When informed by Watson that the Earth revolved around the sun, Holmes remarked that it didn't matter. It made no difference to him which went where, since it had no effect whatsoever in outcome of his investigations. It was information that he didn't need to know to do what he did. The old stickler of creation or evolution could fall into the same category about now. Personally, I like the idea of us all being marooned space aliens, but hey- I'm just an optimist. The arguments rage, and the evidence can be pretty convincing either way, although neither camp has an answer for the platypus, nor will take credit for the poodle. Both blame the French on that one. And neither camp could account for the climbers that Ray Meadows saw. If this was a product of evolution, what did it evolve from? Certainly not the platypus or the poodle. Perhaps felines and primates were a lot friendlier in years gone by. A whole lot friendlier. If you look to creationism, then somebody pulled a fast one. They made something a bit different, then hid it from us. Well, most of us. Then again, maybe we aren't the only aliens stranded on this rock.
Where ever the climbers came from, they're here now. As a matter of fact, they were just about everywhere, as Ray Meadows was going to find out. And they are most definitely not cats. Few people had seen one and fewer people wanted to. Seeing one is on par with hitching a ride in a flying saucer. Sure, maybe you did. I believe you. Really I do. It’s the same thing with these climbers. The handful of people that actually got a good enough look at one (like Ray) to tell that it wasn't normal, well, they were prone to suffering a serious drop in their popularity and social standing. They weren't getting the party invitations that they got last year. But hey- we'll have lunch sometime. Really. Yeah, right.
For now, Ray was content with his wife's assessment of the situation: What he saw was a big cat. Someone's exotic pet got loose. That Monday afternoon, Ray called Sergeant Robinson and left a message for her to classify the thing as a loose exotic animal. Probably a big cat. That made all concerned (Ray, Barbara and the Sergeant) happy. Big cat. No problem. Until he got to thinking about it. No, he didn't doubt his wife. She was never wrong. It was a big cat. And now that was the new problem: a big cat. A big, loose, exotic carnivorous cat with no normal food source and no natural enemies. Prowling suburbia, just waiting for… for what? Well, hopefully for a poodle, since platypuses are a kind of around scarce here. If Ray was a house potato (slightly more mobile than the couch variety) before, he was really stuck in there now. The more he thought about it, the less comfortable he was. It was out there, somewhere. Silent and hungry.
Sergeant Robinson's casual approach to Paul Scoggins had ended up like you and I thought it would: Paul praised Ray up one side and down the other. And Patricia Robinson was convinced that Ray Meadows was a perfectly normal upstanding citizen of the community. Until Paul kept going on about the practical joke they pulled on the entire company, and how he, Paul, had chucked that dummy off the roof and no one was the wiser. Yes sir, that Ray Meadows was some kind of guy. And that following Monday morning, Sergeant Patricia Robinson trashed that one page description she had taken from Ray Meadows. Mama didn't raise no fool. Ray had better think twice before he crossed her path again.
As summer approached and the weather got nicer with each passing day, Ray Meadows was a man in a quandary: He didn't need to go outside, but his wife seemed to like it. Puttering in the garden or just sitting in the yard, Barbara didn't mind all that fresh air and sunshine one bit. Her being outside made Ray as nervous as- you guessed it- a cat. Ray found himself dividing his spare time between projects in the basement, television in the living room and surfing the 'net upstairs. It didn't take long, between the 'net and all those animal shows on the Discovery Channel (he really did watch it) for Ray to settle on the leopard as the most likely animal he could have seen. Personally, he liked the ocelot, but it was too small. And he was hoping (against hope?) that what he saw wasn't a young animal. One that would be growing up to be something truly spectacular, like a Bengal tiger. That would tend to have an adverse effect on property values, wouldn't it? So: leopard it was. He chalked up the difference in the perceived fur patterns to the darkness of the night. Browns could look blue under moonlight, right?
Barbara was headed into summer as one happy camper wife. The yard looked good, the flowers were in bloom and her husband may as well be a mushroom. Ok, two out of three were good. She noticed Ray spent even less time outside than he used to. Like none at all now. And he found all sorts of excuses for her to stay inside as well. He had shared his leopard theory with her, of course. And she agreed that it was the most likely of all the choices. For Barbara, that was that. There had been no more noises in the night, no more sightings, and the neighborhood had been quiet, as it always had been. What was comforting for Barbara made Ray more nervous. “What was that thing?” was replaced by “Where is that thing?” No children ripped to shreds in the night, no dogs or cats mysteriously disappeared. Birds still sang in the trees. Ray read the paper every morning, provided the paper boy was able to throw it onto the porch. Not in the yard, not on the steps, but all the way up to the front door. And the hapless paperboy learned very quickly that close didn't count. Two sloppy throws and he was making absolutely sure that paper got right up to the door of old Mr. Meadows' house.
Ray's job at the Granville Corporation was virtually unaffected by his now total fear of being outside. Those sleek modern towers left little room to hide a sparrow, much less a big cat. Not much chance of one sneaking around unnoticed in the parking lot, either. Funny, now that I think about it, no company has ever named a car "Leopard". There have been Cheetahs (a rare car from the early 60's), and there is a Panther brand (also a kit car of sorts). But by and large, big cats don't fare too well in the parking lot. Cougars and Jaguars are about it. About as close as it gets is the German Leopard tank. I guess they made up for it by making Tigers and Panzers as well. The parking lot was rather devoid of all those as well. Although, by now, Ray Meadows would have drove one to work if he could.
Ray's co-workers saw little difference in their electronic communications specialist as summer approached. He didn't go out for lunch, but then, he never went out for lunch. He would buy something in the cafeteria and either eat it right there or take it back to his desk. Any errands to be run could be run by someone else. They always were. No need to leave the building between eight and five. And he always left at five with a big crowd. Safety in numbers. It worked for zebras, it would work for him. He had never mentioned the noises, the roof or the sightings to anyone at work. For Ray, that was normal. His private life was just that. No one at the Granville Corporation saw his moods as being any different than any one else's. Everybody had their good days and bad days. Or good weeks, bad weeks, as the case may be. After that first intense rush of research to come up with the leopard theory, Ray had relaxed a bit. Now he was on edge again. Every theory had to be proven, and so far this one was just sitting there. As Memorial Day weekend approached, he pondered his options on drawing the big cat out where he could at least take a photograph, or catch it on video. Something to show his wife. Something to show the police. Something. Anything.
The last Friday in May offered the usual crash course in high-speed office building evacuation. Everybody at the Granville Corporation wanted out right now, if not sooner. The lucky ones left early, or didn't come in at all that day. For the rest, five o'clock almost never got there. Ray made it a point to be ready, and left his office door open, as always, to hear the crowd starting out for the door. And as always, he was ready to join them. The tide of working humanity made its way down the elevators and out the doors, most heading for the parking lot. Ray was right in there with them. He had been able to stop looking around when he got outside. No cats on the lawn, no cats in the trees. Just follow the crowd and get in your car, Ray. Don't dally, don't talk. Just get in your car. And lock the door. The drive home always went well, once he was sure there was no cat lurking in the back seat. So it went, day after work day through the spring and into early summer. Until that fateful Friday night. Memorial Day weekend.
Ray pulled up into the driveway, jumped out of his car and headed to the garage door. He never did get that automatic door opener, and regretted it every working day. Halfway between the car and the garage, he smelled it. He tried to tell himself it came from somewhere else. Across the street, maybe. The neighbor's, perhaps. By the time he had his hand on the garage door, there was no escaping it. It was in Ray Meadows' back yard, and there was no mistaking that smell: charcoal and lighter fluid. Barbara was planning a cook-out tonight. Oh, great. All his old fears returned, plus a few new ones.
Mister Ray Meadows was not a coward. He just never had a chance to be brave. Born in an era of peace and prosperity, he never had to serve his country, march off to war and be all he could be in the jungle while some angry stranger tried to shoot him. This was as close as he got to an act of bravery: an outdoor Bar-B-Que. It had all the makings of courage in the face of certain death: A smoldering fire, raw meat, a loose leopard and the big cat's feeding time- dusk. It was going to be a long night. If he was lucky.
Faced with a situation calling for bravery, men have several options as to their approach: The calm strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the grim determination of George C. Scott or the cool, hip improvisations of Bruce Willis. Ray went right to the jittering falsetto of Don Knotts. Go with what you know. Ray forgot all about putting the car in the garage for now. He left the garage door up, which turned on the garage inside light, and went instead to face his raw meat and charcoal demons. And his wife.
Barbara Meadows, charming wife and wonderful cook, was one of the few wives in the world who could indeed run the grill outside as well as the stove inside. Many women see that outdoor fire as a guy thing. Not her. She did it, and did it well. Ray was staggering up the walk and into the back yard as the charcoal was burning down and the meat sat covered on a tray nearby. Raw meat. Big steaks. Talk about your tender vittles. Ray's head was spinning in every direction to see which way the big cat would come from. The roof? The tree? The garage? No big cat. For now. Barbara was in such a good mood she failed to notice that her husband had been reduced to a blithering swivel-headed idiot between the car and the back yard. It was the start of a three day weekend, a perfect warm evening and a cause for celebration. Then again, maybe not.
"Hey there, handsome, why don't you just change into some shorts and relax? Dinner will be ready in about half an hour."
"You're cooking steaks? Out here?"
"Whoa- Mister Perceptive! Yeah, it's brandin' time at the ol' Meadows' ranch. Thought I'd rustle up a couple of cows. How many you want?"
"I- uh- I guess- uh- one's fine. Just one."
Now, Barbara was considerably sharper than a sack of wet mice. Her husband's condition may have escaped her at first, but then he made the fatal mistake all men make: He opened his mouth. She looked up from her work to see one very pale and nervous man. Was he ok? Sick? He seemed fine this morning.
"Are you ok, Ray? You don't look so good."
"Yeah, I'm ok, it's just that- well, uh, the steaks, the meat, you know?"
"No... What about them? They look good to me."
"Oh, they're fine. I mean, the cat. The leopard. The meat...."
Barbara tried to put two and two together from what Ray was saying. It ended up being more like long division and algebra, but she got it. It had been awhile since they had talked about that leopard thing. There had been no other noises or incidents for what? Almost a month. She figured, whatever it was, it had moved on. Now here's Ray, acting like there's something ready to pounce out of the trees at any moment. Was there?
"Oh! You're worried about that cat or whatever being attracted by the steaks?"
Nothing like an accurate statement to focus a jabbering maniac.
"Yes. Yes, I am."
"Why? We haven't heard a thing, or seen anything for weeks. Whatever was here is gone. Come on, Ray, go get changed. Relax. I'll cook dinner. You just cover me."
She couldn't resist that last line. She should have. It opened up a huge mental Pandora's box for Ray. It dawned on him, in that split second, that he didn't have a gun. The Great Maul of the Beast yawned before him and he was defenseless.
Ray just stood there, wavering between the yard and the back door. Stay here or go in? Protect the wife or run for your life? Paper or plastic? Life is full of tough choices, Ray. Make one. Ok, so Ray was no hero. But he could be famous for doing the right thing: He stayed, in his work clothes, and offered to help Barbara. Even Barney Fife had his moments. This was one. He rolled up his sleeves and went to pitch in.
"How about I take over here?"
"I thought you were worried about the cat. We could take this inside. I could still grill them in the oven."
"It's not the same. I'll be ok. It just caught me off-guard. Let me help."
"Well, ok. You stoke the fire here, and I'll go work on the potato salad and desert."
Ray went for his bravest face.
"Ungh. Fire. Meat. Woman."
"Yeah, I know: These are a few of your favorite things. I'll be right inside. Just give a holler if you need anything."
"Like an elephant gun?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of ice tea."
"Ah, I see. Yes, that does sound good."
With that, Barbara went in to work on the salad, the desert and Ray's tea. Ray, brave cave man that he was, stayed by the fire, prepared to fight off the saber-toothed tiger on a moment's notice with the meat tongs. He carefully re-positioned the grill so he could cook those steaks with his back against the wall of the house. No sense in being completely foolhardy. Ray ended up boxing himself in with the grill and the table, leaving one quick avenue of escape to the back door. The fire was burning down nicely. It would be ready for the steaks before too long. And with Barbara in the house this gave him the other thing he didn't want: Time to think.
Ray Meadows had never owned a gun. Never saw the need for one. Never went hunting as a kid, never felt threatened enough in the city, never got around to it. No guns. Noisy things, anyway. Just entirely too loud. Philosophically, Ray had decided that the gun was the only thing man ever invented that justified its own existence. Well, that and really big V8 engines. But the gun was different. The good guy had to have one because the bad guy had one. Now how do you tell them apart? You bought a gun to protect yourself from people with guns. If gunpowder had never been invented, what would it be? Sawed off cross-bows? Snub-nosed slingshots? It was amusing, but Ray knew he was ducking the issue. Did he need a gun? It was something to think about as he put the steaks on the grill, and looked around for the first sign of an impending cat. He needed a gun.
Everything he knew about guns he learned from watching television. Things like: A revolver never runs out of bullets. A semi-automatic pistol will never jam. And James Arness shot with his eyes closed. Every time. So Ray basically knew nothing about guns. But it looked like it was time to learn. As the steaks cooked on the grill, Ray thought about guns. Buying them: Where? Didn't Wal-Mart sell guns? He was sure he seen them there, in the sporting goods section. Guns? Sporting? There's a stretch. Sporting would be a sharp stick. Guns seemed a bit of an unfair advantage to Ray. Of course, with a leopard loose in the neighborhood, it was just the advantage he was looking for. Why be sporting when you can be dinner? Wasn't there an Army/Navy store near the Granville Corporation Towers? Yes, now that he thought about it, there was. Closer to downtown, of course. He had been in there several years ago in connection with a now-famous April Fool's Day prank involving smoke grenades, gas masks and three life size blow-up dolls. Hard to believe that one came in second. That Army/Navy store had some military looking things for sale. Great. Barney Fife to John Rambo in one evening. How the Not-So-Mighty have risen. But the steaks were done. And no cat yet. Lucky Ray.
Ray piled the sizzling hunks of beef back on the platter, straightened things up a bit around the grill, and headed in for dinner. He was so pre-occupied with not dropping the steaks, he never once looked over his shoulder to see if he was being stalked. It was early. He wasn't.
Over charbroiled steaks and potato salad, Ray broached the subject of home defense. All things considered, it could have gone much worse.
"I've been thinking..."
"Poor baby. Want some aspirin?"
"No, I'll be ok. Just rest and a cold washcloth. I was thinking about maybe buying a gun."
"Why? Job not paying as well as you'd hoped?"
"Huh?" Oh, no. It's just the idea of that leopard."
"The leopard had an idea? What was it?"
"You're not helping. Not at all."
"Sorry. Need help?"
"No. Just a gun."
Ray's last line was delivered with a mock snarling grin. He knew Barbara's father had been in the Army, and Barbara had been around guns all her life. That is, until they were married. No guns here. But Barbara was used to them. Never the less, it doesn't hurt to ask. Or at least try to ask. And he had tried.
"So you think that leopard is still out there somewhere?"
"Yes. I kind of do."
"We haven't heard anything."
"They aren't noisy animals."
"Oh… Good point."
"What do you think?"
"Probably not a bad idea. Did you know the Jacobsons had a prowler in their yard the other night?"
Ray was stunned. No, he didn't know. Why didn't he know? Why hadn't she said something before this?
"What? When was this?"
"Oh, Monday night, I think. I saw Carol Wednesday. No big deal. "
"Are they sure it was a prowler?"
"As opposed to...?"
"I guess. She said someone went running across their back yard late at night. Who ever it was had been up next to the house when she went to take out the garbage. This guy just ran and jumped over their fence when she came out."
"Ok. What kind are you going to get?"
Ray hadn't given it much thought. A rifle or shotgun? Too big and clumsy. It would be a pain to have to haul it around in a hurry. So a pistol, then. That sounded better.
"A pistol of some sort, I guess."
"That's good. How big?"
Ray took a moment to put his hands out in front of him, measuring an invisible hand gun. How big? This big?
"I don't know. I've never had one. What do you think?"
"Well, I don't know. I'm not Annie Oakley. Dad always had guns. He had some military .45's and a couple of revolvers."
"Which did he like?"
"I don't really know. He shot the .45's at the range the most, but kept the revolvers at home. As though anyone would be foolish enough to break into an officer's home on an Army base."
"Not twice, I'd imagine."
"Not once if Dad caught them."
"So, a pistol, then."
"Ok, a pistol. But get a nice one. One that will go with our decor."
"Just kidding. Get whatever you like. I can change the decor."
"But I don't know what I like."
"Then you'll just have to go shopping, won't you?"
"I hate shopping."
"And I hate guns, too."
"Good for you."
Dinner progressed from there. Ray spent the evening thinking about the gun he thought he needed and the prowler the Jacobsons thought they saw. Could this be the leopard? It jumped the fence. How did it jump the fence? If it jumped like a cat, from all fours, they wouldn't have thought it a prowler, now would they? So it jumped the fence from a standing position? That was no leopard. Oh, great. He knew he'd have to call Jake. At least they were more or less friends, and Jake Jacobson was a pretty sharp guy. Not at all like Rosser, who could obviously sleep through anything. Sometime after the dishes were cleaned up, Ray made his way to the phone in the kitchen. Barbara was off watching TV, so he had the conversation to himself.
"Hey, Jake. It's Ray Meadows. How you doing?"
"Ok, Ray, what's up?"
"Nothing much. Barb just told me you had a visitor the other night."
"What? Oh, that. Yeah, some kid I guess. He sure high-tailed it out of here, though."
"Get a good look at him?"
"Nah, not really. He was crouched by the house when Carol walked out back. Took off like a shot right over the fence. Gone."
"She get a good look at him? Recognize him or anything?"
"No, he was quick. Outta there when the door opened."
"So did she even see what he was wearing?"
"Some sort of camouflage thing, I'd guess. She said he looked kind of silly."
"Yeah, like a blue giraffe. What kind of camouflage is that?"
Ray's head went into maximum spin overdrive. The room would not hold still. He leaned up against the wall for support. Like a blue giraffe. Not a leopard. Ray tried to stay calm and keep the conversation going. Tough job when you're panicked.
"So he just ran?"
"Yeah. No problem. Why? You see this guy?"
"No, not really. Barb just told me about it, and I had been thinking about getting a gun to keep around the house. Just not sure, that's all."
"You don't have a gun?"
"Nope. Never felt I needed one."
"Well, I'd say get one. You'll feel much better about keeping the old homestead safe."
"Yeah, I guess. What do you recommend?"
"Something big. Biggest thing you can find."
"Isn't that kind of dangerous?"
"Only if you get the bullets for it."
"See, you get the biggest freaking handgun you can find- like a .44 magnum. But you don't need to get any bullets. Just the sheer size of that cannon will frighten off anyone close enough to see it. Works for me."
"So you have a big gun?"
"But no bullets. Right."
"And that works?"
"Oh, yeah. I feel safe."
"What if you'd actually have to use it?"
"I'd throw it at them. It weighs a ton."
"Ok, I guess that would surprise anyone breaking in."
"Sure- and it beats being shot by your own gun. That's just embarrassing."
"Ok. Good point. Well Jake, I may just take your advice. Big gun, no bullets. Listen, if you or Carol see that guy again, let me know, will you?"
"Sure, why? You think we've got a problem in the neighborhood?"
"I'm not sure. I just think we all need to know if there is a problem."
"Good idea. I'll even ask around, see if anybody else has had any company."
"Great. Let me know what you find."
Ray Meadows felt better. He was a man with a plan. He’d see about some pistol this weekend, then check back with Jake next week. He knew he'd feel better with just an empty gun around. Something to point at a prowler and make them sweat a little. Then again, if it was a leopard- do cats sweat? Prowler, Ray, keep thinking prowler.
He kept thinking prowler all evening. Ray and Barbara watched TV downstairs in the living room until just before ten. Then, in keeping with their usual Friday night, they went upstairs to catch a little late night on the small set in the bedroom. A nice calm Friday night. Great meal, too. Ray was settled into the prowler theory, and the need for a gun. No problem. Just a gun. No bullets.
They spent the next two hours channel surfing in their jammies. The end of a movie, Jay's monologue, the Weather Channel, even C-Span. Nothing like watching a Congressman make an impassioned, heartfelt speech to a huge empty room in the middle of the night. Your government inaction. Note that inaction is one word. The Spanish Channel, always entertaining, was trying hard to outdo themselves this evening: Some sort of gala holiday around the Latin world, with every location checking in with wilder revelers and more outrageous costumes. Great fun even if, like the Meadows, you didn't speak a word of it. They could rumba with the worst of them. It was after midnight when their interest in The Tube ran out. They ended up on a black and white movie neither of them had ever seen. No idea what it was or when it was made. Looked to be something done during the war. The stars, if indeed they were stars, went unrecognized by both Ray and Barbara. The plot was thin enough to read the morning paper through. And the sets? The sets were not made for this movie. That much they figured out. A make-do production with make-do actors. And boring. By twelve-thirty the set was off, and Ray was on his way back to bed after a last trip to the little channel surfer's room. A quick bedcover arrangement, a good-night kiss and the lights were out. Or were they? Ray wasn't so sure.
"Seems mighty bright in here."
"No, their house looks dark from here."
"Oh great. The garage."
"Yeah, I put the door up this evening when I got home, but I never pulled the car in or put the door back down. The car's still out and the light's still on."
"What's so funny about that?"
"Well for once, the lights are on and somebody IS home."
"I'm laughing on the inside."
"I can tell."
Ray got back out of bed. Only one thing to do: Go downstairs, go outside, put the car in the garage and close the door. It had to be done. Even if he didn't drive the car in, he had to go close that door and turn out the light, at the very least. He hunted around for his car keys and a flashlight, put on his bathrobe and slippers and padded out of the bedroom. Another great night ruined by a late night.
Out the back door, the yard lights came out. Ray, in his focused approach to the car, never saw anything scurrying out of the way at the edges of his vision. He sat down in the car and started the engine, unable to see up into the trees to catch any movement there. The big engine hummed, and Ray let the car idle itself into the garage. The light inside was already on, and had been since about seven. Engine off, out of the car and look around the garage. Hate it when a cat gets locked in the garage by accident. Messy. And usually on the car. How do they know? They must go for the warm spot. Over the engine. Ray instinctively put his hand on the car's hood. Nope, not warm yet. Good. So if there is a neighborhood cat in here, he's on his own on where to poo. Lotsa luck there, kitty-cat. Ray walked out to the open garage door and pulled it down. The inside light went out. The slam of the door shutting was the loudest sound he'd heard out there. Sort of shook him back to reality. Such as it was.
Ray Meadows found himself standing outside his garage after he closed the door. With a bang. Geez, what a noise. Were the electric doors this loud? He didn't think so. Have to check. What a racket. Quarter of one in the morning is no time to make loud noises. They just don't fit in anywhere. Certainly not here on Compton Road. Ray stood there in the driveway, waiting for the mental echoes of that door to go away. He felt he really shouldn't go back inside with all that noise in his head. He looked around at what he could see of the neighborhood from his little spot in the drive. The back yard lights that came on when he left the house had dutifully turned themselves back off. Ray was standing absolutely stock still in the driveway, savoring the silence that replaced that door. Not moving, he had fixated on a view down the darkened driveway and across the street. The street lamp was on, and he was watching the first of the summer bugs do their endless fly-bys at the lamp. He could hear traffic on the main road some blocks away. High overhead, above his line of sight, a jet's flashing lights put a dotted line across the galaxy. Bats Ray would never see circled between the jet and the ground, not far above Ray's head. Somewhere far away, a traffic light changed to red, and the distant cars came to a silent halt. Ray stood unmoved and unmoving. Sure is quiet here. Thoughts of needing a gun, or why, were long gone. Just a quiet night in suburbia. No problems at all. To his far left, something moved. Ray went from casual still observer to frozen in two beats of his heart.
There was movement on the far side of the yard. By that big limb. Something was coming down out of the tree there. Right there. Ray strained his eyes to the left as far as he could without turning his head. No choice, he had to move to see. So slow it was almost painful, Ray eased his head to the left just enough to get a clear view at the edge of his vision. Eyes left. There was something there. Had Ray been breathing, he would have breathed a sigh of relief. It was not a leopard. Then again, what was it?
"It" had dropped silently out of the tree on to its hind legs and stood for a moment, arms out as if to balance- or run. It slowly slunk down to all fours, rear legs bent, front legs barely touching the ground. It looked to Ray as though this thing could spring straight back up into the tree at any moment. And it could, too. Looking around, it knew there was something different out there tonight. It was Ray. Ray, for his part, was doing all he could to be one with the driveway. Don't move, don't even breathe. He thought about his scent and the wind. Which way was the wind blowing in his back yard? Tough to tell. Twisted around by the houses and fences, he wasn't sure if what he felt here was what was happening over there. The light breeze, such as it was, was drifting everywhere. So this thing might be able to smell him. But would it know what it was smelling? Other than the Old Spice? Ray had to suppress a laugh of terror.
On the other side of the back yard, Ray's late night visitor had taken a step toward the garage. Toward Ray. This was not good. Now another, and another. This thing was walking, carefully and not quite upright, across the back yard and more or less towards Ray. Ray Meadows was a man frozen in time and space. He forced himself to breathe through his nose in long silent breaths. Too late to turn that head any more. This thing would probably hear the vertebrae shift in his neck. Just don't move. But it's coming closer. It doesn't know you're here. How stupid is this thing? The screaming in Ray's head sounded louder than any garage door. And that thing continued its cautious approach. It was halfway across the yard now. Ray could see it. He could see it quite clearly. To his everlasting dismay.
Not a cat, not a kid, not a silly blue giraffe. But the patterns on it were similar. Areas of deep iridescent blue divided by almost shimmering black lines running all over the body. The blue areas continued across the head, but the black took over on its lower legs and- What were they? Forearms and hands? And a tail- he was right! It did have a short, black tail. Ray could see all this way too well as this thing came across the yard. Now it was moving quicker, toward Ray but no- toward the garage. In a few seconds, it would be out of sight, around the corner of the garage. Then what? Ray didn't want to know. He had to keep it in sight. Then it hit him.
This thing was moving across the back yard in darkness. Darkness. The yard lights had not come on. Quick, Ray- What does that mean? Is it transparent? Not real? A spectral image? Or not. Maybe its night vision was so good it saw those interference beams around the yard and simply stepped over them. Easy enough to do- if you could see them. Ray couldn't. But then, Ray was human. This thing, however, was not. Ray involuntarily clenched his fist. Around his car keys, still in his hand. His car keys. They were real enough- They'd break the beam and turn on the lights! Before he could think about the consequences, he threw the keys.
The keys worked. The lights came on. Too bad, Ray. The only thing worse than an apparition in the darkness is an apparition in the light. In that second of total frozen panic when the lights went on, Ray Meadows saw what he was not meant to see. The thing in the back yard had seen him throw the keys, of course. Just a small flick of his right hand across the front of his body, and it heard the movement. The keys came toward it. Not hard enough to be a threat, not even hard enough to reach it. But it was an unexpected movement and for that moment it did what nearly all creatures do: it froze. Then the lights came on, catching it in a frozen pose on a warm night. It would be a tough call to say which one in that yard was more shocked. Probably Ray, but that thing was a close second. It had seen humans before, of course. Mostly through open windows or at considerable distance in the darkness. But never this close, and never with both of them in the light. For Ray Meadows, it was a new experience. Something of a species satori. Terrifying, but not entirely unpleasant. He wanted very much to laugh in amazement. There wasn't time.
To Be Continued...
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Copyright 1996,2010, Chip Haynes