I kept house for Dr. Hatch. He wasn’t the worst, by far; he wasn’t the best either. He was a quiet man, a scholar, intense about his work, and his rooms on Olney Street were packed with all manner of strange devices, papers, and books. He was very particular about his books. When I first came to work for him, we had a long talk, mostly about his books.
“Some of them, Mrs. Jones,” he said, his eyes red-rimmed and sunk deep into his face, “are quite old and extremely delicate, and can only be safely handled by an expert. When engaging in cleaning, I ask you to be very careful of them. On the shelves they should be fine. However,” and here he gestured to the various piles around the house, leaning towers of worm-eaten volumes and ancient, leather-bound codices, spilling out doorways and stacked in the halls, “as you can see, I am somewhat wanting for shelf space at the moment.” His eyes flashed angrily for a moment, and his thin lips grew pale as they tightened into a frown. “When I had my office at the university, before I was dismissed,” he spat the word, “I had plenty of room. But now,” he mastered himself again. “Just please be careful with them, they are quite valuable.”
I was very careful – just looking at the things, you could tell that they were worth a great deal, great black letters on thick creamy vellum, all in Latin or Greek or Persian or who knows what. Dr. Hatch was a great scholar of antiquities and had been famous, being in the papers three times for his discoveries and translations of ancient books. There was a row, though, at the University, something unseemly and unpleasant, rumors of a dark nature. The details were kept out of the news and Dr. Hatch was allowed to take an early retirement. The loss of his salary had forced to him to move from his big house on the North Side though and take the shabby little apartment on Olney Street, cramming a lifetime’s worth of books into three rooms on the South side of town.
He still worked, and indeed seemed to be convinced that his salvation lay in his work. Many times I heard him muttering to himself that he would “show the fools what they threw away,” and once, as I was vacuuming the living room, he looked up from his calculations and said to no one in particular, “soon, they’ll be begging to have me back!”
As I said, he wasn’t the worst, although cleaning around piles of books and papers, all while making sure that nothing was disturbed or upset, took a great deal of time. In addition to dusting, sweeping, and washing the windows, there was another job, though, that I hated. Setting and “cleaning” the mousetraps.
It was an old building, and it must have been just swiss cheesed through with mice. The first day I showed up to apply for the position I saw a mouse in the entryway, and two more on the stairs. Because of the damage the mice could do to his books and papers, Dr. Hatch had purchased dozens of savage looking traps, wicked spring-loaded things with razor sharp edges that would practically guillotine the poor things. Every morning, first thing, I had to clear the battle field of their tiny corpses, then reset the traps, small dollops of peanut butter on the triggers, and then slide them back into position, waiting for their next victim.
Because the building was so badly plagued by mice there were always stray cats about, rubbing against the stoop or yowling in the alleyway. One day, after scratching the gnarled old man of a grey cat who held court on the front steps, I had an idea.
“Dr. Hatch,” I said to him as I prepared his afternoon tea. He looked up from the big brass contraption he was adjusting, some kind of device for predicting the Zodiac. “These traps are working, certainly, but I empty them every day, and every day they’re just as full as they were before! They’re not deterring the mice, if you take my meaning. What this apartment needs, sir, is a cat.”
He just stared at me, horrified. He carefully set the small jeweler’s glass and delicate screwdriver down, swallowed, and then spoke.
“A cat?” he said. “A cat! In here?” He laughed incredulously, then fixed me with a stare. “The Egyptians worshiped the cat, Mrs. Jones, ascribing to the Feline clan many mysterious powers and abilities. In ancient Babylon, when the brutish ancestors of Roman Senators were still rolling in the mud on the banks of the Tiber, the great Magician-Kings in their Ziggurats kept hordes of the beastly things, believing them possessors of secret knowledge, sorcerers in their own right who spoke with the demons of the Air and Earth. The Queen of the Witches traversed the sky in a chariot drawn by cats! Triple-faced Hecate was, herself, said to stalk the wilderness in the form of a great black cat! And in China, there are tales of cats congregating in graveyards, their singing calling up foxfire and strange luminous vapors out of the earth, making the bodies rise and dance. The dead do not rest quiet when a cat is about, the Taoist adepts say.” He paused and shivered. “They are cunning, sneaky things indeed, not merely symbols of the dark arts; they are a veritable part of the occult world themselves, slinking through nighted places and drawing the shadows dwelling there out after them.” He sipped his tea and shook his head. “No, Mrs. Jones – there will be no cats in this house.”
I let the matter drop; as I said, the work was hard but the pay was good, and anyway, if I quit every job because of the crazy ideas of a half-cracked old white man, I’d be in a real spot. I just bought more traps, and thicker gloves.
One day, a month or so after my lesson in the dangers of cat ownership, Dr. Hatch came out of his study, nearly bursting with excitement.
“Mrs. Jones!” he said. He held a thick envelope in his hand. “You pass by the post office on your way home in the afternoons, do you not? Good! I wonder if you could post this letter for me? Tonight, it must be tonight.” I agreed and took the letter from him; it was addressed to Mr. Eustace Bloch, Esq., a name I recognized as belonging to his lawyer. “Additionally, Mrs. Jones,” he said, walking to the window and peering out at the sky. It was getting late in the season. The trees had almost lost all their leaves and the sky was getting darker earlier and earlier with each day. He looked up towards the heavens, squinting. “Aldebaran will be high in the sky tonight,” I heard him mutter to himself. Then he turned from the window and faced me. “I will not need your services tomorrow, nor, indeed, the day after. There are…experiments I will be preforming here, work that cannot be interrupted and that will require my undivided attention. Come back on Friday, though, please.” He stroked his chin. “Yes, Friday, regardless, will be the conclusion.”
He watched me gather my things and then saw me to door. As I descended the stairs he said. “You have been a capable housekeeper, Mrs. Jones, and you have put up with a great deal from me, and I thank you for it. Come back on Friday, yes, on Friday. There may be some changes in circumstances, yes indeed, but regardless, come back on Friday.” I promised I would, and walked home.
The moon rose as I walked to the subway, a razor thin sickle that looked poised to slice through the night. In the dark alleys, I heard the strays calling to one another, a low earthy sound, old as Egypt.
There was a car parked outside the apartment building when I got there on Friday morning, a huge shiny silver Packard, definitely out of place on run down old Olney Street. The chauffeur, another immigrant out of the South like me, nodded a greeting as I walked by. There were several cats on the stoop this morning, including my old friend the grey tom with the scar, so I stopped to scratch his head and listen to his purr.
“Mighty fine car,” I said. The chauffeur nodded.
“Yes ma’am,” he pat the hood. “Brand new, and even at seventy the engine sounds smoother than your little friend there.”
“A little out of place down here, ain’t it?”
“One of Mr. Bloch’s clients lives here.”
“Mr. Bloch, the Lawyer?” I asked.
“Yes ma’am,” he reached into his pocket and got out a cigarette. He offered me one, but I declined. “Some old Professor or something, I believe. Mr. Bloch seemed like he didn’t really want to come out here this morning, but I guess it was important. He sure was agitated!”
I went up the four flights of stairs and found the door open. There was a policeman inside, taking notes, talking to a rail thin and silver-haired man in a suit that must’ve cost more than I made in three months. The policeman looked up at me as I stood framed in the door.
“Yeah, what do you want?” he sneered.
“I’m the housekeeper,” I said, simply.
“Mrs. Jones?” said the man in the suit. “Come in, please. I’m Mr. Bloch, Dr. Hatch’s lawyer. I’m afraid that Dr. Hatch is dead.”
Well, it dazed me. A man I’d seen five days a week for the past three years, had spoken to just a few days ago, and then you find out he just up and died. I stepped into the room, automatically avoiding the piles of books by the front door.
“Dead?” I said. “How did it happen?”
“His ticker, I imagine,” barked the cop. He looked around the room, scanning the piles of books and the heaps of papers. “Housekeeper, huh?” He said, chuckling.
“Mrs. Jones, I know this is all a bit sudden, but can you stay for a bit? As the executor of Dr. Hatch’s estate, I believe I have some news which may concern you. If you could wait in the kitchen while I finish up with the Officer here.”
“Of course,” I said, sliding back into the old roles, always the safest with these types. “Can I offer you gentlemen anything?”
“Yeah, some coffee,” said the policeman. “And you got anything to eat here? Ain’t had breakfast yet, even!”
I heard their voices, low and indistinct in the living room, as I got the percolator going and made sandwiches. Old Dr. Hatch, dead. He’d been worked up when I saw him last, seemed to think that something big was coming and, I guess, in a way it had.
I took the coffee and food out to the living room and then brought a mug and plate down to the chauffeur, who looked surprised but grateful. He thanked me and nodded up to the building.
“Must be a long meeting,” he said, through a mouthful of ham and cheese. I told him what I knew, about Dr. Hatch being dead and a policeman being there, and he whistled. “Thanks again for the sandwich then, ma’am,” he said. “Sounds like we might be here a while.”
A taxi pulled up, and a round little man with a doctor’s bag stepped out. I held the door for him and followed him upstairs. Inside the apartment, he greeted the policeman and Mr. Bloch, and handed me his coat.
“Where’s the body?” he asked. The policeman grunted and nodded towards the bedroom. “Any chance I could get some coffee, and maybe one of them sandwiches?” he said, looking at me. “No ham, turkey if you’ve got it. Extra mustard.” He disappeared into the bedroom.
Mr. Bloch and the policeman were in the corner, still talking, so I took the coffee and turkey sandwich in after the doctor.
Dr. Hatch was lying on his back across the bed, his feet on the floor and his head hanging off the far side. I was glad he was looking away towards the wall and I couldn’t see his face. He had cleared a space in the center of the room, pushing his writing desk into a corner and shifting the stacks of books aside to expose the scratched and uneven wooden floor. He’d chalked a circle there and drawn a seven-pointed star in the middle of it. Along the outside, where the points of the star met the circle, he had drawn strange, sinuous symbols. There were four candlesticks around the circle, their candles spent, leaving only long fingers of red wax that dribbled down the sides and pooled on the floor. I coughed, and the doctor, examining Dr. Hatch’s neck, looked up.
“Ah, coffee, good,” he said, taking a big sip. “Hot!” He took a bite of the sandwich and munched thoughtfully.
“Did he suffer?” I asked. He looked horrible, splayed out like that.
“What? Oh,” said the doctor, “Nah. Hit him like a ton a bricks. Heart attack, I’d say. Probably from all this voodoo he was doing!” He swallowed. “Good sandwich!”
The rest of the day was like that – more people would show up, a man from city hall, a coroner, even someone from the University, a nervous man who looked hungrily at all Dr. Hatch’s books. There’s a lot of paperwork when a man dies, I guess, a lot of people involved, and they all wanted coffee and sandwiches.
Finally, around three in the afternoon, all the bustle was winding down. They’d decided on death by natural causes, no suspicion of foul play, and so everything was case closed as far as the State was concerned. The cop leaned against the door frame.
“You want me to call the meat wagon?” he asked, picking his teeth.
“No, there are, ah, religious obligations that must be fulfilled, thank you,” said Mr. Bloch. The cop shrugged and, whistling, walked down the stairs.
“Well now,” he said, turning to me. “I appreciate your patience today, Mrs. Jones, and thank you for staying through all that. Now that we are alone, I think we can talk a bit.” He coughed. “I wonder if there’s anything to drink in the house, something a bit stronger than coffee?” I got the whiskey from over the refrigerator, and brought him out a glass.
“There’s no soda,” I said, apologizing. “Dr. Hatch preferred his neat. I can run down and get some ice, if you’d like?”
“If it was good enough for Hatch,” he said, and drank it down. “Ah, much better,” he sighed. “Now, please, sit down Mrs. Jones. There’s something here that concerns you in all this.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the envelope I’d dropped in the mail three days ago. “I received this letter from Dr. Hatch yesterday afternoon. In it, he instructed me to be here, bright and early this very morning, warning me what I might find.” He swallowed, and I poured him another whiskey, which he accepted thankfully. “It was both worse than I thought, but also not as bad as I’d been warned. He was dead, of course, but regardless, his letter prepared me for it. In this eventuality, I had been instructed to search his desk for some papers, which I found.” These he placed on the table between us, next to the bottle. He sipped his whiskey.
“Dr. Hatch had no family, not even any distant relations as near as I can tell. Regardless, a month or so ago, he came to me one Saturday and had me draw up a new will. It was a strange document, and I warned him that, do to some of the, ah, outré clauses he insisted upon, it would be challengeable in court. Anyway, his copy of that will was here, in his desk.” He pushed it towards me.
“You can read it, of course, but in brief, Mrs. Jones, he left everything to you.” I looked at the lawyer, and then around the room. “Now, his liquid assets, money and the like, were negligible at best. However, all of his books, all of his experimental apparatuses and equipment, are yours. I’m sure you appreciate that some of them are quite old, antique even; Dr. Hatch said that they would be worth a great deal if sold to the right people. In fact,” he shuffled through the papers and brought out a heavy sheet, covered in names and addresses. “He drew up a list of interested parties that you might contact. All overseas. ‘America,’ he told me, I remember it distinctly, ‘is full of either idiots or sharp dealers. These books belong where they’d be appreciated.’ That was what he said.”
I glanced over the list in front of me. The addresses were all very exotic, Paris, Buenos Aires, Tehran, Cairo. I looked up at the lawyer, dumbfounded.
“The only thing is,” he fidgeted a bit in his seat. “Really, it’s quite extraordinary and I told him so,” he said, sipping his whiskey. “Well, the thing is this: in order to be eligible for this inheritance, Mrs. Jones, you must sit up with Dr. Hatch’s body for one night, dusk to dawn. This very night, in fact, the first full night since he died. He was very specific.”
“I have to sit up with the body?” I asked. “Here, in the apartment?”
“Yes, a wake for Dr. Hatch. That is what the will says,” said Mr. Bloch, apologetically. “It’s very strange. An ancient custom from the old country (don’t ask me which one), I suppose. Much like you I found the idea preposterous, and Dr. Hatch explained that, in many beliefs, the first night of the deceased is a dangerous time where, ah, evil spirits and the like can, uh, negatively influence the soul of the recently departed. He was really quite insistent.” He paused and looked at me, closely. “He said he didn’t have anyone else to do it, and he trusted that you would, too, which was rare for him. He didn’t think much of people in general, as I’m sure you knew, Mrs. Jones.” I nodded in agreement.
“Now, of course,” he said, pouring another glass of whiskey and pushing it towards me. “You don’t have to do it. For one thing, you could challenge the requirement for the wake made in the will. Given his history, the dismissal from the university, his writings, and even the ritualistic aspect of his death, well, there could be a case made that the poor man was stark raving mad and that his demands in the will are unreasonable. That sort of thing takes time, of course, and Dr. Hatch seemed to suggest that that would be a bad idea. The books, he told me, were valuable and liable to, how did he put it? Attract attention? Of an undesirable sort, he said, hinting rather darkly at something, I might add. The suggestion being that it would be better to be rid of them sooner rather than latter, and that would definitely not be the case should they go into receivership while the wheels of Justice turned.”
“Thank you for your advice, Mr. Bloch,” I said, finishing the whiskey. “And while it does sound strange to me, and unpleasant, I feel, somehow, that I can’t turn down a man’s last wish.” I looked past the lawyer, towards the bedroom where the body was, and shivered. “He was a strange man, but him being all alone in the world and everything…it just doesn’t seem right to ignore that, you know?”
“Well,” said Mr. Bloch, shaking his head. “If you’ll excuse it, to paraphrase Kipling, ‘you’re a better man than I’ Mrs. Jones.” He stood up and stuck out his hand, which I took, and we shook on it.
“Regarding Dr. Hatch,” I said, “the body, I mean…”
“Oh, yes. There were instructions there, too. Since you’ve accepted this duty, I am to go down to a shop on the east side and contact the Mahabadi Brothers, who will return with me and do what needs to be done. There are ablutions and things, I take it; Hatch said they’d know what to do. The body will have to be placed out here, in the living room, I’m afraid; you needn’t stay in this room, but there can’t be a closed door between you and, ah, it. That includes, to put it delicately, your ablutions as well. If you could be back here at, say five thirty? I am supposed to put a ribbon across the door, to, hm, seal you in, as it were, and then I’ll return at first light to let you out, and that, well,” he shrugged and smiled, “that should be it.”
Everything seemed in order, so I helped Mr. Bloch with his coat and saw him out the door. Following him down the stairs, he turned to look at me.
“You needn’t see me out, Mrs. Jones.”
“I have to get the cup and plate I gave to your chauffeur,” I said. The lawyer slapped his hand against his forehead. “Good Lord,” he said, “I forgot about George!”
I watched them drive away, the big silver Packard flashing in the sun as it turned north on Garibaldi. I went upstairs and washed the dishes, the body in the bedroom a terrible weight in the little space. I didn’t feel like eating there, so I went downstairs and took the bus up to 144th to Miss Mae’s and had as big a meal as I could handle.
It was something, to be in that tight little restaurant, everybody happy and talking, while I looked down a long night with a dead body. I’d never noticed how cheerful the sound of silverware on dishes could be, or how peaceful a steamy window can feel when you’re on the warm side of it. And poor Dr. Hatch there, in his bedroom, cold, and just getting colder. It made me shiver to think of it.
I ordered a second piece of pie.
It was a little after five thirty when I got back. My friend the grey tom mrowled at me, and I pet his big head. I noticed that there were a lot of cats around, more than usual, and the alleys on either side of the building must’ve been full of them, yowling and chattering at one another.
Mr. Bloch was already in the apartment, as were two men who, I presumed, were the Mahabadi Brothers, tall beautiful men, with dark flashing eyes and remarkable mustaches. They bowed as I entered the room.
“Madame,” said one of them. “It is a great kindness you do for the good Doctor Hatch tonight.” The other brother murmured an agreement. “Everything is prepared, as it should be.” They ushered me into the living room.
They had set up a sturdy table in the center of the room, and on it lay Dr. Hatch, or what was left of him, I guess. He was dressed in strange white pajamas, crisp and clean though, with his feet bare and his hands folded placidly over his chest. They had, thankfully, placed a white cloth over his face, with a symbol of some sort embroidered in silver thread. It was, surprisingly, very peaceful looking.
However, when I reached to turn on the overhead light, the brother who had spoken stayed my hand, gently.
“No, Madame,” he said, apologetically. “There can be no electric lights tonight, nor any radio or television. Only the lamp,” he gestured to the sideboard, where an elaborate ceramic oil lamp sat. “Or candles.” He gestured around the room where six or seven huge, fat candles sat, waiting. “It is necessary,” he said. He reached into his pocket and handed me a box of matches, a proud woman in strange golden armor standing triumphant on the lid. “From our restaurant,” he said, pointing to the name above the warrior woman. It read “Zenobia.”
“I’ll have to try it some time,” I said, pocketing the matches.
“Well,” said Mr. Bloch, shuffling his feet and looking at his watch. “I’m afraid, Mrs. Jones, we must leave you now.” The two Mahabadi Brothers bowed again and slipped out the door. “I’ll be back, first thing in the morning, I promise,” said Mr. Bloch. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a strange red ribbon, inscribed with more of the occult writing I’d been seeing so much of lately. “I’m to stick this over the door, to ensure that you haven’t left the body alone.” He looked apologetic.
“It’s perfectly alright, Mr. Bloch,” I said. “It’s all part of Dr. Hatch’s request. Don’t worry about me!” We shook hands one more time, and he closed the door. I heard the key in the lock, and then it was just me and Dr. Hatch and the muffled sounds of the city coming in through the windows.
I lit the lamp and three of the candles. That brightened it up a bit. I made myself some coffee and looked out the window in the kitchen, facing east, where the sky was bruised a deep imperial purple. I just stared, trying not to think of anything, just nothing at all, until the gurgle of the percolator brought me back.
With the makeshift table in the middle of it, there wasn’t much space in the living room. There weren’t any doors between the kitchen and there, so I figured it’d be best to spend most of the night in there. I set my coffee down on the little kitchen table and got out the copy of Ivanhoe I was reading. I went back out into the living room and got the lamp. It didn’t seem right not to say something, though.
“Well, Dr. Hatch,” I said, standing near his covered face, looking at the long pale fingers of his folded hands. “I’m sorry you died,” I said, somewhat ridiculously. “And I, uh, want to thank you for everything. For the gift of the books and all, I mean. It’s mighty appreciated, and I promise I’ll do like you said and contact those people on the list. Oh, thank you for that, too, that will make it much easier.” He lay there, still and quiet.
“Um,” I said. “Okay. That’s, uh, that’s it.” I coughed. “I’ll be with you all night, though, so don’t worry, okay? I’m here.” Then I went back into the kitchen and had my coffee.
King John had just learned that the rugged warrior Desdichado was, in fact, Wilfred of Ivanhoe returned from the crusades, causing all sorts of uproar and consternation among the gentry while poor sad Rebecca watched it all from the sidelines, when I felt a sudden chill in the apartment. I looked up and saw some papers, trapped under a book near the top of a stack, flutter. A car honked in the street outside, but instead of a muffled bleating it was loud and sharp and clear. I hurried into the living room and felt the breeze from the open window, watched the candles I’d lit flicker in the wind.
I was certain all the windows had been latched, especially this late in the year, but this one hung wide open with the curtains rustling. I scowled and was hurrying over to close them when a particularly strong blast swept through the room and blew the handkerchief off of Mr. Hatch’s face. The flickering orange glow from the candles made the shadows dance across his face, a series of terrible expressions evolving with each gust and shiver, one second leering, then raging, then sorrowful. I swallowed and hurriedly draped the cloth back over his head.
Then I looked up and saw the cat.
A huge black cat, with enormous yellow eyes, sat at Mr. Hatch’s feet. It was tall and haughty, and if its tail hadn’t been switching back and forth, I’d have almost though it was a statue out of Pharaoh’s tomb. I gasped in surprise, and it meowed mockingly back at me.
“Get now!” I said, waving my hands in its direction. “Shoo! Scat! Get!” I hurried around the table, hoping to scare the animal back out the open window, but it simply melted away as I approached, dripping off the table and onto the floor. “No! This way!” I scolded.
I went around to the left side of the table, just in time to see the tail vanish beneath it. I hurried over to the right side, and saw the cat sauntering away, deeper into the room and away from the window. It looked over its shoulder at me, and mewed.
“Hey!” I went around the opposite side of the table, to try and cut it off at the pass, but as I rounded the corner the black cat just darted by me, ignoring my shouts. I grabbed for it, but it was like reaching for smoke.
We circled poor Dr. Hatch three more times, and I was starting to get out of breath. I paused, trying to come up with a plan, when the cat hopped sedately up onto a stack of books. I stood on one side of the long table, and across from me, staring over Mr. Hatch’s body, sat the huge black cat, cleaning a paw.
“Okay, Mister,” I said. “You just stay right there,” I sidled along the edge of the room, avoiding the books. If I could get to the kitchen, I could reach the broom, and that’d change everything. “Just hold on, gimme one minute…” The cat yowled disdainfully. “Same to you, buddy,” I was almost there, almost, I hooked my arm around the entrance and felt the rough wooden handle of the broom. “Alright you son of a bitch,” I said.
The cat growled, a deep, satanic noise, and then bunched itself up. I saw its eyes grow even wider and more terribly yellow, and then, suddenly, as I hurried around the head of the table with the broom held high, like Ivanhoe’s sword, the cat leapt, springing right over Dr. Hatch’s body. The cat landed lightly on the other side of the table and turned to look me in the eye. It gave a triumphant screech and then, rippling like velvet in the moonlight, it sprang up to the sill and out the window.
I ran over and stuck my head out after it, but it was gone. Below me, in the alleyway, what sounded like an army of cats took up the call, howling to the stars. I shivered, and closed the window.
I felt like I needed a drink after all that excitement, so I topped of my coffee with a bit of whiskey. I paced the kitchen and sipped. I felt jittery, nervous, and I noticed that my hands were shaking, ever so slightly. I couldn’t place it, but something about the cat had troubled me, seemed wrong. Jumping over the body like that – it had been so deliberate and, almost, well, disrespectful. Or blasphemous. That was it. It was just plain bad, was all, and I knew it, deep down in my bones. The way that cat had looked right at me, and that screech!
Well, there was no going back to Ivanhoe now. I wished I could turn on the radio, but a promise was a promise. It was so deathly quiet, though.
I also didn’t feel right about leaving Dr. Hatch alone in the room like that. I know it was technically within the rules that I’d been in the kitchen, and of course it’s not like the cat had physically done anything, but I still felt like I’d let the spirit of the wake down, you know? I steeled myself and, spiked coffee in hand, went back into the living room.
You wouldn’t have known anything untoward had even happened, I told myself. It’s all fine. I lit the rest of the candles, and that made it better. It was almost bright, now, seven candles all around the room. Cheerful even, maybe, or as close as you could get sharing a room with a corpse. The whiskey helped too. I sat down in a chair, as far away from the table as I could.
“Well now,” I said to Dr. Hatch. “Everything’s fine, isn’t it. Nothing the matter all, really. Bit of excitement, but that’s fine, break of the monotony.” I noticed that I was tapping my foot. I stood back up and swept through the room. The big brass orrery sat on the sideboard. I stroked its hoops and admired the way it sparkled in the candlelight. I lifted it up and looked at it. It was heavy! I set it down.
“Books, books, books, so many books,” I said, then stopped. “I guess they’re mine now, or near enough to not make any difference. I wonder what I’ve got?” I picked one up. The title page was all in Latin so I didn’t know what it was about, but after the first picture I didn’t really want to know. I swallowed, closed the book, and set it down.
I did another circuit of the room while the clock chimed midnight. I’d had too much coffee and had to use the restroom. I fidgeted, but nature proved stronger than my resolve. I took a candle and only half-closed the door so I could still see out into the room.
I was washing my hands when I heard the noise. Wood creaking, and then a soft hissing sound, like silk being drawn across itself. I turned off the water and listened. Silence. I reached for the towel, and heard the creaking again. An upstairs neighbor, I reasoned, before more creaking and more rustling, this time clearly coming from the living room. I stepped out, half expecting to find the window open and the cat returned.
Dr. Hatch had sat up.
The cloth still clung to his face, his hands were hanging at his side, and his legs were straight out on the table. He was very still.
I clutched the frame of the bathroom door. I felt electrified, every inch of my body vibrating with the adrenalin pumping through my veins. Everything seemed very sharp, and very immediate. I swallowed.
“Dr. Hatch,” I said, my voice sounded thick, husky. He snapped his head towards me, the cloth fluttering away, and I knew there hadn’t been some mistake, and certainly no miracle. His eyes were grey and sightless and staring, his skin yellow and clotted. Dr. Hatch was dead, and he was looking right at me.
He lurched off the table and swayed there, arms dangling. His mouth hung slack and he seemed to be listening or smelling the air. I gasped at the suddenness of his movement, and his head cocked in my direction. I stopped, took a breath, and exhaled.
Then he charged.
It was a pile of books that saved me. He came on, sprinting straight forward, and plowed clean into one of the stacks that poked like a peninsula out from the wall and into the room. He tripped and fell, and I was able to get around to the far side of the table. He flopped horribly around, scrambling with all four limbs to stand up. I was gasping in horror, and he turned and ran towards me, slamming into the table hard enough to send it plowing into me. I cried out, and he reached over the table, his hands frantic, his fingers grasping.
I ducked under them and tried to run for the door. I heard the table move and glanced over my shoulder. He was still pushing forward, but his head was following me, his eyes bulging as he tracked my movement. Then, as if the decision hadn’t entirely been his, he stepped back from the table and charged at me again, arms outstretched. I was by the kitchen door; I reached out, grabbed the broom, and threw it as hard as I could. It hit his legs and he tripped, diving forward. I had escaped, but he was now between me and the door. I scrambled to the far end of the room, breathing hard.
It almost looked like he was having a convulsion, like he didn’t have full control over his limbs. He flailed around, kicking against the floor, arms scrabbling and scratching and waving, and then he finally found some kind of purchase and was able to clamber upright again. It was horrible to watch, the struggle and the result both, and I almost sobbed as I gulped air.
He turned suddenly towards me and lunged forward.
And stepped, immediately, onto the broom, tripping himself again. Down he went, and I watched him struggle to rise again.
It was like he hadn’t seen it, like he didn’t even know it was there. The same thing with the stack of books, I thought, or the table for that matter. When he moved he was aggressive, charging forward heedlessly, but only ever in a straight line, right for me.
His head rolled around on his shoulders as he struggled on the ground. His eyes, I thought, were like those you saw on the fish at the market, all laid out on the ice, blank and oily and without anything in them.
He couldn’t see. He couldn’t see me.
It was like a lightning bolt. He couldn’t see me, but he knew where I was in the room.
Sound? Could he hear me?
He was rising, and as he did I lifted the nearest book I found and hurled it, as hard as I could, against the far wall.
He didn’t even flinch. I picked up another one, a big heavy one, exhaling with the exertion as I lifted it in both hands.
He charged again, bouncing against the head of the table, rolling around it. I ran, put the table between us, and he turned and lunged across it again. This time I was ready; he was leaning against the table, so I grabbed the end near me and pulled it backwards, away from him. He fell, cracking his jaw against the surface, hard, and then stumbling to his knees. I flipped the table over and dropped it down onto his back. I felt his hand, cold and hard as steel, grab my ankle and kicked and shouted until, somehow, I was able to slip out of his grip.
I limped backwards. The table was rocking as he flopped around beneath it – it wouldn’t be long before he got it off, though. He was strong, as my terribly squeezed foot could attest to. A second more and he’d have broken it, I’m sure.
I hobbled towards the door. The sounds behind me changed as he got free. I wouldn’t make it, I knew. I grabbed the broom and held it close. I turned, saw him standing up, and held my breath in terror, starring right at him, not six feet away.
And he stood there. Mouth, limbs, everything slack, his head jutting forward, the dead blind eyes staring and the deaf ears flapping and the pale splotchy nose twitching –
I exhaled, and as I did I slid to the left a foot. He charged immediately.
And ran right towards where I had been, his arms waving around. I stepped back some more.
I was still holding my breath. He stood there, waiting.
The public library puts on an excellent lecture series, bringing in writers and scientists and doctors and the like, philosophers, people who study and work on hard thinking problems. I often went in the evenings, sitting up high in the balcony, listening to these learned people share what they know. Once, during the last summer, they had brought in a professor who had studied mosquitos, worked down in the tropics to try and understand everything there was about how mosquitos lived and spread diseases. One thing had stuck with me; he’d described how, no matter how dark it was, even in the pitch black of a sealed room, mosquitos can find you and bite you. No one knew how, but this professor had said that he reckoned they could sense your breath, somehow see the exhalation of a person and use that to hone in on you.
Dr. Hatch swayed and struggled and swung his arms around.
I let the breath I’d been holding out.
And he dove at me, tripping again over the broom I’d tossed in his way. Holding my breath, I walked to the other end of the room.
I could just hold my breath and walk right out, and there’d be nothing he could do about it.
Except I’d have to break the seal. Now, I know, this was above and beyond what had been asked of me, and anyway, what good was money if you were dead, but it just didn’t seem right to leave him here all alone like this. Maybe he’d break out and hurt someone? And also, this must’ve had something to do with the unearthly cat that had broken into the house. It didn’t do, just to walk away from something uncanny like this. That was asking for more trouble, and worse.
But could I go on holding my breath like this, all night, taking little sips of air as we danced around the room.
He was still on the ground, so I exhaled and gulped a few lungfuls. Maybe I could play toreador and get him to run into the bathroom? Lock the door, wedge the table against it, trap him in there. That might work, just wait until he gets up…
…which was taking an awful lot of time, actually. I stopped, and watched him. He was moving slower, more stiffly. He’d flopped around a whole lot more, earlier, but now his movements were rigid, as if his joints seemed less inclined to cooperate. He was still getting up, sure, but it wasn’t as easy as before. Was he getting tired?
When he was up, I saw that that wasn’t the case. He’d rushed at me and I’d had to move, quick, a deep breath and a close escape. I hustled over and righted the table, my lungs burning. Bracing my legs and pushing against the table, I breathed the sweet air again, and he immediately ran towards me, slamming hard against the wood. I had to lean back to avoid his hands, but it gave me a chance to look him over.
It wasn’t just his joints that were getting stiffer. His mouth, which had hung slack when he first attacked, was now peeling back into a savage grin, teeth bared, pale gums visible. He’d been more sinuous or serpentine earlier, now he was getting clumsy. He was losing his flexibility.
Rigor mortis was setting in. That was something I could work with.
I held my breath and moved.
It was a long night. He got stiffer and slower, but it didn’t blunt his hostility. His speedy charges became a shambling walk and then, when the clock struck three in the morning, all he could do was hop towards me, his legs straight under him, his arms out in front. He also started to get a little blue around the gills, if you know what I mean. Not as fresh. It was pretty horrible. I lead him on a slow stroll around the whole living room, not even bothering to hold my breath, him hopping slowly, pathetically behind me, and I figured it was time. I drew him over to the sideboard with some big deep breaths. When he got close, I clocked him on the head with the heavy brass orrery, and he fell over.
He lay there, arms up in the air, stiff fingers twitching, rigid legs kicking slightly. He rocked back and forth and side to side, but he couldn’t get up. I knew if I got near his claws he’d have gotten me, but for all intents and purposes, he was down for the count. It was still terrible to watch, so I went into the bedroom and got a spare sheet to lay over him. He kept on wiggling, but it wasn’t as bad as looking right at him.
I was sweaty, and exhausted. My legs felt wobbly and I was light headed, but I’d won.
Dawn came in through the windows and almost immediately I heard the key in the lock. Dr. Hatch had stopped moving completely by then, but I imagine it was still a bit hard on ol’ Mr. Bloch to see that stiff corpse, arms out from under the sheet and straight in the air. He gawped at it, and then over at me, leaning back in the big overstuffed easy chair, just finishing the last of the whiskey.
The Mahabadi Brothers were with him. They didn’t look too surprised. They stepped around the stunned lawyer and pulled the sheet back, examining Dr. Hatch. I saw his eyes rolling in their sockets, but that was about the extent of his freedom of movement now. The younger brother whistled, the older one looked at me, impressed.
It took both of the brothers to push his arms down, but they got him bound up and sewn into his shroud. Saluting me, they hefted him out of the apartment and down the stairs. Bloch, who had watched the whole thing, still hadn’t spoken. He looked at me, looked at the scattered and disheveled room, and then at the spot where the body had lain. Finally, he spoke.
“What the hell happened?” he asked. Then suddenly, passing his hand over his eyes, he said. “No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.” He handed me the paperwork, which I signed, and that was it.
The books turned out to be worth more than even ol’ Dr. Hatch had reckoned. I sold most everything to the occultists on the list, donated a few spectacular pieces to libraries, which helped with the taxes. About the only thing of his I kept was the dented orrery that I’d used to knock him over. It’s got pride of place on the mantlepiece over the best fireplace in the house.
I got enough money out of those books that I’ve never had to wash another dish or sweep another floor or wipe down a window ever again, not even my own. And I’ve got a lot of windows now. I bought a nice house, big and beautiful, looking out over the lake. I like to watch the water, see it change through the different seasons.
But, I will say, that when I heard a scratching in the wall, and found a hole in the baseboard downstairs, I went right out and bought the pluckiest little Jack Russel terrier you ever saw, just a mouse-murdering machine.
I named him Hatch.