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They Both had Guns-Fiction by Jeremiah Minihan
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Black Cat-Fiction by Stephen Tillman
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The Two of Us-Poem by John Grey
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Hail, Tiger!
Angel of Manslaughter
The Gazing Ball
Strange Gardens
Gutter Balls
Calpurnia's Window
No Place Like Home
ALAT
Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

blackcat.jpg
Art by Ann Marie Rhiel 2018

Black Cat

 

Stephen Tillman

 

 

          “I can claim,” the elderly woman said, showing her cards. “A grand slam! Seven no trump, bid and made.”

          “Son-of-a-bitch!” Theresa yelled, slamming her cards down. Several of them skidded off the table. She stood up abruptly, banging her swollen abdomen, leaned forward, pointed her finger at me, and shouted, “How the fuck could you discard a heart? This contract had no chance until you did that, you moron. You converted a top into a bottom! Probably cost us first place!”

          Play at the other tables ceased, as everyone stared at us. The director headed in our direction, a grim expression on his face. The declarer’s visage went from exultation to shock as she looked at my ex-wife. The woman’s partner, a man in his eighties, put his hand over his mouth, but couldn’t muffle his laughter.

          The old woman turned her attention to her partner, saying, “Don’t you dare laugh! You know I don’t tolerate that kind of language. Young people have no manners.”

          The director reached our table and said, “Please sit down, Ma’am.”

          I could almost see the steam coming out of Theresa’s ears. She’s been sensitive about her age ever since she reached thirty, and now that she’s almost forty it’s gotten worse. She hated to be called ‘Ma’am.’ Being eight months pregnant didn’t help her mood.

          “Don’t tell me what to do!” she exclaimed loudly, a new target for her ire.

          “The ACBL has a zero tolerance policy for unacceptable behavior,” he reminded us. “I’ll grant you some leeway in view of your condition …”

          “My condition!” Theresa thundered, putting her hands on her hips. “I’m pregnant, not an invalid! If you knew what this asshole did, you’d scream at him yourself. I don’t know why I agreed to play with him.”

          She continued in that manner while the director tried to get a word in edgewise. Granted she’s a better player than I am, I could’ve pointed out we wouldn’t have been in contention for first place if I hadn’t played well up to that point. I could’ve also told her if she’d shown she was protecting diamonds, I would’ve thrown my diamonds instead of a heart. The way she played, I had to guess, and I guessed wrong. One thing I learned through nine years of turbulent marriage, however, was if something bad happened it wasn’t her fault. In her own mind, anyway.

          That, as much as anything, led me to Esther’s bed and ended my marriage to Theresa. During the divorce proceedings I learned she’d also not been monogamous, but that didn’t stop the judge from awarding her most of our assets and primary custody of Ruthie, our eight-year-old daughter.

          Finally, Theresa wound down and sat. “Are you finished?” the director asked. She glared at him, saying nothing. “I’m going to penalize you half a board. If there’s another outburst, I’ll suspend you for the rest of the tournament. Is that clear?”

          Theresa sat in stony silence. The director looked as if he were about to give us a further penalty, so I said, “It’s clear.”

          “See what you’ve done!” she hissed as we got up to move to the next table.

          “What I’ve done?” I said through clenched teeth. “Listen Theresa. I thought I was through putting up with your shit six months ago after the divorce.” I touched her belly and added, “Furthermore, I don’t think this kid is mine. You were screwing Rob more than me at that time. I’m going to have my lawyer petition for DNA testing after it’s born. It might not be Rob’s either. Who knows how many men you were doing. If I can show you’ve been promiscuous, maybe I can get custody changed. Maybe I’ll have Ruthie tested, too. If she’s someone else’s, you’ll have seen the last nickel in child support you’ll get from me.”

          Theresa’s shoulder twitched and I brought up my hand to ward off the slap I anticipated. However, she noticed the director looking at us and refrained. She barked out a laugh and said, “There’s an empty threat. You’d never have Ruthie tested because if she wasn’t yours, you’d be afraid you wouldn’t see her again. But rest assured, you’re her father.”

          Theresa was right about Ruthie. I loved her like nobody else on earth, and wouldn’t risk not seeing her. I noted Theresa said nothing about the paternity of her unborn child.

          We both played poorly for the rest of the afternoon, finishing barely above average. As soon as the session ended, Rob came into the convention hall. He greeted me effusively, putting his arm around me. He knew I couldn’t stand him. He wanted to lord it over me that he’d taken Theresa away. He was five years younger than I was and was a former tailback in college. I’d been on the chess team. He and Theresa were staying at the resort. While she played bridge, he went skiing.

          As Rob and Theresa headed for the dining room, a photographer wanted to take their picture for the ACBL bulletin. Rob refused, saying he wasn’t a bridge player. Theresa pleaded, but couldn’t talk him into it. She liked having her picture taken.

          I couldn’t afford the resort. Besides, I lived only an hour away. Before leaving I had dinner with the three people I’d team with at the next day’s event. Theresa was not one of them.

          After eating I walked to the parking lot, happy to see it had stopped snowing. It took a while to clear the snow off my car, but eventually I got going.

          I pulled onto the street taking scant notice of the Hummer idling just outside the parking lot egress. Once I got away from the resort, the roads were all but deserted. Even though they’d been plowed, they were still slippery. My estimate of getting home within an hour might’ve been optimistic.

          The wind picked up, buffeting my car. I hoped it wouldn’t start snowing again. A pair of headlights appeared in my rearview mirror, rapidly closing in. I didn’t want to go any faster, so I slowed down and pulled over as far to the right as I could to allow the schmuck to pass. Instead he rammed into the rear of my car.

          What the fuck? I thought. He rammed me again. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew I had to get away from this asshole, who was probably drunk. I stepped on the gas and pulled away, but he kept coming on. I didn’t know what damage had been done to my car. I was able to go, but I didn’t seem to have full power. He was quickly closing in. My heart was pounding. I was terrified.

          The road curved sharply to the right. I took the curve too fast, almost skidding into the snow bank on my left. Luckily no cars were coming from the other direction. The other car had to slow to make the curve and in my rearview mirror I saw the outline of a Hummer. It must’ve been the same one I saw outside the hotel parking lot. This wasn’t some random event! He’d probably been waiting for me and trailed me until I got far enough away from civilization for him to make his move. Why would someone want to injure me?

          I had to concentrate all my efforts on driving, so there was no way I could get my phone out to call for help. I gained a little on the curve, but then there was a straightaway and he started coming on again. The road at this point had not been sanded. I slewed around another curve, this one to the left, barely missing a tree. I stared wide-eyed at it as I zoomed by. I was breathing heavily and sweating profusely. Once again, I gained a little ground on the curve, but then came another straightaway.

          In the distance I could see the road headed straight toward an intersection and ended. The cross-road wasn’t exactly a super highway, but it was more heavily trafficked than the one I was on. If I could get to the cross-road there’d possibly be a business still open where I could stop and call the police.

          I saw a large semi race by on the road ahead. My tormentor’s lights once again loomed in my rearview mirror. I had to slow down to make the turn. I hoped I could still stay ahead of the Hummer. When I put my foot on the brake, nothing happened. The side road I was on was a sheet of ice. Two more semis, one in each direction, flashed by.

          Oh my God, I thought. Even if I get away from the Hummer, I might get flattened by a semi.

          On my right was a high snow bank, behind which was an open field. I spun the wheel to my right hoping to go into the snow bank. Maybe I could escape this guy on foot. I didn’t think he could drive his Hummer over the bank and into the field. As I spun the wheel, my car turned right, facing the snow bank, but it kept going straight toward the cross-road. I stepped on the gas hoping to get a little traction to drive into the snow bank. The wheels spun, but there was no movement toward the bank. I could see the cross-road fast approaching on my left. The Hummer was bearing down on my right. Holy shit! I thought. This is it!

          But I had a little good luck for a change. I got to the main road just before the Hummer was about to ram me. The highway had been plowed, sanded, and there was a gap in the traffic. My tires bit in. With my car already facing rightward, I shot down the road in that direction.

          The Hummer wasn’t so lucky. As it tried to turn onto the main road, it got plowed into by a large pickup truck. Both vehicles spun around and came to rest against a snow bank, locked together. I brought my car to a halt, took out my phone with shaking hands, and dropped it. I bent down to get it and bumped my head against the steering wheel. Cursing loudly, I released my seatbelt, squirmed under the steering wheel, and felt around until I found the phone. I contorted my body to get back to the seat and called 9-1-1. I had trouble describing my precise location, but finally managed to deliver the message. I hoped.

          As I was speaking to the 9-1-1 operator, in my rearview mirror I saw someone emerge from the Hummer and limp away across the field. Two people exited from the pickup. My breathing and my heart rate slowed down. I got out of my car and walked back. They didn’t know it, but they’d done me a major favor, maybe even saving my life.

          When I got to where they were, I saw two stocky guys in hunting jackets, looking around in confusion.

          “What the fuck happened?” one of them asked.

          “I called 9-1-1,” I told them. “A crazy guy tried to run me off the road. You guys saved my ass.”

          “Shit!” one of them wailed, pointing at the pickup. “Look what that fuckin’ Hummer did to my truck!”

          A few minutes later a patrol car drove up. The cop’s nametag read “Carmichael.”

          “What happened?” he asked. “Who called 9-1-1?”

          We all started to talk at once. Suddenly the adrenaline from my narrow escape wore off. I sat down abruptly in the snow, shaking badly.

          “Are you okay fella?” Carmichael asked. “Were you in the Hummer?”

          “I’m fine,” I said when I could pull myself together. Pointing down the road, I continued, “My car is there. The guy in the Hummer was chasing me down that side road. He rammed me twice. These guys came along and hit it. The driver of the Hummer is the one you want. I called 9-1-1.”

          Carmichael called for backup and tow trucks for the mangled vehicles. He told me to go to the police station and give a statement.

          My car would need work, but was drivable. At the police station I met with Detective Sergeant Jessica Osborn. She listened to my story and told me to watch my back. As if I needed that advice.

          It was after 10:00 when I arrived home. Esther greeted me with her coat on.

          “You can’t stay?” I asked.

          “Work tomorrow,” she replied.

          After Esther left, Skeezix, Ruthie’s all-black cat, sauntered out of her room, walked up to me, sat down, looked up, and meowed loudly. Skeezix lived with me because Rob claimed he was allergic to cats. That meant Ruthie stayed with me more than the minimum granted by the custody agreement. Theresa allowed Ruthie to stay with me any time the girl desired. My ex sued for custody more to spite me than because she wanted Ruthie. Theresa was absent the day they gave out maternal instinct.

          Skeezix yelled again. I reached down, scratched the top of his head, and headed for the kitchen. He darted ahead of me, ran to his bowl, and stared back. I knew Esther would’ve fed him, but I gave him some cat treats anyway, wondering why a grown man could be so easily manipulated by an eight-year-old girl and a twelve-pound cat.

***

          Several days later Ruthie was with Theresa. I was cleaning up after a solitary dinner–unless you count Skeezix–when the doorbell rang. I looked through the peephole. Seeing Esther, I relaxed and opened the door.

          Rob appeared behind her, brandishing a gun. He pushed her into me, nearly knocking me over.

          “He made me go with him,” Esther said tearfully.

          “What’s going on, Rob?” I asked, my arm still around Esther.

          “Move!” he ordered, directing us toward the living room.

          “Have you gone nuts?” I asked, as Esther and I complied.

          “My attempt to make your death look like an accident didn’t work,” he said, his expression a rictus of repulsion. “Now we’ll try murder-suicide.”

          “Why kill me? Theresa is all yours.”

          “Theresa isn’t the reason,” he said, as he backed toward my black, leather recliner. “Except she told me you want DNA testing done. I can’t have that.”

          Rob started to sit in the recliner. There was a blood-curdling screech. Rob jumped up screaming in pain. He hadn’t noticed Skeezix sleeping on the chair. The cat had his razor-sharp claws dug into Rob’s neck and back.

          With Rob’s attention on the cat, I dove at his legs hoping he’d drop the gun as he fell, but he hung onto it. Skeezix took off, howling like a demon from hell. I grabbed for the gun, turning it away from me, and squeezing his hand in both of mine. The gun went off. Fortunately, the shot didn’t hit anyone.

          Rob’s size advantage meant I had to use both hands to keep the gun pointed away from me. He punched me in the head with his free hand. My grip on his gun relaxed. Before he could point at me once more, Esther hit him over the head with a book.

          The book didn’t do much damage, but it distracted him. He lashed back with his foot, sending her sprawling against the wall.

          The brief respite allowed me to once again get hold of the gun. As before, a shot went off. He punched me in the face, knocking me backwards, but I pulled the gun free. It clattered to the floor. I scrambled toward it, but he kicked me in the solar plexus and reached for the gun.

          I thought I was a goner. The front door burst open. Sergeant Osborn entered, her gun pointing at Rob.

          “Freeze! Police!” she bellowed.

          Instead, Rob started to move his gun in her direction. She shot him in his right shoulder. He screamed, dropped his gun, and fell, whimpering. Osborn kicked his gun away and took out her phone.

          I took several deep breaths and got to my feet, needing a chair to help.

          “Am I glad to see you!” I said.

          “When the Hummer was hit by the pickup, the driver banged his head on the steering wheel,” she explained. “It left a little blood. We found a match in CODIS for his DNA. He was arrested for rape in LA. He jumped bail. We have a mug-shot. I was coming to show it to you to see if you could identify him. Then I heard the shots.”

          After the police took Rob away, I wrapped my arms around Esther and said, “Well I’ve learned at least one thing from this whole mess.”

          “What’s that?”

          “Never have a household without a cat.”





Stephen Tilman is an emeritus professor of mathematics at Wilkes University. An avid reader of mysteries and science fiction, he has published stories in both genres. His fiction has appeared in a variety of journals, including Mysterical-E, Twisted Sister, Vinculinc, Scarlet Leaf Review, Aphelion, and Yellow Mama. Recently he signed a book contract.



In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2018